Gerald Casale is a bassist, synth player, vocalist, songwriter, visual designer, and video director for the band Devo, which returned last year after a two-decade hiatus with “Something for Everybody.” He called from the tarmac at LAX.
A: Hi, hold on one second. I’m putting my bag in the overhead compartment. Okay.
Q: Are you on an airplane?
A: Yeah, we’re going to Seattle.
Q: Are you going to have to turn off your cell phone soon?
A: We’ll worry about that when it happens.
Q: Good attitude. I think you know that I want to talk to you about creativity and aging.
Q: I sense something wry in your laugh.
A: [More laughter] Yeah.
Q: Do you want to make a comment before I ask you a question?
A: Oh, no.
Q: OK, then. For a lot of people your band is connected to a musical moment and I wonder if that has posed challenges or been limiting for Devo as the years go by?
A: Okay, say that again. You think we’re attached to a musical moment?
Q: I think in a lot of people’s minds Devo is very much connected to a time and a sound and a look and an idea.
A: Well, that’s true, yeah. You have no control over that, you’re right. People do that.
Q: Has that been challenging for you personally and for the band?
A: Well, as a creative artist, you try to do as good as you can as long as you can and you stick around as long as you have something to say. And at least in Devo’s case, it wasn’t just about style. It wasn’t The Knack, it wasn’t the skinny tie. And it was never cool, you know. It only became cool in retrospect. People are now interested in what we did then, but we’re still able to do it. What’s funny is a lot of bands today sound like they took a few pages from Devo. And that’s because there’s something in what we did that actually went beyond that moment in time you talk about.
Q: I think your ideas are as relevant as ever.
A: That’s what I mean. There were concepts there, there were ideas there. And you’re right, unfortunately our warning about de-evolution became true.
Q: How does that feel?
A: Not good. I mean–
Q: Can we blame you?
A: You can’t blame the messenger. No, you don’t get any satisfaction from going “I told you so” when it’s something you didn’t want to happen. We were only being funny about it, and it’s not funny anymore. I don’t know what you think, but if somebody in 1980 with a crystal ball had shown people then the world in 2011, they wouldn’t have believed it.
Q: Has your approach changed? Do you feel like you need to treat these ideas differently now?
A: Well, yeah, because you know what it’s like? It’s like if people stop arguing about global warming and just all agree, “Oh yes, it’s a factor, it’s happening.” Then that becomes the basis for moving forward. And with this de-evolution thing, it’s no longer an artsy kind of pose or a whacked out theory. It’s like, okay, the world’s devolved. Now what? Let’s all go forward from there knowing that. What’s after that?
Q: It seems like humor is still an important part of what Devo does.
A: Yeah, I would think it’s impossible to get away from.
Q: Tell me how that works. Is it the proverbial spoonful of sugar?
A: Yes. I mean, whatever keeps you from becoming homicidal or suicidal.
Q: Is the way you work now, the way you actually make stuff, different than it was 30 years ago?
A: It is actually not. I mean, the technology changes and you use the tools that are stuck in front of you. You’re in an art class and they give you eight crayons and then you’re in another art class and they give you some glue and sticks. It’s like that, but then essentially creative process remains like a through line, you know what I mean? It remains true to itself and tools become different.
Q: I’m guessing that the topics that you’re drawn to have remained constant as well.
A: I think in one way, for Devo, there’s more material than ever, more source material than ever. I can’t tell the difference between CNN.com’s bullet points and The Onion’s bullet points, you know? And we appreciate that absurdity. And as things are more devolved, what humans do and the fact that the Internet loves dousing you in it with 24/7 reportage, it’s just an overload of source material.
Q: So who’s listening now? Have your fans stuck with you? Do you have new fans?
A: Yeah, we have a nice combination of two distinct demographics. We have the people that grew up with Devo that are now in solid citizen positions or own tech companies or whatever and they have children. And then we have all the post-college crew in their 20s that discovered us via YouTube and iTunes and some TV Land. And it’s great. They come to our show and they’re about half the audience, and the senior citizens are about half the audience.
Q: Really? It’s an even split?
A: Yeah. It’s kind of nice.
Q: How receptive are your fans to new music? Artists who stick around often struggle with the fact that fans want to hear the old hits and you are probably more excited about new material. How does that work?
A: Well, luckily when we wrote songs that we wrote long ago, we weren’t sitting around trying to calculate writing hits, so we actually like those songs and we still like them. So we don’t mind playing the old songs. And we feel the new ones are up to par energy-wise and aesthetically with the old ones. The new record, to me, is a lot like “Freedom of Choice” in its energy and sentiment. And I like doing both. I like playing songs off the new record, and the crowd seems to like them. In fact, what happens is they don’t know that they’re new songs because to be quite honest, you know, in a culture where nobody likes to buy music and 10,000 CDs a month come out, a lot of people didn’t even know Devo had a new record out. A lot of people who came to see Devo had no idea that “Something for Everybody” existed. And so when they hear songs like “What We Do” or the song “Fresh,” or “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man),” they just thought it was a classic Devo song, you know?
Q: It’s of a piece with the early material.
A: That’s right, that’s the term. That’s right. And we couldn’t help it. We can’t be anything other than what we are.