The Art of Money

Devo on de-evolution, devalued music

Kai Ryssdal Jun 14, 2010
The Art of Money

Devo on de-evolution, devalued music

Kai Ryssdal Jun 14, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: You know how sometime when you hear a song, it just takes you right back in time? Like this one: “I say whip it, whip it good!”

Devo hit the pop charts with “Whip It” in 1980. The band had actually been around since the early ’70s. They were kind of anti-establishment. Devo, in fact, is short for “de-evolution,” as in, the de-evolution of society. The guys all dressed the same, they made some pretty interesting music. And then they stopped.

Now, though, they’ve started again. Devo’s first album in a long time comes out tomorrow. So today in our continuing series, the Art of Money — what artists and others see when they look at the economy — Devo founder Gerald Casale and what got the band back to the studio after 20 years.

Gerald Casale: The world is on a disaster course, de-evolution’s real. Devo is becoming senior citizens, and we had to do it while we could.

Ryssdal: Remind me of this de-evolution notion that you guys had.

Casale: Well, it wasn’t a big idea. It was just a set of anecdotal observations about how things were going as compared to propaganda we all received as products of the 60s about endless progress, evolution, technology solving problems. But that isn’t what Devo saw. We were looking at people seemingly getting dumber. And when I say that, what I mean is less able to think critically, to analyze information, started becoming more and more herd-like mentality of just repeating sound bites.

Ryssdal: So here’s where I do the “wait a minute” thing, because you guys now on this album have sort of gone that way — you’re using focus groups, you’re letting the audience pick the tracks that are going to be on the actual CD. I mean, you’re buying into it. A clever marketing ploy, probably, but I mean, you are doing it?

Casale: Well, it’s partly satirical, but it’s also having your cake and eating it too. Because we decided, what’s the one thing that Devo never did — which was play ball. We don’t exclude ourselves from the de-evolution process.

Ryssdal: Is there a song on this new album that exemplifies that?

Casale: Hm. I would say “What We Do.”

“What We Do” by Devo: What we do, is what we do, ’cause all we do, is what we do. Aiming, praying, believing, maintaining…

Ryssdal: You know, it’s great, because I can remember in the late 70s watching you guys on “Saturday Night Live” and saying, “Who are these guys? What are they all about?” And now you’ve kind of come full circle?

Casale: Right. We were shocking then, and what we were proposing seemed ludicrous and made some people really angry. And now, it’s the opposite, we’re not shocking at all. I’ve said that we’re like the house band on the Titanic.

Ryssdal: You look a little bit wistful, a little bit regretful, just sitting in the studio.

Casale: That’s what happens with age.

Ryssdal: There is, I think, on this album — what I’ve heard of it — you’ve guys acknowledged much more the business of music, I think, than you ever did. That, you know, you’ve gotta make a buck?

Casale: That is definitely the culture we all live in. I mean, look what’s happened — the implosion of the music business in general, the functions of labels are almost gone, people have devalued music in terms of its cultural important and they feel they shouldn’t even have to pay for it. And with all the home-recording techniques, everybody puts out CDs and everybody thinks they can become the next huge act by using social networking like Facebook or MySpace. And it’s all largely an illusion. What’s happened is that so many CDs are put out per month, possibly 10,000 a month. Nobody can possibly even know half the music that exists out there. And so marketing is everything. Marketing is the end-all, be-all of our society.

Ryssdal: There’s a song on this album, it’s called “Watch Us Work It” that was commissioned by Dell. Let’s play it and then I want to ask you a question.

“What Us Work It” by DevoWatch us work it, work it inside out, you watch us work it, work it out, watch us work it, work it inside out…

Ryssdal: Did I read some place you actually prefer your music to be commissioned, that’s the way you like to do it?

Casale: Well, at this point, what’s happened is, artists no longer make a living by selling music. They only make a living by tour grosses, merchandising receipts and having their songs licensed to commercials video games or films. That’s it. Trying to make a living as a recording artist, that’s the only way you’re going to survive.

Ryssdal: Is it fair to say that this album is a little bit cynical?

Casale: We’ve always been accused of being cynical. I think anybody that honestly analyzes the problems of human nature in society is called “cynical.” Yeah, we’ve never been the high hope and “put a bow on it” band.

Ryssdal: Gerald Casale from the band Devo. Their new album is called “Something For Everybody.”

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