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Devo: Back In Focus, Tongue In Cheek

On June 15, the oddball pop-rockers in Devo released their first new studio album in 20 years. Something for Everybody finds the group exuding an energy and swagger reminiscent of its earliest efforts. The sound is of a 21st-century band -- fresh and powerful, yet unmistakably Devo.

Devo's bouncy, synth-driven music has been immortalized through its kitschy costumes, funny hats (formally referred to as "energy domes") and hit single "Whip It." But Devo has also crafted a huge body of work and a strong cult following.

The band was formed in Akron, Ohio, by Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale in 1972. The two met in the art department of nearby Kent State University, and were witness to the 1970 shootings there. Their school closed for nearly four months, and Mothersbaugh and Casale ended up passing the time writing music together.

"We were just trying to figure out what we were seeing in the world around us," Mothersbaugh tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "And we came to the conclusion that we were observing not evolution, but de-volution."

This inspired the name "Devo" -- short for "de-evolution."

High Art Meets Commercial Art

The space where high art intersects with commercial art has proved to be fertile ground for Mothersbaugh's songwriting and composing. He says he wasn't interested in what those commercialized sounds helped to sell, but rather how effectively the sounds influenced people's minds.

"We had seen people get shot when we were in school, and we came to the opinion that rebellion and anarchy were obsolete, and the only way to change things in our culture was through subversion," Mothersbaugh says.

Outside of Devo, Mothersbaugh has built up a reputation for composition, scoring Wes Anderson's films, the Rugrats theme and the music to the videogame The Sims 2, just to name a few. He's also had a recurring segment called "Mark's Magic Pictures" on the popular Nick Jr. television show Yo Gabba Gabba!

Bandmate Casale had been nudging Mothersbaugh to work up new Devo material, and when an ad agency asked to license one of their older, oft-licensed songs, the band asked if the agency would be interested in something new. The result was "Watch Us Work It," but before the tune made it into the commercial, the song was remixed by the Swedish band The Teddy Bears. Mothersbaugh says he was surprised and excited by how much Devo's members liked the final product.

"It made us think, maybe it's time for us to try it out again," he says. "We'd never really enjoyed collaborating with people outside the band. Devo was always very insular and protective of our aesthetic, and all of a sudden, the idea of other people coming in and taking what we had always done and held as our very protected artwork -- and bringing something to it that made us like it better -- sounded very interesting to us."

Something For Everybody

Devo employed a process called "corporate consensus building" for Something for Everybody, in which the band honed its final product using input from fans. The move both upends the traditional model for the music business and remains consistent with Devo's subversive, sarcastic aesthetic.

"In an age where everyone feels that their opinion is important, we actually solicited opinions from fans and let them weigh in on what songs we would put on the record," Mothersbaugh says.

Something for Everybody comes with an "88 percent focus-group approval sticker" on its cover; a 100 percent focus-group-approved version of the album has been released simultaneously. The band members also conducted "color studies," in which they found that their fans preferred blue energy domes to red ones. In spite of the change, Mothersbaugh says he intends to keep wearing the multi-tiered hat.

"That's what keeps us young. It's like an orgone energy recycler," he says -- a shout out to a universal life force suggested in the 1930s by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. "It's made out of a very special material called PVC."

Perhaps the most memorable focus group, Mothersbaugh says, was a listening party on the day of the album's release. The audience? Twenty cats.

"There were various reactions to the songs," Mothersbaugh says. "We had some professionals that do the measuring of the reactions of the cats -- I don't know if it has all been processed yet, but I'm sure what we're going to find out is more information from that. We could have the feline-approved version of the album."

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