Devo: ‘We are kind of like the house band on the Titanic’
Devo is celebrating a half-century of de-evolution in 2023, bringing its wild and artsy brand of new wave/punk music — which still sounds avant garde lo these many years later — on the road once more.
Devo’s tour is supporting the newly released career retrospective “50 Years of De-Evolution,” which is available at Rhino.com.
I recently had a chance to chat with founding member and vocalist-bassist-songwriter Gerald “Jerry” Casale about the band, which got its start in the Kent State University/Akron, Ohio, area in 1973.
Q: Let’s start off by clearing something up: Is this a farewell tour or not? Because I’m seeing some confusing things online about this being the last hurrah for the band.
A: It was supposed to be 50th anniversary tour — kind of a farewell to 50 years of de-evolution. And promoters ran with making it a farewell tour because that boosted the bottom line — made it sell faster.
But it just happened to us. Typical of things that happen to Devo.
Q: So hopefully there will be more tours down the line.
A: Hopefully. But you never know, right? This could be the last tour. Who knows? For any number of reasons. But that wasn’t the expressed idea.
Q: Did you ever imagine — a half century ago, when the band was first starting out – that Devo would last this long?
A: Of course not. You live in the moment and you don’t try to fabricate a legacy before it happens.
And de-evolution is real, by the way. Nobody thinks it is polarizing or a whacked-out idea anymore. They all go, “Oh, yeah, the world’s devolved — no doubt about it.”
Q: Were people accepting of that idea early on?
A: No. It usually (expletive) people off. Or they kind of laughed at us.
Q: If you wanted to show someone that people are devolving, where would be the first place you’d point them?
A: (Laughs) My God. Pretty much just start turning to the person next to you. (More laughter) All you have to do is watch like one day of a 24/7 news cycle — watch Fox, watch CNN, watch MSNBC. It’s all there in your face, over and over. It’s moronic. And look at the turn of who is running the world. Tyrants and dictators are constantly in our face and democracy is on the run. And pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies run the country. It’s pretty sad.
Q: Has Devo devolved over the years? Or has the band managed to avoid that fate?
A: No, we didn’t remove ourselves from the quotient. We said we’re all Devo — and we meant it. We know we’ve devolved as well. It was inevitable. But now we’re just kind of emissaries for de-evolution. We are kind of like the house band on the Titanic.
Q: (Laughs) You know that is going to end up in my headline!
A: I hope. (Laughs)
Q: Again going back to the start, what was the wildest, craziest idea you guys had in terms of what you thought success might look like for Devo?
A: We were the kind of people who embraced experimental processes and new technology. There was not any new technology that we didn’t love or want to play with.
We thought we’d be doing — way before now — Devo 3-D hologram concerts. We thought we’d be in one spot somewhere in a studio, on a circular green screen and working with computer/CGI graphics people, and projecting a concert into many places at once all around the world.
We thought about that a long, long time ago. We thought it was going to happen.
Q: Well, doesn’t seem like you are far away from being able to do that at this point.
A: Right. Except if we are all septuagenarians. That might be a problem.
Q: What should we expect from this tour?
A: What should you expect? A career-spanning selection of songs. Proof that old men can still rock — you know, if the Stones can do it and Bruce Springsteen can do it, we can do it.
Q: Speaking of rocking, the Devo song that I play to show people a different side of the band is always “Gut Feeling.” It’s my favorite Devo tune and it’s one of my favorite punk rock tunes, actually.
A: Absolutely. We’ll be playing that.
Q: Do you think you get enough credit for your rockin’ side? Because a lot of people just know “Whip It” and the synth-driven music.
A: In the beginning, when people saw us, it was very guitar-drums-bass oriented. And it was very rock. And if they saw us, they were amazed and realized, “Oh, my God, these guys can really play rock ‘n’ roll.”
Then — you’re right — it kind of like disappeared as an idea and people don’t know it until they see us.
Q: What did other artists think of Devo when the band first came out? Was there a disparity of opinions?
A: Well, of course there were. We were polarizing. But, you know, as many people who disliked us and dissed us — we didn’t really value their opinions either. It went both ways. It was mutual.
But, obviously, every artist has kind of idols or heroes who they look up to. And what those people thought mattered. Any artist who tells you it doesn’t matter, they are lying.
If David Bowie had dissed us, I would have been devastated. I would have gone home with my tail between my legs.
But he loved us. Brian Eno loved us. Iggy Pop loved us. Neil Young loved us. These were the people — before we ever met them, we respected them and looked up to them and they inspired them. So that mattered. That vindication was a big deal.
Q: I know so many people who have listened to Devo for decades and are still so passionate about the band’s songs and albums. Why do you think the music still matters so much to longtime fans after all these years?
A: There was something about it that was substantive. We were not trendy. We were doing things for about 3-4 years in basements and garages with nobody paying attention — completely isolated, completely unknown. So, we honed our aesthetic and we came out fully formed and just blew people’s minds.
We got tossed in the salad with punk and new wave. But when you listen to Devo music, it’s harder to put your finger on, “Oh, that’s 1979. That’s 1981.” Because there are ideas behind it that have nothing to do with trends. So, it withstands the test of time pretty well.
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