Long before guys like Steve Jobs and Neil deGrasse Tyson helped geeks get their shine, Devo were flaunting their bookish background and turning the world’s idea of what rock stars look and sound like on its head. For the last 40 years cofounding bassist Jerry Casale shared the stage with his brother and Devo guitarist, Bob Casale (Bob 2), who suddenly passed from heart failure this past winter. The shocking loss has left Bob’s family in financial straits. Still reeling from their loss and looking to help how they can, the band is pulling out their earliest never-before-performed primordial synth material as a fundraiser for Bob’s family on Thursday June 19th at Best Buy Theater. We spoke with Jerry about losing his brother and bandmate Bob, being introduced on stage by David Bowie at Max’s Kansas City, making wine and looking to the past for the future.
See also: Oh, Yes, It’s Devo
You’re getting ready to go on tour and play all this 40-year-old material you’ve never played before. Why now?
It’s something we never did. Almost all of the songs were written between ’74 and ’77 and never saw the light of the day — certainly not live. All the early stuff was Devo being this insulated experimental basement band that nobody cared about. We mostly just played them in the basement long enough to record them on a four track. What happened was Superior Viaduct put a limited edition album on vinyl and CD called Hardcore and everything sold out. We found it all very bizarre as nobody sells albums today except Drake and Beyonce.
Bob and I were talking before he passed about, “Wouldn’t it be something if we played these songs?” We approached Mark [Mothersbaugh] and he thought, “Man, that’d be pretty cool because it’s just so wacked out.” People wouldn’t know what to make of it. Maybe they’ll throw beer bottles like they did in 1975. Nothing came of it and then my brother Bob died and I brought it up again with Mark and our agent and they said OK. Now it has a much grander purpose than our experimental roots. Now it’s going to raise money for Bob’s family who are in dire straits.
Are you nervous at all about this whole thing?
We’ve been going back and reexamining who in the heck we were in a more innocent time when no one cared who Devo was. I think it’s going to be a little bit unhinged and raw but that is how we started. This wouldn’t appeal to the crowd that just wants the same Devo show. In fact some may not like it and some might start screaming, “Whip It, Whip It,” but that’s not going to happen. We were the White Stripes and Black Keys when those guys were in diapers.
You’ve had a really big change with the loss of your brother and Devo guitarist Bob Casale. Has the band considered calling it quits?
Nobody’s talked about it, but we do know that if we’re going to try to play a show like we did a couple years ago, it’s very high-powered and swift and using the most popular songs from each record. That music is complex enough and sequencers lines and samples that we’d have to get someone to coexist with on stage that would do what Bob did. I have some candidates, but we’re not doing that right now. We’re sticking our necks out and doing it as the four of us.
The last Record Store Day, you released the Devo Live at Max’s Kansas City in 1977 album. Do you have any distinct memories?
We actually only played there three times, but every time was a big deal. Of course the last time was while David Bowie was in talks to produce our record (Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!) and he came on stage to introduce us. It was kind of over-the-top shocking the whole night. I just remember that we played without effort because the adrenalin rush had us so high.
Bowie wanted to produce the record but he kept delaying work because he had too many of his own projects going on at the time. By the time he pushed our recording dates for the third time, I had run out of patience and thought we were missing our point of entry. Just like how a space capsule has to enter back into the atmosphere at a certain point or it misses it forever. The Talking Heads had just put out their album 77 in December of 1977 and that was followed by the B-52s and I said “This is bullshit.” We communicated to David that we were going to have to go with someone else and he said he’d send Brian Eno to check us out and that we should talk with him. So that’s what happened. We hung out with Eno in New York and he said, “Let’s go do it.”
The idea of being a geek in the late ’70s carried a stigma, but Devo wore it as a badge of honor. Today you have guys like Steve Jobs and Neil DeGrasse Tyson that are considered heroes and roll models. Do you think the geeks won?
I do and I don’t. In a limited way, what won was a chance for people who valued information and innovation over power and mean spiritedness to win. If your ideas are good enough, you can win and I like to think that we paved the way for that. For the main part of society, we’re back to people not being interested in originality. Look at the music, look at the films. Everything is a franchise; everything is a reboot or a sequel.
You’ve worked in music and directed commercials and now you have a new venture with your own vineyard called 50 by 50.
It’s been a lifelong love and I’ve never had the opportunity. Then some people came forward with some money. If you’re a public figure, all too often you can make a celebrity project out of it. You can go up to Napa and find somebody to bottle a wine you have nothing to do with and just put your name on it.
Like KISS wine?
Yeah, this is the opposite of that.
Do you have any bottle suggestions for the discerning Village Voice reader?
I can tell you with the new climate that we live in, rose is hitting the spot right now. Of course there’s nothing better than a rose from Provence like Whispering Angel or Domain Ott. If you’re a person that has the tastes of a younger more aggressive macho guy that wants big, fruity, deep, hit you in the face red wine, as much as I love California wine, I’d have to advise a good French Bordeaux but a third or fourth growth unless you have deep pockets.
What do you think the future looks like for Devo?
That’s a good question since we’ve always been about the future. We don’t know. That’s why we’re doing this tour the way we’re doing it as just the four of us because we can’t deal with that right now. This tour is a healing process for the band and it’s going to be pretty cathartic and unhinged. They’ll never see something like this from Devo again.