A Conversation with Artist & Musician Mark Mothersbaugh
In July of 2017, I embarked on what has become something of a professional obsession: documenting the impact of computing—from vacuum tubes to social media—on the world of music. I began putting together a pitch-packet of names to interview. The list included researchers like David Cope and Gareth Loy, synthesizer developers such as the sadly departed Don Buchla, composers like Suzanne Ciani and Laurie Anderson, and performers such as Mark Goldstein. I had a single name at the top of the list that I knew would start us off on the right foot.
The name was Mark Mothersbaugh.
If you’re familiar with popular music of the 1970s and 1980s, you’ve probably heard of DEVO. They burst onto the scene in the 1970s with an ambitious combination of punk rock sensibility and science-fiction aesthetic. They were technically complex with an inventive musicality and exuded an early post-modernist philosophical outlook that permeated everything. As the lead singer of DEVO, Mothersbaugh provided much of the structure the band’s music was created around and ultimately helped define an influential sound that has spread from art rock to surf rock and just about everything in-between.
DEVO started in 1973 at Ohio’s Kent State University, where Mothersbaugh was an art student. The initial line-up featured Mothersbaugh singing as well as playing guitar and keyboards, Jerry Casale on the base, Bob Lewis on accompanying guitar, and Jim Mothersbaugh on drums. Key to the band identity was the events of May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War. Casale witnessed the shootings and knew two of the victims. Following the attack, Casale and Lewis began to create satirical artworks based on the idea of de-evolution. Mothersbaugh, having met the pair earlier in 1970, became a collaborator, adopting the idea of de-evolution in his own art and music.
. . . we were trying to determine what it was that we had just seen happen and what was going on in our world with the Vietnam War, shootings at our school, killings at our school, and decided that what we were observing was not evolution but rather de-evolution. And so, we wrote music to that effect, as good musical reporters that we were and enthusiasts of agitprop and wanted to be part of that.
This concept permeated everything the band did, from live performances to recordings. The group interpreted the idea of de-evolution by blending post-Structuralist art philosophy and science-fiction tropes with music that combined influences from rock ’n roll and art music.
I had been kind of more experimental and was interested in stuff like John Cage and Morton Subotnick and prog[ressive] rock even and people like Robert Fripp and King Crimson. I’d be playing like mortar blasts and ray guns and poisonous gas clouds. And so, we were kind of like a Flintstones-meets-the-Jetsons is the way we thought about what we were doing back then.
The band played incredibly theatrical live shows that might include Mark donning a mask, climbing in a baby’s crib and performing as the character Booji Boy. They toured widely, releasing not only records, but well-received art films such as The Truth About De-Evolution. It was through those films that the band came to the attention of David Bowie, who got them signed to Warner Bros. Records. This, and a performance on Saturday Night Live on October 18, 1978, soared DEVO to new heights.
From the beginning, DEVO used electronics within their music, including a homemade set of electronic drums. As the band’s reputation, and income, increased, they added more and more electronic elements.
Well, during the DEVO years, companies that were building things—everybody sent stuff to us. Everybody wanted us to beta test for them. And they wanted us to try out—I mean even companies like Casio. Everybody would—I’d be in Japan, and Casio would come up. And they would go, “Here, take this. It’s our new keyboard.” And I’d get a keyboard from them. And everybody just wanted DEVO to use their gear. So, I got to try out all these things.
One instrument that DEVO used widely in their music was the Minimoog synthesizer. A keyboard-based synthesizer that defined much of the band’s sound in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
I could take a Minimoog, set it here [gestures]. You could say, “Smart Patrol.” And I could, with a blindfold on, I could, through touch alone, I would know how to set all the parameters to sound like the reverse saw tooth.
Mothersbaugh also began to work with more complicated commercial computer-music devices.
I mean the first computers I probably worked with would be like these little dedicated computers that were inside an S-100 Roland sequencer keyboard. So, they were just these things that were part of the keyboard I was buying. And I think the first standalone computer that I ever owned was a Fairlight II.
The Australian Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, or CMI, was one of the earliest digital music workstations, combining a digital sampling synthesizer, a standard piano-style keyboard, and computer system complete with keyboard, visual display, and light pen. The system could capture sounds, which could be modified using various software packages. The ability to modify music, especially with a light pen, and be able to play it back automatically through the instrument revolutionized the way many musicians interacted with their compositions.
. . . it changed the way I thought about music in a lot of ways. And one of the things it did was it freed me from being in a band to being able to write things for a film or a TV show just pretty much all by myself. I didn’t really require other people to be with me to— for me to be able to put it all down because you would play right into this computer. And to me, that was so transparent and so powerful. It was like—because you played it in when you had the idea. So, it really became about conceptual art, writing music to me. It became this things that I totally understood of being able to write a piece, and then it’s permanent into this sequence.
DEVO was far from the only pop music act diving into the Fairlight system. Peter Gabriel, Jan Hammer, Duran Duran, and, perhaps most notably, Jazz legend Herbie Hancock. The Fairlight was one of several musical workstations to appear in the 1980s, helping to redefine pop music’s sound through the application of new technologies. The system changed the way many composers and musicians worked, and for Mothersbaugh, it gave him a new view on the individual tones and sounds with which he worked.
. . . this was 8-bit, so it was pretty low quality to begin with, but they were samples of real instruments. And so I really liked that. I liked the idea of having the ability to blend acoustic instruments in along with my synth tracks. And . . . after working with it for a few months, I realized, “Well, these are even better than acoustic instruments, because they sound like the wood-paneling version of real wood paneling.” You know, it sounded like vinyl wood, or sounded like a plastic brick wall version of a brick wall. It didn’t really sound like a brick wall, but it sounded like the plastic, fake version of it. And so I loved the idea that I could write acoustic . . . plastic acoustic music.
The 1980s saw DEVO achieve chart success with their song “Whip It,” which was the only DEVO song to appear in the Top 40 singles chart. Following the commercial and critical disappointment of their 6th album Shout, which some criticized for over-reliance on the sampling done with the Fairlight, DEVO was dropped from the Warner Bros. Record label.
. . . once we put out “Whip It,” and they had a platinum record, then all of a sudden it became a thing where we’d be working on writing music for the next album. And you’d look over and there would be somebody from Warner Brothers going, “Hey, you guys need anything? Keep up the good work. Just whatever you do, remember to write another ‘Whip It.’”
It was also during this period that Mothersbaugh began to compose for television and film projects, beginning with Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman, who asked Mothersbaugh to write music for the television program Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
. . . when I started writing for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, my only criterion was Paul said, “Well, if it’s something happy, make it really, really, happy. And if the scene is scary, make it really scary. And if it’s sad, make it really sad.” And he just said, “Make it extreme.” And so, I could do any kind of music I wanted.
With this new freedom, Mark began creating music for many different programs, later expanding into film and video games over time. In 1989, Mothersbaugh founded Mutato Muzika, a music production company for television, film, and commercials.
Mothersbaugh was never far away from his roots as a visual artist. He worked in screen printing, photography, painting, and drawing throughout his time in DEVO, even creating covers for DEVO’s albums. In the 1990s, Mothersbaugh discovered Photoshop.
You know, I avoided it [Photoshop] for a long time . . . it was Henry Rollins [musician and artist] who kind of pushed me into it. He introduced me to this woman who was a book publisher, and she came over one day with an Amiga computer and just handed it to me. And she said, “Let’s do a book together.” . . . I got this computer, and I wrote a book, and put images into it, and it was all downhill from there.
One of Mothersbaugh’s long-time art practices was creating mirror-image photos, investigating the myth that human faces and bodies featured a perfect symmetry. He was never fully satisfied with his original process, which used a mirror and camera, always leaving a tell-tale black line where the mirror would sit.
And I became obsessed with doing this with photos, and started looking—I started seeing, “You know, they’re . . . humans, they all have . . . they’re symmetrical, but they’re not totally symmetrical, and there’s one half that seems more the childlike side to a human; there’s another side that’s the more demonic side.
Later, using antique photographs, mostly studio portraits, Mothersbaugh began experimenting with a computer to manipulate the images.
And there was this thing called Photoshop, and for—it was totally simple to do. It turned it almost into a sophomoric—like, erasing the pupils out of eyes when you’re a bored high-school kid kind of trick. But I did all these things where I made these symmetrical mutants. I called them Beautiful Mutants.
He’s collected these images into a book, Beautiful Mutants, featuring hundreds of Photoshopped images. The results range from playful, with subjects taking on mutations such as three or arms or a single eye, to uncanny, as in the case of young man wearing a horned devil’s mask.
DEVO has reunited a few times, but Mothersbaugh has kept working on his solo projects, including scoring films by Wes Anderson, like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, as well as major blockbusters like The Lego Movie and Thor: Ragnorak. Even now, when he might compose a half-dozen scores in a year while still occasionally touring with DEVO, he is also creating unique art works, like his orchestrions, on exhibit in the CHM Learning Lab.
Created from a combination of bird whistles, duck calls, and pipes from decommissioned church organs, Mothersbaugh’s orchestrions are works of sound art that combine aspects of performance with sculpture.
I decided I wanted to build my own instruments. And that started because of the movie Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson had given me a piece of footage, and it was these two kids running across— through the woods. I have a large collection of hundreds of birdcalls. Some of them are 150 years old, and some of them are toys—novelty toys. Like, those things up there [gestures], I just got, because I didn’t know if they were going to be any good or not. And they’re kind of interesting. They’re semi-interesting. But I’m always looking for sound-making devices, but I looked at this film, and I started playing these birdcalls. And then I lost interest in the film, and I just wanted to write music for birdcalls.
The massive pieces, some more than seven feet tall, whistle music that is decidedly Mothersbaugh, calling to mind everything from circus organ music to cartoon scores.
Mothersbaugh remains a leading figure in American popular music, still creating art, both audio and visual, always incorporating technology into his creative process. He was a natural place to start my investigation into the world of computers and music.
Mark Mothersbaugh in Conversation with CHM's Chris Garcia
Orchestrions at CHM
Discover Mark Mothersbaugh’s orchestrions on exhibit in CHM’s new Learning Lab.
Conducting Creativity: Orchestrions by Mark Mothersbaugh
An orchestrion (awr-kes-tree-uh n) is a mechanical musical instrument that may resemble an organ but sounds like a full orchestra. These imaginative instruments were popular among German nobility in the 1850s. But for contemporary artist and musician Mark Mothersbaugh (b. 1950), they capture his personal journey with technology and art.
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