Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh on his new eyewear line, revisiting old work
Mark Mothersbaugh is perhaps best known as the faintly cyborg front man for Devo, whose cybernetic synthesis of the organic and the electronic (not to mention their pointed critiques of consumerist culture) now seem—36 years since Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was first released—astoundingly prescient.
On the side, he’s composed and recorded soundtracks for dozens of movies, TV shows, and video games, scoring everything from Rushmore to Rugrats, as well as creating an impressive body of visual art. His latest venture is a line of frames that he designed alongside eyewear mogul Shane Baum, who calls him “a childhood hero” and “an insanely creative guy.”
Recently EW got Mothersbaugh on the phone to discuss Mothersbaugh x Baum, Devo’s latest tour, and the upcoming theatrical release of Neil Young’s 1982 film Human Highway, which includes the most fascinatingly bizarre performance of Young’s classic “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” ever committed to film.
EW: Tell me about this eyewear venture of yours.
MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: I’ve kind of modified and redesigned glasses over the last 40 years for things to wear with Devo. Jerry [Casale] and I, we would go find odd things that we wanted the band to wear, so we’ve always been interested in finding things that were our own look. I fell in love with a pair of frames that were made out of stainless steel that I purchased years ago. I bought as many as I could find of that frame because they broke easily, unfortunately. I was wearing them onstage and it was kind of a wild time. People would reach up and the next thing you know the glasses would be gone, and I’d go, well, I’ve got three more back in the dressing room. So I kept trying to find somebody who wanted to go in with me on making some more. I was looking around and I found this guy Shane Baum, who has a company that manufactures and helps designers distribute eyewear. We hit it off and I showed him some designs I’d been doing and after a little experimentation–after a lot of experimentation–and going around and checking out different materials, we came up with something that looked almost identical, except for the weight. They’re much lighter–it’s beryllium with a stainless steel chrome finish. I’m still not a hundred percent believing that it’s gonna happen because I’ve wanted to do it for so long. Until I see a bunch of ’em in boxes in front of me I’m still kind of not believing it.
I was looking at your frame designs and there’s one, the Akronite, that reminds me of the glasses you used to wear in Devo, in particular the eyebrow glasses that you wore.
There’s a long lineage of frames that I remember being referred to as “welfare frames” when I was in Akron. Then l.a. Eyeworks did the first version I saw in stainless steel and I really liked those frames. I liked the reflective surface because there’s kind of a Zelig thing there where you’d walk into a room and somebody across from you was wearing a green sweatshirt and the glasses pick up the exact color that they’re wearing. You’d pick up bits of color and light and dark and patterns. I made this one pair that on purpose is sort of the thickest of the three pair, the widest amount of reflective surface, and I’ve been wearing the templates of those for about a year and a half now. And they’re kind of my frame now.
It always seemed to that Devo wasn’t just about music, or even just the music and visuals, but this whole kind of design identity, with the merchandise and everything. It blew me away when I’d get old vinyl copies of your records and pull it out and the inner sleeve would be like a catalog.
Merchandise was something we wanted to do before we even had a band. Jerry and Bob and I, we thought of merchandise as these icons and this cool extra part of being in the club, or being part of the Devolutionary Army. We were excited by things like old comic books that we’d read when we were kids, like on the last page if you signed up to distribute Grit newspaper, whatever that was, they’d show you this whole page of things you could win. You could pick anything from a slingshot to a Daisy BB gun to a Schwinn bike to a Wilson baseball glove. I remember poring over that page and thinking it was the coolest part of the comic book oftentimes.
You’re coming out to New York for the CBGB festival with Devo, right?
This year we did a tour where rather than doing all hits, like we’ve been doing for a long time, we went further back into our catalog. It was mostly private because it was all pre- any record deals we had. We were looking for music that we were writing together when we were just trying to figure out what Devo was. Some of the things were a little more bluesy and you could hear more of a slight Captain Beefheart rhythm to them. The synths were much more like sci-fi movie synthesizer parts. That’s where we started before we started playing places like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. So we did this tour earlier this year, and it was fun for us because it was nice to do a change up after all these years. And a lot of those songs we’d never played live before. We’d only played them in a basement and recorded them live to a two-track tape recorder and that was it.
I also saw that Neil Young’s Human Highway movie is going to be in theaters in January. I know that you were involved in that.
At the time, Devo had just arrive don the West Coast, but we met Neil and he asked Devo to be his nightmare in one part of the film. Booji Boy ends up being the last person alive on planet earth after a nuclear meltdown. It was a pretty wild project at the time. We made up our own part in the film and he was pretty good with that. We asked if we could be nuclear waste disposers. Last time I saw the film I thought wow, this is much more interesting than I remember it. It’s a pretty wild film.