Devo explores its earliest sounds at St. Charles' Arcada show
Let's travel back in time for a moment -- to Akron, Ohio, circa 1975.
The country was reeling, scarred by more than a decade of social protest, violence both at home and overseas, and political scandals that reached the highest levels of government.
Against this backdrop, a group of brainy and politically energized friends started making music in an Akron basement.
It didn't sound like the pop music of the day. The songs were raw and weird -- a jarring mix of guitar, synthesizer and bass. The lyrics dripped with the friends' caustic, sometimes absurdist humor.
Flash forward more than 40 years. Those Ohio natives are now known as the experimental punk/new wave band Devo. And they'll appear Saturday, June 21, at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles to play their early "basement music."
"Why not? The world is just as screwed up, if not more so," says a chuckling Gerald Casale, Devo bassist, singer and co-founder, during a recent phone interview. "The times seem right for us to play a song called 'I'm a Potato,' you know? But honestly, I do like going back to that stuff. Playing it again is sometimes shocking, sometimes embarrassing, but always cathartic. It was a time when we weren't afraid to be foolish or transgressive."
Devo recently reissued the early material on vinyl and CD in a set titled "Hardcore Devo." The songs predate the band's classic Warner Bros. debut album from 1978, though some of the "Hardcore" tracks, like the nerd anthem "Jocko Homo" and the band's angular cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," would appear on the debut in slightly different forms.
Casale said that when he first started diving into the old tapes in preparation for the "Hardcore" release, he was struck by how contemporary the music sounded.
"We were doing our own version of the White Stripes, long before there was a White Stripes," he said, referring to the minimal nature of the music. "It was really raw, with some whacked-out sounds from the guitar lines, the synth. I think younger fans in particular might find that they really like it."
Devo emerged from the campus of Kent State University in Ohio, where Casale used the term "Devo," short for "devolution," to refer to a number of satirical art projects he and a friend developed as students.
Many of those projects, which attempted to show that humans were actually becoming less sophisticated with the passing of time, were played for laughs. But Casale's outlook on his work, and just about everything else, changed on May 4, 1970, when soldiers in the Ohio National Guard killed four Kent State students during an anti-war protest. Two of the four were friends of Casale's.
"It was so awful, so infuriating," he said. "It made me think differently about the art I was doing. I became more engaged. That's when the idea for the band started to take hold. "
The core of Devo was two sets of brothers -- the Casales, Gerald and Bob, and the Mothersbaughs, Mark and Bob. Other members would move in and out, including another Mothersbaugh brother, Jim, and the late Alan Myers, who played drums in Devo for most of the 1980s and died in 2013. (In February of this year, the band lost guitarist Bob Casale to heart failure. Gerald Casale said Devo's current tour is raising money for his younger brother's family.)
Devo's early sound was a guitar-driven mix of punk and new wave. Over time, synthesizers and dance rhythms became more prominent. What remained constant throughout was the humor -- sometimes ironic, sometimes confrontational -- and the desire to provoke. That came through not just in the music, but also in Devo's striking visual approach, which included the wearing of strange uniforms onstage.
"We were fighting against the blandness and conformity you see in so much of American life," Casale said. "We were trying to get people to use their brains a little bit." He laughs. "Maybe it was a losing battle."
Devo never conquered the pop charts -- the group's only big hit was the iconic, and subversive, 1980 single, "Whip It" -- but its albums earned critical acclaim and helped the band cultivate a devoted following. Its songs have been covered by bands like Nirvana and Superchunk, and Devo's early exploration of electronic sounds was a clear antecedent to current stars like Skrillex.
Today, the band members all pursue other interests in addition to Devo. Casale, for example, is a music-video director and wine enthusiast, among other things. But playing together as a band remains an important outlet for all of them, Casale said.
"I've always made music because I love doing it," he said. "That hasn't changed. I'm still me. And this 'Hardcore' material we're doing now really feels great. Parts of it are bizarre and politically incorrect, but it was all created in a very open, collaborative atmosphere, and it was fun. I hope that part of it still comes through."
DevoWhen: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 21
Where: Arcada Theatre, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles, oshows.com
Tickets: Start at $59