Mark Mothersbaugh: Devolution Becomes Him

Alt-rocker-turned-Billion Dollar film composer creates bold new music worlds

Mark Mothersbaugh
Michael Lewis

It may be tempting to group Mark Mothersbaugh with other movie composers who began in the rock/pop world — names like Danny Elfman, Klaus Badelt, Clint Mansell, Randy Newman, Lisa Gerrard, Trevor Rabin.

But consider that Mothersbaugh co-founded one of the 1970s most subversive, post-modern groups, Devo; composes for every conceivable kind of project from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” to “The Royal Tenenbaums” to the infamous Joe Boxer Christmas ad; works as an artist in a seemingly unlimited number of media from wooden organ pipes to postcards; makes rugs and designs glass frames; collects bird calls, as well as a world-class assemblage of exotic musical instruments.

There aren’t too many in Mothersbaugh’s category. Probably none.

A conversation with him skips and dances over so many areas and topics that a picture forms of someone with encyclopedic range.

And yet everything about Mothersbaugh points to the same fun-loving spirit heard in Devo’s dry-ironic tunes sticking it to modern society or in his rollicking scores for the “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” franchise. The headquarters of his company, Mutato Muzika, located for 18 years in a green building on L.A.’s Sunset Strip resembling a scaled-down model of the Forum, is stuffed with toy-like objects and his massive collection of unique and exotic keyboard instruments. They’re a direct reflection of their owner.

“It’s kind of hard to talk about my love of toys and playmaking,” Mothersbaugh says. “It’s not something I do consciously, it’s how I relate to the world and to art. But it’s complicated. Devo would make fun of bands that we thought took things too seriously. But we still did love serious, pretentious bands.”

Just the fact that Devo was hatched during a lull in 1970 when Kent St. U. (where co-founders Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were fine arts students) was shut down after the fatal shootings of four students, places the supposed whimsy of the group in a more serious context.

Casale played bass when he wasn’t putting on outrageous performance-art pieces. Mothersbaugh crafted funny images involving potatoes, printed graphics and fiddled with synths (“we had a decade of guitars, enough already”) — and both decided the world had gone mad.

“We figured that what was going on wasn’t evolution, but de-evolution,” he says. “We were intrigued by this goofy Yugoslav writer Oscar Kiss Maerth who theorized that man descended from a line of brain-eating apes. Hey, why not? Devo was conceived as an agitprop band at a chaotic time, and we followed Andy Warhol’s direction, that the idea was more important than technique.” Casale served as band spokesman and public front man, while Mothersbaugh was the unit’s key composer and artist, designing their album covers and graphics.

Like Warhol, Mothersbaugh was interested in how fine and commercial art mesh and mash up. Unlike a group with similar subversive intents and musical quirkiness — the Bay Area-based Residents — Devo decided to appeal to a broader audience, split from their Akron, Ohio, home and go to Los Angeles to sign with a label. A brief flirtation with A&M Records led to a pact with Warner Bros., “which left us pretty much alone for the first three albums until we had a hit with ‘Whip It!’ and that was the beginning of the end. They wanted another ‘Whip It!’ and started meddling and that’s when the fun stopped.”

As a result, Devo jumped ship to the Enigma label, designed to offer artistic refuge. After Enigma’s legendary collapse, life with Devo started looking dim for Mothersbaugh. Just then, in the mid ’80s, Devo fan Paul Reubens cajoled Mothersbaugh to score his Saturday-morning series, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

The process of a weekly score was a revelation for the composer: “I’d received the tape of the upcoming episode on Tuesday from New York. We’d record on Wednesday, send it back on Thursday. The score would be cut into the show on Friday and air on Saturday. Compared to the cycle I was used to with Devo — compose 12 songs, rehearse, record, rehearse for the tour, go touring for months, and then start it again — this was great. I thought, ‘I love TV!’”

What also surprised Mothersbaugh was that unlike record labels, commercial sponsors tended to leave him alone when he crafted music for such products as Hawaiian Punch. “Commercials are where you can really experiment with stuff, a lot of people don’t realize that,” he says. “Some audience members thought that the short films Devo made included subliminal messages like ‘Obey,’ which was funny because they didn’t. But what a great idea. So I did insert hidden audio messages like ‘question authority’ into commercials, and only once did an audio engineer catch it.”

Mothersbaugh’s sound — there really isn’t a single one — mixes jaunty and off-beat rhythms and tempi with an endless array of synth-generated and acoustic percussion, and sometimes wildly comic tones that seem to come from another planet, much like the half-human, half-monster creatures he draws daily for his postcards.

It’s what attracted Adam Sandler when he recruited the composer for “Happy Madison” and shortly after, Wes Anderson for his debut feature, “Bottle Rocket” in 1996. Insisting that he wanted to speak to only Mothersbaugh for his movie’s music — even though they had yet to meet — Anderson ended up a key collaborator (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”) over the next decade.

So crucial was Mothersbaugh’s music to Anderson’s personal conceptions that he says, “The tone of ‘Rushmore’ wasn’t there until Mark’s music was there.”

Animation has proven a natural home for Mothersbaugh’s unclassifiable musical worlds; it’s hard to think of any Hollywood-based composer who would be a better fit for the various universes of “The Lego Movie,” the first and second editions of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” or the “Rugrats” enterprise, which provided Mothersbaugh his entry into larger-scale features.

“Animation, unlike the smaller movies and shorter pieces like ads and videos that are great for keyboards and synths, really requires a fuller orchestra,” he says. “Since the images never look like real life, they need a bigger sound to support them. For ‘Lego,” I had a 100-piece orchestra and 40-voice choir. It’s important to have that human sound under images of plastic Lego pieces, although sometimes electronics works beautifully with them too.”

Yet as Mothersbaugh is wrapping “Lego,” his attention is moving on to several different projects. There’s the prep for a long-developed touring show at a half-dozen major museums across the country, starting this fall.

There’s that launch of a line of glass frames for Baumvision (titled, of course, Mothersbaugh), probably just before another tour with Devo, whose recent revival in 2010 has gotten fans to dig out the old plastic hats from their closets.

Oh, and then there’s the ruby sitting on one of his office desks.

He hands the stone, about half the size of a bowling ball, to his visitor. “Here, this is the world’s biggest ruby. I’m going to carve it next month. I had thought of making something roly-poly shaped, but now I’m rethinking that.”

With all this going on at once, it’s enough to make you question that whole de-evolution thing.