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|Q: What do Rugrats, Pee-Wee Herman, and Wes Anderson have in common?
A: We are Devo!
From his start as a founding member of Devo, Mothersbaugh has become one of Hollywood's leading music men.
ANDY: What did you work on today?
MARK: The sound of brain cells frying. For a super-low-budget film called Thirteen.
ANDY: Wow. What does that sound like?
MARK: All the things that might clutter a thirteen-year-old's brain. If you slowed it down you'd recognize some of the source material, everything from bacon frying, to bratty kids whining, to bad TV commercials.
ANDY: You started with Devo, then moved onto doing music for commercials, PeeWee's Playhouse on TV, and films for Wes Anderson. Do you try to differentiate between commerce and art?
MARK: Even during Devo's earliest stages, we wanted to blur those borders. When we worked on our album, Little Rascals, we manufactured our own yellow suits that we advertised on the album cover. We treated the record jacket like the back of a cereal box. Our manager, who was also managing Neil Young, told us, "Neil said it wasn't cool that you guys were merchandising buttons and t-shirts and plastic suits on your album cover." [laughs]
ANDY: Wow. Are any of those products still available?
MARK: We actually sell them at Clubdevo.com. There's always a wave of orders about two weeks before Halloween.
ANDY: I used to be an advertising copywriter before my wife, Kate, and I started our company. So I thought I'd ask you how you would compare writing music for commercials and making music in a band.
MARK: What's nice is that it is so different. Advertising is great because they have big budgets and you're in and out really fast. It's a good place to experiment commercials are actually a little bit cutting edge. And it's not like you have to live with them forever. When we did a Devo album, we would write the songs and record them, then we'd make films to go with the album, and we'd do a tour. It would be a year or so before we were able to move on to the next project.
ANDY: I find it surprising that artists still don't want to admit they do commercial projects.
MARK: It takes a masterful artist to have his art embraced by popular culture and not turn to shit. You have to be really clever or really subversive. Target used the Devo song "Beautiful World" in a commercial last Christmas. That was one of my favorite moments for us as a band, even though they didn't include the punch line of the song, which is, "It's a beautiful world for you, for you, but not for me." That song was basically a diatribe against mindless consumerism. It's very ironic but also very satisfying that they'd use it.
ANDY: When you started Devo in 1972 did you consider what the band might mean twenty or thirty years later?
MARK: No. We were just trying to survive in Ohio. None of us liked to bowl, and we couldn't afford drugs. There was nothing for us to do in Akron, so we had to entertain ourselves. We did it by reading the newspaper and writing songs.
ANDY: I would assume that was an advantage. When you came to New York, you were fresh. You didn't know it then, but you were existing on your own planet.
MARK: Yeah, it was like getting out of prison or something. To our benefit, we stayed in Ohio, festering and incubating for a long time until finally, like a boil, we burst. We got in a car, drove to New York City, parked in front of Max's Kansas City, and played some shows. I think people were amused.
ANDY: Did you attract an immediate following?
MARK: Most of the other bands, like Talking Heads and Richard Hell, were still swapping band members at that time. Everybody watched Talking Heads turn into Talking Heads. With Devo, we came out of nowhere, and people were like, "What the hell was that?"
ANDY: It's incredible how many instruments you play. Is that your passion?
MARK: I'm a jack-of-all-instruments, as opposed to a master of any of them. There are so many great players in LA if you want somebody who plays a bouzouki or an oud, it's no problem. You can get people to sing Persian-Texas polkas if you want. So when it comes to the really fine playing, I don't do it myself. But I love to play noodley stuff and the simpler parts. We've got a pretty big collection of instruments here.
ANDY: Is there one in particular that you really love?
MARK: In the last couple of months I've been addicted to those old home organs from the '70s. You hit one button and the bass starts playing a progression, and the drumbeats are built in. It sounds like The Lawrence Welk Show it's so uncool, it's cool.
ANDY: You seem like you'd be really into the hold music for your office phone.
MARK: Yeah. I change it every day or so. Sometimes it's music that people send in. Sometimes it's the things that we just did that day. Outtakes from The Royal Tenenbaums turned up a lot on the hold machine. Whenever I work with Wes Anderson I end up writing enough music for two or three movies, so I always have lots left over.
ANDY: You've scored all three of his films. How do you two work together?
MARK: Wes is the most hands-on of all the directors I've met, across every area of his films. He sat in the studio with me while I scored The Royal Tenenbaums, and when he wasn't with me, he was designing the poster for the movie. He and his brother did the drawings for the set decoration for the film. He's pretty meticulous.
ANDY: The music in his films is always an integral part of his vision. I'm thinking of Creation in Rushmore or Elliott Smith in The Royal Tenenbaums.
MARK: A lot of it has to do with the fact that he is his own man, and has control over his movies. Wes takes his projects to the studio, as opposed to a lot of directors who are hired by the studios and can never separate themselves from the bean counters who usually end up having a tremendous impact on the movie that you see in theaters.
ANDY: Do you start writing the music early on in the process?
MARK: When I came on board Wes's first movie, Bottle Rocket, everything had already been finished except for the score. For Rushmore, I sent Wes musical sketches as soon as he sent me a script. I sent him music for Tenenbaums based on discussions we'd had about French Impressionist music, which he was listening to during the shooting and editing.
ANDY: Are you working on his next film?
MARK: Wes just told me some of his ideas and asked me to do some musical sketches. I was starting to work on it and I said, "Can you send me a script?" He said, "I'd love to as soon as I get something written." He's now pretty close to having a draft done, but we've already been exchanging music and musical ideas. We're talking about going to Europe for this one, so I might set up shop over there for a while.
ANDY: It sounds like the music is important to him from the beginning.
MARK: Wes is very interested in the music-making process. Some people say they are, and then they really aren't. They've just directed this movie and they're like, "Oh my god, I want to think about something else, here's a directive, I'm leaving."
ANDY: Your first television project was Pee-wee's Playhouse in 1986.
MARK: Yeah. I was nervous because I didn't go to music school but it was about as easy and pleasant an introduction to the world of scoring television as you could get. Paul Reubens and the director, Steve Johnson, were on the East coast shooting the episodes, and I was on the West coast. I never even saw them. They would send me a tape on a Monday, and then we'd talk for a few minutes on the phone. I'd have the music done by Thursday. And the show aired on Saturday.
ANDY: Do you find that you miss that formal training?
MARK: For a long time I was really thrown for a loop. But I slowly taught myself to be a competent reader and to orchestrate. I've now done films with one-hundred-and-ten-piece orchestras.
MARK: That must be complicated to engineer.
ANDY: I feel much safer with twelve people or less. When there's a hundred people out there staring at you, and every one of them is better at their instrument than you'll every be, that's intimidating. I'm really good with quartets because I grew up playing with four people at a time. That's a really easy universe to control.
ANDY: There's a rumor going around that you like to slip subliminal messages into the music you make for Rugrats and your other projects.
MARK: I used to do it on a few commercials, but never for Rugrats. It was kind of fun at one time. I could put messages that appealed to me into these commercials.
ANDY: Like what?
MARK: "Choose your mutations carefully," "Question authority," or "We're all Devo." Sometimes if I tasted the product and didn't like it, I'd do, "Sugar is bad for you." Nothing damaging. But after a while I lost interest. It was too easy, and I felt bad tricking my clients.
ANDY: How did you come up with that?
MARK: What made me think of the idea was something that happened to Devo back in 1976, when we made our first film, The Truth About De-evolution. We didn't have anywhere to show it, so we'd just project it on a sheet hanging on a van in front of CBGBs. After we'd shown it one time, this guy came up to us really pissed off. He was like, "I know what you're doing. I saw the words 'submit' and 'obey' flash by." And we're like, "Really?" So we watched the film all night trying to figure out what he thought said "submit" and "obey." And we ended up liking the idea.
ANDY: You had such a tight group of supporters and collaborators in Ohio when you first started out.
MARK: They could fit in one car, that group. When I go back to Ohio to visit my family now, invariably we run into all these people who claim they saw our band back in the old days. If they had all really been at those clubs, we would never have left Ohio.