Interviews

Devo’s Jerry Casale on Johnny Rotten, Being the “New Wave Grateful Dead” + More

Photo: Jules Bates

Punk multidisciplinary artist Devo, through trial and error, have suffered and survived through every imaginable platform.

Devo has pioneered in a variety of mediums, multimedia performance art, music videos, 3-D concerts, John Belushi stealing their cocaine and manufacturing the world's first drum machine. This isn't an exaggerated hyperbole, the receipts are there. Fascism begat Devo’s history, Jerry Casale, at the time was a student organizing with Students for a Democratic Society against the Vietnam War, Casale bared witnessed to the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970. The National Guard gunned down the student uprising, killing four students and injuring nine. Casale knew two of the slain students, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller.

For the next year-and-a-half, Casale channeled grief into a project, conceived the concept, Devolution: Western Society falling apart rather than progressing. It was then Casale met Mark Mothersbaugh who was a part time student taking art classes at Kent State. The two wanted to create an art movement, elevating their concept from performance art into music. Starting with abbreviating Devolution — it was Devo from there on out.

Then in 1977, after playing gigs at CBGB’s, Max's Kansas City, the Starwood, and Whisky a Go Go, Iggy Pop, gave their tape to Neil Young, who then gave their tape to David Bowie, who brought Devo in touch with Brian Eno, who then produced their debut classic, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, later in 1978.

I interviewed Jerry Casale earlier this summer after their 4-year hiatus for Burger Boogaloo, but I hit a snag. With the controversy surrounding Burger Boogaloo of Mosswood Park homeless displacement and I was unsatisfied when the result of the final result edits of that piece. With a release of DEVO: The Brand / DEVO: Unmasked, cataloging the band's entire history, I figured fuck it. I called Jerry again for a second interview. Is it the end of a long era of Devolution and art? Maybe, we shall see. 

Photo: Mark Spencer

A few years ago there was crowdfunding for the official Devo documentary, it was never released. Could you elaborate why this protect was never released? 

Well, you know, you'd have to ask Mark Mothersbaugh.

Yo, I would! It would've been nice to interview the both of y'all. You made the transition from — wait, why are you laughing?

I didn't laugh. 

Oh, I thought you did. So...

[laughing]

Ok, now you are. Oh, jeez, I am nervous again. With this book [DEVO: The Brand / DEVO: Unmasked] documents your lives from the Kent State to getting fucked over by Warner Brothers, to Johnny Rotten trying to come in as the new singer of Devo. Who the fuck conceived that idea and why did Johnny Rotten try to come in as the singer of Devo? How, why couldn't he just stick to his own thing with Public Image Limited?

That was [Virgin Records founder] Richard Branson's idea. Well you know, the Sex Pistols broke up in 1978 of January and we were out in Los Angeles for two reasons, to play a show at the Santa Monica Civic on New Year's Eve and then stay in town and talk to an executive at Warner Bros. Records about our pending record deal. And the people at Mabuhay Gardens asked us to come back up north and play asked us to play again at Mabuhay Gardens since we became very very popular there during the summer of '77. So, we had a few days off so we'd went up there, and we happen to be at the winterland show where the Sex Pistols break up, yeah, we watched it happened.

That's incredible. 

And then the Sex Pistols came back to the Miyako Hotel [the hotel Devo was staying] Sid Vicious walked through a plate-glass window and went to hospital. 

[Both laughing]

And we were talking to Johnny Rotten, he didn't mention anything about PiL at that point and then we recorded the record [Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!] and went back to Akron. There was a huge blizzard in March of '78 Richard Branson was in Jamaica and he called up and he wanted us to come down there. He had a big surprise for us, a big plan and I already didn't like him, I didn't want to go because what he'd done lying to us, about Virgin was going to offer us. Only my brother [Bob 2] and Mark went down there. They just basically went down there to escape a blizzard. Richard was staying at a very expensive, you know, hotel inside of a gated area of Kingston, ‘cause it was dangerous down there, at least then.

Branson got Mark and my brother high on some really good Jamaican weed, and then he said "alright, just down the complex here in another bungalow I've got Johnny Rotten and next door to me I've got New Musical Express and I've got Melody Maker. What I'd like to do is announce that Johnny Rotten is going to become the new lead singer of Devo. We'll all take pictures and I'll bring the press over and it'll be international news in a day." 

And Bob, my brother thought he's just making a joke, because he was high. And Mark was like, incredulous and so high he was feeling almost paranoid. Richard could see that wasn't the reaction he wanted, and Mark said he didn't think that was such a good idea. Then they started arguing back and forth about it. Then Richard realized it was a no-go and freaked out, got really depressed and bummed out and had to leave the room to go tell Johnny Rotten it wasn't happening, then had to go next door to Melody Maker and New Musical Express there was no story. [Laughing] That soured his relationship with Devo and those guys went home and told me the story. For me it was par for the course, to fuck Devo over as far as I was concerned, this was just more icing on the cake. 

RIchard Branson (Photo: Virgin.com)

I saw an old photo of, it must have been of Devo at Mabuhay, y'all we're wearing Never Mind the Bullocks shirts, was that in direct response of that meeting in Jamaica? 

That was after, like the day after we saw the Sex Pistols break up.

Oooohhh ok. Well, that makes sense. 

[Laughing]

Ok, this book [DEVO: The Brand / DEVO: Unmasked] the end of Devo? Are you carrying on as a band still or... What's- 

Well, once again you'd have to ask Mark Mothersbaugh, he's made everything about him. It'll have to be him saying it clearly Devo is ready to play and be Devo. Ok so, if he wanted to, you know, pull the trigger on that idea everybody else is like soldiers you know completely ready to go polished boots and new uniforms with loaded pistols.

Hmm. Ok. With this book I've read this took around 5 years compile this project together, what the process like and who spearheaded this idea? 

Well, it was a long distance process and it was pretty frustrating, you know, not a process I choose or would ever as a creative person would ever ever follow that kind of process. Cause it isn't like everybody got into a room and looked at all of our visual assets and all the articles and everything. Then made decisions in a group setting with the best ideas came forward best photos were used and everything. It was like all crosstalk and files, like, what's this picture, describe what's going on here, who do you think took this picture? And then if we couldn't remember who took the picture they eliminated it because everything is being driven by legal concerns and then they also had a budget, a lot of pictures didn't get included because they didn't want to pay the licensing fee for those pictures and so on. Probably the biggest difference was initially when they floated the idea of a book, I had this very clear idea and everybody was on board with it on our side. Then they said they were but in the end, they really weren't. There was supposed to be two different very different books, with two very different styles.

This is how two books became one? There was suppose to be two separate books but you've fused them together? 

Yeah, it was supposed to be two separate books there is a luxury edition where there are two separate books but they're not really stylistically different and it was supposed to be the Brand, high-end, Bauhaus-inspired layout, very clean and chronicle every record we've ever put out through Warner Brothers, like the chronically of every record about three writing of the songs, show the stills from those videos, show the carefully created publicly photos for each thing, so that you'd understood what each album is all about and what the concepts we're. What the look was about, why we we're doing what we we're doing. And then the other book was suppose to be all the kind of gossipy dirt that people love today, because the world is so devolved, they're all like with social media and TMZ all they wanna know is dumb shit and dirt.

So, the other one is supposed to be like, backstories, dirty laundry and things that happened before we were with Warner Brothers, things that happened that didn't get into the press, things that happened after Warner Brothers deal collapsed. And so the books were completely different, subject wise and reading wise. So, there wasn't supposed to be any commentary really in the Brand book that was supposed to be telling Devo's public face to the world in a complete was they'd never seen it before compiled through time. To show how many different things we did and to beat back against since impression we were some flash in the pan one-hit-wonder which is clearly not true.

The only thing I could say about the two books is that at least they do show that Devo is worthy of two books and they did bring a lot of things together and put it all in one source. So why there should be the end of anything about Devo, you know it's never been done so there it is. Could they have been more truthful to the original idea, yeah and more powerful and clear? Absolutely. Could it been a more fun process? Yeah, we could've gotten together and took what 5 years and 6 months but what didn't happen, so maybe there could still be another book, that does the things these two couldn't do. 

Is there anything more you wanted to expand upon that? 

Well, there's a lot I like, all the stuff that isn't there but should be there and that was standing, it's a lot of great stuff. And like I've said, it's never been compiled before, it's never been put in one place before. That kind of volume of information and photos, I'm glad that it exist. 

Photo: Joshua Dalsimer

Yeah, rightfully so, it should exist. After you went your ways with Warner Brothers, you all went with Enigma, Enigma folded. I heard Henry Rollins bought the rights to Devo's music. Then, his label, Infinite Zero, folded, is that true, does he own your music? 

Well, he did license the rights and he did do that. We all like Henry, he's a cool guy, he's always loved Devo, the more I got to know him, the better I got to like him. He's a smart guy.

No doubt, in fact, he is how I first heard of Devo was watching a VH1 listicle of all these rock stars talking about their first jobs. Here is Henry, talking about his first job working as a custodian, how he had to wear tyvek toxic waste suits and how he got through his damn job ‘DEVO WORE SUITS LIKE THIS, YEAH!!’

Laughing.

Devolution back then, to the theory of Devolution now. What do you see for the future or is there no future? Are we in a slow burn apocalypse? That's the way I see things now. 

Yeah, I mean, look. We did a lot of things right, we really didn't think that what happened. We we're more like smart ass artist having fun and warning people, making music we we're passionate about but what happened it surpassed any vision of devolution I had. We are, I think we past the point of no return.

Right

There's no doubt about it to me, I mean devolution has happened exponentially. Now the things we have warned about all happened but way beyond what we we're warning about. And you could just see it! You can see it busting apart at the seams and now even western democracy, the rational school of law is crumbling, one nation, right after the other. Forget this guy's policy for a minute, forget that the Evangelical right owns his ass he's just doing what he can to give them what they want. A guy that is saying could be promoting these policies, but this guy is a narcissistic psychotic nihilist who is just burning everybody out, even spiritually and psychologically exhausted everyone. He exist in chaos like a character out of a Christopher Nolan's Batman, he could be the Joker, for real. And he's just come, just as a man, as a human being and a man, he is the worst. Any guy who identifies with him, should be running from him, just run as fast as you can. This guy is so uncool, so evil, just disgusting and vile, it's just beyond beyond. 

Photo: Shelby Woods

You've said that Devo is essentially the new wave Grateful Dead, just playing your favorite songs as we all go down. What do you mean by that? 

We have a cult of fans, there's three generations of them. 

Yeah. Well, I think I've met one of your most psychotic fans, oddly enough his name is Marc. Wasn't Devo playing a fest in Italy, and he convinced you to ride in the car with him, and got you lost in the countryside of Italy, what happened? 

[Laughing] Oh yeah! [Laughing] He offended to take us home after the gig and got us lost, we we're miles out of town and isolated with no exits or signs, we found a road crew, that created one of those HTMI lights, the kind that create fake sunlight, it almost looked like daylight. It was frightening and we're in the mountains, it took about an hour and a half to get back to the hotel.

I would not want to be at the the brunt of your anger, you are the last person I would ever want to piss off to be perfectly honest with you.

[Laughing]

Well I've seen you pop off on people before, it's hilarious. But honestly - 

Really? [Laughing]

Yeah really, I've seen you yell at folks before. [Michael] Pilmer is like " that's when you know Jerry is cool with you! When Jerry yells at you." then I was like, I don't wanna be cool with Jerry Casale then. 

[Laughing] Wow! Well, I don't know, I know we played a full concert, done the afterparty thing we were contracted to do, did meet and greet lots of fans, signed all these autographs, and then I was just ready to go to bed. [Laughing]

Thank you so much for your time today Jerry, I could talk to you forever. Thank you for bending my ear, thank you for agreeing to a second interview. 

Wait, you're not in New Orleans anymore? Why are you in LA?

That's a long story, let me go off the record here, lemme just turn off my recorder.

***

The DEVO: The Brand / DEVO: Unmasked book is available now.

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