Gerald Casale of Devo
While attending the 2010 FALL FRENZY in Tempe, Arizona, I was lucky enough to steal a few minutes with Devo founder Gerald Casale.
Pop Bitez: So, how does it feel now that you’re considered the most prophetic band in music history?
Gerald Casale: (chuckles and sighs) It’s a heavy burden, it isn’t as if anyone gave us a big honorarium for being right.
PB: And you’re still convinced we’re devolving, is that correct?
GC: Well, It looks like we’re reaching pretty close to the bottom.
PB: You recently described yourselves as the “house band on the Titanic.”
GC: It’s true, but it’s important to remember, everyone was happy the band was there. We’re just entertaining everybody as we all go down.
PB: And who, in your opinion, is the loosest cannon on our current ship of fools?
GC: I think, hands down, Ahmadinejad wins that title.
PB: When Devo were first starting out, pop music had a certain kind of irreverence to it. With yourselves and also with bands like The Tubes and The Talking Heads, it was political, there was still a message but, most importantly, it was fun. Is it just me or does it seem like rock and roll has lost it’s sense of humor?
GC: (laughing) You are correct my friend.
PB: So, what do you think happened?
GC: I’m not sure, you’d have to ask Eminem.
PB: SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY is your first full album release in 20 years and much has been made of your “comeback,” but you guys never actually went away, you continued to work, sporadically, with some soundtrack work and occasional concerts throughout those twenty years so, I guess the real question is, what was the deciding factor, after all of that intermittent work, that made you finally commit to a full release?
GC: Well, it just seemed like you needed the Devo voice back in the market place, since devolution is real and since nobody has a musical sense of humor anymore.
PB: Is there anyone on the contemporary music scene you’re listening to these days?
GC: Oh sure, I like LCD Soundsystem, MGMT and I’m really enjoying Janelle Monae, she’s great.
PB: Thanks for your time, Gerald.
GC: Thank you, Scott.
Colin Hay, Still Working After All These Years
In another day and age, it would not be hard to imagine singer/songwriter Colin Hay as a traveling minstrel, a jester cutting ‘em up in the King’s court and then closing with a tune that would bring a tear or two to the eyes of the Queen.Recently, I was fortunate enough to catch his act, in a packed but still intimate setting in Arizona, and this was the thought I found myself returning to several times throughout the course of the evening.
When Hay first took the stage he didn’t open with a big “remember when” hit, as some might expect. He didn’t open with a jaunty track from his latest release, as many of us are accustomed to seeing, but rather he opened with a casual and very funny five minute monologue which eventually segued into his beautiful a cappella pop madrigal “I Don’t Know Why.” From that moment on all bets were off and in an instant it had become clear, this wasn’t going to be your typical singer/songwriter show but rather one you’d remember, quite possibly, for years to come, as I’m certain I will.
Most of you will remember Colin Hay as the frontman and main songwriter of Men at Work, the iconic Australian rock band that dominated video channels and the radio in the 80s. To this day they are the only Australian act to have a simultaneous #1 album and #1 single in the United States (BUSINESS AS USUAL and “Down Under” respectively). They won the 1983 Grammy Award for Best New Artist and sold over 30 million albums worldwide. Men at Work’s greatest hits include: “Who Can it Be Now?,” “Down Under,” “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive,” “Be Good Johnny,” “It’s a Mistake” and “Overkill,” which was featured most recently in one of the more memorable episodes of the hit series SCRUBS.
Since the break up of Men at Work Colin has been writing, recording and touring as a solo act for the last several years and has developed a very loyal and dedicated fan base. His albums have garnered largely solid reviews and his songs have been featured in commercials as well as the soundtracks to SCRUBS and the multi-platinum selling GARDEN STATE, which went on to win the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Media.
Before we get to my interview with the man from “Down Under,” let’s take a few minutes to check out one of Colin’s more recent videos, from 2007, “Are You Lookin’ At Me?”
Pop Bitez: So you’ve been traveling light these last few years and, with the exception of the few dates you have with your full band, it looks like the bulk of your tour is just you, your guitar and the open road. In your five minute autobiography, specifically the tune “Are You Lookin’ At Me?,” you make the reference, more than once, to living the life of a cowboy, is that how you feel traveling cross country by yourself like this?
Colin Hay: (laughing) No, I don’t really feel much like a cowboy, I don’t think I’d make a good cowboy actually. No, I have a band with me part of the time but the solo thing is the main thing. It’s really been circumstantial more than anything else. When the band broke up [Men at Work] people would make offers for me to come and play but the offers weren’t really much so I couldn’t really afford to take a band, otherwise I would have. So I started playing solo, many years ago, twenty years actually, and people seemed to respond to that. They really liked it so I just kept doing it and it’s been building ever since, it’s been building quite slowly, slowly but surely, and I’ve been gathering bigger and bigger audiences. It also helped to get my songs on the television shows.
PB: Right, SCRUBS in particular, how exactly did that all come about?
CH: Well actually that came from playing the live shows and Zach Braff and myself have a mutual friend. I didn’t know Zach very well but I’d see him occasionally at my friend’s house, before he was on SCRUBS actually, and he had my CDs and came to a couple of shows and then, when he got the role on SCRUBS he took my CDs to the producer and creator of the show, Bill Lawrence, and he came down to see me play and he asked me “Why aren’t these songs on the radio?” and I said, “That’s a good question, I don’t really have an answer for that” and he said “Well I’m going to use a bunch of your songs on my television show and we’ll see if it makes a difference because I think they should be heard,” and so that’s what he did.
PB: And it worked out well.
CH: Yes, it did.
*In case you didn’t see the episode we’re talking about, here’s the clip for you!
PB: I was reading your bio and you list a lot of different musicians as influences, but you’ve also got Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in there. How exactly do they figure into the Colin Hay mix?
CH: Oh yeah, they were fantastic. There was a show on when I was growing up in Scotland called NOT ONLY BUT ALSO. It was one of the original sketch comedy shows on television and there was some really fantastic writing. I think Cook may have written a lot of that, and then Dudley would play piano as well and they’d always have a musical act and it was always someone great like early Joe Cocker and all that kind of stuff. It was fantastic.
PB: Humor also seemed to play a big part in your early music videos as well.
CH: Yeah, sure, as far as Men At Work are concerned. Greg Ham and I grew up on Monty Python and the Beatles and there was a lot of irreverence and humor in that era, so I think that influenced us in not taking it all too seriously….though we were quite serious about it.
PB: In reading some of the message boards and reviews regarding your current tour, I was surprised to discover one of the big topics of discussion is your sense of humor and storytelling, it actually sounds like the humor is as much a part of the show as the music, is that right?
CH: Well, my father was a funny man and, you know, humor’s a big part of being human I think, and then Scotland’s full of funny people but, of course, taking it onstage is a whole other thing. When the band first broke up I went from playing to a lot of people back to virtually hardly playing to anybody and in some ways I felt an explanation was necessary, (laughs) there was something conspiratorial about it, I would talk to the audience and say, “yeah, wow, I’ll tell ya what happened to me..” and because maybe there were fifty people in the room, and a year or two before that I was playing to 150,000 people for example, there was a story to be told. You know you can look at like I had a fall from grace or you can just think “well..that’s just what happened to me.” You know I was back to playing to small audiences, so that’s where it started really, I just started to tell people about situations I’d been in and characters that I’d met and it was funny and hopefully somewhat interesting to people. So they started to laugh and of course there’s nothing more encouraging than getting a laugh, so I just kept it going and that’s pretty much what my show is now, it’s basically a document of what’s going on with me and other people that I see and some of it’s based on truth and some of it’s just a pack of lies, but it’s up to people to figure that out. (laughs) I’m not really going to tell you which is which and sometimes I can’t even remember myself; it all gets a bit blurry after awhile.
PB: Is it just me or does it seem like pop music has lost a bit of it’s sense of humor over the years?
CH: I don’t know, there seems to be a different attitude towards humor these days. If you say something funny now to someone they may say “that’s funny” but they might forget to laugh. (laughs) Everyone’s so busy, they move on quicker. I know what you mean, it does seem to be a bit of a serious affair. Maybe it’s just darker times that we’re in right now, it certainly seems that way.
PB: Your latest album AMERICAN SUNSHINE, feels very open, sort of like you wrote it all under a big sky while traveling from town to town. Do you do a lot of your writing on the road?
CH: Well, I try to write songs wherever they strike and sometimes you get germs of songs no matter where you are, like when you’re driving on a long stretch say from Florida up the east coast of the states and there’s often these quite bizarre sayings on billboards, you know, like “Liquor and Fireworks!” I don’t know why they’d put them together really. It’s like, “Oh, I’m all out, I might as well stop off and pick up some liquor that’ll kill me and just before I go I’ll set off a few rockets!”
PB: (laughing) And you can’t make that stuff up.
CH: Well, that’s the interesting thing about going to different places and being exposed to people’s perspectives which are somewhat different from your own. The Beatles got “Happiness is a Warm Gun” like that I think, from a sign or a billboard.
PB: Now with this latest record I understand you actually collaborated on a few tracks, is that right?
CH: Yeah, the first two tracks on AMERICAN SUNSHINE, “Oh California” and “Prison Time,” were written with a friend of mine, Michael Georgiades who lives up the road from me in Topanga. He’s a great songwriter and in a lot of ways he kind of opened a door for me in songwriting. You know I write a lot of songs by myself and I like doing that and I will keep doing that but I think, in my life, I’ve met two or three people that I have a songwriting connection with and he’s one of those people. He’s a little bit older than me but he’s a Californian and I’m fascinated by the way he was brought up and that time, you know. He was around at the same time the Beach Boys were around and he was friends with the Eagles and was in a band that opened for The Doors in 1968. He has a lot of California history. I really like writing with him because he has that perspective I don’t have.
PB: And, of course, your perspective comes from being born in Scotland and then spending most of your youth in Australia.
PB: And you’ve been living mostly in America for the last twenty years or so, what made you decide to settle in the states?
CH: I like it here.
PB: Well sure, there’s a lot to like, I can see that, but I’m a native, I guess the real question is, what exactly makes a Scotsman from “Down Under” plant himself in Topanga Canyon, California?
CH: Well, when I first came it wasn’t so much I was coming TO America, I was really running AWAY from Australia because I was having problems there. I had a drinking problem, I was getting a divorce and I had a record deal based in L.A. and everything was pointing away from Melbourne, at that particular time, and everything was pointing towards Los Angeles in a way, and that’s where I found myself. I liked it and everyone I seemed to meet was in some sort of process of recovery, and I know there’s a satirical element to that, everyone winding up in AA meetings as a means to socially network or pick up meetings, but when I went to them I really needed to go and being in Los Angeles wiped the slate clean and helped me start again.
PB: Lately, quite a few of your contemporaries have been writing for the stage, Bono and The Edge have SPIDERMAN coming to Broadway next month and Green Day have AMERICAN IDIOT on the boards right now, is writing for the stage something you’ve ever considered?
CH: Yeah, well, some musicals are OK but, traditionally I’ve never been a huge fan of that format…. but I do like theater…. I like curtains….. I like when they draw the curtains….. it’s a nice thespian experience (laughs). I actually did try to do my own show a few years ago in an off-Broadway theater. A New York producer liked my show and said “Look, this should be seen by a lot more people” but it didn’t turn into the huge, massive, heaving success he was hoping it was going to be. It was anecdotal performance and it was a theater piece and that’s actually what I’m trying to move towards now, definitely, I’m doing that at the moment actually, I’m working on shaping it all and I’m going to try and put my show into small theaters in the coming year I think.
PB: My column, Pop Bitez, is built around all things “pop” so I’m going to throw a few of those obligatory questions at you now. First, do you have any pop culture guilty pleasures you’d care to share?
CH: A guilty pleasure..hmmm…I don’t really feel guilty about it but, I do find a couple of songs by Miley Cyrus quite appealing.
PB: OK, you’re stranded on a desert island, what are the five albums you’d want to have with you?
CH: Must they be albums? Can I not take women instead? I’d much rather have women than albums.
PB: And you could make your own beautiful music together!
CH: Exactly! Alright, I would take ABBEY ROAD, I would take an album called DIRT FLOOR by Chris Whitley, I would take THE BEST OF OTIS REDDING, Stevie Wonder’s SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE and a box set of Joni Mitchell.
PB: Do you still keep in touch with any of the guys from Men At Work?
CH: Yeah, I still see Greg Ham when I go back to Melbourne, that’s pretty much it.
PB: Looking back on the Men At Work days, what would you say is your fondest memory from that time?
CH: I have a lot of great memories of that whole experience. More than specific memories there are periods of time that really stick out in my mind, like when we started to come up with “a sound” and I seemed to be writing a lot of songs that I liked, like “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake” that just sort of started popping out. And then we did a tour in 1981, before we took off for America and other parts of the world, we did a tour up the coast of Australia. It was so amazing and I still remember it as being my favorite Men At Work tour because it was before we got famous and people seemed to know what was going to happen to us and, you know, it was that period of ascension which is often the most exciting part of anything.
PB: The journey as opposed to the arrival…
CH: Right. One of the other great memories I have is playing at The Apollo Theater in Glasgow, which actually isn’t there anymore, because it was sort of a homecoming for me and I hadn’t been back to Scotland since I’d left when I was 14 and I went back sixteen years later and I remember walking out on the stage and, you know, the crowd were kind of going wild and I walked out and they kinda got quiet and I said, “Well, it’s nice to be home” and the crowd practically took the roof off, it was a pretty exciting moment. The Grammy experience was a pretty exciting moment as well, you know, but even more than that I think the first time we appeared on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. We were number three on the charts that Friday and then we went on the telly that Saturday and the next Friday we went number one, that was pretty exciting, plus people like Eddie Murphy were on the show at that time.
*Here’s the clip from Saturday Night Live for you Popsters, check it out!
PB: If I can reference your tune “Are You Looking At Me” once more, in the last verse you say, “I know more than one thing, but not more than two or three and I’ll tell you if you’ll listen, and I’ll tell you for free,” and this brings me to my final question, what do you know? Do you have a mantra or a life’s philosophy that you’d like to share?
CH: (laughs) I don’t really have a mantra exactly. I don’t know, sometimes I find myself mumbling “live forever” when I’m exercising or trying to run a little farther than the day before. I’ll tell ya what I’ve been thinking lately, I’ve been trying to grasp the idea of multiple universes as opposed to just this one. I just started reading THE GRAND DESIGN by Stephen Hawking and I’m trying to make sense of what he’s putting forward in that book and I just keep getting blown away by how little I know about anything. (laughs) But I find great joy in that. In a lot of ways I find great peace in the fact that I know virtually nothing about anything. These days everyone claims to know everything and they claim to know what’s going to happen after you die and I have no fucking idea whatsoever what’s going to happen next week or even in the next few seconds and I certainly don’t claim to know what’s going to happen after we go. As far as I can tell, no one has come back to let us know, so it’s all a big mystery to me and I suppose that’s what I take delight in because it tends to bring you back to the present. All we really have is the moment.
AMERICAN SUNSHINE is currently available at Amazon.com and iTunes and his new DVD, COLIN HAY LIVE AT THE CORNER is available through Amazon and at his website http://www.colinhay.com/
PB: So I have to ask, you’ve been doing a lot of touring lately, what do you miss the most about the Windy City when you’re on the road?
Greta: Well, I definitely don’t miss the weather. We’ve been on tour for the last two months, through all of January and February so we’ve been really lucky to miss all of that but I do miss the people, my friends and family.
PB: Your album SUMMER HOUSE really has a sunny California vibe, are there songs that you don’t think you could have written in Chicago?
Greta: Well, yeah, I’d been living in L.A. for a year and while I was there I wrote “Perfect In My Mind” and “Make Me Stay” and they definitely had a west coast feel to them but, the most “California” song on the album is “Safe In L.A.” which our guitar player, Eric Hehr, brought to the band and he actually didn’t write it while he was living there, I think it was just more “the vision”.
PB: I recently had one of your videos on my Facebook page, I think it was “We’re On the Run” and one of my friends commented that he thought he heard a Deborah Harry influence in your vocal style.
Greta: Oh that’s cool!
Dan: We dig Blondie.
Greta: We actually had a contest recently, to win a copy of our new album on vinyl, we asked people to describe Gold Motel in a five word phrase and the one we picked was “Beach Blanket Bingo with Blondie”, we thought that was kind of cool and there was another we liked that was “Sunshine Warms the Brill Building” .
PB: Those are both excellent descriptions. When I first heard the album I thought, “this is a perfect album for a pool party”.
Greta: Yeah, it’s supposed to be kind of like that careless excitement of summer when you’re young.
PB: It feels like indie bands in particular are bringing a sense of fun back into mix, maybe it’s just me but it feels like popular music has been unusually dark for the last few years.
Dan: Yeah, it’s been a little weighed down and heavy, with reverb and slower tempos, it’s very serious.
PB: So who would you say are some of your biggest influences?
Dan: Motown mixed with Spoon
Greta: And we reference both Blondie and Fleetwood Mac on our 7 inch record, the first song called “Cold Shoulders” definitely hints at Blondie and then the second track definitely hints at a slow groove Fleetwood Mac song.
PB: How is it for an indie band not being supported by a major label, is it all about the internet and youtube?
Greta: Yeah, it’s definitely about social media and opening for larger artists and that kind of thing, I think the blessing is we own all of our music, we own the master and all of the the publishing and that’s the biggest blessing of doing it independently and the biggest curse is the labels have money to fund their bands on tour and to pay for their bands to be on really big tours and they have an advertising budget and that kind of thing, whereas we’re personally paying our publicist, personally paying any losses if we do any long tours….
Dan: We’re really lucky that we’ve found endorsements, we get our guitar strings for free now or we get our music on a commercial that helps to pay for that stuff, we’re lucky our manager could do that for us because if we didn’t we’d be screwed.
PB: Are you getting a lot of college radio airplay?
Greta: Yeah, we did a big college campaign and that was purposeful, there’s a company called Terrorbird who did all of that for us, essentially we’re just hiring the team we’d have at a record label, you know we have someone to do our distribution and our radio campaign and all of that. It’s really cool to see a band like Arcade Fire win a Grammy because they own their album, they’ve owned all of their albums, they’ve done licensing deals to merge but they own the rights, no one controls the songs but them, it’s a very cool thing to see an indie band get a spotlight like that.
PB: Now, Greta, a lot of indie music fans know you best from your previous band, The Hush Sound, are you guys actually still together?
Greta: We are saying we’re on indefinite hiatus, pretty much so we don’t sound like ass holes if we decide to do one show here and there, so we didn’t want to say we’ve broken up, we figured we’re too young to close the door forever but Gold Motel really has my full commitment and focus right now.
PB: I like the Hush Sound but I was actually hoping you were going to say that.
Greta: Yeah, we’re definitely in this to win it.
PB: And Dan, your previous band This Is Me Smiling, what’s the story there?
Dan: Actually myself, the drummer and the bass player are still in that band but it’s more of a recording project where we just release music, we don’t really tour or anything but it’s still on going.
PB: Are you doing any writing while you’re on the road?
Dan: Yeah, we were just in california for a couple weeks, we just hung out and wrote for a little while, we’ve got about half a record so far…
Greta: We recorded like 7 or 8 ideas and then what I put in the folder as “random jams”, you know, like all these ideas where we couldn’t really tell who started them, it was kind of like we all just got in a room together and just started playing and it was going places that were actually memorable and catchy and we’ll probably elaborate on those. It was fun, we were renting a house from the band Dawes while they’re on tour and it’s situated in the middle of the woods and we could play 24 hours a day without having any neighbors to complain.
PB: Now the two of you are the primary songwriters for the band is that right?
Greta: Well, Eric Hehr too…
Dan: The last record was primarily written by Greta and I did all the recording and produced it, she came in with all of the ideas, except for Eric’s “Safe in L.A.”, it’s definitely become more of a collective thing now…
Greta: …Dan and I wrote “Stealing the Moonlight” together.
PB: And collaborative art I think is a lot more difficult than most people realize, it almost requires an accidental synergy, doesn’t it?
Greta: Well, this time in L.A. was really cool because I really only had like 4 or 5 songs written when we got there and we worked through them and there was one that I intended to be kind of a slow groove and Adam started playing it like a fast rock and roll song, it’s cool to see how something I intended to be a ballad can be changed into a this big anthem like thing, I’m exited to see how the next album comes together.
PB: Writing on the road has to be a little difficult.
Greta: It is but I’m so disciplined when I’m home so, when we’re on the road, there’s always something to work on, like at home I write everyday and even if some of it is shit I still have something on tour that I can be thinking about like a lyric or “I need one stanza for one piece on that song that’s missing and now that I’m in the van I can work on it!”
PB: And discipline for a lot of artists can sometimes be like a speed bump in the road.
Greta: Well discipline makes it sound like I don’t enjoy it which is definitely not the case, I do, I really enjoy it but it’s like “alright I’m home and I’ve got a piano, if I’m not writing today I’m just a waste of space”
Dan: You gotta try sometimes…
Greta: …and Dan does that with recording without thinking twice, Dan’s constantly recording ideas…
Dan: … and a lot of it you throw out but it’s good to just keep the ball rolling, you know, if you sit around for too long you just start to get stagnent.
PB: So you’re not just waiting around for devine inspiration, you’re sitting down and saying “I have to try and do SOMETHING”?
Greta: I think it’s a combination of both.
Dan: Yeah, I can’t work without inspiration sometimes, it doesn’t happen that way for me.
Greta: I read this book called THE WAR OF ART and the author talks about how the difference between amateurs and professionals is that amateurs ONLY sit down when they’re inspired and that professionals sit down everyday and BECOME inspired and I think it’s a balance of that, I think definitely there are those moments of complete genius that just come out of the air around you, you know pop music is such a simple thing that you can write a verse and chorus and then stumble into this like genius idea in a matter of thirty seconds, so there is a certain amount of accidental genius but the more you sit down the more likely you are for that to actually happen.
Dan: For me the best songs always write themselves in like ten minutes, you keep it fresh by working all the time but then all of the sudden, I don’t know, just out of nowhere something will hit you.
Greta: I think I literally wrote “Who Will I Be Tonight” in something like ten minutes but then some of the other songs on the record took months and months of like slow, inspired revisions where it’s like “Oh, I have an idea, I’m going to sit down for five minutes.”
Dan: And you work on the lyrics over a long period of time, that’s what I do too.
Greta: Leonard Cohen talks about that, he said it took him more than five years to write “Hallelujah”. The way that he writes is that he’ll work on a song again and again and again until the revisions finally get the song to a point of where they’ve reached what he calls their “final inevitability”.
PB: So, what current bands are you listening to these days?
Dan: We’ve been listening to the new Toro Y Moi lately, they’re cool…
Greta: And a lot of Spoon…
Dan: …and the new Arcade Fire which is actually probably the least dark of their records, it’s definitely my favorite. Then we always go back to the old stuff, 50s stuff, like Sam Cooke.
PB: And when do you think you’ll get into the studio for the next album?
Greta: We’re planning to record this year in the late fall or early winter and then maybe release it early 2012. We’re also hoping to release another single this summer, either just one song and a video or maybe a seven inch we’re not sure yet.