Mark Mothersbaugh on Kent State and Changing Technology

By far one of the best things I did at SXSW was stop by a conversation yesterday morning between Mark Mothersbaugh and BMI Records’ Doreen Ringer Ross. Of course, I’ve listened to Devo, and it’s very difficult to imagine what movie scores of the last two decades would be like if Mothersbaugh hadn’t gotten into the soundtracking business. But I didn’t really have a sense of Mothersbaugh’s history and inspirations, so it was fascinating to hear him talk about both that and the role that technology’s played in guiding his work.

Among other things, I didn’t know that Devo started in the wake of the shootings at Kent State, where Mothersbaugh was studying in the art department at the time. “They shot kids who were protesting. We were trying to explain what was going on around us,” he said. “If protesting was obselete, what worked? We looked at Madison Avenue and how they got people to buy things happily. Their techniques were scary and impressive and usually involved subversion.”

In terms of what Devo and Mothersbaugh actually went on to create separately and collectively, it was clear that the emergence of new technologies and the knowledge or lack thereof that Mothersbaugh had of technology have played significant roles in opening up new directions for their work. The rise of the laserdisc, for example, made the band realize “it had music and visuals on one disc and we wanted to make content for that” format, Mothersbaugh said. And he explained how he came to pay such careful attention to movie soundtracks: “My favorite films, I would put my answering machine up by the television…I’d have a couple of 90 minute cassette tapes so I could tape my favorite movies and listen to them again. I only had the soundtrack, I didn’t have the visuals. And I think that made me really pay attention to the soundtrack.”

When he started scoring Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Mothersbaugh said he was essentially ignorant of the conventions that governed such work. “An engineer called and said ‘I like your music, but why don’t you have time cue on your tapes?'” Mothersbaugh recalled. “And I said, what’s that? Second year I learned about time code and the made it so much easier.”

And he said that scoring video games required thinking about music in many more dimensions—and assuming a much different user experience:

Movies, you see it once, maybe twice. If you’re a kid, you see it 6 times…Video games can go on hundreds of hours, it can consume someone’s life…You’ll record maybe just bass lines that are legato and it’s the beginning of a game, and Homer Simpson’s running around looking for things to eat and as he gets more things, it gets more frantic, and more sections come in…Whenever someone meets a goal, or goes down an alley, or explodes an alien’s head, the tone of the music changes…You get more time because of the gestation process. And they need the music earlier than they do in films, so you’re involved earlier in the process.

It’s refreshing to hear that kind of thoughtfulness, and that eagerness to expand into new forms and new kinds of experiences. And there’s something fun about hearing Mothersbaugh discuss everything from scoring the Rugrats to dealing with the fact that Wes Anderson is finicky: “He didn’t like bass sounds. He didn’t like brass.” There’s no particular division there between adult and kid stuff, between movies that nod towards art and whipsmart cartoons, which makes sense: all of them are yearning towards a kind of loony joy.