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.