Mike Ragogna: Mark, how is that "de-evolution" going?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Unfortunately, it's healthier than ever.
MR: You're back on Warner Bros., the label where you had a lot of early success though you started out as almost the prototype of an "indie" band.
MM: You've done some homework. Yeah, actually we recorded on Booji Boy Records. Because we were in Akron, Ohio, we had no idea what a record company was, so we just made up our own name for a company, pressed our own records and called it Booji Boy.
MR: What came first, your appearance on Saturday Night Live or the Warners signing?
MM: Well, actually, we had a record come out in '78 and we were on Saturday Night Live, I think, in '78 also. But it was about a month or so into a tour where we had no radio play outside of college and a few stations on the east and west coasts. Nobody really knew who we were, so Saturday Night Live was kind of our first "Hello, here we are!" to the United States.
MR: What a fun moment that was. That was one of the best things they had ever broadcast. That and Barnes & Barnes' "Fish Heads."
MM: As a matter of fact, that's how I first heard of "Fish Heads"--on Saturday Night Live. Later, Billy Mumy came and worked for me for a number of years as a songwriter at a company I called, Mutato Muzika.
MR: Is that right?
MM: Yeah, he wrote about thirty-five songs for me in the late eighties.
MR: Nice. Of course, every good HuffPost reader knows Billy Mumy also was Will Robinson in Lost In Space, Lennier in Babylon 5, and is a terrific singer-songwriter and excellent guitar player. Years ago, I think his group Redwood was the inspiration for the trio of America. But I happily digress. Can you give us a Devo history lesson?
MM: In 1970, I was at Kent State, I was an art student, and I met Gerald Casale who was another art student. The two of us, along with my brother Bob, were all protesting the war in Vietnam in 1970 at Kent State. We were all at different protests, but Gerald was there when kids got killed, so they closed our school down and we couldn't get there for four months. So Gerald would come to my house and we would write music. We were both musicians--he was in a blues band and I was into electronic, experimental music, and prog rock--everything that was more on the keyboard side. We thought of ourselves as sort of The Flintstones meets The Jetsons, and we started writing stuff. We were trying to figure out what we were seeing in our world from our viewpoint of Akron, Ohio, and we decided we weren't observing evolution, but rather, a definition of what was de-evolution, and that became the name of our band. We shortened it down from The De-evolutionary Army down to Devo.
MR: Flash not to forward and you've got "Whip It" and a lot of your other memorable material. So, would you describe your early style as new wave, punk...
MM: ...you know, we never really did. We never really thought of ourselves as a punk band either but they were contemporary to us, so we found ourselves playing venues with Punk bands and with New Wave bands and we got along with them.
MR: You were definitely in that grey area in between those.
MM: Yeah, we were kind of the abject prop band of the late Seventies and Eighties, so we weren't really fashionable. We were really more of a theatre project than a band, and we really didn't even start out to be a band. We thought Devo was going to be like the Akron, Ohio, version of Andy Warhol's "Factory." We thought that we weren't even going to have to go on stage and play music. We thought we were going to be able to write songs, put together a visual show centered on the topic of de-evolution and what's happening to our planet and our species, and write fun songs to dance to and listen to that also had something else going on in them. And we'd have four or five Devo's going out. When I look back at the notebooks that Gerald and I used to make up, we were thinking kind of like a Blue Man Group of Rock 'n' Roll in a way. We thought we were going to be sending out other people to do it and we wouldn't have to go on the road.
MR: Definitely something most folks don't know about Devo.
MM: When we signed with the record company, they didn't really understand that at all either. Even on much more obvious issues, nobody got why we were making these films with our songs in them. Why would you want to do that? You know?
MR: And then look what happened.
MM: Yeah. There wasn't an MTV yet.
MR: Despite being associated with all the fun kitsch, your group is credited as being pretty innovative. And you might say that on Something For Everyone, your sound has, well, evolved.
MM: If you didn't even like Devo, you'll like this record. That's the scary thing. We employed focus groups, and now the album has been fine-tuned to the point that there is something for everybody on it.
MR: The song, "No Place Like Home" is my personal favorite, it being a really cool anthem about taking care of that place you call home.
MM: Thanks. I'll tell you a funny story about that song. It's one of the last songs that we put on the record, and I actually wrote that music to be the main theme of a film called Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I played it for the directors early on, and there were a couple of other things that got their attention and they kind of forgot about that piece of music. When I finished that film, I realized that I still had the song that nothing had happened with. So, I gave it to Gerald, almost as a joke, because it's a piano ballad at the beginning. It starts off sounding more like something Elton John or Journey would do rather than Devo. He really liked the music, however, and it made him go home that night and write the "No Place Like Home" lyrics. That's the story, it's probably the most atypical song we ever did.
MR: You might say, Something for Everybody.
MM: Yeah, that's for the people that we were forgetting.
MR: Since you brought it up, let's go over your film scoring career. You're behind a lot of high profile projects. Could you give us the laundry list?
MM: Well, it's a little too long to do the whole thing. I was just adding them up, and I've scored sixty-seven TV series, over forty-five feature films, about two-dozen games including things like Crash Bandicoot and The Sims, I don't know if you know The Sims...
MR: Of course.
MM: For TV shows, I started with Pee Wee's Playhouse. I started with the theme song, I wrote it with Paul Reubens, and Cyndi Lauper sang it for us. After that I did sixty-seven TV shows that included everything from Dawson's Creek and goofball stuff like that, to Rugrats, and there's one on Spike channel called Blue Mountain State, and one on Cartoon Network called, Regular Show that hasn't started airing yet.
MR: Nice. What are some of the films?
MM: For films, I did three Rugrat movies with big orchestra that ended up, between the three of them, doing about a billion dollars worth of sales. I did most of Wes Anderson's movies, which is on the other end of the spectrum. And, like I said, Cloudy With Chance of Meatballs, that was the first 3D movie I got to do. I recorded that with The London Symphony over at George Martin Studio. I've got a movie coming out shortly called, Ramon & Beezus, on FOX which is based on a series of books for girls. I think if you were a girl growing up in the eighties or nineties, you probably read a Ramona & Beezus book.
MR: Let's talk about the new album. You kick it off with "Fresh," which describes the album perfectly, yet it's still heavily Devo.
MM: This album has some things going for it that none of our other albums had. The biggest thing is, I think, that the passage of time has made Devo historical. We're not outrageous or shocking or intimidating people anymore. Now, there is nothing that's shocking--you'd have to kill yourself on stage to be shocking, and you can only do that once. And after a couple of dozen people do it, even THAT wouldn't be shocking anymore. In the past we were always very insular because people would argue with us and say, "You've just got a bad attitude." But now, thirty years later, Washington, D.C., alone has done so much to prove the theory of de-evolution and advance it at such a rapid rate, which is what we were warning people against back then and nobody took us seriously. But I guess that's the way things go when you're in a band.
On the other side, we became less insular, we always did everything ourselves. Gerald and I did the video, I always did the story boards, and he always directed them, we never hired outside producers or directors to come in with an idea for our song, we always thought in a visual manner with our music. This time, it was different because three years ago, when we got asked to do a song for a TV commercial and they said, "Can we use 'Whip It'?" we said, "Well, can we do a new Devo song? Would you be interested in that?" They said, "Is there such a thing?" So, we let them check it out because we had some things that we'd been writing over the last fifteen years. There's two sets of brothers in the band, basically, and we'd go out and for a couple of weeks a year and play festivals, and then we'd go back to our day jobs. So, we had a couple of things we'd sketched up, and we took one and recorded it for this Dell Computer commercial. That ad agency said, "This is perfect, we'll take it. Do you mind if we re-mix it?" and we were sort of like, "No, be our guest, it's a TV commercial." That was the one place that we didn't really care if people did things to our music. I mean, with "Whip It," people had whipped it, stripped it, dipped it, flipped it, clipped it, and swiffed it for sure, if not more than that.
So, that was an area where we didn't hold on too tightly, because we were pro-subversion. We learned something in the seventies about rebellion being obsolete. If you really want to change things in a democracy, you do it through subversion, and who does it better than Madison Avenue? So, we thought, "Alright, yeah you can do whatever you want to our songs." I always felt like we were planting little time-bombs in people, and they may not get it right away while they're listening to a pancake commercial that they're hearing a song by Devo, but maybe they'd hear it somewhere else and say, "Those are different lyrics." And then maybe they go and find out what the lyrics are about and they say, "Oh, these guys have content." Then they'd become interested. Subversion is how you change it in this country.
Anyway, they took the song, and they watched the work that we had written, and they let the Teddybears remix it. They sent us a copy back and Gerald and I both thought that it was better than what we did, it was really good. So, we talked to them, and they told us that they were big fans, and they'd been big fans. They said, "We think you guys should do an album." We thought, "Well this could be our business model." Because nobody sells CD's anymore, nobody sells records. Kids just don't buy records anymore, I'm not going to beat my breast over that and start wailing. I know there are people that do, but that's just the way the world is, it's changed. The Internet has totally changed the way kids perceive music, the way musicians create music and deliver it, and the way music sounds. It's all been changed irreversibly by the Internet, and we thought, "That's exciting." We saw all the possibilities that came along with getting rid of the old business model and that's what made us come back and do another record.
MR: And when you came back, it was to your old home Warner Brothers.
MM: Yeah. Three years ago, if you had told me that that we were going to sign with a record label in two-and-a-half years, I would have said, "Ha ha ha." But then we went to Burbank to the offices we used to go to, and they were inhabited with people who said, "You know what? We're an endangered species, and we know our time is limited, and we want to reinvent ourselves. We think you guys could help us." It kind of made us say, "Wow, we wish this is where it was back in 1977." So, we're doing it one more time with a record company, before they're gone for good or reinvent themselves and become something totally new and something of value.
MR: And just what is that, you know? There are just too many catalogs, too many fortunes to be working. In my opinion, major labels own so many assets, they can't keep track of what they have anymore.
MM: The internet had changed everything. No longer are kids waiting for EMI Records or Warner Bros. Records to say, "Okay, we're going to re-release this record now." They can go to the Internet and they can find everything, it's all available. And I think that's pretty great. I think it's an exciting time to be an artist; I think this is an exciting time to be making music. I wish this was the way it was when I was a kid, I wish the internet existed. YouTube is much more exciting than MTV ever was...I thought MTV was a big disappointment when it came along. I had all these dreams of it being much more exciting and something that was going to change pop culture in a big, meaningful way. Instead, it just allowed a lot of old dinosaurs to coast for a while.
MR: It became a device for sales rather than a device for art. It could have balanced the two better.
MM: I think, for all the warts and creepy aspects of the internet, it's a great time to be making art, I think it's a great medium to work in. We'll see what happens when the Chinese decide they're going to blow all the satellites out of the air and we can't get our connections anymore. But until that happens, I think it's a really interesting time. I'd love to be twenty years old right now.
MR: The album cover is a picture of woman, eyes closed, preparing to digest a little Devo cap, this time blue, not red. The flower pot cap?
MM: Yeah. Um, energy dome, please.
MR: Yes, of course. Energy dome...energy dome is what I meant to say.
MM: They didn't really make very good flower pots. I even tried putting flowers in them just to see what people were talking about, and it wasn't really very good for that.
MR: I know, it was a bad nickname. But the cover, with the energy dome about to go into her lips, what's going on there?
MM: It's something for everybody. It's a demonstration on a cover. The art, on one level, is really bland, and it looks like it could have come out of an ad graphic clip book. But I think that's what is likeable about it, I think that was the point.
MR: It's terrific. Earlier, we were talking about how it would be great to be twenty and just coming into it now. On the other hand, I am grateful for my age, in some respects, because of the tactile relationships we had with albums. There was tangible, touchable artwork. With respect to art no longer being the focus and a download being the instant gratification, I think we've devolved back to the generic 45.
MM: Yeah, it's interesting. We're in a time that is undefined right now, where things are going to go with the Internet, and how pop is going to be disseminated. It's really a fun time to be part of it.
MR: I love "No Place Like Home" and "Fresh" seems to be your bang up something or another...I don't even know what you call them anymore. I know certain downloads, at different periods of a release schedule, are being marketed as "singles." Another of my favorites, that could be designated a "single," I guess, is "Mind Games."
MM: Yeah, I like "Mind Games." It sounds like the host of Concentration, who was the host of that show?
MR: Hugh Downs.
MM: Yes. Hugh Downs could come out and go, "Ok now! We've got some contestants here from..." Where are you from, Mike?
MR: (laughs) Really? Moved to Fairfield, Iowa, from L.A., born in NYC. Another of my favorites is "What We Do."
MM: Yeah. I've got to be honest with you, I've heard a lot of bands come back after twenty-five years and put out their new record and you're like, "Oh God, I wish they hadn't done that." There's a lot of that. But what I think is our strength is that we still write about the same things that we ever wrote about, and we still play and construct songs in the same fashion that we used to. The only thing that's changed is the technology that comes with the times. Every single album that we've done, from a technological standpoint, kind of reflects what was out there, the state of the art. So, I think the employment of Greg Kurstin and all the other producers that worked on this record brought to it what this record needed, as far as input from outsiders, to make Devo's sound relevant for the time.
MR: And what's nice is that, as you mentioned earlier, most of them were probably influenced by what you were doing back then.
MM: That had a lot to do with who we chose. We picked people who said that they really liked us. I was thinking about how we thought about music when I was younger. When we did albums the first time around we just fought the producers all the time because we were so protective. But bands that we really loved, like The Rolling Stones, we did a version of "Satisfaction" and we felt we were updating it for the seventies because it was ten years old at the time we did our re-arrangement of it. Back in those days, you had to get permission from an artist if you were going to significantly change their song, you had to get permission to put it out on a record. So, we had to drive to New York from Ohio and go into Peter Rudge's office. He was managing The Rolling Stones at the time. Gerald and I were really nervous, and we took the record in and then Mick Jagger shows up. So, we put the song on and after about thirty seconds, he starts dancing around the room. We were just crapping our pants because he's our biggest hero. After it was over he said, "You know, this is my favorite version of this song." And so that was about as good as it got in my life.
MR: What a cool memory.
MM: But we were hoping that the people that were working on our record would bring something to it like what we were trying to do with The Rolling Stones, and I think a lot of them succeeded. I think the songs all got lifted up beyond the recordings we had done at my studio here in Hollywood. We write and record in the same way we did in 1974, so it sounds like 1974 recordings when we do it. But when we handed them over to Santigold, and Greg, and John Hill, and everybody else that worked on this, it's like they all brought something to the party that made the songs better than they were when we handed it to them. So, I can't give enough credit to our producers.
MR: Yeah, it's a labor of love. You can just hear that they really wanted this to work, and you guys are full throttle with your writing and with your performances.
MM: Thanks. You know, you don't know when you start, you're thinking, "This could end up being really, super-kitsch" because, let's face it, we're not twenty anymore, and that's where a big part of your audience is. It's younger than you are. Could be your kids in another situation, and maybe some of them are, who knows? But I think when the smoke cleared, it came out pretty well. And I'm sure that there are a lot of people who would blow smoke up my pant leg if they get a chance. But I found a lot of people that were fairly honest about it, or didn't know that it was Devo that they were talking to. We really did focus groups, kind of as a joke, but kind of for real.
MR: You do have that sticker on your front cover, "Eighty-eight percent focus group approved."
MM: Well, you know how it is in a democracy, people get to vote, but there is an electoral college to make sure the people don't get out of control, you know how it is. So, the record company picked two songs they wanted to have on the record, but we said, "The only way we would do that is if they would let us, at least, put out a version of the record that is also one hundred percent focus group." So both versions of the album do exist. There is a focus group version that you can buy.
MR: As far as de-evolution, what are you thinking when you read the headlines these days? What's really irritating you and making you realize, "Yeah, we were right"?
MM: Don't get me started. Just watching that oil spill out into the Gulf, it makes me feel like we're living Idiocracy, we're living a Mike Judge movie right now. It's not the future, we're here.
MR: And the fact that a Sarah Palin could be on the cover of every magazine again. What's going on? Is this a cyclical thing where the nation gets unusually stupid, or does she just have a great publicist and a well-funded machine behind her?
MM: She represents idiocracy in a real, solid way. That's the most solid evidence that it exists.
MR: And then throw into that, news networks that disseminate information like it's been given talking points from corporations, or they're just crying "fire" in an auditorium for ratings. And average, everyday folks actually believe them and don't see it's a form of marketing or a carnival.
MM: Well, look at what's happened in this country. We're reaping the fruits of taking education and putting it at the bottom rung of importance in our culture. So, that's what you're getting--people that don't have the right information, and that aren't properly equipped to even evaluate what they see going on around them. Personally, I don't really consider myself with any party. I feel like I'm pro-education all the way, and I think that's what Devo was about in the beginning. We were always pro-information, anti-stupidity, and we thought that the problems that we have in our culture now can be solved, they're not unsolvable. Technology isn't inherently evil, but it isn't inherently good either, it's benign. It's the human mind, or lack of it, on this planet that makes the decisions and decides where we're going to go as a culture.
(Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
1. Watch Us Work It
4. Don't Shoot (I'm A Man)
5. Step Up
6. Signal Ready
7. What We Do
8. Please Baby Please
9. Let's Get To It
10. Later Is Now
11. Mind Games
12. Human Rocket
A Conversation With OK Go's Damian Kulash
Mike Ragogna: You have a new video of the song "End Love" from your latest album, Out of the Blue Clour of the Sky. Beyond its time-lapsing element, I think one of the most striking things about it is your yellow, peach, powder blue, and orange hoody jump-suits. Strangely, they mesmerize about as much as your treadmills. How did you do that?
Damian Kulash: Basically, we have been playing around with different types of choreography. So, with this, we were trying to choreograph time in itself. Throughout, it's a single take that takes about a week long. Basically, the whole video takes place in the first twenty-one hours, but for the band, it was a twenty-one hour single take. That meant that we started one afternoon and ended around noon the next day, so the video was shot overnight in the park. We choreographed ourselves sleeping, and we basically spent a week coming up with this routine, and then we had two chances to get it right, which, of course, took us four days. It's just one long performance and at times, goes five hundred times faster than real life, and the slowest we go is about five hundred times slower than real life. There is very little normal speed in there--there are four beats late in the video where we go back to normal speed, and it's actually sort of shocking to see people moving the real speed after you've seen two-and-a-half minutes of people sort of Busby Berkeley-ing around.
MR: You're loved because of your music, but also because of "Here it Goes Again," or as a lot of people call it, "The Treadmill Video."
DK: That was a dance performance that we did on eight treadmills, and we choreographed it at my sister's house and filmed it in ten days, it was a single shot of dancing on treadmills.
MR: Now you performed the new single, "End Love," on Leno's show, right?
DK: Yes, we did, uh huh.
MR: And you've been playing this out a lot.
DK: We were at Bonnaroo, we were at Sasquatch, we did a festival called, Rock the Garden in Minneapolis, and we'll go over to Europe and do some festivals.
MR: Now in Bonnaroo, didn't you synchronize playing before the World Cup started?
DK: No, the video premiered at 1:20, before the World Cup started, then we played on Saturday afternoon...or maybe it was Friday afternoon, and then the video premiered the following day right before the World Cup.
MR: This was in association with your latest album?
DK: Yeah, we have a new album that came out in January, and we are re-releasing it because we left our major label and have decided to put it out ourselves.
MR: Oh, that's wild. What is the story behind that?
DK: We were basically not headed in the same direction as the major label business model, you know? Things have been going really well for us, but not in ways that make major labels happy. Our record sales are fine, but they're not spectacular. We surely don't sell the same kind of records as U2 and Coldplay do. But we have millions and millions of views online, and we have a lot of people coming to our concerts. Our merchandise sales are good, and we license our music and stuff like that. So, we're doing fine, but the label wasn't getting that. It's just an awkward situation. The major label system is built on assumptions from ten or fifteen years ago, but really, it's fifty or eighty years ago, when the main building block of value was recordings, and, of course, that's the one thing that has inherently lost a lot of value with digital distribution and digital media in general, and the infinite duplicability of things.
For us, it's opened a lot of artistic doors, to be able to make things cross different media that aren't necessarily just beats and chords and lyrics, things that don't have to just fit on a CD and don't have to fit on the shelves of a Wal-Mart. That's been very creatively freeing for us, but the label finds it hard to make money off of that. So, we just, after years of trying to fit our square peg through their circular hole, decided to split ways, and it was actually very amicable. Most bands, when they leave their labels, do it in a big, furious flame out, and the label keeps their record and they get into this big legal battle and stuff. The label was actually very kind to let us take out record with us, and we're now distributing and promoting and selling it ourselves. So, our digital version has been on iTunes for a few weeks now, and the physical copy will be in stores tomorrow.
MR: Let's talk a little about your latest album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. Can you give a little history behind it, and sort of what's been going on with it to this point?
DK: It's kind of a new sound for us. The first two records we made were sort of like the way you write language--you have a thought, try to parse it into words and grammar, and then out it comes. Our first big single on the radio was a song called "Get Over It," and that was us wondering, "Why doesn't the world have stadium rock anthems anymore?" So, we wrote one. This record, I think we started with the same goal. It was the "we know what we want to make, so let's make it" approach. But the songs just ended up sounding really hollow and fake, and being a band that's been together for ten years, what we have as end points for ourselves was so reflexive that it became us covering ourselves, or us doing an impression of ourselves, it just seemed kind of hollow and fake.
So, we decided to go about writing in a different way, which was to forget about where we were headed and just start playing with sound until we got that spark, that thing that makes music. It's just a bunch of sounds put together and then, suddenly, emotions start jumping out of it. You add a drum beat to a base line and, nine times out of ten, what you get is a drum beat with a base line. But every once in a while, you get lust or fury or melancholy, and in choosing those moments that are most resonant to us, we'd follow those paths hoping that we'd actually wind up at a song. And a lot of the time, we wouldn't get there, so we ended up writing hundreds of themes for this record. By the time we got to Dave Goodman's studio in western New York, we had one hundred and six things to play him, and of course, the record is only fourteen songs long. Anyway, it brought us to a very different place sonically. It doesn't sound a lot like our earlier records; it's much more dance-y and much more anthemic. There's not a lot of distorted guitar, but there is a lot of distorted drums. There's a lot of Prince influence in it, and it's much more melodic than our earlier records. It's really different for us, and I'm really, very proud of it.
MR: "WTF?" was the first single, right?
DK: Yeah, "WTF?" was the first song we made a video for. We're in this weird place where the idea of a single has been changing in the music industry for a long time. Not a lot of people are going out and buying 45s, so a single, in that way, doesn't really make sense. So, it was a single meaning "a song that people promote to the radio." Since our record label wasn't really promoting anything to the radio, a single to us started to mean "whatever we decided to make a video for." We did make a video for "WTF?" first, then we made two different videos for two different versions of the song "This Too Shall Pass." That's been one of the songs that's been on the radio the most, and is on MTV and that kind of stuff.
MR: Is that the one with the Notre Dame band on it?
DK: Yeah, there's a live recording with the Notre Dame marching band, which is shot like a video, but it's actually a live recording. And then the album version of the song is set to a video that we made in a warehouse in Los Angeles, in a giant Rube Goldberg machine.
MR: Of course, you're going to be working your tail off to promote Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, so what are your plans?
DK: We've put two new songs on the record since it's been reverted back to us, so it's re-released with these two new songs on it. And, of course, it doesn't particularly matter to us how people get our music as long as the rent stays paid and we get to keep making it, so we've been having a lot of fun getting it out there in different ways. Recently, we did a two month tour of the States, and for every show, we'd record the whole show, put it on a USB drive at the end of the night, and five minutes after the show is done, you could get the entire concert plus the album on a little memory stick. (It's) something that would have been very hard to do when we were on a major label, but it means that there are that many more copies of our record floating out there in fan's hands. And every night, we were generating another recording of each of those songs, so instead of the song being this pristine object that can't be screwed with, we just made a new recording every night.
MR: That seems to be a paradigm some bands are following now, something kind of institutionalized by The Grateful Dead way back. Normally, labels like to grab a band that has a following already, and although you didn't come into this a totally newbie band, you benefited from what the label did for you
DK: Yeah. We certainly benefited from things the label did for us. There were also a lot of times when a lot of energy was spent fighting with the system. When you want to do things your own way but you have to convince fifty people up the chain to allow you to do them your way, you spend a lot of time doing what feels like spinning your wheels. There was a lot more time spent on business than I would have liked and a lot less time working on records. So, I'm happy now that we can just do the things that we want for the reasons that we want.
MR: That's really cool that you've decided to take your career into your own hands. What's interesting is that more and more bands seem to be figuring out how to do this on their own. And it seems that the label's way of compensating for lost sales is to create these 360 deals, which, personally, I think is the most horrific thing I've ever heard of. They not only want to sell a product, they want a cut of your every dollar while controlling your name and likeness.
DK: Well, from there perspective, it makes a great deal of sense, and if fact if you look at the mechanics of the music industry at large, it does make sense. There are three things that, traditionally, record labels are needed for--promotion, distribution, and investment. The distribution is obvious, that's what the whole thing is built around. In the beginning, they had musicians and people wanted to hear them, so once recording came along, they needed an infrastructure for distributing that. Once you have an infrastructure for distributing things and you actually have a marketplace for these musical products, then promotion becomes the issue, and so they built these systems for promoting music. Nowadays, distribution can be done with the click of a mouse by, basically, anyone, so we don't really need the major labels for that.
As for promotion, they still have a pretty big promotional staff that can do a lot for bands. But in our position we don't really need that anymore. In fact, we've always liked doing our own promotion in our own way. We don't fit the stereotype of what a rock band should look like or sound like, so we are not a very good fit with the promotion staff at a major label that basically wants us to fit the mold.
And the last thing, of course, is investment. Basically, every band that's not independently wealthy needs investors at various times in their career. The obvious time is when you're first starting up and you want to go on tour for two months or whatever. You have to quit your day job, and you're not going to get paid much playing to fifteen people in a bar somewhere. So, it takes a while of schlepping around the country, and someone's got to be paying for the food and for the gas and for the equipment. Generally, getting a record deal is when a band finally gets somebody they can tour with, and there's all sorts of other stuff--videos are not cheap to make and albums are not cheap to make. People need that kind of investment, and the only place you can expect it to come from are the people making money off of you. Of all bands, even bands that get to the level of getting major label offers, generously, about five percent ever make that money back. It's a very low success gamble, so the way you make that work from the business perspective is to aggregate all that risk. You bet on a hundred bands and hope that three to five of them not only pay you back, but pay you back such alarmingly huge sums that it pays for the rest of them.
MR: Yes, it's always been that two or three huge acts that support the growing process for the rest of the acts. For instance, at A&M Records, acts from Joan Baez and Joan Armatrading to Styx and Supertramp initially were funded by profits generated by the sales of Carpenters hits. At Warners, Randy Newman was among the beneficiaries, and at Columbia, Bruce Springsteen. But that was a part of the important nurturing process, and my feeling is that the whole nurturing process is gone in lieu of the quick hit and quick buck.
DK: That's definitely true, although that is not necessarily a function of risk aggregation. There are a lot of different ways you can aggregate risk, and one of them is to bet well at very long terms. So, you bet on twenty acts in the hope that all of them will happen at some point in the next twenty years. Or you bet on one hundred acts and hope that three of them make it big this year and don't actually invest in the futures of the rest of them.
MR: Honestly, I think you've articulated the labels' perspective in the best way I've ever heard it explained.
DK: I'm trying to get to your point about the 360 deals. What I'm saying is that it makes sense to do the 360 deals. If somebody is going to be investing money in bands, it needs to be somebody who is making money off of music. However, from a musician's perspective, you have to look at who is at major labels right now, and whether or not you would want your entire career in their hands. Basically, if you didn't see the end coming in the last five years and you're still at a major label thinking that that's the right business model, you're probably something of a moron.
MR: (laughs) Damian, that's exactly right. And I think that's evidenced by the fact that many established acts are proudly going indie. What advice do you have for new acts?
DK: Honestly, it will sound very curt, but the only thing that really matters is making good stuff, you know? Making good music, making good art, making good videos. Just make the things you make well. We're one of those bands that has had lot of success in non-traditional ways, going around the system so everybody expects us to tell them that there are secrets around the system, and really, there aren't. No amount of marketing savvy is going to make crappy music good music or make people care about it. People are always asking us, "What's the secret to a viral video?" It's just to make a good video, you know? It's actually pretty simple.
Obviously, even if you're making great things, there are a lot of mistakes you can make. You can really screw things up, you can certainly make deals with the wrong people, or be in it for the wrong reason. But there's not a lot of money in rock 'n' roll. People that want to be in a rock band because they want to be rich and famous, or because they want to be professional alcoholics, it's not that satisfying a job from those perspectives. So, if you are the type of person who is animated when you wake up in the morning and all you want to do is go make something, then it's a pretty good job, but it's a low shot of success and you'd better like making things for years and years before anyone's going to give you any money to do it.
(Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
2. This Too Shall Pass
3. All Is Not Lost
6. White Knuckles
7. I Want You So Bad I Can't Breathe
8. End Love
9. Before the Earth Was Round
10. Last Leaf
11. Back from Kathmandu
12. While You Were Asleep
13. In the Glass
Loopz Plays Comic-Con
It's a toy. It's a band. It's Simon inside out. It's bizarre.
Okay, here's the deal. There is this cool little gizmo called a "Loopz" that creates sounds and beats depending on the user's physical interaction with it and the device's programming. It's created by Mattel and says it's usable by ages 7 and up. Personally, I thought that said it all until the thirteen-year-old I gave this to--let's call him "Robin"--became obsessed with it, and the entire cast of a certain Midwestern musical--let's call it Annie--played with it backstage nonstop like a game of Mafia. And apparently, an entity calling themselves The Loopz Band will be performing at Comic-Con where there'll be Loopz giveaways. Oh, you young scamps with your fast cars and Fleetwood Mac.
For details: http://www.yelp.com/events/san-diego-loopz-the-memory-game-at-comic-con-2010
Also, check out these interesting Loopz nuggets:
"Eat To The Beat" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6zOO42DL2c
"Elevator Music" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLvJNzMJFIY
"Beat Boys" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXI85o5iNn8
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008