Devo and the focus-grouped comeback album
Monday night, Devo will publicly launch the marketing campaign for its forthcoming album -- its first in 20 years -- when the Los Angeles-via-Ohio band performs at the Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. With the release of the album not due until the spring, the Olympics appearance won't be the grand unveiling of new material, which principal Gerald Casale promises will occur at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. But if all goes according to plan, the path leading up to the final product may make for a better story, anyway.
Casale speaks of Devo's May release, which the band has narrowed down to three possible titles, as somewhat of a formality. It's one aspect of a recently signed all-encompassing merch, music and tour record deal with Warner Bros., but the forthcoming album isn't necessarily the centerpiece.
"People still do that," Casale said of releasing a new CD. "We don’t feel it’s very important. I don’t know how many people buy CDs. When you look at the number of downloads Lady Gaga had compared to hard physical product, it’s 100,000 to one. That’s the way people get their music. This idea of the precious order of a 12-song CD is passe. It’s over. People go and get what they want off the Internet and the put it on their iPod and shuffle it."
That's one reason why Casale said the band won't be making the final decision on the songs and track-listing for its upcoming album. Instead, he said, the band will trust the consensus reached by those polled by an advertising agency. Casale said the new-wave pioneers have retained a company called Mother L.A. and that the firm will present focus groups with multiple mixes of new songs.
"It’s an art experiment," Casale said. "The experiment is the business of art. It’s always there, but nobody ever talks about it."
Of course, Devo has championed the theatricality in marketing for much of its career, making it a sort of mission statement. When the famously red-domed band released its first single in 17 years in 2007, it did so via a Dell commercial, and the band's Mark Mothersbaugh, via his Mutato Muzika company, has long celebrated the art of advertising, having scored numerous commercials.
If Devo would seem to have a handle on anything, marketing would appear to be at the top of the list. "It’s just fun, to use business as part of the creative process, even if it’s satirical," Casale said. "Devo is just real now. Devo is not ahead of its time. Devo is not scary or shocking. ... We’re the house band on the Titanic, and we’re here to entertain as we all go down."
Mother L.A. is unlisted, and the company's website is full of generic stock photos. Devo is the only client named on the firm's roster, and Casale declined to answer how fans who want to take part in the focus groups would go about such a task. To further interject an air of cynicism here, the L.A. Weekly has already revealed that Mutato has some ad agency vets in its ranks. A Warner Bros. spokesman promised that the label is indeed working with an advertising firm named Mother L.A. on the album
In response to our skepticism, Casale said it will all eventually be made available for viewing. The alternate takes of each song, Casale said, will likely make their way to release as well. "We’ll put this on YouTube, so people will see what happened, and then we’ll also put out bonus tracks of the non-focus-group-approved music," he said.
"For anyone who is interested, we’d like to let them examine this as an open book," he continued. "Here’s our first demos, and here’s the songs that never reached anybody, and here’s the ones the focus group didn’t like."
As for the music, Devo worked with an assortment of name producers on the new material. Santigold, the Dust Brothers' John King, and the Bird and the Bee's Greg Kurstin are among the artists who contributed. With Devo's dance-informed-rock having come in vogue again, Casale said the members wanted to go to those who point to the band as influence, intending to find out what "their idea of Devo was."
"When we were new, we were shocking and so different, only we owned that aesthetic," Casale said. "Now a lot of bands cite Devo as their influence. A lot of music sounds like Devo, especially a lot of the new music from groups like the Ting Tings, the Kills, LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip. We love that stuff. It sounds like the kind of energy we had in the beginning."
It was Kurstin, who recently produced Lily Allen's "It's Not Me, It's You," who brought the biggest changes to Devo's sound. "In terms of surprise factor, Greg Kurstin was the most transformative," Casale said. "He brought a kind of sparkle to the sound itself. It still sounds like Devo, but it sounds very contemporary."
Yet in terms of what to expect, Casale isn't completely tipping his hand, although longtime fans may find some changes shocking. When the act performs Monday night at the Olympics, for instance, its headgear is expected to be blue.
"You couldn’t get more of a broad-spectrum audience than the Olympics," Casale said. "People aren’t there to see Devo; they’re there to experience the Olympics. It’s like a cold call in business. They’re not there to cheer for you."
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Screenshot of Devo's new website.