Gerry Casale (DEVO)
by Tim “Napalm” Stegall
September 01, 2010
Gerald V. Casale has been “Chief Strategist” (as well as bass player, bass synthesist, vocalist and video director) for subversive American new wave pranksters Devo since their beginnings in the early '70s . He co-founded the band with singer/keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh when both were art students at Kent State University. Few realize that much of the conceptual and philosophical thrust behind Devo is Casale's. Casale spoke by telephone with RocknRollDating about how de-evolution actually happened, the band's roots in Sixties political activism and art pranksterism, how the Kent State shootings catalyzed Devo into existence, examples of Devo's influence on modern culture, and how Devo learned to relax and go corporate, too.
I have to say, there was a time when I couldn't listen to Devo. Growing up punk rock in America, it was not uncommon for pickup trucks to pull close to me when I was a teen, with someone yelling, “HEY, DEVO!” As a preface to getting beaten up, of course.
We hear that a lot. It was a polarizing aesthetic. It's like you knew what side of the line you were on, if you liked Devo.
Absolutely. And I think all the greatest artists in history had that effect on people, if you look back. Look at what happened, for example, when Bob Dylan went electric.
I remember that.
I'm sure you do. Definitely, you guys had a similar effect on people, and those are the sorts of things I want to address with you. I know you've talked about this before, but it is very timely that you guys are coming back, as it's very apparent to those of us who understand this that de-evolution, in fact, DID happen!
Yeah, it occurred, alright!
I was telling the girl from Warner Brothers that I had hoped I would find a news item where Rand Paul or Sarah Palin had said something, so we'd have a concrete example to talk about! (laughter)
Well, it's true. We love The Onion, as I'm sure you do. And you'll notice that if you go on-line to CNN.com, or Fox News.com and look at their bullet point headlines, it reads like The Onion. It gets closer and closer, so there's no difference! (laughter)
I actually saw a good example of this in The Onion just yesterday. I grew up in Texas, and there was an item about Texas building a wall to keep the rest of America out! (Gerry laughs) And some of the quotes they had from Texans sounded like real attitudes of real Texans! I was thinking, “This isn't a parody! This is like Idiocracy – this is a documentary!”
I think Mike Judge and I are roughly the same age. So, we're both a part of that generation that grew up on you guys and were informed by your ideas.
(chuckles) Well, Idiocracy nails it.
The great thing about you guys was the humor. Bands like The Clash were coming at you from the angle of, “Wake up! Something is going on here!” But you guys said the same things in a humorous fashion.
Yeah. Well, the difference between growing up in England and growing up in America, we couldn't have been like The Clash. We loved The Clash. But yeah, there was more of a class consciousness in England, and here in America, there's this illusion that there is no class. That's the propaganda. So, we didn't feel we could approach it the same way. We had to use humor.
And I know one of the things that you have talked about frequently and which is mentioned in almost any story on Devo is how the Kent State incident was one of the key factors in Devo's genesis. You and Mark, at the least, were attending college there and you may have known some of the people shot that day.
Yeah, I was a full-time student and I was an active member of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). I knew Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, and they were two of the four students who were murdered.
I know that, that was the factor that caused something to snap in your head as well as in Mark's head and think, “Fuck this!” (Gerry chuckles) I know that it got a little more serious for you perhaps. You had the concept of de-evolution, mostly as a prank. You always had that element of prankster-ism, but suddenly, this became real.
Yeah, Devo started as a visual art idea, Art Devo. And there was an element of satire/prank in it. Then we applied it to music and got much more serious about it.
What I wanted to amplify upon is that some other key figures of what came to be known as the “new wave” were touched by Kent State, as well. Chrissie Hynde has spoken of witnessing it and knowing people who were killed that day. Ric Ocasek was also apparently present. It's intriguing to think that much of the intellectual side of the new wave would have been catalyzed by Kent State.
Or traumatized and terrorized by it. (laughs) That's what it was: When you find out they can shoot on our people and get away with it. Not only that, but they can control the writing of history so that they can turn it around and make the students the bad guys.
Well, that was the dark side of the '60s revolution to begin with. A lot of wonderful, progressive things happened. But I think a lot of the roots of what is happening today are also in the '60s, as far as the rise of an ugly and very powerful right wing in this country.
Right. We saw it then, and that was what the activist groups were trying to warn about: About the centralization of government, the kind of corporate take-over where it usurps democracy where it favors corporate capitalism, and where the military is its own power. The shadow government, the military, the CIA: It all happened. (Gerry chuckles, ruefully) The military tells the President what to do, basically.
Indeed. Even though I know you guys campaigned for Obama, as well.
Well, we played a fund-raiser because it clearly....If there was anything left to destroy after eight years of Bush, McCain was clearly going to take care of that. McCain/Palin was just an untenable idea. So it was something that didn't need to happen, so it was a question of helping out the lesser of two evils, basically.
How do you feel so far about what you have seen in the President's two years in office?
Well, I'm not surprised by anything, first of all. The President of America can only be a song-and-dance man for the corporations. Obama being articulate and intelligent was the right antidote for Bush, and he can put a happy face on the dire news. His whole message of “hope” with a Shepard Fairey poster that looks like a Communist Russia '40s-era propaganda poster? (laughter) The irony of that was not lost on us. It worked! What has he been able to do? Basically, nothing that he wanted to do. We found out that Wall Street really does run things, and they can be as irresponsible as they want and demand bail-outs! (laughs) What was he supposed to do? As soon as he said he wanted out of Afghanistan early on, the military leaked information to embarrass him and set him straight there. Basically, they said, “No, no! Don't think you'll really be able to do any of those things you campaigned on!” (laughs) It's like Network, where Ned Beatty gets Peter Finch in that room and sets him straight about how things really work. (laughs) Basically, Obama would be dead if he was not playing ball. That's basically how it works.
Well, do you recall that great Bill Hicks routine about what happens to every man elected President?
No! What did Bill Hicks say?
He suspected that everybody that's ever elected President gets called into a dark and smoky room where the head of every major corporation and the military is in there, smoking cigars. They tell the guy to sit down. A screen lowers from the ceiling, and they watch footage of the JFK assassination from an angle no one has ever seen before! (Gerry laughs) The lights go up and they ask the President, “Any questions?” “Um, yeah! What do you want me to do first?” (big laughs)
Yeah, that's kind of how it is. That's an artsy, more dramatic version of what really goes on! (major laughs)
I was listening to the new album this morning, and it sounds like a classic Devo album. It's of a piece with anything you did in the late '70s and early '80s. Now and again, you maybe hear an upgraded guitar tone. (Gerry laughs) But it sounds like a proper Devo record, which is perfect. What strikes me is the whole sense of humor thing we touched upon even extends musically. There have been times where I listen to Devo records, and I'll hear some off-center hook or part that makes me think, “These guys did this to crack each other up, didn't they?”
Yeah, there's some of that. There's definitely some of that.
Almost like a Spike Jones thing or something like that. (big laughs)
I know that part of the game plan with this record was that Devo is doing the corporate America thing and actually having focus groups, to determine what would be on the album and how you would actually present yourselves. (Tim laughs)
Yeah, we actually hired an ad agency and used all their techniques, on purpose. In other words, that was The Art of Devo NOW: To actually ape modern corporate business practices of marketing content
And the focus groups actually helped you narrow down what songs would be on the album, right?
That must mean there was a ton of material recorded and there's stuff that's left off, correct?
Yeah! As a matter of fact, we're taking what we call “demos” - because they never reached beyond the first phase where you present a song – and there's about 14 or 15 of those unreleased that we're now remixing. We intend to release all the material the focus groups put the thumbs down on. That way everyone can hear it. There's a whole other long CD's worth of stuff in the can.
Interestingly, in the time between the last Devo album and this one, you guys became part of the process without really being part of it: You've produced music for commercials and directed rock videos, Mark has certainly done a lot of soundtrack work.
Right. We all work on Maggie's Farm! (laughs) There's no other farm, and we all accept that we are all Devo. So we included ourselves: We know we couldn't escape it.
That continues apace. One of the most interesting things you did a few years back was teaming up with Disney and doing a children's version of Devo (Devo 2.0).
Yeah. It was their idea! And we thought it was so potentially subversive: The thought of 4-year-olds doing Devo! I just wish they had promoted it better. I wish it had been as big as High School Musical. Then you'd have something!
Continuing to subvert the youth! Now you guys certainly are not as young as you were in the day. How do you see that this colors what you do with Devo today?
I'm not sure how it does. We're physically older, but mentally, we're probably still right where we were! (laughs) And we hopefully still have some sense of humor left! (laughs)
Speaking of youth subversion, I don't see in a lot of young bands anyone that's calling out The Establishment, as was done with punk rock or with the student radicals of the '60s, or done in the smart-alecky fashion of Devo. I mean, what the hell's going on here?
Well, you just have a bunch of morons now, and it wouldn't occur to anybody (chuckles).
Do you think they are so conditioned that it's just not something that's a priority to them?
I think it's not even a concept. In other words, no one is even in a mode where they're analyzing what's wrong and are able to put a finger on it. Everybody just wants in. That's the whole point: Everybody just wants in. There's just one great big corporate soup. Haven't you noticed how the most poor and disfranchised people in America are the most obsessed with wearing corporate logos and getting special edition Nike shoes with Michael Jordan's name on them and so on? They spend their last $200 on some special edition jacket (laughing) with a logo blazing on it! It's incredible! They're not getting paid, but they're paying! And they're walking advertisements!
When I lived in New York in the early '00s, I was on the subway one day and saw this clearly homeless guy: Filthy, stinking to high heaven, drunk at noon. And he was wearing a nasty, threadbare Sean John tracksuit he had clearly fished out of the garbage! Even the homeless are label conscious!
Ah! But see, if they got a well-known fashion photographer to photograph him, everyone would think it's cool! (laughs)
Which sounds a lot like that William Burroughs bit, which I believe is in The Naked Lunch, where he describes a future where rich men have custom tailored clothing designed to look like a homeless man's rags, right down to using gold thread to replicate urine stains. So, is there any possibility that the de-evolution can be reversed?
Ha! Well, it doesn't work like that! It doesn't work like that. It's more like it keeps going, and morphs into something else. What that something else will be? I only wish I could see. I cannot see it. One thing is that we're doing ourselves in. The plight of the human species on this planet will keep getting worse and worse. But like Burroughs said, we're the virus. Once this planet gets rid of the human virus, it will be beautiful again!
It must create a very sour chuckle within you to be so prophetic and see this come true.
It certainly went beyond our wildest paranoia.