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Life after Devo

From movies to "Rugrats," Mark Mothersbaugh keeps expanding his talents
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even on an eclectic stretch like the Sunset Strip, it’s hard to miss the Mutato Muzika office. The building is squat and round, painted lime green. It looks like a flying saucer about to lift off.

Mark Mothersbaugh always had his eye on it, and when the tenant left, he bought the property.

It’s now one of the busiest musical factories in Hollywood.

Chances are you’ve heard Mothersbaugh’s work, but how depends on your age and taste. Rock fans saw him bounce around in a yellow jumpsuit and red dome as a member of Devo. Kids giggle to his music in “Rugrats.” Teens hear it while immersed in PlayStation games. And moviegoers can hear it in the background during such films as “Thirteen” and the upcoming “Lords of Dogtown” and “Herbie: Fully Loaded.”

In a business that rarely allows for more than one, the 54-year-old Mothersbaugh has lived several lives.

“There are still people who are clients of mine and don’t really know about Devo,” he said. “They’ll be walking in the office and see the platinum records and go, ‘Oh, I remember them vaguely. My dad was into that band.”’

After posing for photos with two of his dogs that wander the circular hallway at Mutato, Mothersbaugh settles behind a mixing board to talk about a musical journey that began more than three decades ago back home in Akron, Ohio.

Strange and strangerMothersbaugh and a fellow Kent State University art student, Jerry Casale, formed Devo in the early 1970s. They each recruited one of their brothers, both named Bob, and drummer Alan Myers. Devo was short for devolution, the idea that man was devolving into its monkey state.

“It gave us sort of a methodology for writing music,” he said. “It gave us a way to talk about the things that we were concerned about and curious about and still be writing music.”

They introduced themselves to the world by taking one of rock’s best-known songs, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and transforming it into a spastic, herky-jerky version that bordered on sacrilege.

It sounded strange. It looked stranger.

“I remember seeing Devo for the first time on television and being scared,” said Randall Poster, a Hollywood music supervisor who now works frequently with Mothersbaugh.

Devo had an early MTV hit with “Whip It” and some other smaller successes like “Beautiful World,” recently featured in a Target ad. But the gas ran out in the mid-1980s.

Mothersbaugh’s most depressing moment came during a European tour where he needed hours a day with a vaporizer to keep from losing his voice. Someone brought a tape of “This is Spinal Tap” on the bus and he realized he’d lived most of the scenes.

“It’s really cool when you’re 20; it’s a really great job,” he said. “When you’re 30, you’re thinking it’s time to move on; and when you’re 40, shame on you. If you’re 50 and you’re doing it, you’re just pathetic, I think.”

Mothersbaugh had moved to Los Angeles shortly after Devo began recording. He was intrigued when a friend, Paul Reubens, asked if he would write a theme song for a new show he was working on. Mothersbaugh provided the music for “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”

He was hired to provide music for “Rugrats” after a producer heard a solo album he had written called “Music for Insomniacs.”

“Why do you want to use my song?” Mothersbaugh asked.

“Because it’s childish and simplistic,” the producer replied.

Oh. Um, thanks?

His music is often bouncy and fun, although slightly skewed. He was a natural for a new generation of children’s television producers, and he was in demand. Mothersbaugh has worked on more than 40 TV shows. The pace of rock ’n’ roll songwriting — about 10 songs a year — bored him, and he was signing contracts that demanded as many as eight songs a week. Both his brother and the Casales joined him in the new business.

It has enabled him to work musical avenues he never would have dreamed of. He’s written bebop jazz, worked with a 100-piece orchestra, seen heroes like Willie Nelson sing his songs. Even O.J. Simpson sang one of his songs, called “We’re All Winners.”

Movie soundtrack work followed. Mothersbaugh is a particular favorite of director Wes Anderson, and he’s worked on a few of Anderson’s films — “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Rushmore.”

“He has a kind of good fairy quality that just makes magic,” said Poster, who works with Anderson. “He’s enchanting. I hate to use the word ‘genius,’ but if you sit with him, he’s always creating something — at the keyboard, drawing, translating things into art.”

Mothersbaugh is known for his use of instruments that are not always traditional, his ability with synthesizers and the strong percussive sense that comes from working in rock ’n’ roll, Poster said.

Some film scorers follow traditional paths, and their work is very recognizable. An admirer of Andy Warhol as an artist, Mothersbaugh said that like Warhol, he is more about ideas than a particular technique.

“When you bring in somebody like me ... you’re looking for somebody who is going to help create a musical universe for your movie that is particular to your film or your project,” he said.

Some directors have clear ideas of what they want; others don’t. Some hold a tight rein; others allow him more creative freedom. Mothersbaugh must adapt to these styles, and try to put strange ideas into music: the makers of “Thirteen” told Mothersbaugh they wanted a piece that sounded like “brain cells popping,” he said.

Working in a band with two sets of brothers made Mothersbaugh comfortable with collaborating with a filmmaker.

“At the end of the day, it’s his film,” he said. “He’s the director. It’s not Gene Hackman’s film, or Ben Affleck’s or Tom Cruise’s film. It’s the director’s film. It’s his job to pull all of the elements together and make it work. If you’re doing your job right, you’re helping him achieve his vision.”

'More like weekend warriors'Mutato Muzika has also done commercial work. Mothersbaugh recently composed a piece for a Burger King chicken sandwich spot. Devo fans will enjoy the irony: the band’s first album included a mocking recitation of a Burger King theme song at the time.

(By the way, he said he never realized when he let a floor cleaner company use “Whip It” for an commercial that the results would turn out so embarrassingly bad.)

So with all this work, what was Devo doing taking part in a series of “one-hit wonder” concerts with acts like A Flock of Seagulls and Tommy Tutone last year?

“To be honest, I had no idea of the name of the tour until after” Devo committed to it, he said. “It was like, ‘Wait a minute. We had more than one hit.’ In a way, I didn’t care. It was not that important. I’m not trying to restart Devo’s career.”

Devo does accept jobs, however, performing the same show it did back in 1977 with some highlights of the years afterward. “We’re more like weekend warriors at this point,” he said.

The money is much better now, and the members are much better musicians, he said.

“I don’t feel silly about it,” he said. “It was something that we did that was really cool. Admittedly, it’s different being 50 years old and doing it. With those yellow, baggy suits we used to wear, we always kind of looked like cheeseburgers. Now we just look like double cheeseburgers.”