DEVO creator, multi-instrumentalist, performance artist and conceptual genius Gerald Casale’s ideas about human de-evolution, which grew out of his firsthand witnessing of the Kent State massacre in 1970, are more pertinent than ever
Like many rock bands that once offered unique commentaries on the human condition, DEVO have undergone a mini-renaissance of sorts in recent years. Most of this resurgence in popularity is, of course, due to the fact that we now really have a lunatic clown in the White House, and looking to satirists of the past for answers to current disasters seems as good an option as any.
DEVO co-founder and bassist Gerald V. Casale’s theses of human de-evolution now seems more pertinent than ever. And, happily, the multi-instrumentalist, performance artist and conceptual genius will still be pursuing them in 2018, as a slew of DEVO-related events and releases are on the horizon. It is only fitting, then, that we hear from the great man whose one regret over the past year was not pushing harder to have DEVO adorn red baseball caps and play their anthem “Jocko Homo” at Trump’s inauguration. At least they would have drawn a bigger crowd.
Let’s take it up at the beginning where we explore this quirky, not quite dogma, not quite mantra, that is the concept and philosophy of DEVO and its music.
DEVO was an art idea and a literature idea initially. It wasn’t a music idea. So I started to think, “What would DEVO music sound like?”
PKM: May 4, 1970. The Kent State University shootings. A massacre where four unarmed college students were murdered by the Ohio National Guard simply for protesting against the bombing of Cambodia by U.S. military forces. Not only were you attending the college at the time, but you were actively involved in the protests and personally knew two of the deceased victims. What were your own immediate feelings at the time of the shootings, and upon reflection in the aftermath?
Gerald Casale: I was a member of SDS – Students for a Democratic Society – and at the time I really resonated with their admittedly, in retrospect, kind of neo-commie, anti-centralist power politics. What we were doing was something very simple; taking the warning that Eisenhower had made in the 1950s about the military industrial complex, his warning of destroying liberty and destroying individual freedoms by consolidating it into military-driven corporations. We bought into it. We could see the reality of it then. You have to understand, students then were very educated about the United States political system and the three branches of government and that’s why there were these big protests, because Nixon, being this kind of proto-creep, you know, rewarding corporations, screwing the middle class, attacking civil and First Amendment rights, attacking women’s rights, taxing the poor to reward the rich, keeping wars going, his whole agenda was something that we saw as being completely illegal, and that’s why these protests were called among these universities.
But, of course, we also had Governor [James A.] Rhodes, this right-wing despot who was big pals with Nixon. So what he did was conspire with the dean of the university to bring the National Guard on the scene. And as soon as the protest was called on midday of May 4th, they declared martial law. This gave them the big open hand free reign to pursue us, shoot tear gas, try to herd us into a parking lot onto buses to mass arrest us. We thought it was a big game. Something that we were familiar with from past protests.
“…then somebody else is screaming ‘Jeffrey, Jeffrey’, which was worse because I turned to the right and he was face down in a big pool of blood. I remember feeling like I was gonna barf and pass out. And then the screaming starts. And then the chaos starts.”
No one knew the guns were loaded. So there we found ourselves on the hill facing these guys, they stopped, they created a formation, they had gas masks on from shooting the tear gas at us and the next thing I know is I see a guy in a gas mask make a hand signal. Then these guys all lower their rifles and point their bayonets at us and we thought, “Oh, they’re gonna charge down the hill now and scare the hell out of us and we’re gonna get arrested.” Instead, they shot at us. So there was this moment where you go into slow motion and sweat’s flying and everything just turns surreal. Like a car accident or something. I can’t explain the terror. You’re a scared little mouse. There’s adrenalin flowing through your body and you can’t believe the process of what just happened. Then there’s this moment of silence and slow-mo and I turn around and see Allison Krause laying there in the parking lot behind me, and people are screaming, “Allison, Allison”, and then somebody else is screaming “Jeffrey, Jeffrey”, which was worse because I turned to the right and he was face down in a big pool of blood. I remember feeling like I was gonna barf and pass out. And then the screaming starts. And then the chaos starts. And I fall down on the grass because I can’t even stand up, I feel dizzy, it’s a panic attack, and I think a lot of students were feeling that, it’s like, “Fuck! This is real!” That’s when you see the reality and you just go into this fucking hypnotic state. That’s all I can tell you.
PKM: Was that day a ground zero of sorts for the Gerald Casale as he was then known? Could you feel an immediate change within yourself and your own ethos or spirit that can be directly attributed to that day?
Gerald Casale: Well it was slow burn to process it all. But yes. What really did it was how on both a local and national level the media covered this horrific incident. And since we were in the middle of it, it’s like you’re reading it like you must be in the Twilight Zone. Like there must be a parallel reality here. Then you realize that those with the power to tell the stories in the media are the ones that write history. The truth doesn’t matter. In fact the truth probably never mattered. But it never became so obvious to me until then that everything was about brute power and control of information. Until then, I was this pseudo-hippie, content to be this kind of campus intellectual taking in these great classes like liberal arts and art classes. Just naïve as hell. And now it’s like, “Oh, here’s how things really work.”
PKM: Does that make you more angry or cynical?
Gerald Casale: Well, DEVO were seen as being cynical from the very beginning because we were posturing and making fun of people’s simplistic ideas of freedom and democracy. We were doing that because we were freaked out. So we were making a satire to warn people. DEVO was the creative response, more subversive. It’s like, okay, we’re not gonna give up. We’re just going to trick them. And we’re going to turn people on and we’re going to keep the idea alive that we can fight the good fight as long as we can, as long as we have something to say and try to gain a voice. So that’s why it’s so important what the ideas behind DEVO were. Because the music was connected to the concept and to a righteous indignation and outrage against this illegitimate authority and this threat to the ideas of democracy. We were being smartass artists and musicians with an aesthetic pose, a manifesto. We didn’t really think it would ever really come true like it has today. But now, no, I’m not cynical at all. What is going on should be clear to everybody. That de-evolution is real. Y’know… it’s over. Anybody that doesn’t think it’s over, they’re living in a bubble. They have their heads in the sand. This cannot be recovered.
PKM: Prior to DEVO, you played bass The Numbers Band, where among other things, you created conflict by suggesting that the group should incorporate advertising jingles and other “low culture” elements into the music. It seems that you were already aware of the concept of de-evolution.
Gerald Casale: The Numbers Band were an earnest, traditional blues band that were almost reverent in their love of historical American rural and city blues. They did the best versions of it that I had ever heard. Bob Kidney, the lead singer, guitarist and harmonica player was one of the most talented guys at doing this sort of music. But it didn’t go anywhere. These guys were almost academicians or neo-classicists. They didn’t appreciate any sense of humor or an intrusion of something transgressive into their aesthetic.
PKM: And would you like to tell us why you were thrown out of The Numbers Band, or shall I?
Gerald Casale: I got kicked out when I had a full-head ape mask that I wore during a Bo Diddley song. Y’know, because the Diddley beat was so right for the ape mask. The audience was going nuts and Bob Kidney turned around to see what the hell they were going nuts for. I was playing the bassline very well, but moving like something you’d see me do with DEVO during ‘Jocko Homo’ like moving in this jungle lurching thing with the mask on. At the end of the set, I got fired.
“What is going on should be clear to everybody. That de-evolution is real. Y’know… it’s over. Anybody that doesn’t think it’s over, they’re living in a bubble. They have their heads in the sand. This cannot be recovered.”
PKM: In 1973, you co-founded DEVO with fellow student Bob Lewis, which was a project obviously based on your thesis of the de-evolution concept. Was the creation of DEVO solely to act as the platform in which to holler all that bothered you about humanity and to at least satirically preach the ideas of de-evolution?
Gerald Casale: Yes. That’s something that was going on because in the fall of 1971, these visiting professors came to Kent State for a year. These guys were the best! They were more radical than me! And my friend Bob Lewis who was an English major and a poet and I both met these guys and we started hanging out three or four times a week at their homes, you know, sessions with pot and wine and talking and talking and them saying, “Read this” or, “Listen to this” or, “Don’t you know that William Burroughs said this.” I got way more radicalized and way more informed hanging with these guys. The ideas of de-evolution came from these late night sessions where Bob and I really saw that the whole propaganda of constant progress that was based on consumerism and new technology was a con job or red herring and that in reality what was happening was that people were getting less and less able to have critical thought to use logic to reason about information they were receiving. They were in fact going backwards in their mental abilities because of consumerism.
PKM: Where did Mark Mothersbaugh fit in to all this?
Gerald Casale: The ideas about de-evolution and the name DEVO were all done before I met Mark. I met him because I saw his artwork and wanted to know who this guy was. He was this part-time student coming in at night, working in the art studio and disappearing. He didn’t participate in campus life. He wasn’t a student activist. He wasn’t political at all. But I loved his art, and wanted to meet him. He had hair down to his waist and he was playing in this progressive rock band called Flossy Bobbitt where they would just play all this Emerson, Lake and Palmer type stuff. I hated that stuff and he thought the blues stuff I was doing was dumb and shitty too. At this time, I had started with Bob [Lewis] and a friend of his named Peter Gray trying to create what DEVO music would sound like. Because DEVO was an art idea and a literature idea initially. It wasn’t a music idea. So I started to think, “What would DEVO music sound like?” So I start telling Mark [Mothersbaugh] about that and then he got very excited. We agreed that I wouldn’t play the blues and he wouldn’t play any progressive rock and that we would start from ground zero and if anything sounded like an existing musical norm or cliché, we’d automatically stop. Unless we could tell each other why we were going make a chord change, we weren’t even allowed to do that. It was these self-imposed rules like maybe Dadaists would have or whatever. And it caused us to write music that neither of us would’ve ever written without each other. No doubt about it. And that’s why the collaboration was so strong because out of that came the body of work that people knew as DEVO. Out of that came the songs that ended up rearing their ugly heads at levels of getting signed to a corporate level label. So that was the excitement. To take the ideas and make them flesh. I mean, you don’t get signed to a record label because of brilliant ideas and concepts.
PKM: Would there, could there, have been a DEVO without the Kent State massacre?
Gerald Casale: My contention is not. I don’t think I would’ve gotten the twist that came to my soul and my brain without being in the middle of that. And then I don’t think that Mark would’ve ever done anything near it. It took me and him meeting. There would be no DEVO without us.
PKM: There are obvious Dadaist and outright absurdist elements to DEVO, particularly with an added visual aspect. Do you think that in those early days that what you were trying to do basically went right over people’s heads?
Gerald Casale: Yes. Bob Dylan said long ago that if people can understand your songs, you’re in trouble. And he’s right! If you have the fortunate moment in time to be two steps ahead of the consciousness of the public, they don’t even know enough to hate you or resist you. They’re just looking at something kind of so far out and askew from their level of reality that they’re mesmerized by it. It’s just a curiosity. But we did polarised a lot of people. DEVO was taken very seriously upfront and that’s why there was so much mainstream rock press hatred. I mean, Rolling Stone and Creem, they hated us! Really hated us. And radio hated us. Because they didn’t understand.
PKM: I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. Given that Darwin’s entire premise essentially comes down to the process of natural selection and a particular species’ ability to adapt, survive and prosper, and that evolution is the supposed be all and end all to everything, where does that leave de-evolution in all of this?
Gerald Casale: De-evolution happened. It’s just a fact now. We’re a part of it. We didn’t separate ourselves from that idea. We knew very well that we would devolve. When we were talking about de-evolution and using it as our aesthetic, we were actually evolved.
PKM: But are you merely suggesting that humankind is simply in some metaphorical infinite arm wrestle with itself and are neither evolving or devolving to any form of satisfactory level and are just destined to remain a gaggle of obtuse, dim-witted morons until the end of time?
Gerald Casale: I think what is really happening is that everything is dying at once and being born again, right? And so, back then, what we were railing against was the idea that there’s unlimited and constant progress and things get better and never go back. That never happens. Just look at the history of history. The systems that people put together when they have some positive goal that seems so amazing and shows the most admirable parts of the human spirit, finally succumb to chaos and get crushed by dark forces and like everything they knew and thought and assumed disappears. Then they built it up again. But my thesis now is that the predictable Sisyspian roll the boulder up the hill and have it roll back down is no longer a dialectic. Our problems now are major problems. Like we are now in Defcon 5. There are seven billion people on the planet. You can’t afford any longer to have clowns like Trump and his henchmen rip everything apart and tear it all down and expect that you can build it back up because it doesn’t work that way anymore. The human beings we are now is what nature is stuck with. We’re going down. I mean, we’re over as a species. I’m very pessimistic now. I’m seeing doomsday. I really am.
PKM: So de-evolution wins.
Gerald Casale: Yes.
PKM: How much of a monumental task was it to get the other band members to buy into the mantra?
Gerald Casale: There was a shorthand there, because there was two sets of brothers. And then Alan Myers, he was an anomaly for his age. He was a very disciplined guy who was a tai-chi master at a young age and he kind of took all his influences and cues from the beat writers because he was a jazz drummer to begin with. So, for him, what we were asking him to do, he saw on one level as so stupid and rudimentary that he was having fun with it as an idea. We’d say, “Okay now, Alan, we’re gonna use some gaffer tape now and tape your left hand behind your back and we want you to come up with a beat that you can only use with your right hand. Oh, and don’t hit any cymbals. And he just thought that we were nuts! So we would spend hours in the basement night after night, him and I working out those beats that you hear, and what was great was that he had the craft and the facility to act on any idea. You’d show him something and then he’d make it actually work! He’d make it sound good. He was amazing. He had such power because of his tai-chi thing. This guy was a human metronome and he could play all these crazy things we’d came up with for ninety-minutes every night. Everybody bought into the mantra very quickly.
PKM: The Are We Not Men album seems to be more of a mission statement than a straight up dogma. There almost seems to be a deliberate, laconic sense of neutrality between evolution and de-evolution on that album. Like a purgatory. Was this the original intention when writing the album?
Gerald Casale: Well, kind of. Because we thought that’s a good position to start from. It’s like if more people could have that sense of shame and absurdity, there’s so many things that they would never do to start with, you know? Anybody who understood what we understood then, that was like a head of a country let’s say, wouldn’t do any of the things that you’re seeing being done now. Because there would be some wisdom and some shame behind it. What we were saying was that this is all dumb. This is all a sideshow. A clown show. A diversion to take the sheep and hypnotize them over there while the real damage is being done by the actual people who do have the power to control everything. And they have ten times the power now that they had in the 1970s. The world’s descended into madness.
PKM: DEVO’s live performances to me are beyond outrageous! It’s music, poetry, performance art, comedy, satirical soapboxing, church and an education all within the convenience of one ninety-minute rock concert. A great visual of the live act are the red energy domes that each member must adorn. Can you explain the concept and influence behind the energy dome? My assumption is that it’s similar in theory to that of Reich’s orgone accumulator?
Gerald Casale: Firstly, you’re right. Our shows are like absurd church. And we did talk of creating a church of de-evolution. We really did! We were seriously trying to find out how you register, how to get tax-exempt status, what we would have to do to be a church and conducting ourselves the same way as performing. I mean, I was ready to preach! We should’ve done it. But the domes, yeah, like the orgone accumulator or the tin foil hat. I was always very focused on what we would wear. How we would look. We were looking at a Russian constructivist play from the 1920s called Victory Over the Sun and we were so taken by that. We had noticed that a lot of these Dadaists and Constructivists would always seem to put odd hats on their heads to kind of like complete the uniform. Because traditionally, hats were a form of socialisation that showed everybody that you were not a barbarian. You weren’t dangerous. Because you’re wearing a hat. So we thought, “Well, what would our hats look like?” Then Bob Mothersbaugh one day showed me this Little Lulu comic where she’s tired of all the kids being mean so she puts on this cancellator helmet so she doesn’t have to listen to anyone. The way this thing was drawn kind of looked a Mayan ziggurat and was this red knit cap with earmuffs to make it sound baffling. We laughed at that. And I thought, “Okay, I like the red; that’s nice. And why wouldn’t I just make it round to suit the human head rather than ziggurat. The final piece came to me because in Catholic school, which I hated going to so much, I used to stare at the ceiling all the time. The school was built in the 1930s and was an Art Deco building. There were these ceiling fixtures that hung from three rails with bulbs inside of them and they were the exact shape of the hat. That’s where the energy dome came from.
PKM: Let’s talk about some DEVO musical concept projects. Tell us a little about Dove (The Band of Love) and DEVO E-Z Listening.
Gerald Casale: We would spend a good amount of time at our rehearsals and in our basements doing parodies and joking around. We grew up having to watch these completely moronic televangelists, so when you’re a smartass kid with a healthy disrespect for illegitimate authority, you imitate them. So I could imitate preachers and hillbillies and so could Mark. So we’d kind of worked up four or five DEVO songs and re-did them in the style of a Christian rock group. Then we got the idea to open for ourselves as Dove (The Band of Love) because we hated the idea that these promoters would hoist these opening bands on us and they were so loud and bad and they would mess up the stage and ruin your audio connections so you’d always come out to a giant set of problems. Plus the crowd was always so burned out because these bands were always so loud. So we said, “Fuck this, we’re gonna open for ourselves.” And we were opening in places that were four to five thousand seaters, so we were far enough away so that when we put all this stuff on, and have somebody announce us as Dove (The Band of Love), most people thought it was real and they’d start booing and throwing shit at us, and of course that really got us going. I remember playing a show one New Year’s Eve as Dove (The Band of Love) where we were booed off the stage because the crowd just kept chanting, “We want DEVO, we want DEVO!” With the E-Z Listening album, that was just another way of having fun by doing a parody of a musical style that we thought was designed to numb you out. To basically make you a zombie.
PKM:Freedom of Choice is the album that broke DEVO to the mainstream and of course featured ‘Whip It’ as its main single. Does it bother you, even today, that many people still completely misunderstand DEVO and seem to insist on dismissing them as a one-hit wonder novelty act?
Gerald Casale: Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I mean the one hit wonder thing is a mean-spirited accusation because it wasn’t really true. I mean, we had a whole run of popular songs there. A whole career. Maybe ‘Whip It’ was the biggest single but I mean, I can think of so many grooves that didn’t depend on the radio that had huge followings. I mean, how many hits did A Perfect Circle have? [A Perfect Circle’s Josh Freese is now DEVO’s drummer].
PKM: Is the chant, “We Are DEVO” in fact the ultimate answer that we’ve all been searching for? To quote the great Douglas Adams, is it the answer to life, the universe, and everything?
Gerald Casale: Yes! Exactly! It’s because we are! That’s all we’re trying to say. Man’s nature is flawed at the core. We are not in harmony with the rest of what keeps us alive. That’s why we had to subjugate it. That was our only response. It’s like, we’re absurd! We’re diabolical. So yeah, “We are DEVO” is a knowing response to the state of habit as living things. We’re just… devolved.