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."
Inspired by carnival mirrors which he collected, he began working on a series of mutant photos, manipulating them with Photoshop.
"I started taking pictures of people, and I became interested that you could split a face right down the middle," he says. "Almost all the time, one half would look younger and prettier and more angelic. The other half would look more grotesque and evil and that was fascinating to me."
He used tintypes and daguerreotypes.
"I started looking for those images that would be in a frame or a leather pouch that Civil War soldiers would carry," he says. "They could fit in a pocket. When I took my images and put them in the cases, it transported you to another world."
He even wrote a movie script about the process.
"You never know, maybe someday I'll film it," he laughs.
One of the most notable "beautiful mutants" involves a car. The automobile manufacturer Scion asked him to paint one of their vehicles. Everyone was doing it, they told him, in an effort to convince him to join artists such as Shepard Fairey.
"I didn't want to paint, but I told them I would paint two cars and cut them in half and make a car with two fronts and another car with two backs. Somehow they talked to someone who let me do it. I did, and I put two front ends together and it looked great. I put the two back ends together and that's in the [upcoming] show."
The front end showed up at the L.A. Convention Center when it was being unloaded from a truck, and the guys who work for him had to steer it. It's a convention center so there was a big floor.
"They were showing off," says Mothersbaugh. "This one guy was doing these spinning cups and everyone was laughing and the Scion people walked in and saw it and wanted to crush the car and destroy it. They did. They took it from me. They thought someone would sue them. That wasn't what the intention of letting me cut two cars in half was about. I didn't have an agent, and I still don't, so I didn't have someone who could have warned me about it."
Postcards from the Edge
While Mothersbaugh might have abandoned his mutation series, his postcard series is alive and well. In fact, the day we interview him, he says he just added to the collection at 1:15 that morning. He says even after his vision was corrected, he still gravitated toward small drawings. If he tried to do a big painting, the perspective was off and he'd have to project the image onto a canvas and then sketch and color it. Postcards didn't require the same amount of prep.
"I had a great time at Kent State in the art world," he says when asked about the genesis of his postcard art. "In the process, I found out that there were people around the world who liked to exchange mail art. They used their post office. There were no computers and cell phones. It was a valuable form of communication. With postal art, the whole idea was there would be people who handle it and could see whatever you do."
That meant the audience wasn't just the person who received the card but also the person who handled the card and everyone who might see it. Mothersbaugh calls it an "incidental audience."
"It was empowering to me that I could take a postcard and put artwork on it and put an address for [artists such as] Robert Jasper or Robert Indiana or Irene Dogmatic in San Francisco. You could send them something in the mail and nine out of 10 times they would send you something back. Even though he never met me, the fact that he reacted to my artwork was an empowering feeling. We had no internet and there was no such thing as Youtube or MP3s you could send out. That was a big thing. I would make this art and send to my friends and about a year into it, I realized they could be lyrics to a song or an album cover or art when we were playing a show and could be a poster."
Since he had been a stamp collector, he knew there were binders that would hold 100 pieces of paper this size. He bought those binders and used them to store his postcards. He still has a shelf full of red binders at his studio space. While they're not necessarily in chronological order, Mothersbaugh says they serve as a sort of diary.
"There are some that I drew when I was living on a houseboat on the Thames for three weeks," he says. "People would say crazy stuff to us. We were interacting with William Burroughs and Timothy Leary and Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell and all these people. I was impressed by them. I would write down things they said."
On one postcard, he drew a picture that represented the meeting he had with Warner Bros. records.
"Then, we were touring and wouldn't live anywhere and it was easy to be sitting backstage or in an airplane or in a car," he says. "You have two hours when you're on stage and 22 hours getting to the next place, and I couldn't stand wasting that much time. If I have to write music and wait for an engineer, I can't wait. I had to do something else. I kept those cards and kept making them through all those years. It just stayed with me beyond that."
Back to the Beginning
Mothersbaugh first met Myopia's curator Adam Lerner in 2011 after Devo performed at the Denver county fair. He had gotten a message that Lerner, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, wanted to talk to him about visual artist Bruce Conner.
"He made the second Devo video where he took the song 'Mongoloid' and cut all sorts of collage footage to it from some great, crazy, old ad graphics and science graphics," says Mothersbaugh. "It was a really great film."***
Conner assigned himself to be the band's escort in San Francisco when the group was driving around in a van and sleeping in it and playing clubs. Mothersbaugh and Lerner talked about Conner, and Lerner asked what Mothersbaugh was doing.
"I told him that in the last 10 years I had done 125 gallery shows," says Mothersbaugh.
The MO was the same. As Mothersbaugh explains, the gallery operators were kids who were excited about art and had just got out of college. They knew they would soon start working at Walmart doing ad graphics. But before selling their souls to corporate America, they would open a gallery in "some part of town where the people who buy art — the dentists and the lawyers and the doctors — wouldn't want to go.
"They'd open a little storefront gallery and put their friends' art work on the wall," says Mothersbaugh. "They'd buy a keg of beer and their 30 friends would come over. They couldn't get a review in the Saginaw News. It was symbiotic for us. I was in the middle of working in Hollywood in the belly of the beast. I would work with people on movies. They would complain that the actors they hired were jerks, or they'd be talking about the money. Nothing was about the art. I was missing what I had when I was a kid that age, when I was first inspired to be an artist: that camaraderie and that sense that the art comes first. I loved this thing where I could connect with people getting out of college and they were still excited about art."
Mothersbaugh says the shows were easy to book, and although he couldn't send them original paintings, he had a website where they posted pictures from the gallery openings. He couldn't attend most of them, but he'd Skype; and if it was on the East Coast, the show would open when it was dinner time for him.
"My kids would see the show too and they'd remember certain pieces," he says. "We'd see the artwork on the wall and people could talk to me and I could talk to them."
Lerner loved the concept and came to L.A.
"He came over and walked around in here and saw that I had a room dedicated to drawing," says Mothersbaugh. "I draw every day, and I take images I really like and put them in Photoshop. If I really like them, I blow them up and print them. I showed him where I kept stuff and where I have a collection of warehouse spaces. Looking through it, he felt this urge to organize it and make a show out of it, which is great."
Mothersbaugh confesses that he's dreamt that all his art might be lost. Myopia puts some of those fears to rest.
"I always had these mental images that I had passed away and my wife was walking around wearing a veil and looking stylish and she's showing some moving people the house," he explains. "She's saying, 'You can take the clothes to Goodwill.' And she walks into the library and at the time there were 300 red journals that I started back in the '70s in Akron. I would put my images in them."
He says he can imagine his wife telling the movers to simply take the notebooks to the dump.
"My dream would end and I was in the trash watching a dump trunk lift up and all these red books would come tumbling out and they'd be in there with banana peels," he says. "I thought that was the fate, so when [Lerner] said, 'Let's do a show,' I was shocked. He had enough energy and enthusiasm to create this show that I titled Myopia. Not everything I have has been archived, but I can't think about it. I just need to keep moving forward."
As we walked into his studio, he was just talking to another museum about constructing some sculptures for a commission and for another show.
"They're musical sculptures," he explains. "I created them using bird calls and orphaned organ pipes and doorbells. After working with every kind of a band and then every kind of an orchestra, I get to work with big bands with 100 people and duets and quartets. I like all that stuff, but I got fascinated with eccentric instruments and have collected things through the years."
Mothersbaugh says it's particularly gratifying to have an exhibit in Northeast Ohio.
"It's coming full circle," he says. "I was in Cincinnati with it at the beginning of the year. Cincinnati is dear to me because they had Queen City Records. They pressed our first record. I remember getting in a car one day and we were going to pick up the vinyl. I remember driving to Cincinnati and the closer we got, the more excited we got, and we were sweating. We got these boxes and we would rip the box open and were holding up this single that said, 'Jocko Homo/Mongoloid.' I remember looking at it and thinking, 'We're really artists.' There are all these things that connect us with Ohio. Cleveland was our first trip out of Akron. It felt like such a monumental thing."
And coming back to Cleveland still represents a "monumental thing," perhaps more for art patrons here than for Mothersbaugh. The kicker: When Mothersbaugh returns to Northeast Ohio later this month for the opening of Myopia, he won't have to worry about angry fans throwing beer bottles at his head.