The "musician as visual artist" is not a new phenomenon. But no musician who has dabbled in oils has had the prolific artistic life and career of Mark Mothersbaugh. Though known first for Devo - the jerkily revolutionary '70s avant-electronic ensemble that topped pop charts in the '80s - Mothersbaugh, working from Mutato Muzika, his L.A.-based production facilities, has scored and created music for hundreds of films, television shows, video games and commercials:
The Royal Tenenbaums
, ads for Apple Computers. A visual artist before the days of Devo, Mothersbaugh, 56, has continued to create deliciously bizarre visual art like that found in
Postcard Diaries - a collection of drawn or painted images and collages that is touring the country and coming to Philadelphia Friday. Currently readying a trip to China with his wife to adopt a second child, Mothersbaugh spoke from his Hollywood office about all things Devolutionary.
Question: You have a little girl, Margaret, 2½, at home. She dig your work?
Answer: She's unwittingly a partner. She's preparing paper for me now - whether she knows it or not. She's got utensils and is marking up what I'll be using to draw on. She even found out about Devo a few weeks ago. Kids look for security in simplicity. You read the same book to them 7,000 times. After she went on tour with Devo last year, saw Dad in the yellow suit, she couldn't get enough. Between that, the Devo 2.0 [kids singing Devo songs] CD and live DVDS I have of us, she's a Devo fan. That's become her obsession. Devo was her first word. She knows all our songs - choreography, too.
Q: Devo's a strictly live entity at this point. Is there a reason or any intention to do new work?
A: We talk about it. The Bobs [Devo's Mothersbaugh and Lewis] work in Mutato's offices. Jerry's around [that's Casale, Devo cofounder]. It could happen. There are lots of old musical ideas that never got finished. Be interesting to see if we can finish them off. As for new stuff, I don't have that big an interest in what Devo would do now. There are plenty of bands doing what Devo should be doing now. Those are the ones who should be doing it, not bugging me about it. [Laughs.]
Q: You started as a painter. Would you say your life as a visual artist grew and developed at the same rate as your musical life?
A: Devo was a clearinghouse for all our ideas of bringing technology and pop culture together. We really thought subversion from the inside was the best thing. The band thing just fit into the culture without a lot of work - a couple of amps, electronic noise makers. We did all our own album covers and ad campaigns. I remember when we were signed to Warners we told the label we'd take less money if we could control our own graphics. They probably kicked themselves under the table trying to keep a straight face, offering to do things for free other than charging them for marketing.
Q: There's a childlike primitivism to your art. How do you think coming into your formative years with eyesight problems [Mothersbaugh was legally blind until age 7] factored into that childishness or altered your work?
A: Well, among other things it made me have to sit close to the paper. [Laughs.] I had to draw from six inches away. So I tended to do things kind of small. I think I lucked out, though. It delayed certain things of the world being revealed to me rather than have them happen at a pre-vocal time. At age 7, it was like a door opened, a pretty joyous experience.
Q: The Postcard Diaries thing is one of the first things you ever presented in a gallery setting. How did the form develop and stay a viable medium?
A: I would send postcards to my favorite artists, like Robert Indiana. They'd write or draw back something ironic or funny. I was a nobody going to school at Kent State. I started giving my own away. When Devo began playing beyond the borders of Ohio - '75, '76 - it made sense. You could have these cards in your pocket, pull 'em out - whether you were in the back of CBGB's or crammed in an Econoline van - there was always enough time and room to draw. It became my diary. I stopped giving them away when I realized I was chronicling my take on planet Earth.
Q: You draw bunches of postcards daily. What was the last one?
A: I've done like four since 5 a.m. this morning when my daughter woke me up. She got out of her bed - stuffy nose, crying - and came into ours. She kept kicking me. While sleeping I had these images of hooded ghost characters - harmless and sweet - dressed in burkas and shrouds, and one was making contact with a robot when a limerick came to mind. "A tongue of a Laplander / resembled a salamander / looking for bugs in a bog / The hero of gnosis / claimed osteoporosis/ and collapsed his ankle in Prague." If my daughter hadn't kicked me that wouldn't exist.