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Interview with Mark Mothersbaugh

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Way back in 2005 I had the great fortune of speaking on the phone with a true innovator.  From my humble bedroom in the north end of Saint John, I spoke with none other than Mark Mothersbaugh at his recording studio in Los Angeles. Our subsequent interview was published in the print zine version of Nightwaves, but it never appeared here on the website. Until now. Here, finally, is the interview I conducted with this bold innovator. If nothing else, the biggest impression I got from speaking with this man was that he was very driven and very no-nonsense. I immediately understood how he had achieved such success.





       Mark Mothersbaugh is a musician, artist and visionary.  As one of the founding members of the legendary band Devo, Mark and his comrades gave hope to a legion of Spuds and suburban entities.  The music of Devo is, was and always will be smart, irreverent and nothing if not influential.

            Mark's talents are very much in demand as a provider of scores for many a film and television show.  His film credits include "Thirteen", "The Royal Tennenbaums", "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", "Bottle Rocket", "200 Cigarettes", and the recent "Herbie: Fully Loaded".  He also provided the score for the cult classic TV show "Pee Wee's Playhouse".  He is also very busy running his own production company called Mutato Muzika, and he finds time to create and exhibit his own artwork.  Plus, Devo still remains very much in demand, as they are currently engaged in a cross country tour.

            I was fortunate enough to recently catch up with this very busy man and ask him a few questions about his music, his art and his life.

Nightwaves:  How did the transition from making pop music to composing for TV and movies take place?


Mark Mothersbaugh:  It wasn't something that wasn't contemplated all along.  It mostly had to do with signing a bad record deal and kind of being put in suspended animation for a while with some other bands while the record company we had signed with went bankrupt.  At the same time, a friend of mine was doing a TV show called "Pee Wee's Playhouse" and he asked me if I would write a theme song and score the show for him.  Everything just kind of fell forward after that.


NW:  When you do a score, what's the process you take?  Is there a set method to doing it?  Do you start with a rhythm, a melody, a chord, how do you go about the process?


MM:  I think composers have different ways to get involved in it.  For me, I usually at least read the script and talk to the director and hopefully get to see picture because I'm really motivated by picture when it comes to what I write.  You can read a script and it can be the best script in the world or you could just see it as being shot in some particular style.  And then when you see the way that they've shot it and edited it and who's acting in it and everything that all bears relevance into what you write.  It usually starts with just getting to see what the project looks like.  Usually just after that I start writing sketches either directly to picture or just while I'm watching it or just after having read it or viewed it I write musical themes.  Usually some of those end up being the themes that are in the film…  not always, sometimes you have to do a pass and then start putting them against picture and then come up with a second idea.  I overwrite for everything.  I always feel more confident about my choices if I write something and then I take it a little bit further and then I try to think about it from another direction.  Maybe as if it was a different style of music or getting into a different character in the scene, following their beats instead, or just taking another attack at it.  So, I tend to overwrite.  Just about every movie I write I end up with about another movie's worth of music that just sits around with nowhere to go.  I mean, I'm sure there's people that go out there and put on the first reel and they watch the first 15 or 20 minutes of the movie and they just write for that.  Then they go to the next reel and they write for that.  I think that's how Stuart Copeland likes to work.  I know there's people that do that.  Depending on how complicated a film is, I also like to go through and find themes for characters.  I like to write that way, so I can tie characters together throughout the movie based on a theme, whether it's a sound or a melody or a rhythm or something that identifies them.


NW:  I find it very interesting that you seem to have a very strong knack and a very strong interest in the visual.  Not only do you dabble with visual art but Devo was always known as being an extremely visual band.  Many artists feel that music, inherently, has a very strong visual component.  Would you agree with that?


MM:  Yes!  I'm sure there's exceptions for different people for different reasons, but for me music stimulates memories of smells and sounds and everything.


NW:  Where did inspiration come for you for the "Beautiful Mutants" collection?  Was this something that you had been planning for a while?  How did that come about?


MM:  It was just something that I was always interested in.  "Beautiful Mutants" is a reference from Devo and the old days, we talked about the "Beautiful Mutants".  But as far as the images in this art, I've always kind of manipulated photographs as part of my visual art, and Devo, we manipulated photographs and film images in our artwork.  This was kind of a continuation that was based on just playing around with mirrors and looking at things that then became exact reflections.  So, instead of humans that are kind of vaguely symmetrical, this was literal symmetry where the two ears were exactly the same and the two eyes are exactly the same, and the left and the right nostril are exactly identical and it takes on a whole other look.  It becomes more like a Rorschach pattern.  I think it gives you an insight into what you're viewing.  When you split it and mirror it like that.  I originally experimented with trying to find ways to take pictures of things naturally using reflections where they met at the middle.  It was harder and tricky and I did it, but it wasn't always that great a look.  I tried pushing things out from under water so that you would get the reflection and using mirrors where you'd put something behind a mirror that only part of it was revealed.  Either a person or a leg or something.  I played around with the idea for some 20 years or so in my artwork and never took it that serious.  And about 6 or 7 years ago I started experimenting with these photographs and, I don't know, somehow it just really amused me and I really liked the way they came out.  It was interesting to find that you could split someone in half and they tended to have a lighter and a darker half.  There's one half of you that's not as flattering when you split it and mirror it and the other half can tend to be quite nice.  Even with people that you would either normally say that they are beautiful people or people that you would say "well, that's a plain looking person" or a downright butt ugly person, they have a side that's more pleasant and a side that's less pleasant.


NW:  I'm not sure exactly how you go about creating these visuals, but do you think that the new digital technology that's available is a good tool for artists such as yourself to employ to reach artwork such as that?


MM:  Well, it saves me a hell of a lot of time, I can say that.  It changed the way I did things and made them more "perfect".


NW:  Turning the clock back a ways, when Devo came out, back in the 70s there was a lot of middle-of-the-road, safe kind of stuff on the radio.  Would you say that Devo was a direct reaction to that?


MM:  We saw ourselves as being a pleasant alternative.  I don't see it as necessarily being reactionary as much as just thinking "well, your music doesn't have to be just stupid".  In the recent past, there had been other kinds of music that were more substantial.  I think what happened was with all the rebellion in the 60s, at the end of the 60s it kind of culminated with, you know, unrest on campus, shootings, we were at the first one of the shootings, Kent State, where four kids got killed.  I think what happened is, somewhere in there, everybody went "Oh wow, this is too real, we didn't mean it to turn into that".  We wanted to let people know that it was bad to be napalming children in Cambodia, but on the other hand we didn't really want to become outlaws or casualties ourselves.  It seemed like on a conscious level, the country kind of went back to sleep and the people that had a social conscience in this country kind of went away.  It allowed things culturally, on the pop end of our culture, things like disco and corporate rock both became very popular in North America.  Disco was just like, "you know what, let's don't think about the world, I was born to be alive, it's raining men".  Music that was kind of really great sounding music actually, catchy hooks and stuff, it was kind of like a beautiful woman with no brain.  Great sounds, infectious beats, and stupid lyrics.  And then corporate rock, which was kind of just another version of another way to hide from the world.  The message of bands like Styx and Foreignor and Kansas and Toto and things like that was "We're young, we're white, we're stupid, we're misogynistic, we're conspicuous consumers and we're proud of it".  The Bob Dylans were gone.  There wasn't any Bob Dylan of 1971 that was popular.


NW:  In terms of the music back then, who were you listening to?  Who were you really excited by?


MM:  What year?


NW:  Around the mid 70s.


MM:  In the early 70s it was people like Captain Beefheart.  I remember in 1968 thinking when I heard Captain Beefheart and the first Mothers of Invention album I went "Oh! Well then rock and roll is gone!  Rock and roll is over.  We've got something new here and this is great and I can't wait!".  And then they turned out to be just some marginal thing that never got much bigger than they were.  Probably the biggest that Zappa's ever got was "Valley Girl".  Of course the boys showed up on VH1 a lot, didn't they?  They had some talk show or something, I don't know exactly what they did but they became kind of cultural Corey Haim like characters in the musical world.


NW:  What sort of synths or gear do you use today and what did you favour back then?


MM:  The thing is, I'm old enough now where I'm not just starting off.  I still use old analogue gear.  When I did "Life Aquatic" with Wes Anderson, we went down in the basement and pulled out old Devo synths from 1970, 72, and set them up and got sounds off of these old things.  They sounded great, and they do sound different than Minimoog plug-ins and Arp 2600 plug-ins that don't sound like an Arp 2600, really.  They sound like one slice of a moment of an Arp 2600 on any particular setting.  And they're great if you're just looking for a shortcut, something that's close, but if you're really trying to get back into the feel and really sound like that time period, you really have to retrace paths back there.  Analogue recording gear is essential because when all is said and done, those "chopped off" frequencies of digital don't sound the same as tape and don't sound the same as vinyl, for sure.  I'm sure people ten years from now will go back and listen to records and they'll say "What the hell is this?! This doesn't sound at all like the music I remember!  This doesn't sound like Jimi Hendrix!  This is different!  This is strange!  It's not so clean anymore!". 


NW:  If you were to give any sort of advice to any up and coming bands or musicians in terms of making leeway into the music biz, what would you say to them?


MM:  I would say "you're in luck".  Because the old dinosaur, the hoary old dinosaur that has been around since people started buying records, it's finally been killed off fairly well.  There's still some dinosaurs thrashing around out there, and they're desperately trying to sell you CDs, and DVDs, and even vinyl now and then, but it's pretty much gone.  It was a corrupt and stupid way of disseminating music.  If you want to be a rock star, then you have to go back to 1970 I think, or 1980.  That would be my advice.  Take a time capsule and go backwards.  What I would do, if you want to be in the music business, or you want to be an artist, is just be an artist.  Use the internet.  If you need to market it, then market it through the internet.  If you need to give it away, then give it away through the internet.  Think of it as a labour of love.  That's your best chance to create something that other people need to hear.  The truth of the matter is there's so many people now, and they have so much gear, they are going to be servicing themselves better than anybody else on the planet.  If you're looking to be out there and to influence a lot of people, just write something that's so damn good and different and better than anything anybody else has ever written that no one could deny it, that it's got the primordial strength of the best of music.  Everybody would agree that it's a ridiculous time to be writing swing music, or to be writing big band music, or to be writing classical in the style of the masters of music, that area has been very well mined out.  The music is incredibly valuable and it's good to go hear performances and it's even nice that people still attempt to write in that style, but very few of them come up with something new.  Harry Connick Jr has a great voice and he's a very talented arranger, composer, but at his best, he'll never sound as good as Frank Sinatra.  What people have to do is they have to look at what's going on in their life right now, and write something that would resonate with our time and with where things are going.  And they have to make a good prediction.