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With new album, Devo looks beyond its devoted following

'Something for Everybody' is the band's first new album in 20 years.

June 15, 2010|By Steve Appleford, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The music industry has changed, devolving in its own way, but Devo somehow survives, still hungry to attempt new ideas and connections.
The music industry has changed, devolving in its own way, but Devo somehow… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

The scene was as strange and comic as ever, as five men in matching gray, reflective uniforms wandered an outdoor stage in Hollywood, wearing hard plastic masks for reasons unknown. "Who are these masked men?" asked Gerald Casale, leaning over his keyboard to observe his fellow travelers in Devo and joke about their newest headgear. "It doesn't impair your vision at all. It does affect brain function."

The band was warming up for the night's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" broadcast, doing one more run-through of "Fresh," a song from Devo's first new album in 20 years. The network TV gig would be part of a new reeducation and marketing plan, reintroducing this brotherhood first hatched decades ago in Akron, Ohio, amid provocative, crackpot theories on the decay and de-evolution of modern man, all set to anxious keyboards and electric guitar.

At center stage stood Mark Mothersbaugh, wearing glasses over his mask, singing breathlessly as he chopped at the air with his free hand: "I see a fork in the road, where it goes I don't know / I won't even think twice, I really don't have a choice."

The song was upbeat, catchy, with the usual unsettling undertones about life's misadventures, and it was already market-tested through surveys and focus groups, weeks ahead of Tuesday's release of the album, "Something for Everybody." Devo aims to please in 2010, anxious to reach beyond its devoted cult and embrace the whims and wisdom of mainstream consumers.

"How are we going to reintroduce ourselves to a crowd of 20- and 30-year-olds who hear too much and don't want to pay for anything anyway?" Casale wondered backstage. "It's marketing, it's all marketing."

The new album collected a creative team of forward-looking pop producers, including the Teddybears, Greg Kurstin, Dust Brother John King and the duo of John Hill and Santi White (a.k.a. Santigold). They delivered a dozen festive tracks of danceable synth-rock and robot R&B.

"There's this new generation of kids that have grown up with Devo or know of Devo from the past, and it's not something bewildering," said Mothersbaugh. "Why not let them take a shot at producing Devo, possibly the way we rearranged 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones 10 years after it had been written. "

To sell "Something for Everybody," Devo reunited with Warner Bros. Records and aligned with Mother, an international advertising agency with experience marketing the likes of Coca-Cola, New Balance and Johnson & Johnson. The goal was to promote a rock album with the same business acumen that a major corporation might use to test and sell a bar of soap.

Devo first signed with Warner Bros. in 1978, and major labels remain the best route to radio airplay and distribution, said Mothersbaugh, "but as far as marketing, we were never really impressed with anything that ever happened. Nobody ever took advantage of it. From the get-go we were looking for an ad agency."

Weeks after the Kimmel show, the two Devo frontmen sat together in the main studio of Mutato Muzika, the company Mothersbaugh calls his "day job," where he and other members of Devo create original music for film, television and advertising, from the former series "Rugrats" to the movies of Wes Anderson. For more than a decade, it's been housed in a conspicuous, forum-shaped building painted fluorescent green on the Sunset Strip.

"Something for Everybody" was largely recorded at Mutato, designed to begin Devo's escape from "the cocoon and state of suspended animation," said Casale, now out of uniform and dressed at Mutato in a black suit. "It was now or never. The world is more devolved than ever."

Public consumption of that concept began with the band's classic 1978 debut, "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!," a twitchy manifesto that was anti-rock and anti-cool, a multimedia sendup of conformity, technology, religion and sex.

The themes haven't changed much through the years, and the commercial imperative was often center stage. Devo introduced a "corporate anthem" and embraced merchandising without hesitation, selling not only T-shirts but Devo's yellow hazmat jumpsuits and their iconic red "energy dome" helmets. By 1984, the band was in commercials for Honda scooters.

For the new album, some decisions previously made instinctively by the band were now left to the whims of the voting public. In the months preceding the album release, Mother conducted surveys online and in controlled environments on songs, color, touch — each shaping the coming Devo campaign.

As with everything Devo, the project was both serious and satirical, using the marketing as a central part of the message and the joke, videotaping focus groups conducted by a young, accented Nordic man named "Jacob."

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