Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh on the Music That Made Him

On his 70th birthday, the art-punk icon and film composer discusses the music that’s meant the most to him—Patsy Cline, square dancing 45s, a Burger King jingle—five years at a time.

Mark Mothersbaugh has made a life of art and conflict. The Ohio native protested the Vietnam War as a student at Kent State University in the early 1970s, and his glimpses of humanity’s destructive nature formed the conceptual groundwork for Devo. “Early on, we didn’t think we were a rock band,” Mothersbaugh says. “We thought we were an art movement.” Their subsequent output followed through on that idea: Beyond their twitchy post-punk and glossy new wave songs, there were the fire-engine red helmets and the indelibly strange music videos, which turned them into MTV staples in the early ’80s. All of it came together to offer a strange and subversive warning about the regression of humankind.

While Mothersbaugh still periodically dons his yellow jumpsuit and hits the road with Devo, he’s carved out a second career as a composer. Starting with his soundtrack to Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the mid-’80s, he’s become a go-to talent for whimsical soundscapes. Over the last three decades, he’s provided music for everything from the ’90s kids cartoon Rugrats to the recent TV adaptation of the vampire farce What We Do in the Shadows—not to mention his scores for several Wes Anderson films, including Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. And the loopy background music that only added to the deliriousness of Tiger King? That was him, too.

Other recent and future projects are so eclectic, they almost sound implausible: Mothersbaugh scored the new Netflix animated film The Willoughbys and he’s developing the musical adaptation of Nick Hornby’s skateboarding novel Slam into either a stage show or a movie alongside Tony Hawk. He’s also got some secret plans in place with Pee-wee creator Paul Reubens.

Though Mothersbaugh’s major film and TV credits continue to pile up, he’s still a visionary oddball at heart—a guy who builds elaborate noise-making sculptures out of doorbells, organ pipes, and bird calls. His studio hosts a museum of instruments he’s collected over the years, and he’s currently using them to make synth-driven square dance music.

Talking on Zoom from self-isolation in his West Hollywood studio—a mask tucked beneath his chin—Mothersbaugh says people keep telling him how Devo were right about our devolving society, as politicians ignore the advice of scientists amid a global pandemic. As always, he is finding solace in invention.
“I kind of really like it,” he tells me. “If you’re a composer or a musician, there’s a lot you can do in your little room.”

Here, he walks us through the songs and sounds that have soundtracked his awesomely unusual life.

Patsy Cline: “Crazy”

Mark Mothersbaugh: My family came to Akron to get factory jobs. I had blue-collar parents, and my dad’s big goal in life was to become middle-class. We’d go over to Grandma Mothersbaugh’s house, and she had a 78 RPM turntable and a record collection. That turntable was great because you could slow it down to 45, so this song would sound like [sings in slow motion] “craaaaayzeeee.” I really loved that; my grandparents didn’t like it as much. That’s my earliest memory of music.

John W. Schaum: “Bone Sweet Bone”

I started taking keyboard lessons when I was 7. This woman, Mrs. Fox, came over and she could not sing in tune for the life of her. We had a little Hammond organ in the dining room, and I’d play from a book that had songs like “Bone Sweet Bone.” And I would play really loud because I knew she’d be singing totally out of tune: “Bone sweet bone, sing it loud and long.” I actually used that line in a Devo song called “Dogs of Democracy.”

The Buggs: “Mersey Mercy”

With five kids, the way my dad kept everybody under control at dinnertime was by putting a little portable black-and-white TV in the kitchen, and we would just watch and shut up. That’s where I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. They started playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and I lost my mind. I went, “Oh my God, that’s why I’ve been tortured with organ lessons my whole life, so I could do that.”
Right around that same time, I went to Woolworth’s with my 25-cents-per-week allowance. The Beatles had all these records, and I was like, “Oh man, how do you choose?” All their albums were like $3.99, but then I saw one that was only $1.99. So I bought that record, The Beetle Beat, put it on, and thought, They didn’t play that on Ed Sullivan. Then I hit “Mersey Mercy,” where they go, “You’ve got me bug bug bug bug bugged/Because now little ladybug, you belong to me!” and I went, “OK, that’s way too stupid for the Beatles.” Finally, I realized it said “The Buggs” in big letters up at the top of the record.
Many years later, in the ’70s, I had this little PAiA sequencer and a ring modulator that could make these really aggressive, nasty sounds. I wrote a song called “U Got Me Bugged” where I sang in this weird electronic voice. It was crazier than the Buggs’ version, that’s for sure.

Nino Rota: Fellini Satyricon Soundtrack

From 1968 through 1970, Kent State was an amazing place. They brought in people like Morton Subotnick, the experimental electronic music pioneer. Instead of seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the local theater, you could go see Fellini Satyricon, which blew my mind. That film had almost no dialogue and one of the most creative scores anybody ever did.
The students were saying, “Get America out of Vietnam. There’s no reason for us to be over there.” I didn’t want to go. I couldn’t think of one single Vietnamese person I would want to kill. There were a lot of demonstrations on campus, and in 1970, it got really intense. At one of the demonstrations, our government shot and killed four students, and that strongly affected me. Up until that summer, when the National Guard were putting down protesters all over the country, it felt like we could change things. When I came back in September, people were more somber. It was a very different place and it was sad to me.
But those were important years. I used to go print art at night and, at 3 a.m., post them all over campus. I was putting up this artwork that had astronauts holding potatoes and standing on the moon when I met this guy, Jerry Casale. He said, “What do potatoes mean to you?” And I go, “Who’s asking?” We hit it off. We did some visual art projects before the shootings, and then after that, the campus was closed down, so he’d come over to my place and we’d write music together. That’s when we decided that humans were the insane species on the planet.

“Have It Your Way” (1974 Burger King jingle)

I formed Devo with Jerry; we were thinking about de-evolution. After the shootings at Kent State, we realized that rebellion wasn’t the way to change things anymore. Once the government gets irritated enough, they just lock you up or kill you. There’s no such thing as democracy—it’s all just corporations and the ebb and flow of capitalism. We were thinking, “God, the way it’s going, we could have a movie star or a sports guy as president. People are getting stupider.”
I remember watching commercials at that time, and the one that really caught my attention was a Burger King commercial where they took Pachelbel’s Canon—one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written—and turned it into, “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce/Special orders don’t upset us/All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.” The campaign was so successful, we thought, What if we presented our ideas in a way that could burrow into mainstream music? We wanted to be subversive. We thought of Devo like an earwig. I liked the idea of using rock’n’roll to get into people’s heads. Pretty early on in Devo, I wrote a song called “Too Much Paranoias,” where I ranted, “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce!” I hope Burger King didn’t mind.

Dance Dance Dance VHS compilation of Indian music videos

Devo used to rehearse in Marina Del Rey and, on the way there, I’d go by the Little India section of Los Angeles. There was a grocery store that sold video compilations that were called Dance Dance Dance. Around 1980, these Indian performers started copying things from MTV, but their versions were surreal and a hundred times better. There was this one where a guy comes out and sings, “I’m a disco! Yeah, I’m a disco!” and he does these exaggerated macho dances. Then 50 women in white nurse outfits come out pushing baby buggies, and then they stop, and the babies jump out, and it’s 50 little people in diapers and beards singing and dancing. I was like, Man, there’s never been anything on MTV this good! We ended up writing a song called “Disco Dancer” because of that one.

Mark Isham: Film Music

Devo ended our relationship with Warner Bros. Records after our album Shout, which gave me time to do other things. When Paul Reubens asked me to score Pee-wee’s Playhouse, it really turned a light on in my head. I was used to doing these albums where you write 12 songs, rehearse them for a couple months, go into a recording studio for a few weeks, make videos, work on a stage set, design an album cover and outfits, go on tour. But with Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the company would send me a tape on Monday. On Tuesday, I’d write 12 songs. On Wednesday, I’d record them. On Thursday, I’d put it in the mail. On Friday, they would mix the music onto the picture, and on Saturday, we’d watch it on TV. It was so much more exciting than dealing with record companies, which I disliked very much.
There were a few people who influenced me in the world of composition. It seemed like a lot of scores all sounded alike—people all stole from each other or just used the same clichés. But Mark Isham had this beautiful way of bringing synthesizers into orchestral music. It was dreamy and beautiful—like a new voice had been added to the orchestra.

Mark Mothersbaugh: Muzik for Insomniaks

People would call me and say, “This is the next Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” And then they show it to you and you go, “That is not the next Pee-wee's Playhouse.” But then one of the shows that came up was Rugrats. It was created by a Hungarian artist, Gábor Csupó, who crossed over the Iron Curtain to L.A. in the ’80s. I liked the cartoon because the kids can’t communicate with their parents, but they can communicate with each other. I also liked it because they were so ugly: Tommy’s head looked like somebody had hit him with a baseball bat and left a dent, and he had these grotesque little limbs.
Gábor had a collection of records like Frank Zappa, but also Roedelius and Moebius and Eno—he liked all the far-out art stuff. He called me up and said, “Hey, can I use one of the songs from Muzik for Insomniaks for my show?” I did that album in the late ’80s, when I was going to Japan to produce and write songs for bands like the Plastics. I thought of Muzik for Insomniaks as music that I could listen to while I was doing artwork or thinking about other things.
For that album and for Rugrats, I used a Fairlight—an early sequencer where you could sample a trumpet or violin or guitar, and it would sound like a real instrument for a split second. But as you play the same note up and down the keyboard, eventually your head goes, That’s not what a violin sounds like. You know how instead of having real wood panels, some places have those sheets of pressboard with vinyl plastic on one side that looks like synthetic wood? That’s what the Fairlight sounded like to me.

The Kinks: “Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ’Bout That Girl”

I got a call from a movie studio, and they said, “Hey Mark, there’s this director we’re making a film with. There’s only one composer he wants to work with, and it’s you.” I go, “Really? Well, let me see his film.” So I went to a screening of Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s first movie. I was really impressed, and I thought, This guy has a point of view that’s really necessary now.
Wes was very hands-on with everything. He’d come and sit in the studio with me, and now and then he’d pick up a shaker or a bass guitar and hit a couple notes. I really respected that. He reminded me of me when I was starting Devo. With every one of the movies we did together, Wes would come in earlier and earlier in the process and start hanging out in the studio. He introduced me to some of the more esoteric song choices he included in his films. When we did Rushmore, I was like, “I know the Kinks really well but I’ve never heard this song before.”

Spike Jones

Early on with Pee-wee’s Playhouse, I was inspired by Spike Jones, who used all sorts of sound effects in his band back in the ’40s and ’50s. I was collecting instruments everywhere I could get them. I have one of only 13 Ondiolines in the world. I got it from Pink Floyd, who were throwing it away before they went on tour in 1980. I started buying circuit-bent Fisher Price toys and crazy homemade sound machines. I decided I wanted to make some things, too.
I found a setup with six keyboards the length of a dining room table. The way it worked, everybody wore headphones and a teacher could use a controller to listen to each person playing separately. So I bought it and had my brother Bob, Devo’s first drummer, refurbish it so I could have six people play around a circle with a counter in the middle of the table so they could keep time. I ended up doing museum tours with it.

Seu Jorge: The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions

When we were working on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes said, “Mark, I think I’m going to put a composer in the movie. On the boat, their scientific stuff and their cameras are all about 15 years behind the time. What kind of music equipment would the boat’s composer have?” I go, “Well, that’s about the time period of Devo.” I had all of Devo’s old gear in the basement, so we went and pulled out an Oberheim TVS-1, the synth that I used to write “Ping Island” for the movie. Around that same time, Wes said, “In the film, Seu Jorge is going to be singing either Devo or David Bowie songs in Portuguese.” He just threw it out there for me, and I didn’t jump on it. They ended up using Ziggy Stardust for the source music. I wish I had been involved in that.

Antique bird calls and organ pipes

I was fascinated with the art movements happening in Europe between World War I and World War II. The Italian Futurists’ credo was that the modern orchestra did not have the instruments required to create music that properly represented industrial society. They said, “Industrial society needs new instruments to make new sounds.” It made me think about that in my world.
I collect all these esoteric noisemakers, which include about 300 different bird calls. I started playing them for [Wes Anderson’s] Moonrise Kingdom, and then I became obsessed with the idea of writing music for bird calls. I had also been collecting organ pipes because, 10 years ago, I started noticing that they were decommissioning them all over the world and selling the parts. I saw people cutting them up and posting on eBay, “Here’s a spice rack made out of an 1888 pipe organ!” That freaked me out, so I started buying them by the hundreds. I made instruments with a metal frame and all these pipes sticking out of it. I made one out of tuned doorbells. Another one had 60 bird calls. It went back to my interest in the Futurists—the idea of writing music that was not determined by what you could buy at a music store.

Instructional square-dancing 45s

We used to write beatnik acid lyrics in the early Devo days, and I still write like that a lot. I had these older lyrics, so I started applying them to old square-dancing records. They’re like 10 cents on eBay, just fucking cheap. On one side, they’ll have somebody going, “Oh twist your lady round and round, put her in the back and bring her up, two foot forward, two foot back.” It’s just some stupid song over a hillbilly band, and the instrumental version would be on the other side.
I’d take these square-dance records, put synths over it, and sing my own lyrics. We had a performance at a Cincinnati museum with 90-year-old square dancers dancing to songs I made, and they’re mixing with Devo fans and Rugrats fans and Wes Anderson fans. It was so awesome. Every now and then I go back and listen to another 20 square-dancing records, looking for one that would be perfect to work with.

Right after the shootings at Kent State, I read this book called The Population Bomb that pretty much predicted the pandemic that we’re going through right now, just because of humans sucking up everything on the planet and getting to a point where there were just too many of us. This might be a time when people stop and think that maybe there’s something missing in what we were doing before—maybe we’re getting something wrong. What could we do to change that? I would like people to at least think about the possibility of being a better human. It’d be nice if we were more in touch with the planet; it does make a difference if we kill all the walruses. The most sensible response would be to understand that we all interrelate, and if you want freedom of choice, there’s more freedom in using your mind than there is in ignoring reality. I can’t say for sure who I’m going to listen to as I turn 70, but I can say that’s what I’m looking for.