Mark Mothersbaugh, 21st Century Renaissance Man
Mark Mothersbaugh has sustained a life in art that’s far removed from his rock band Devo.
Mark Mothersbaugh is an influential musician best known as the lead singer and keyboardist of seminal new wave band Devo.
Born in 1950 in Akron, Ohio, Mothersbaugh was a student at Kent State University when the Ohio National Guard killed four students during an anti-war protest in May 1970. In 1973, he founded Devo with two fellow students of the university. Their debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978) reached number 12 on the UK charts and peaked at number 78 on the Billboard chart. It has since gained a reputation as one of the most important albums of the late 1970s. The band’s most popular release, Freedom of Choice (1980), peaked at number 22 on the Billboard charts; its lead single “Whip It” reached number 14 on the singles chart.
After Devo broke up in 1990, Mothersbaugh established a career writing musical scores for TV and film. His credits include Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Lego Movie (2014), and Thor Ragnarok (2017).
In the 40 years since Mark Mothersbaugh sought safety from historic violence happening outside his Kent State dorm room, his impact on popular culture has been extraordinary—first, as frontman of the 1980s art-pop band Devo, whose synth-heavy songs remain powerfully catchy four decades later.
Mothersbaugh had long been drawn to the idea that every era must create its own musical identity. He believed that the synthesizer was rife to become the sound of his generation, just the way the guitar had defined the 1960s.
Mark Mothersbaugh: I looked at people like Jimi Hendrix, and he did these amazing things with a guitar that nobody’s…that set the standards for everybody. And it was pretty incredible, and I thought, “I wanna do that with a synth,” you know? “How do you do that?”
He did it by putting himself on the radar of the now-iconic instrument maker, Robert Moog, who gave Mothersbaugh his own personal prototype of the ground-breaking Minimoog—a tool that would help define Devo’s sound, and which Mothersbaugh still uses today.
Mothersbaugh: For better or for worse, that was kind of a big part of my contribution, was trying to bring electronics, more abstract electronics into the pop vernacular.
When Devo stopped being the center of his creative universe, Mothersbaugh wasn’t done. He became more focused on visual art, and began composing for film and TV.
Mothersbaugh: I got into it because I’d been in a band where you wrote 12 songs, rehearsed ’em, went into a recording studio, did a live show, and toured. And a year later, you came back and you did it again. And then, when my friend Paul Reubens said, “Would you score my TV show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse?”, he gave me a tape on a Monday, I wrote 12 songs worth of music on Tuesday, and recorded them on Wednesday, and then mailed them to him, as he mixed them into the show on Friday. And Saturday we watched it on TV, and Monday he gave me another tape, and it started all over again. And I said, “I love this job.”
Mark Mothersbaugh estimates he’s now scored close to 175 projects, and he says he enjoys the transformative nature of his creative input.
Mothersbaugh: And mostly, since I’m at the last, I’m the guy that’s, like, cleanup crew. So whatever they couldn’t do in other areas, I’m the last place they can come to, to try and make a chase scene not look like it’s two rickety cars driving 20 miles an hour down the road, you know? It’s…maybe the music can help us move the cars to 70 miles an hour, or something.
Mothersbaugh believes that film scoring is much more about craftsmanship than artistry. He indulges other facets of his creativity in more personal projects, like these orchestrions, made with organ pipes and bird calls.
Mothersbaugh: These beautiful, 150-year-old organ pipes of wood or metal, that were being turned into bird houses and spice racks, and it was freaking me out. So I have a collection. I started building these instruments. There’s a fellow up north who repairs calliopes for amusement parks, who helped me figure out how to make the different bird calls play, so I could play them through a keyboard, so I could program. ‘Cause at first, I was thinking “Alright, I’ll write music for 60 people to all sit there with bird calls.” But that seemed really overly expensive and difficult to execute. The idea of making machines that would do that for you was really intriguing to me. And, as I started making them, I realized… I knew it as I was doing them, but these things, they have both limited melodic, and certain kinds of rhythmic elements that you can use to your advantage, that make you more creative. And giving yourself certain areas of sonic limitation, kind of was freeing.
The orchestrions are part of a traveling retrospective of all of Mothersbaugh’s work, called Myopia.
Mothersbaugh: I’m legally blind without my glasses. And I managed to make it through seven years before I found that out—which was actually quite a treat, because the day that I first saw things was the most amazing day of my life.
And Mark Mothersbaugh has had some pretty spectacular days since then.
Mothersbaugh: I remember being invincible for a long period of time. And I knew that I could jump as far as I wanted into an audience, and land, and hit, and bounce back up, and keep singing. Or somebody could get me in a headlock and throw me down, and I could still come back up singing, even without my glasses or my shirt, or something. And I felt invincible. And now, I don’t have that same feeling, but I think, like, in other ways, I’m a lot different than I was then, you know? There’s some things that stay the same, but I think I would have been a terrible dad, for instance, when I was younger. I think I was so self-centered about my art, and I was so focused on it, that I would have been a crummy dad. And now, I got two kids, who are 12 and 15, and it’s been really enjoyable for me. And I think I’m a good dad.
If he sounds a bit surprised, it’s because, in ways, Mothersbaugh still can’t quite believe that he’s a father at all.
Mothersbaugh: I grew up at a time that, when I went to school, I remember being told that humans overpopulating the planet will be the demise of the planet. And I just thought, “Oh, there’s too many people. I’m never gonna have kids.” And I never had an interest, ever, to have kids. When I finally, my wife and I got married, she said, “Well I know you’re really against adding more humans to the planet, but what if we adopted?” She said, “That wouldn’t go against what you’re talking about, if we took care of somebody that was already here.” And I was like, “Darn her.” I was still in denial, until we got to China, and we saw these eight nurses, all in blue outfits, matching, and they were each holding a baby. And I’m looking, and I go, “That’s my baby. I’m a dad.” And it was like, I know nobody remembers ever taking LSD, but when LSD was dropped on me the first time, I remember something happened where I felt like, “Oh, I didn’t know I had this part of my brain.” And it was exactly that kind of an extreme experience, where, all of a sudden, I became a dad, and seeing her for the first time. And my wife went from being the craziest person I knew to being the smartest person I ever met.
But for all that life has given Mark Mothersbaugh, personally and professionally, he says that he can be completely happy with just a little space to create.
Mothersbaugh: If I was on an airplane that was hijacked, and they took me and put me in a little room the size of this area here you got me in, if I had some paper and a pencil, I could stay okay.
Mothersbaugh: And I could maybe thrive.