Inside Talk: Mark Mothersbaugh | Whip It Again


Devo (L-R): Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh, Jerry Casale, Josh Freese, and Bob Casale

Photo: Josh Dalsimer

They''re back.

Devo—the prognosticators of de-evolution, and purveyors of high-tech, tongue-in-cheek, new wave/punk rock—recently released Something For Everybody (Warner Bros., 2010), their first album in 20 years. The band, which formed in the early ''70s, had their biggest hit, “Whip It,” in 1980. They stayed together until 1991, but never regained their early ''80s popularity and broke up after recording their eighth album, Smooth Noodle Maps (Enigma, 1990).

Although Something For Everybody harks back to the band''s “Whip It”-era sound, it''s far more than just a nostalgia trip. It''s got good songwriting (the downfall of many comeback albums) and retains the band''s edgy humor and social criticism. To find out about the album''s production, I recently interviewed lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh, who, in the two decades between Devo albums, has established himself as a top-notch film, TV, and videogame scorer.

The new album sounds really good. So are you satisfied with how it came out?
Yeah. You know, we had the luxury of working on it as long as we did our first album, almost. So we probably started on some of these songs three years ago. So that was kind of nice. It actually worked to our benefit. It gave us more material to choose from, and I think everybody''s pretty happy with the way it sounds.

What was the catalyst behind this project getting off the ground?
I think the disintegration of the business of music as it was known when we were around the first time—the fact that the business model had exploded. It just seems like it''s such a great time to be making music right now.

Because of the Internet and just technology—even the kind of instruments that are available—the way all that''s progressed in the last 20 years. It''s just really a nice time because the playing field, in a lot of ways, is leveled for people. You can be from some far-off corner of the planet, and if you have access to the Internet, you can own, for a very small amount of money, equipment far superior to what The Beatles recorded on back when they were doing their records. You can go directly to the public and find a public without necessarily going through the filter of a record company, if you want to.

Of course, the major labels would say that the Internet has badly harmed the record business.
I see it as giving people so many more opportunities. I probably have a tiny little bit of sympathy for people at record companies that go, “Oh, man, the good old days, when everybody had to buy vinyl or everybody had to buy cassettes, or CDs even. I miss those days.” And I mean, I''m sorry for them that things have changed, but I''m happy for what it gives us as an alternative. It''s just so powerful and so impressive—the idea that right now I could pick up my computer, and I could go, “I''d like to hear some Eskimo-clog-dance-death-metal-polka music.” And if you put those terms into the computer and Googled it, or looked it up on [another] search engine, chances are there''s going to be music that comes up that fits that request. That''s pretty great.

How did the production of this album differ from the way you did things in Devo''s heyday?
Some things are just obvious. I have a music production house in Hollywood, and we''ve been tapeless for decades. Although there''s been machines around, that if we wanted to go back and listen to tapes we could do it. Most of the guys that work for me, they''ve never spliced tape. They''ve heard of that, but they''ve never done it. I did have this idea when we first started [the Devo comeback] that, “What if we used the same exact synthesizers because we still have them, and the same guitars, which we still have most of, and the same drums and the same tape decks that we did the first album with?” For about two or three months, we experimented doing something like that. And I was probably the last one to give in, but I finally came to the realization—we did, as a band—we came to the realization that, “Oh, wait a minute. That was not what being Devo was anyhow.” We were always really into technology. We were always really avid fans of everything that was happening, and we were reading the tech magazines. And when polyphonic synths first came out, we went and found prototypes and talked to everybody that was manufacturing things then and tried to get things as soon as we could. I remember getting one of the very first Roger Linn drum machines, and I remember using the first big digital 3M—or was it Sony? I can''t remember now—we used a big, gigantic digital machine when they first came out.

A digital multitrack.
We always were kind of changing with what was happening during the times, and so what we ended up keeping intact was the way we write and structure our songs and what we talk about. What changed has been constantly, from the beginning, the technology. So that ended up being the way this album finally came out, was taking advantage of [Apple] Logic and [MOTU] Digital Performer, and [Avid] Pro Tools, and using plug-ins. But at the same time, we still did use the Minimoog that we used in Germany when we recorded the first album, and some of the synthesizers from that time period—like the one that made the whip crack and was kind of the pulsing electronic percussion sound in Freedom of Choice, so we still used a lot of that gear. Those sounds are still in the new material.

Did you use some software synths on this album in addition to the hardware stuff?
There''s people that''ll kill me because I won''t remember the right things. But we used a lot of [GForce Software] impOSCar and [Way Out Ware] KikAxxe, and even software Minimoogs and Mellotrons.

You mentioned that you guys used Digital Performer, Logic, and Pro Tools on this album. Which is your personal DAW of choice?
I used to use [Opcode Studio] Vision for a really long time, and then when Gibson bought Vision and they shut it down, I went into a panic.

What did you do?
I kind of reluctantly went over to [MOTU] Digital Performer, and it was really difficult for me to go from Vision to Digital Performer at first. Then I got to where I could really work it, but then somehow Logic [owned at that time by Emagic] came into my life. It was kind of because there were a couple of younger guys that work at my company—I mostly do film stuff at my company, and these guys work more in commercials—they were all using Logic and they were always using these new sounds that they really liked, and somehow I started using Logic. And then it seemed kind of intuitive to me. Somehow the difference between Logic and where I had been a couple years before in the world of Vision seemed to be closer than where I was with Performer. For me, it was just a better fit. But at the same time, Bob 1 [Bob Mothersbaugh] and Bob 2 [Bob Casale] were still using Performer and are kind of happy with it. So often, on this record, I''d write something in Logic, and then I''d give it to Bob 2 because he does most of the in-house engineering for Devo and for my company—he''s like my main engineer. He would then transfer it over to Performer. And Bob Mothersbaugh was writing stuff in Performer already. So those guys preferred Performer, and then the guy that does front of house [mixing] for Devo, he wasn''t really a fan of Performer or Logic, but he really likes Pro Tools. So we were using all three formats on this record. And I think near the end we were maybe gravitating more toward Logic, but it''s pretty evenly divided [laughs].

How did you get the files back and forth? Just by using stems and importing them in?
I''m the most technically retarded of all the guys in the band; I just want to write music. Luckily, I always keep people around me that can work all that stuff out. But yeah, it was a lot of stems, and then some of the plug-ins are in both Performer and Logic. The interesting thing that we found out is they sound different sometimes. Sometimes we''d have a sound that sounded different in Logic than it did in Performer. And in that case, if we liked one better than the other and it was from the opposing software, we would then transfer it over to Pro Tools and do our mixes there. Also, the different producers we worked with worked in different software. It seemed to be a lot of people using Logic, but kind of everybody uses Pro Tools.

Especially in album production.
Yeah, so luckily it didn''t have to be me. There were people in the band and that worked with us that were tech supporters that were keeping all the different software straight. When the smoke cleared, we ended up with an album.