In a circular lime green building on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, Mutato Muzik — Devo singer and artist-at-large Mark Mothersbaugh's production company — has reaped great dividends for the former Akronite who moved to the West Coast in the 1980s to pursue his dream of becoming a musician and composer.
And what a career it's been.
Dressed in blue jeans and a tight-fitting black shirt, the 65-year-old looks more like a stagehand than a composer and artist. His goatee and spikey hair have gone gray, but he still possesses a mischievous laugh that suggests he hasn't quite outgrown his punk rock past when he would don a "Booji Boy" mask and perform at Northeast Ohio dive bars such as the Crypt and Pirates Cove. You can see a slideshow of him in his Los Angeles studio here.
The day we meet him at his "office," he has a few free hours in the late morning and early afternoon but must shuffle off to a couple of gala events later in the evening. First, he plans to be on hand for the opening of In & Of Itself, a play about a magician and performance artist that's directed by Frank Oz. He wrote the play's music. He will also attend the BMI Film/TV Awards where he'll receive four awards for the soundtrack work he did last year. Both involve putting on a tux and mugging for photo ops.
Mothersbaugh's artwork finally gets the closeup it deserves at the end of this month as Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia, the first retrospective of his art, opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland and at the Akron Art Museum. On Friday, May 27, Mothersbaugh gives a free live performance on Toby's Plaza in front of MOCA to launch the exhibit. The publication of a hardcover book of essays and images, as well as a vinyl album of music, accompany the exhibit.
It's been a long, strange trip for Mothersbaugh, who formed Devo in the late '70s and, after writing the theme music for the wacky kids' (and adults') program Pee Wee's Big Adventure in 1986, continues to be a sought-after composer for film and TV. Mothersbaugh, who studied art at Kent State University, also works in many artistic mediums, including print, sculpture and animation. He makes rugs, posters, postcards and decals. His work ranges from the Warhol-like "Lucas Cows," a decal of pastel-colored cows, to "Wipe!," a rug featuring a black and white drawing of a man with his torso cut in half, blood oozing from what's left of his belly.
He infuses these objects with the same off-kilter sensibilities that made Devo into a punk/New Wave sensation.
Man on a Mission
Born and raised in Akron, Mothersbaugh says he can remember being curious how kids knew the right answers when the teacher asked them to add numbers or read a sentence written on the chalk board. He didn't know what a chalk board was, and he didn't know how they knew the right thing to say. The reason? He was legally blind. But he didn't know it at the time.
"I did have 20/20 vision from six inches away," he says as he sits in the Mutato Muzik studio space where he records. "I remember examining things close up. I remember thinking there was an innate life force in everything and being fascinated with texture and plants and insects and even inanimate objects. People adjust to whatever they have in terms of vision."
When he got glasses, he immediately wanted to know how people experienced color and thought it was possible that his red was different from other people's reds.
"I became very curious about things people had that were the same and what thing people had that were unique and what that meant," he says, describing the moment he could see as "the most amazing moment of my life."
"I was 7, almost 8," he recalls. "I just went, 'The world makes so much more sense now.' I had seen pictures of telephone wires and clouds. But I had never really seen them. All that stuff hit me at once. All those things had been theoretical before that, and very mystifying. And nobody knew that I couldn't see. For me, it was just joy. I just went, 'I accept this. I love this new world.'"
The same week he got glasses, he started drawing trees.
"I remember seeing what a top of a tree looked like, which I had never seen before, and I saw one that my father had planted in this tract of houses in Cuyahoga Falls where we lived at the time," he says. "We were up on a hill and started driving. Down the hill was my elementary school. I saw the school I had been going to for the first time. I thought it was incredible. My teacher, who had spanked me and made me stand in the corner and go to detention and go to the principal's office, was standing behind me while I was drawing and said that I drew trees better than her. I remember that statement exactly. It was the first thing any teacher had said that wasn't just a discipline thing. I dreamt that night that I would be an artist. I knew who Rembrandt and Van Gogh and those heavy hitters were. That's what they teach you in first and second grade. I wanted to be like them. I remember thinking that. She sent me on a mission."
That mission continued when Mothersbaugh entered art school at Kent State University. Back in those days, Kent State used to give away partial scholarships to kids who hadn't planned on going to college. He was told he could receive financial help, so he enrolled in 1968.
"In school, I was doing these decals, which was my version of graffiti," he says. "That's how I met [Devo's] Jerry Casale. He came up to me and asked if I was the one putting up pictures of astronauts holding potatoes while standing on the moon. I was, and we started talking. He was a few years older, and we just hit it off right away."***
In the midst of a grad school project that involved blowing up the portraits of all the people who hated him in high school and then distorting their images, Casale enlisted Mothersbaugh's help.
"We collaborated on visual things," says Mothersbaugh. "We worked on posters and other things together. We were both musicians and we started writing music together."
When the shootings happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970, Mothersbaugh and Casale were both shocked.
"We started talking about what we were seeing," says Mothersbaugh. "We decided it wasn't evolution but devolution. I had this cynical attitude about religion but the same with science. They had ideas but a lot of it seemed not worked out. They would say that the universe is finite but they don't know what the universe looks like at the edge. We though devolution was the common ground between science and religion."
Inspired by Ohioan B.H. Shadduck, an anti-evolutionist from the '30s who wrote the tract Jocko Homo: Heaven Bound King, Mothersbaugh penned one of the band's first songs, the herky jerky "Jocko Homo." Devo started performing locally in Akron.
"We'd play places in Akron or Kent and no one wanted to hear original music," says Mothersbaugh. "You went to a club to hear a band play cover songs. We'd lie and say we were a cover band. We did 'Secret Agent Man' and 'Satisfaction' but not at all like the Rolling Stones. We'd be up there in janitor outfits. They'd be sitting there with a beer and Jerry and I would go, 'This is another song by Foghat called "Mongoloid."' They'd throw beer bottles at us."
The negative reaction only encouraged Casale and Mothersbaugh.
Devo: 'The Band of the Future'
In the mid-'70s, Mothersbaugh & Co. met somebody connected to Pirates Cove in Cleveland who encouraged them to check out the venue. They saw the Cleveland punk band Pere Ubu and found the performance inspiring.
"They were pretty cool," says Mothersbaugh. "I loved all their early material. I loved the singles, and I remember thinking that they were really good and they had an audience of people who weren't trying to kill them. There were 30 people, which was twice as many as we were playing to. We started seeing there were other Cleveland bands with similar interests. There were the Dead Boys and Rocket From the Tombs. We didn't have anyone in Akron. [Pere Ubu] played for our 15 people in Akron once, and I remember watching [singer] Crocus [Behemoth] in a black rain coat. He had hair like Larry from the Three Stooges. He grabbed a handful of hair from his head and ripped it out. I thought, 'You can't do that for long.' That was the beginning for us."
By the time Devo started playing in New York in the late '70s, it had developed a stage show that included costumes and films. Inspired by an industrial supply catalog, they purchased hazmat suits and developed a look unlike any other band.
"Every other band — whether it was Talking Heads or Television or Lou Reed or anybody — they were all wearing blue jeans," says Mothersbaugh. "Some were torn and had suede patches and some were pressed and everyone was dressed like that except for the New York Dolls, who were much more fabulous looking. Some bands were copying the Beatles and wore suits. After our first show, the word spread. We became this band that everyone had to see."
Rock singer David Bowie came to one of the New York shows at Max's Kansas City club and watched the first set. "He came upstairs, and he asked what we were doing for a record. He wanted to produce us if we wanted."
When the band came back on stage for its second set, Bowie introduced the group.
"He came out on stage and said, 'Devo is the band of the future,'" Mothersbaugh says. "He said he'd take us to Tokyo that winter and said the only thing that could throw it off was that he might have to take a role for a movie called Just a Gigolo in Berlin."
As it turned out, Bowie didn't produce the band's debut, 1978's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! The band wound up working with Brian Eno, and recorded the album over a period of four months between October 1977 and February 1978, primarily in Cologne, Germany. Bowie would drop in to hang out with the band during the recording sessions. The album was a hit.
Synths and Stuff
When Mothersbaugh first came to Los Angeles back in the 1980s, he crashed at punk icon Iggy Pop's Malibu home — the two had become friends. Eventually, Mothersbaugh bought a house in L.A. and then started working out of a Marina del Rey rehearsal space. The commute was a killer as he'd ramble down from his home in the hills above Sunset Boulevard in a 1958 Mercedes Benz with no power steering or power brakes.
He would drive past the building that now houses Mutato Muzika every morning, envious of its prime location and unique shape. When it came up for sale in 1995, he bought the place and has turned it into a space where he can both write music for plays, movies and TV and work on his various art projects.
In one room, a giant HD TV monitor sits above a keyboard and studio console. In that same room, he keeps a hymnotron hand-built by "interesting odd guys in New Jersey." A giant wooden box with a series of sound cards, it looks antiquated next to the high-tech equipment. Mothersbaugh also owns Raymond Scott's electronium, which is currently "being repaired." He bought it from Scott's widow, who intended to throw it in the trash.
"I have that because I met him before he died," says Mothersbaugh when asked about the instrument. When Mothersbaugh takes us through the studio, you can tell he has an attachment to old-school instruments that's really unparalleled in a world in which the digital recording reigns supreme. "[Scott's] wife had no idea what he used to do in the '30 and '40s because she met him in the '70s and she never talked about when he was the Frank Zappa of Hollywood and would be in Bob Hope travel movies like The Road to Morocco. The Raymond Scott Band would be playing instruments while sitting on the floor wearing turbans. Bob Hope would go running by and they'd be playing some song. His music was appropriated by Carl Stalling to become Looney Tunes music. Stuff like 'dun, dun, dun, baba baba baba dun' — that was stuff that he wrote."
As we walk into another room filled with guitars and artwork, Mothersbaugh admits his wife will tell him she just can't take the clutter that makes the space look like "a pawn shop." He points to a synthesizer from the '70s that director Wes Anderson, with whom Mothersbaugh has collaborated since Anderson made his debut with Bottle Rocket, used in The Life Aquatic. And he picks up an Indian instrument that he once played at a release party for a tribute album to beat poet Jack Kerouac at the Viper Room in 1997 and begins recreating that performance, chanting, "She's just the girl yoooou want" as he plays the accordion-like instrument.
"It's actually broken," he says as he puts it down. "It must be too dry for them out here in California. Oh well, I got four of them."
Are We Not Mutants?
About 20 years ago, Mothersbaugh's Muzik Mutato provided him with a steady flow of soundtrack work. He'd write a piece of music in his studio and would then have an engineer mix it into the film. While he was doing that, he had an hour of free time and would go into a room where he had a computer and a large Epson printer. He'd start tweaking various images to create a series of "beautiful mutants," all in the name of making the most of every second of the day.
"I had resisted using computers for a long time. I was afraid I'd get into video games and waste time," he says. "I didn't do drugs because of that, and I didn't drink because of that. And I didn't have kids because of that. I thought they were kinds of things that stole your vision and time, and I was so dedicated to it that I didn't want to give up those things."