Mothersbaugh: The Collector

Composer's Mutato Muzika offices a veritable museum of exotica

Mark Mothersbaugh
Michael Lewis

If Mark Mothersbaugh ever thought of expanding his empire of music, art, merchandise, glass frames, etc. into the museum business, he would have an intact collection.

As if he needed to underline it to visitors to his Mutato Muzika offices inside a perfectly round building, which contains not a single angle, he says, “I’m kind of an inveterate collector.”

Discussion of an episode in his career — say, during the intense Devo days of the ’70s and early ’80s — will lead to him showing a funky instrument he has set up in one of his various studio spaces. Mention of Pink Floyd prompts him to walk to a space just off his central studio to show off an Ondioline keyboard, one of only 13 known to exist. Made of wood and designed by Georges Jenny in 1941, the 2½-octave keyboard was most famously used on the original “Runaway,” performed by Del Shannon, and used by Pink Floyd for spacey sounds during its live shows.

“We were in a studio off of Sunset in Hollywood working on the ‘Freedom From Choice’ album in 1979, and Pink Floyd was rehearsing in the adjacent studio for their upcoming tour. They decided to dump a bunch of stuff to fit into two semi-trucks rather than three, including this lovely thing. Look at it! It still has Pink Floyd’s original settings.”

In another corner sits an old Poly-Box, a tiny one-octave item that could provide the needed oscillation for the early-generation mini-Moogs that Mothersbaugh used for Devo concerts. He points to an utterly goofy panel of clanging metal levers and bells that provided him with just the right sound for the carousel music he arranged for two scenes in “Saving Mr. Banks.”

A lover of the Dadaists, whose movement included not just the visual arts but also wild, noise-making audio explorations, Mothersbaugh has collected all kinds of like devices and gadgets since his early Devo days. “Growing up with the Vietnam War on my family’s TV, I wanted my music to include the sounds of explosions, copters, V-2 rockets, you name it.”

But when it comes to composing, this collector comes down to earth: “I compose comfortably at my computer in my main studio here, to find the notes and the orchestral instrumentation. And sometimes,” as he walks into a room housing only a beautifully polished baby grand piano, “I’ll use this. The piano is very utilitarian and can carry a whole song. There’s a reason why it’s been with us for so long.”