From Rubik's Cube to Roller Coaster: Penny Stamps Speaker Series, Winter 2017

For the last 12 years, Chrisstina Hamilton has been working out a puzzle of sorts for thousands of people to enjoy. As director of visitors' programs for the University of Michigan's STAMPS School of Art & Design, Hamilton organizes the school's popular Penny Stamps Speaker Series.

"It's sort of like this 3-D Rubik's Cube kind of thing when you're trying to put it together, and it's incredibly difficult because you lose pieces here and there," Hamilton said. "People want to line up, and you think, 'We can't have this come after that.' But somehow, miraculously, it ends up all coming together."

The free guest speaker series takes place Thursdays at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre (with a few exceptions) and features artists that represent a spectrum of media, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

The winter 2017 season gets underway this week and follows on a successful fall 2016 run, which included a surprisingly chatty Mark Mothersbaugh (Hamilton had been told the artist, composer, and Devo frontman could be shy in front of crowds, but not so here: "He just told story after story," she said. "We could barely get him off the stage") and the series' first foray into hosting satellite events in neighboring Ypsilanti.

Hamilton said the big challenge every season is making it "incredibly diverse" in terms of mediums people work with and perspectives they offer, as well as gender, and race.

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Roundup: Michigan Theater's Japanese Noir, Ypsi's Grove Studios & MTV Interviews AADL


FAR EAST SHADOWS: The Michigan Theater just announced a new film series: KURO: The Dark Edge of Japanese Filmmaking. Starting January 16 and running through March, every Monday night the movie house will screen a Japanese noir film. The lineup includes:
High and Low (1963) [Jan. 16, 7 p.m.]
Tokyo Drifter (1967) [Jan. 23, 7 p.m.]
Branded to Kill (1967) [Jan. 23, 9:30 p.m.]
Zero Focus (1961) [Jan. 30, 7 p.m.]
A Colt Is My Passport (1967) [Feb. 6, 7 p.m.]
Pigs and Battleships (1967) [Feb. 13, 7 p.m.]
Pale Flower (1964) [Feb. 20, 7 p.m.]
A Fugitive From the Past (1965) [Feb. 27, 7 p.m.]
Dragnet Girl (1933) [March 6, 7 p.m.]
Ichi the Killer (2001) [March 13, 7 p.m.]
The World of Kanako (2014) [date & time TBA]
Plus, there might be a few more films added in the future. While it's always best to see movies on the big screen, don't fret if you can't make every flick; many of these movies are in the library's collection. (➤ Michigan Theater)

BLOOMING GROVE: A new 6,500 square foot rehearsal/artist/performance space is now open in Ypsilanti. Grove Studios (1145 W. Michigan Ave.) aims to be "clean, secure, safe, inspiring, climate-controlled, and convenient," founder Rick Coughlin told Concentrate Ann Arbor. While Coughlin is more focused on Grove being a rented rehearsal space, the venue has already hosted a couple of events since its soft launch in early December. The concert schedule is ramping up, too, thanks to the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Music and Arts Guild, which has booked several concerts at Grove this month {link}, including performances by Gruesome Twosome (Jan. 13), Annie Palmer (Jan. 20), and Doogatron (Jan. 27). (➤ Concentrate Ann Arbor)

SONIC LENDING: MTV's The Stakes podcast interviewed Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor Public Library, about why AADL lends things like synthesizers, effects pedals, drum machines, guitars, amps, and mics (as well as telescopes, metal detectors, dinosaur skulls, and those thingies called "books"). Check out what we have in our Music Tools collection as you listen; the interview starts at the 11:30 mark. (➤ MTV's The Stakes)


Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.


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Ann Arbor District Library 2016 Staff Picks: Books, Movies, Music & More

Ann Arbor District Library 2016 Staff Picks

We don't just lend media; we indulge in it, too!

The Gregorian calendar rules most of the world, but time is a continuum. That's why our 2016 Ann Arbor District Library staff picks for books, music, film, and more include items that go back as far as 1865. Our list is comprised of media (and a few other things) that made an impact on us in 2016, no matter when the material came out.

Libraries have always acted as curation stations, helping sort through the vast amount of media released every year. On our website, we have more than 50 staff-curated lists of recommendations, but we don't just advocate for things digitally. We share our "picks" in person every time you step into the library. Books with prominent positions in our spaces, whether facing forward or on shelf tops, are chosen by staff members because they want you to pick up those pages.

Consider the massive post below featuring 55 books, 25 films and TV shows, and 20 albums -- plus a few odds and ends -- as a continuation of those curated lists, those forward-facing books, and the Ann Arbor District Library’s ongoing mission to bring high-quality art, entertainment, and information into your lives.

So, ready your library cards: Most of the recommendations below are in our collection; just click on the {AADL} link at the end of each pick to be taken to the item's page on our website.

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Say Qua?! New DVD Features the Best Shorts From 2016's Ann Arbor Film Festival


Remember back in October when Saturday Night Live did a parody of the kinds of artfully shot and totally nonsensical movies you often see at film festivals?

SNL called its film qua -- which was being screened at the, ahem, "Ann Arbor Short Film Festival" -- and it had Emily Blunt running through a forest dotted with the number 3 and ended with her being forced to face her own self ... with her own self.

After the screening, the audience bolted to the stage -- since the crowd was made up entirely of the movie's huge cast and crew, save for one unlucky woman who was forced to ask qua's makers multiple questions about their terrible film.

Awkwardness ensued, comedy was had.

Sadly, qua did not make it onto the new DVD featuring 10 highlights from the actual Ann Arbor Film Festival's 2016 expansive short-film program. But this 9th collected edition of the festival’s best works includes films by:

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Michigan Movie at the Michigan: "The Pickle Recipe"

Fermented foods are a form of pickling, but pickles can just be ... pickles, straight up.

See, sauerkraut and yogurt are fermented foods that engage in a form of pickling, with the preservation caused by lactic acid fermentation.

But straight-up pickling is the process in which a vegetable -- in this case, a cucumber -- is preserved by vinegar, an acidic.

In the The Pickle Recipe, a new film set in Detroit, whatever secret ingredients have been added to Grandma Rose's pickling process -- whose dill-icious concoction has had patrons flocking to Irv’s Deli for years -- is the driving force behind Joey Miller’s desperate attempt to steal the recipe from her.

In other words, this ain't no straight-up pickle.

Miller is a DJ/MC for weddings, bat mitzvahs, and any other party that needs its roof blown off. But Miller (played by Jon Dore) is in debt and he loses his only source of income when all his sound and lighting gear gets destroyed by accident. He turns to his sneaky Uncle Morty (David Paymer) for a loan, who agrees to give Miller the dough -- on one condition: That he steal Grandma Rose’s (Lynn Cohen) pickle recipe, a secret creation she’s long sworn to take to her grave.

Hijinks ensue and viewers are treated to comedic caper flick with more than a touch of heart.

Director Michael Manasseri and writers/producers Sheldon Cohn and Gary Wolfson are Michigan natives, and nine of the cast/crew members attended the University of Michigan. The Pickle Recipe is playing at the Michigan Theater through December 22, and we caught up with Manasseri, Cohn, and Wolfson in an email interview, whose questions they answered as a group.

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Preview: December Documentaries


Warren Miller’s Here, There & Everywhere

Warren Miller is Here, There & Everywhere. / Photo by Cam McLeod Photography.

Do you have a God complex? Then documentary filmmaking might not be for you.

“In feature films the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director,” said the deity Alfred Hitchcock.

But the seven documentaries being shown in Ann Arbor this December had directors who put aside any supernatural ambitions they may have to tell real stories.

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Review: Gimme Danger


No Fun at Hill Auditorium

No Fun at Hill Auditorium

When Ann Arbor punk pioneers the Stooges played a tribute show for their deceased guitarist Ron Asheton at the Michigan Theater in 2011, arthouse director Jim Jarmusch was in the house. Having announced that he was beginning work on a documentary about the Stooges just the year before, one might have guessed that the Cuyahoga Falls-born director behind Night On Earth and Broken Flowers was planning to include the Ann Arbor show in his film.

But the amusing stories of Jarmusch's terse interactions with townies are the only real creative legacy the director left behind from his Ann Arbor visit. There's no footage from the Asheton tribute in Gimme Danger, Jarmusch's Stooges documentary, which will open in Detroit on Oct. 28. And in many ways, that's for the best.

Jarmusch was at the Asheton tribute, and presumably has been around for other moments in the lives of Iggy and Co. over the past decade-plus, as a friend and casual observer, not a documentarian. Jarmusch first worked with Iggy Pop, the Stooges' legendary and arrestingly bizarre frontman, on a standout scene from Jarmusch's 2003 narrative film Coffee and Cigarettes. In 2010 Pop personally requested that Jarmusch make a documentary about the band. The resulting film plays not like a staid rock biopic but like an intimate conversation between friends, a fun, loosey-goosey retelling of the tumultuous tale behind one of the most influential bands in rock.

Jarmusch begins the film in 1973 with one of the band's apparent endings. At the time, the Stooges had already released their three seminal albums The Stooges, Fun House, and Raw Power, but as a title card puts it, "They were dirt." Critically maligned and dragged down by Pop's drug abuse and increasingly unmanageable behavior, the band called it quits in 1974. From there, Jarmusch jumps back to the Stooges' childhoods, examining how they got to that low point and how they bounced back in 2003 to begin touring extensively in response to broad recognition from a host of younger artists. The stories, from the tale of Pop calling up Moe Howard to request his permission to use the name "The Stooges" to Pop's explanation of Soupy Sales' influence on his minimalistic lyrics, are outrageous and often hilarious.

Jarmusch's focus is relatively narrow. He interviews almost no one other than Iggy and the Stooges themselves (including Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, who toured with the band throughout the 2000s). The interview settings are almost laughably casual; Pop gives one of his interviews in a laundry room, and he idly plays with his bare feet as he talks. Guitarist James Williamson appears to have given his interview in a public bathroom, guitar in his lap.

The director doesn't attempt to editorialize or add much of his own flair to the material. Compensating for the lack of archival photos or footage of the band, he frequently makes amusing use of period-appropriate stock footage and even a couple of animated sequences to illustrate the Stooges' tales of their misadventures. But overall he seems to revel in the entertainment value of letting the Stooges tell their own stories. When you've got the gaunt, bug-eyed, slightly anxious Pop alongside the gaunt, hood-eyed, utterly deadpan drummer Scott Asheton (now deceased), what better method than to just wind these two characters up and let them go?

The relatively straightforward documentary may seem to fit oddly into the oeuvre of the director who made such visually striking and idiosyncratic films as Mystery Train and Only Lovers Left Alive, but in a way it also occupies its own very singular territory. The tale told here is unlikely to throw Stooges aficionados any new curveballs; Jarmusch himself has noted the difficulty he had finding any new footage of the band to include in the film. And the film's relative modesty (especially given its frequently outrageous subjects) seems unlikely to cause enough of a stir to attract many Stooges newbies to the theater. Like any of Jarmusch's other films, Gimme Danger is perfectly happy being exactly what it wants to be – a thoroughly fun, no-frills, firsthand account of the story behind one of rock's greatest bands – and nothing more.


Patrick Dunn is the interim managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He ain't got time to make no apologies.


Gimme Danger premiered last night, October 25th, with a special screening at the Detroit Film Theater (DFT) featuring Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch. It opens officially Oct. 28 at the Detroit Film Theater, and will expand to a wider release on Nov. 4.

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Preview: Kevin Smokler's "Brat Pack America" book release party with Michigan Theater double feature, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club"


Brat Pack America, by Kevin Smokler

Brat Pack America. // Author Kevin Smokler.

Writer/journalist Kevin Smokler grew up watching ‘80s teen movies in Ann Arbor, and he’ll be doing that again in the coming weeks, since the release of his new book, Brat Pack America: Visiting Cult Movies of the ‘80s, inspired the Michigan Theater’s fall film series, "Kids in America: '80s Teen Classics" which kicks off on Monday, October 10 with a double feature: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at 7 pm and The Breakfast Club at 9:30. Smokler will be in attendance, as will director John Hughes’ son, James Hughes, and both will offer their insights about the films.

“I knew I wanted to write about the movies I grew up with, but I knew I had to find something else to say about them,” said Smokler, a Greenhills School grad who now lives in San Francisco.

As Smokler started revisiting beloved movies from his youth, he noticed that they were consistently set in places that weren’t Los Angeles or New York City, but rather fictional towns like Shermer, Illinois, or the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, or the Midwestern city of Chicago. Locations played a key role in these films, so in addition to talking to actors, writers, and directors, Smokler went on ‘80s teen movie pilgrimages to Goonies Day in Astoria, Oregon, a Lost Boys Tour in Santa Cruz, California and more.

Fittingly, Smokler views the book as a “giant Trapper Keeper of trivia” about these movies, and one of the interviews he most anticipated was with director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless). “She’s responsible for two of the most important teen movies of all time,” said Smokler. “I was pretty worried about what I could ask her without collapsing into a Spicoli/Cher Horowitz quote-a-thon, which I’m sure she’s heard a thousand times and didn’t need me wasting her time with.”

alt text

A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. // Unidentified Peter Gabriel fan.

Of course, watching movies you loved as a kid when you’re an adult can sometimes be a sobering experience, and not everything held up well. “I’d liked Adventures in Babysitting, and that might have been because I had a crush on Elizabeth Shue, or because we would sometimes drive to Chicago for a Blackhawks game, but God, is that an appallingly racist movie,” said Smokler. “ … And The Outsiders is still a good movie. It’s just beneath the skill level of a director like (Francis Ford) Coppola. S.E. Hinton, at 17, somehow wrote a book that’s more cogent and stronger thann Coppola could make it as a movie at 40. I just think the movie coasts on the collective talent of the people who made it.”

Some movies, though, hold up or even improve when viewed from adulthood. For Smokler, this category included Fame and the Matthew Broderick teen tech drama, WarGames. “WarGames is surprisingly sophisticated for what is a political thriller, more in the tradition of The Parallax View,” said Smokler. “It also has a great cast. There’s something special about that, too.”

But you can’t write about ‘80s teen movies without discussing director John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles, The Breakfast Club). “He did not stretch himself much,” said Smokler. “He was a miniaturist of sorts. He was a vertical filmmaker, in that he drilled down on what he did very deeply. … A journalist friend of mine had gone to a gifted and talented school for black teens in Bethesda, and he loved The Breakfast Club, but he was also aware that this was a white person’s fantasy. The same with Star Wars. … The thing that’s so complex about Hughes’ legacy is that he painted with a small palette of colors but his stories registered as universal. It’s both an achievement and troubling at the same time.”

alt text

Abe Froman, sausage king of Chicago.

While working on the book, Smokler watched more than 50 films (about 40 get discussed in Brat Pack America), at the pace of usually 4-5 a week. Once Smokler defined what made something a “teen” movie, he also determined where the film era started (Breaking Away).

Heathers is the movie that literally blows up the genre,” said Smokler. “It’s designed as a satire of the genre, and that how you know that a genre’s time has passed. … Heathers predicts grunge and Quinten Tarantino and feel more ‘90s than it does ‘80s.”

But Smokler believes that the cinematic family line from ‘80s teen movies continues in the form of movie adaptations of John Green’s work (The Fault in our Stars, Paper Towns), The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Superbad, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl and more.

Even so, Smokler’s book invites readers to take another, closer look at the originals, which will be all the easier due to the Michigan Theater’s series, which includes Pretty in Pink, Adventures in Babysitting, The Lost Boys, Say Anything, Back to the Future, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and WarGames.

“I didn’t have as big of an idea as they did,” said Smokler, referring to the Michigan Theater’s staff. “ … I’d dropped Russ (Collins, Michigan Theater executive director and CEO) a note saying, ‘I’ve got a book coming out, and I’m from Ann Arbor.’ And he said, ‘We don’t have an idea yet for a fall film series.’ … At age 7, I sat in that theater’s balcony and watched things like, The Wizard of Oz. It’s the fulfillment of a dream to appear at the Michigan now as a working artist.”


Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.


Michigan Theater’s fall film series, "Kids in America: '80s Teen Classics" runs through December 8.

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Review: Liberty's Secret: The 100% All-American Musical


Liberty's Secret

Cara AnnMarie and Jaclene Wilk do the "Spin Control Tango." // Andy Kirshner at the premiere screening Thursday night. / Photo by Jenn McKee.

"This is like the bar mitzvah I never had," U-M art and music professor Andy Kirshner joked while standing on the Michigan Theater's stage on Thursday evening, hosting the premiere screening of his locally made, original feature film musical, Liberty's Secret.

Indeed, the quip aptly described the event's affectionate, enthusiastic, communal atmosphere. (Kirshner's last words at the mic were, "Could my wife please raise her hand, so I can find my seat?") Approximately a thousand people turned out to see Kirshner's film about an unlikely romance that blooms between a jaded, Jewish Presidential campaign communications manager (Nikki, played by Chelsea native and U-M grad Cara AnnMarie) and a sheltered, small-town pastor's daughter (Liberty, played by Oakland University grad Jaclene Wilk) whose angelic singing voice makes her not just America's viral sweetheart, but the picture of "family values" wholesomeness that Nikki's moderate Republican candidate, Kenny Weston (Williamston Theatre co-founder John Lepard), needs to win.

Clearly, Thursday night's crowd enjoyed playing "spot the local artist": There's U-M professor and theater artist Malcolm Tulip, leading a "gender re-orientation camp" number in the Michigan Union ballroom! There's former Performance Network artistic director and actor David Wolber, playing a security guard that puts the stop on Purple Rose Theatre artist Tom Whalen! There's local actor Rusty Mewha, playing Weston's cynical campaign manager! And in what might have been the most well-received featured appearance, Kirshner himself, wearing a bushy wig, played Rolf Schnitzel (?!), host of the cable news program, The Briefing Room.

Local filming locations included Ann Arbor's Millenium Club, the Vineyard Church, a former restaurant in Ypsilanti, a wedding chapel in Milan and more.

Getting the tone right for satire is often tricky, and Kirshner stumbles occasionally, making Liberty's well-intentioned father and his congregation too cartoonish at times, and painting Weston in broad, George W. Bush-style strokes. He wisely checks this impulse now and then, most notably when Liberty calls out Nikki for looking down her nose at everyone who believes in God. And there are some pretty fun touches, too, like when Weston's debate prep takes place in front of a white board that has mixed-up messages like "It's the stupid economy," and when Liberty's definition of love as self-sacrifice prompts Nikki to reply, "No, that's co-dependency."

Kirshner's original score, while varied and sophisticated, only sometimes sounds like it belongs in the world of musical theater. The most successful number by far is a tap duet between Liberty and Nikki called "Stay on Message," which not only spotlights Debbie Williams' fun choreography, but dissects the doublespeak of political rhetoric, as Nikki instructs Liberty on how to translate terms for the media ("Don't say 'intervention,' say 'keeping peace,'" etc.). In addition, the song goes some distance toward partially filling a larger gap in the narrative, which is: what makes these two very different women fall in love with each other? We're told that they do, but there's little meat on the bones of this particular (and crucial) development.

But these artistic quibbles don't detract from the fabulously fun party that hundreds of locals, students and community members both, attended to collectively celebrate a project that brought them together. The film's two female leads do fine work, and Lepard seems to have the time of his life playing a bumbling politician. Mewha's reaction shots alone earn big laughs, and Alfrelynn J. Roberts, Nikki's colleague and friend, gracefully grounds the story by way of sharing her own past with Liberty's father.

So Liberty's Secret may be destined to be more of a local hit than a national one, but in many ways, it's Kirshner's funny, sweet valentine to the community he calls home; and because of how recently the Supreme Count ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, watching a wedding with two brides - who serenade each other, no less - can be quite moving.

(Liberty's Secret is available for pre-order at http://libertysecret.com, with delivery expected in early November. Shortly thereafter, it will be available on iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other formats.)


Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.


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Interview: Mark Mothersbaugh on Pee-Wee Herman, Thor, and America's ongoing de-evolution

Mark Mothersbaugh and Devo

Devo, with blue hats, 2010. // Solo, no hat, 2016.

Mark Mothersbaugh is best known for his indelible contributions to pop music as the frontman of Devo, but his work with the darkly humorous New Wave group represents just a fraction of his diverse artistic output. Since the late '80s Mothersbaugh has composed music for hundreds of movies, TV shows, video games, and commercials. His visual art includes thousands of pen-and-ink postcard-sized drawings, rugs, sculpture-like musical instruments, and eyeglasses. This broad body of work, including the music and early music videos he created with Devo, is the subject of a new traveling museum exhibit, Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia. The exhibit currently is not scheduled to stop in Ann Arbor, but in a way we'll be getting something even better. Mothersbaugh will appear at the Michigan Theater on September 29 for the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, engaging in conversation with Adam Lerner, who curated the Myopia exhibit and wrote the accompanying book.

In advance of his Ann Arbor appearance, Mothersbaugh chatted with Pulp about maintaining a sense of subversiveness despite corporate interference, his enduring friendship with Pee-Wee Herman creator Paul Reubens, and Todd Rundgren's enviable fashion sense.

Q: You'll be in conversation here at the University of Michigan with Adam Lerner, who curated the new retrospective exhibition of your work and edited the accompanying book. As you've had these opportunities to look back on your work recently, have you had any new realizations about your evolution as an artist over time?

A: [Laughs.] You know, yeah. You do pick up information along the way of being a human, I've found. To me, when I walk through the show ... it's kind of interesting to see what things are the same and what things never change. When I look back at the arc of all my visual art, I can say, "Well, in a way it's permutations on a theme." It really goes back to when I was at school at Kent State. I hated public school. The first 12 years of my life in school were horrid. I was at odds with other students, with the teachers, with everybody. It was just totally unpleasant and I almost ended up at Kent State on a fluke, but it turned out to change my life in a lot of ways. I gained a respect for education, among other things, and I just loved having access to tools that I never had access to before ... There was very limited art teaching in public schools in the '50s and '60s, so it was kind of this amazing world that got opened up to me when I all of a sudden found out about all the things you could do, all the empowerment that came with being in college. I loved it.

But at that time period, I was there for the shooting of the students at Kent State. We had all joined [Students for a Democratic Society] and we were going to help end the war in Vietnam and then things took a dark turn. ... That was in my sophomore year, and [I was] questioning that. I was collaborating for about a year before that with a grad student that was an artist at Kent State named Jerry Casale. Questioning what we'd seen, we decided that what we'd seen was de-evolution, not evolution. I understand that there's different ways for artists to evolve and mature and to fall apart or to build. I think in my case, I think my life as an artist has always been kind of seen through the eyes of someone that was always kind of hopeful, but paranoid at the same time. Or worried about it. Hopeful, but concerned. We saw de-evolution as a vehicle to talk about the things that we were concerned about on the planet, and I feel like my work has been sort of permutations on that theme.

Even kind of shifting into the belly of the beast and moving into Hollywood and scoring films and television, between Devo kind of slowing down at the end of the '80s, I started doing gallery shows. I did about 125 or 140 shows at mostly smaller pop-up galleries and street galleries, just because being in Hollywood made me distrustful of organized entertainment, so to speak. I've found all the smaller galleries to be, a high percentage of them, filled with authentic people that loved and were concerned about art and reminded me of what it was like to be in Devo when we were starting it. We thought we were doing an art movement. We thought we were doing Art Devo. We were like an agitprop group who worked in all the different mediums and were spreading the good news of de-evolution around the world. That was our original goal.

When we signed with Warner Bros. and Virgin Records, they kind of did as best a job as they could of shoving us into a little box that they could understand. ... Even in the late '70s, it was a struggle to convince them to let us make our short films. They had no idea why we wanted to make films with our songs. There were so many things that were a struggle that were needless. As Jerry would say, we were the pioneers who got scalped. But it was like the early days of people recognizing artists that put ideas in front of the actual techniques that they used. A technique was just a vehicle to help you solve a problem or create a piece of art. Being a craftsman was less necessary than ever before in our culture.

Now it's totally amazing how far it's gone. Kids that have ideas now about art, they don't have the barriers that we had or I had. The Internet is such an amazing, wonderful gift and tool for kids. I'm so jealous I'm not 14 right now. I watch my kids – they're 12 and 15, and I watched them make little movies on an iPad when they were even younger. It's totally transparent to them and they're laughing and running around the house. They're making a movie like a little kid would make, but they don't even know that 30 years ago – was it 30? '76, that's like, what, 40 years? Jesus. Forty years ago. It took a year of work first to make the money to pay for $3,000 worth of material and then to find time in editing bays where we could go in and make our seven-and-a-half minute film. And it's not just my kids. It's all over the world. Cell phones and iPads, things like that, are so inexpensive now that you see kids in the Amazon playing with this stuff, taking pictures of things around them and making music on iPhones. You not only don't have to own a guitar or a piano or a set of drums. You don't even have to know how to play it. My kids found this app where they could play drums by just making drum sounds into their phone and it would translate that into one of 30 different drum kits. ... Art has become so democratic. On some levels it's astounding. Anyhow, I don't know how I got to that after you were asking me about my art, but there you go. That's the danger of talking to me after a cup of coffee.

Mark Mothersbaugh

Mark Mothersbaugh, 1964 –Monument to the Conquerors of Space, 2012, ink jet on paper.

Q: That's okay. It was an interesting answer. I want to ask you a little bit more about the concept of de-evolution, since that was of course so important to the formation of Devo. How has that concept played out for you as time has gone along? Do you see de-evolution continuing to play out? Is that concept still as relevant to you as when you were younger back in the '70s?

A: I think all you have to do is look at this current election season in the U.S. It's like Idiocracy has arrived, for real. It's not even ironic or funny anymore. It's reality. It's kind of impressive and depressive at the same time, because we were never in support of things falling apart or the stupidity of man getting the upper hand. We just felt like, if you knew about it and recognized it, you could be proactive and change your mutations carefully, choose them on purpose instead of just letting them be pushed on you and accepting them.

Q: I want to ask you about a couple of more recent projects. You most recently scored the new Pee-Wee Herman movie. Did Paul Reubens bring you back in on that project personally, and did you guys remain in touch in the decades since you worked on Pee-Wee's Playhouse?

A: It's kind of funny. ... Right when he was first creating the Pee-Wee Herman character, we'd already met. This was '70 – I don't know what, '70-something – and my girlfriend at the time, her parents, her mom was instrumental in starting a comedy group out in Los Angeles called the Groundlings. Her name was Laraine Newman. She was one of the original cast members for Saturday Night Live. She would take me to the Groundlings and I saw Paul while he was working on developing this character. We kind of knew each other and he had asked me to do his first movie, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but I was so deep into Devo and we were touring. I didn't do Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but he called me up after that and said, "Well, okay, how about now? Would you do my TV show?" It just happened to be that Devo had signed a bad record deal with a record company that was going bankrupt. We were just like rats on the Titanic, along with about 20 other bands that were just sitting on the bow. It seemed like the perfect time to work on a TV show.

I'd been in this situation where I was writing 12 songs, rehearsing them, then go record them, then make a film for one or two of the songs and design a live touring show, and then we'd go out on tour and a year later we'd come back and write 12 more songs. When I started doing Pee-Wee's Playhouse they would send me a three-quarter-inch tape on Monday. Tuesday I'd write 12 songs. Wednesday I'd record them. Thursday I'd put it in the mail and send it to New York, where they were editing the show. Friday they would cut it into the episode of Pee-Wee's Playhouse for that week. Saturday we'd all watch it on TV. Monday they'd send me a new tape and I'd do the process over again. I was like, "Sign me up for this! I love the idea of getting to create more and write more music as opposed to spending all my time sitting around in airports waiting to get to the next venue."

So now, all these years later, [Reubens and I] have stayed friends. He's probably the only guy – other than my mom and dad, who are both passed away now – but he was the only other person who remembered every one of my birthdays and sent me something. That was kind of nice, even if we didn't see each other all the time. So we stayed friends and when this came up, it was kind of like coming around full circle to get to work with him again. I ended up recording the London Philharmonic in Abbey Road, which has kind of turned out to be one of my favorite studios. I've done maybe a dozen movies or so there. And I don't know if you saw the movie or not, but he does a pretty good job of looking like Pee-Wee did 40 years ago.

Q: He does, yeah. It's surprising. You're also scoring the upcoming Thor sequel. How did you get involved on that project and how much work have you done on it so far?

A: That's an odd one for me to talk about, and the reason is because I just happened to casually mention it in Akron. I was reminded that I had signed an NDA, a non-disclosure agreement, with Marvel, and most of the time what people are concerned about is they don't want you to give away the plot of the film. They don't want you to give away any spoilers or tell them any of the details of the movie before it comes out. Well, Marvel quickly picked up on that I had mentioned I was working with Taika Waititi, who is the director. I happen to really like his work. Somebody asked me if it was Thor and I said yes, and they reminded me that I'm not allowed to talk about the movie. So I either am or I am not working on a movie with this guy. He had a lot to do with attracting me to the project just because his movies are super-creative. I really liked his new movie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Musically, it's really creative. That's what really caught my interest.

Q: You've done so many different scores over the years, and you mentioned how much you enjoyed that way of working. What appeals to you about that kind of work? How much creative limitation do you feel that kind of work imposes on you and how do you respond to that limitation?

A: Much less than when you're in a band. The first couple albums with Virgin and Warners were great. They signed us just because they wanted the bragging rights of, "Brian Eno paid for this record to be recorded. David Bowie hung out with them in Germany the whole time they were recording it." [Bowie] had called us "the band of the future" in Melody Maker back before we had released anything, just based on tapes we had managed to get backstage to him while he was playing keyboards for Iggy on a tour back in '77 or '76. Where was I going with this story?

Q: I was asking you about creative limitations.

A: Yeah, the first couple albums they left us alone. Then we unfortunately had a radio hit and Warners then looked at us as gold. They had made a bunch of money off of us and then they started showing up at our rehearsals and our recording sessions. We'd be working on something and then some guy would pop up with a mullet and go, "Hey, do anything you want on this record, you guys. Feel free to do whatever you want. Just make sure you put another 'Whip It' in there!" And it changed our whole relationship with the recording industry, because where we enjoying being slightly anonymous and our feeling was that we were able to be kind of subversive, all of a sudden we had all this pressure and people commenting on our choices.

On that album that they were coming to listen to, we had done a cover version of "Working in a Coal Mine" and they fought to take it off the record. The record company pushed it off of our album. So we gave it to some movie called Heavy Metal, because we thought, "Oh, we're going to get a free ride with all these heavy metal bands when they put out their album. Our little weirdo song will get a free ride with Van Halen." We thought that was funny. Then that turned out to be the song that went into the top 20, so we pulled all these lame heavy metal songs along for a ride, which the joke was kind of on us. Then Warner Brothers panicked because right as they were about to release our new album, we had a record that was in the charts playing. They freaked out. They pressed singles with "Working in a Coal Mine" on it and stuck them inside the album as an afterthought. They just did the most nincompoop things.

So working in film and TV, you're much more anonymous as a composer. There's not a magnifying glass on you and you have so much more freedom. Pop music back then is the same as it is today. From song to song the variation is very small. It's like the fashion industry. There's like 50 pairs of the same jeans coming out from different manufacturers. The label's a little different, and some of them have a stitching thing where they put a loop in them, and then somebody else has one button that shows at the top of the pants, and then somebody else has a pocket that zips shut or something. But they're all exactly the same. It's all the same stuff. Pop music is like that to me and still is. So when I went into working on Pee-Wee's show, it was a whole different world. I could do punk hoedown music on one episode. I could do South Sea Islands goes into Ethel Merman with Spike Jones stylings in it for the theme song for the show. It was all wide open and I loved that so much, coming into this world now where you have such a wide palette. In so many ways it's superior. For me, I always had two brothers and two sisters, and Devo had two sets of brothers. So the idea of collaboration was always a part of my art aesthetic. I always liked to have people to collaborate with. So having a director that has ideas, and he tells you what he's trying to do with his film and you help him see that finally or you help him hear it, is very satisfying to me.

Q: You mentioned the broad range of creativity you were able to express through something like Pee-Wee's Playhouse. How do you manage to still express that broad range of creativity, or express that subversive element you mentioned earlier on with Devo, in some of the more conventional movies you've done, say a Last Vegas or something like that?

A: There's really super-literal ways to do that, if you have something you want to say or you want to talk about. Subliminal messages are so easy and nobody pays attention to them. [Laughs.] It's really funny. I remember the first time I was doing a Hawaiian Punch commercial. It was my first commercial and I was kind of not sure how I felt about doing TV commercials, but I liked the idea of being in that arena. It needed a drumbeat and I put, "Choose your mutations carefully." [Imitates drumbeat.] Bum-buh-buh-bum, bum-buh-buh-bum. And Bob Casale was my longtime engineer and coproducer on all this stuff. I remember we were in a meeting with Daley and Associates, the ad agency that was representing the commercial. We played the song and in this room I'm hearing, "Choose your mutations carefully." I'm looking at a guy over there tapping his pen on the table and as soon as the commercial ends I turn bright red and Bob Casale looks at me like he wants to kill me, like we're going to be in so much trouble. And the guy is tapping his pen and as soon as this commercial ends he goes, "Yeah, Hawaiian Punch does hit you in all the right places!" He just shouts out the main line from the narrator at the very end. We just look at each other and I'm like, "It's that easy?" We did it for years and then I got caught by a picture editor who said, "I know what you did." He called me out. He said, "I know what you're doing. You should take that out." I think I put "Question authority" in something like a lottery commercial or something, so this guy made me take it out. But the ad agencies never called me on it. And I even talked about it in articles before, and I still get hired by ad agencies to do commercial music. So they must not really care.

Q: So you haven't stopped that practice then?

A: Well, it depends. You have to have a reason to do it. Usually the more sugar that's in something, the better the chance that I'm going to say "Question authority" or "Sugar is bad for you." That's one I've done a couple of times. It's easy to do. They're easy to find, too. You can find them if you know which commercials you're looking for. You can look them up. And you hear it, too. Once you know that it's there, then you hear it. If you don't know it's there, your mind doesn't want to make it happen. It just goes in there like malware. What's the opposite of malware? What if it's there to help you out? I guess that's an antibiotic. It's like a covert antibiotic.

Q: A probiotic?

A: Yeah, probiotic. That's it! It's a probiotic.

Q: You certainly have plenty of non-Devo work going on and have for a long time, but Devo also still gets out there and tours from time to time. How do you feel about the band's role in your life these days?

A: I only have one really big problem with the band, and that is that we still play as loud as we did when we were onstage in Central Park or at Max's Kansas City or whatever that place was that we played in Ann Arbor. I think it was a bowling alley. I can't remember. It was some stage where it had a proscenium around it that looked like a TV screen. ... What I remember about that night also ... is that Todd Rundgren had shown up to see the band and he had a suit made out of tan oilcloth plastic. I was like, "How did he get that done? That is so awesome!" I remember being so jealous of this suit that Todd Rundgren was wearing. While we were talking I just kept staring at his suit the whole time and then looking around to see if I could tell if it was possibly a commercially made thing, which it wasn't, I'm sure, in retrospect. But it was the first time I'd seen a tailored suit made out of plastic. [Mothersbaugh likely recalls Devo's 1978 show at the Punch and Judy Theater in Grosse Pointe Farms in 1978, which coincided with a Rundgren show in Royal Oak.]

Q: You were saying, then, that today your only problem with the band is that you play as loud as you did back in the day?

A: Yeah, we play so loud and I have tinnitus. It's hard for me to go play 10 shows in a row with Devo and then go back to my studio and try to listen to the woodwinds from an orchestra. It takes me like a week or so for it to calm down enough that I can go back to work. It's not worth the tradeoff for me to go deaf just so I can play 50 more Devo shows, to be honest with you. We'll do one here and there. We did a benefit earlier this year. Will Ferrell talked us into it. It was like the worst thing for me because I'm standing onstage and they're wheeling all these drummers out onstage. Part of the thing was a joke that they had 12 drummers all at once, so not only did they have my drummer, but Mick Fleetwood was onstage and Tommy Lee was onstage. They were all playing simultaneously, like a dozen drummers, the Chili Peppers drummer and all these. I'm standing there going, "This is the worst thing that could have possibly happened." I went home from that and it was like gongs were going off in my head. So that's the thing that makes Devo where I have to draw a line. I can't do a big tour again.

Q: So if you're going to be onstage these days you'd rather be doing something like you will be here in Ann Arbor, where you're just having a quiet conversation onstage.

A: Preferably. Yeah. That's totally different. And all I ask is that people in the audience ask questions. Speak clearly.


Patrick Dunn is the interim managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He exercised considerable restraint in asking Mark Mothersbaugh about anything other than Pee-Wee Herman.


Mark Mothersbaugh will appear at the Penny Stamps Speaker Series Event, presented by the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty, on Thursday, September 29 at 5:10 pm. Free of charge and open to the public.

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