Though he’s tuned in and been involved in the planning process of DEVOtional fan events for years, Devo co-founder, singer and keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh has never been able to make it in-person.
That is set to change this weekend. Mothersbaugh plans to be in town for the two-day event set for Friday and Saturday at the Beachland Ballroom. Tickets, $37, remain available for the main event Saturday; the kickoff event Friday is open to the public on a “pay what you want” basis.
Mothersbaugh will join fellow Devo members Gerald Casale and David Kendrick as a special guest at the event. Performing bands include New Devolution, Detention, Massive Hotdog Recall, Poppy Necroponde, Akronauts, Jimmy Psycho Experiment and Malcolm Tent.
For Mothersbaugh, his return to Northeast Ohio arrives after what’s been an up-and-down few years. The Akron native has stayed plenty busy composing music for TV and movies in his Los Angeles home, and he is in the midst of several projects set to release in 2023. However, in 2020, Mothersbaugh faced a near-death experience from COVID-19, as detailed in a harrowing interview with the Los Angeles Times. (The musician, who is still dealing with the aftereffects of the illness, recommends DEVOtional attendees wear face masks to the event if they’ve been exposed to the virus or think they might be sick.)
We caught up with Mothersbaugh ahead of his return to Northeast Ohio to chat about DEVOtional, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and his current compositional work:
Cleveland Magazine: This is the first year you’re going to DEVOtional. What are you excited about?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Well, although I’m never there physically, I always share all the information afterward. I like that there are people who come out and they do interpretations of Devo songs. [DEVOtional organizer Michael] Pilmer has put together, to his credit, a number of our albums that people did that are Devo fans, and they do their own versions of our songs. I’ve got to say, I love that stuff a lot because all the time I hear stuff and go, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ Really, it’s like they’re getting the second chance at it. They can correct things we neglected. I enjoy that stuff. This is just usually a really crazy time in the year for me, so I signed on, and just held my breath. Actually, it’s a pretty good chance I’m going to go. The only thing I’m worried about is. … I don’t know if you know, but when I had COVID a couple of years ago I got hit in the eye while I was in the ICU. I don’t know exactly how it happened, except I do remember waking up and pulling a ventilator tube out of my throat and going ‘What’d you do to my eyes?’ I scared the crap out of a couple of people who thought I was just laying there like a wounded potato or something. The next day, my daughters who were on the phone with me, they were like … you know what? Just forget this story.
CM: I actually did want to ask about that, I know you had a pretty harrowing experience with COVID.
MM: I brought it up because my only caveat will be, is, this eye has degenerated a lot in the past week. I just talked to a doctor at the Stein Eye Institute yesterday … so that’s the only thing that could get in the way of this, as far as I know. Or monkeypox, which I don’t have.
CM: I hope that improves; I’m sorry to hear about that and about your experience with COVID overall.
MM: Bah. If that would’ve happened when I was 20, that would’ve sucked, but it’s kind of okay. I got to use them both for a long time.
CM: That’s one way to look at it. With DEVOtional, they’ve hosted this festival in honor of Devo for such a long time. What have been your thoughts on it from the beginning?
MM: I'm just kind of impressed by that. There's people that are stalwarts, a lot of them are the same people coming back. But maybe there’s some fresh blood this year. You don’t know how people feel about your music; it’s like you put stuff out there and 40 years later, you’re wondering if anybody is paying attention anymore. If it’s just that they think of it as something in ancient history, you know? I like that those people could still find some sort of an interest in it.
CM: Speaking a little bit about the legacy of Devo, I saw that next year is the 50-year anniversary of your first concert at Kent State Arts Fest. Could you share any memories or stories from that very first Devo concert?
MM: We hired some people to play drums and to sing for us, and it was very early to even be calling something Devo at that time. But I really had this strong feeling that we were to be an art band. I wore a lab coat and a monkey mask during the performance. There's a video that’s very low-res quality. I love the video because every now and then you’re watching the band onstage for a song or two, and then you pan to the audience and there’s, like, 12 people, and then you pan back to the band and then a couple songs later, you pan to the audience, there’s nine people, and, you know, three or four minutes later you come back to the audience and there’s, like, six people. It was kind of funny. Some of the stuff just happened, spur of the moment. I put a ‘Headache Solo’ in it because the guys wanted to go backstage and tune their guitars for one of the songs. Jerry [Casale] and Bob Lewis had written this folk song that was called ‘River Run’ or something. It was early-on, it’s the first show, and they wanted to tune their guitars. Apparently I was playing this synthesizer ‘Headache Solo’ so loud that they were having a hard time tuning. So it was really a long ‘Headache Solo,’ probably the longest ‘Headache Solo’ ever. For me, school in Ohio, all the public school years, were really unpleasant. I had just gone to Kent State because I couldn’t think of a single Vietnamese person I wanted to shoot. So, by a miracle, a school teacher helped me get a partial scholarship, so I could do a night job and afford to pay for my schooling. When I went to Kent State, it was really amazing. It turned my life upside down. I experienced something I hadn’t even anticipated was going to be so wonderful. And I met Jerry and Bob Lewis there, and General Jackett. I met those guys at Kent State. And that was really important for me.
CM: When was the last time you’ve been back in Northeast Ohio?
MM: Let’s see. I’d tell you if I could remember; I don’t remember what year it was.
CM: So it’s been a while, then?
MM: Yeah, I have a job where I television-in on a film or a TV show or something, and I come out of it and finish it and I go, ‘Who’s the president?’ You find out things you half-expected. I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping to come a day early and see some of my family. There are two new little Mothersbaugh genetic miracles out there now, in the last, like, two months. Well, one of them is threatening to drop anytime now and one of them’s, like, 10 days old or something.
CM: I’d love to hear about some of your composition projects that you have going on.
MM: In July, I recorded two different movies and ‘Abbey Road’ with the London Symphony. One of them was called ‘Cocaine Bear;’ Elizabeth Banks directed it. It’s based on a true story, but this isn’t a true story. This is a gory, dark-comedy fictional version of the true story of the bear that found cocaine that drug dealers had dropped into the forest by accident and went on a rampage. You see a lot of kind of dumb people, you see their last few minutes before they die because they do something stupid right before they die that involves a bear high on cocaine. The other one I did, it’s a magic realism film. An Australian woman directed it, and it’s called ‘The Magician’s Elephant.’ There’s a little slim book for that, like a kid’s book, called ‘The Magician’s Elephant.’ The book is really quite charming, and I think we keep it in that territory with the film. It was a lot of fun.
CM: This past year, Devo was eligible for the Rock Hall inductions again. Do you have anything to say about that? You guys have been up for it a couple of times now.
MM: I would like it if we were in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Although, in some ways it’s ironic because we thought we were what comes after rock and roll, right? It was 1973; it was time for rock and roll to be over. That was our take on it. But I would like to be. I'm figuring if we don't get in, they have that parking lot right next door. I don’t know what you know about Ohio, but they have very lax laws on burials. You can get permission to bury people in your backyard if you want. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s true.
CM: I didn’t know that.
MM: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I was thinking about working something out with the Akron Art Museum and getting buried in their garden. But I was thinking, I’ll just buy one of the parking spaces and maybe we’ll just drop canisters full of Devo in like, half a dozen of those locations. We’ll get anybody who can fit into that parking space in a canister, whether it’s Bob Lewis or Gary Jackett or, we’ll talk to Alan [Myer]’s daughter. Whoever’s interested in having some ashes dropped — Jim Mothersbaugh — whatever, we’ll drop them in.
CM: Well, then you’d be in the Rock Hall, I guess?
MM: We’d be adjacent. We’ll be Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-adjacent.
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