Technology with attitude

The Future Came True: An Interview with Devo's Jerry Casale

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Thirty odd years ago and long before anyone had heard of New Wave — let alone punk rock — art student Jerry Casale and two of his Kent State classmates founded a band and a philosophy: de-evolution, better known to the world as Devo.

This week, the punk pioneers will hold down a two-night stint at the 9:30 Club as they re-present their two best-selling albums, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo and Freedom of Choice, in their entirety. Casale – who, in addition to playing bass and synthesizer, also designed the group’s look and directed the majority of their videos — took some time to explain to CultureMob why the future is dumber than he ever imagined it could be and how the next Devo album might just be shaped like red hat.

Casale at All Tomorrow's Parties 2009
Casale at All Tomorrow's Parties 2009

CM: Are you finding the one night/one album format of this tour liberating or constraining? I’d imagine that you’d tempted to go back and tinker with some of the tracks as they were originally presented.

JC: It’s serious confrontation with you, yourself, but it’s…constructive and revealing. You listen to some of the songs and go, “Why did I write that?” and “Why did I play it like that?” It’s hard to put yourself back in that reality and frame of mind, but the music makes you do that. It’s almost like a therapy session. We’ll never do this again, but the fact that we’re doing it is a great prelude to the new material, new tour, and new sound and look.

CM: So the reports of that long-gestating new Devo record finally coming out in 2010 are to be believed?

JC: Oh yeah, this is just to get the word out that Devo is active and coming out with a new canon of songs.

CM: You guys have always been about as far from technologically deficient as band can be. How has technology changed your stage set-up and what impact has it had on the music?

JC: We were practicing being robots before there were sequencer lines and ProTools, so people used to think that the video was being manipulated before they’d see us play. It’s too ridiculously quick, rigid and precise. Now it’s so much easier to do with all this new technology. Anybody can be Devo.

Devo at All Tomorrow's Parties 2009
Devo at All Tomorrow's Parties 2009

CM: During the month of November, the band will be joined by Steely Dan and the Pixies as one of the acts revisiting their most highly regarded albums. Is this nostalgia, is it a re-introduction for a new generation of fans, or is it something different?

JC: I don’t know. It’s interesting that the idea has taken hold. It’s kind of like an art show when someone has a retrospective to remind a new generation of what happened. I suppose we’re a bit of a curiosity…Today you can buy the old songs on iTunes and watch the old videos on YouTube, but to actually come and see the guys doing it for real is like evidence or proof. [People say] “How do they do that?” and it becomes all the more bizarre. “They made that stuff 30 years ago?”

CM: You’ve had quite a successful career directing videos and commercials outside of the band. But seeing as Principle Five of the Devolutionary Oath is “We Must Repeat,” have you always considered yourself first and foremost a member of Devo and a director second?

JC: [With Devo], I’m able to use every part of my aesthetic wit – visual, written, musical, design-wise, stageshow-wise, video-wise. It’s where I put all my energy…When you’re directing a video for someone else, you’re a secondary person. You’re a problem solver, the same as when I directed commercials. They say ”How will you make this work?” You say I’ll do this and this and this and they say, “OK, you’re hired.” It’s apples and oranges.

CM: Given the forward thinking nature of Devo, I’d be curious to know your thoughts on playing Washington for the first time in what is supposedly the era of “change.” Is the future as bleak as you thought it would be 30 years ago when you guys first came together at Kent State?

Jerry Casele (1977)
Jerry Casale (1977)

JC: Unfortunately, yeah. We didn’t really want de-evolution to be real, we didn’t want our vision to come true. It was a cautionary, humorous satire, but guess what, everything did get a lot worse and everyone did get a lot dumber. It’s just like the movie Idiocracy that Mike Judge did…That idea was right on the money. I felt like I was watching our story.


CM: You can thank the Internet. But at least we don’t have record companies anymore.

JC: As they say, “The reports of death were highly exaggerated.” I think this whole conventional wisdom that got going about no more record companies was a little premature. They’re just warping into something else. As a matter of fact, all these people need each other or else there is no commerce anyway. Record companies will certainly not be as important without their distribution channels…but will basically return to being more like an ad agency. They’ll do what they used to do –- developing acts and getting them out there.

CM: With that in mind, when Devo does indeed put out a new record, will it be a tangible product or is it digital from here on out?

JC: No, it’s going to be [available] in every possible medium, beyond even just vinyl novelties, the old CD and downloadable MP3s. We’re looking to do things that are much more strange, like selling some object that is basically a playback device. You’ll be able to get your music through a replica red hat that you can get at Target or embedded in a funky toy…so that you’re not really paying for the music. You’re paying for a piece of art that’s got a Devo song in it.

[We want to] surround the music with some sort of cultural context, so that you have an association and can create a story. That’s what we tried to do. We created an alternative world with its own characters and funny, cult-like pseudo-philosophy. It was all a parallel reality that was satirical, but people were in on it. In other words, they’d smile. We weren’t out to attack them or be mean. We just want to make them think.

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