Soundtrack of a life solving art problems'
EMMA LEE Film-score composer and lead singer with the influential new-wave band Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh is holding his first major UK art exhibition at Norwich Arts Centre during May and June. EMMA LEE spoke to him at his studio in California.
Abbey Road's great. I remember going into that room where the Beatles had written their names on the wall - and we scribbled their names out and put ours over them.
“I'm kidding,” laughs composer Mark Mothersbaugh.
The lead singer of the influential 70s and 80s new-wave band Devo, who is now renowned for his soundtracks to critically acclaimed movies such as the Royal Tenenbaums and the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is talking about his previous visits to the UK.
In a coup for Norwich Arts Centre, the St Benedict's venue has been chosen to host his first major art exhibition on this side of the Atlantic.
Devo formed in Ohio in the 1970s as a college art project, and have been credited with pioneering synth pop. They were also renowned for their imaginitive stagewear, which included 'energy dome' hats.
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“I've been to England a lot back in the 70s and 80s when my band played, and in the last five or six years I've been composing music for film soundtracks and I've ended up at Abbey Road with an orchestra.
“It's probably one of the best studios in the world and there's great orchestras in London. I always have a great time in England. I think London's turned into one of the coolest cities in the world - there's the architecture, the fashion…
“I don't think I've been to Norwich [he pronounces it Nor-wick] before,” he adds, between mouthfuls of breakfast.
I'm calling him at Mutato Muzika, his lime-green, spaceship-shaped studio on Sunset Strip in LA - and 6pm our time is 10am over there.
“So I'm saying good morning to you, when it should really be good evening,” he says.
So how did the show in Norwich come about?
“They contacted me and they liked my artwork and that worked as far as I'm concerned and that's the answer - the short answer to it,” he laughs.
He will be doing a live Q&A via the internet at the launch, which also includes the first screening of a film he produced for the exhibition and DJs.
Mark's love of art started early in his childhood, just after it was found he was extremely near-sighted and legally blind. His first correctional glasses gave him a new view of the world and inspired his obsession with imagery and illustrations.
The 55-year-old's works are being shipped over from the US for the show, which features his Postcard Diaries and Beautiful Mutants symmetrical photographs and 'corrected' imagery. It's the first time the two collections have been exhibited in the same place.
“The number on show depends on how many they can fit in,” he says. “They are pieces I've done in the last 4-5 years.
“I've had an interest in symmetry - the lie of human symmetry. In these pictures you get to see what people would look like if they were symmetrical.”
The Postcard Diaries are more of a long-term project.
“They get called postcards, but it's a little bit of a misnomer,” he says. “For about 30 years I have done a visual diary of artwork. I think it's to do with travelling a lot. Back when the band was performing we were in a bus or car and whatever, and you couldn't really bring a easel and paint. It was easier to do my artwork on the back of postcards and I still continue doing artwork every day in that format. When someone says something irritating or humorous or scary, describing how Hollywood really works, or watching someone on the news describing how the world really works and I can do these postcards when I'm sitting at the console and the orchestra's recording.
“I think it's probably saved me from breaking the law, saved me from all sorts of things, it's my source of personal therapy. Some people do yoga, go to church, play drums, I draw and I manage to stay semi well-balanced,” he adds.
Through their film, video, costume, LPs, stage shows and printed materials, Mark and Devo were pioneers in the way they changed commonly-held perceptions of how a rock band should function in popular culture.
Mark then branched out into composing TV commercials and shows, which in turn led to film scores.
For a Hawaiian Punch commercial he orchestrated factory sounds to create a rhythm track for a computer animation of dancing machinery and robots.
More projects were sent his way, including the Pee Wee's Playhouse TV show, for which he provided the theme. After that Mark provided the soundtracks to 100 episodes of the Disney Channel's Adventures in Wonderland, along with 420 songs, and the popular animated series Rugrats.
His recent movie scores include The Big White, starring Robin Williams and Woody Harrelson, Herbie: Fully Loaded, starring Lindsay Lohan, Lords of Dogtown, First Decent and The Ringer starring Johnny Knoxville.
“LA is one of those places that's like a big seductive septic tank,” Mark says. “There's actors, a lot of the most interesting artists and, as a composer writing music, you can find any sort of musician here. If you need an Indian orchestra you can find one- a Mariachi band, a beebop band.
“There's players here who can play the most obscure instruments. It attracts talented people and, because of that, there's a lot of energy that comes out of here.
“But, on the other hand, it's frustrating on so many levels.
“You get people here who are pinheaded and puffed up with their own self-importance.
“But then people do get to put their talents to use, even if it's not put to their best use. Like if they're a photographer they can work on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or American Idol.
“And if I'd stayed in Ohio there wouldn't have been the same number of chances to exercise my art.
“So, you know, it's a septic tank, but an exciting one,” he says.
Mark is working on a couple of TV shows, including one for the HBO channel, called Big Love, which is due to be screened by channel Five over here.
“I'm doing three films which are by three first-time directors. There's Danny Elfman out there to do the Men In Black movies,” he jokes. “They're interesting projects. I'm on the look-out for antique instruments.”
Mark has a long-term working partnership with the offbeat director Wes Anderson.
“I usually come in near the end of the project, but with Wes Anderson there's an exception.
“With the Life Aquatic I started writing that before the script had been finished. Generally you get anything between two and 12 weeks to work on it.
“Twelve is kind of good,” he says.
And he's also worked with Disney on a project which is Devo-related.
“Dev2.0 is kids singing our songs. I think people will like it,” he says.
“I do a lot of work with Disney and they asked me if I had any ideas for projects.
I was talking to Jerry from Devo and we talked about how when we started out we thought of ourselves as a group that solved artistic problems - it could either have been in film or architecture, theatre or TV.
“We thought of ourselves as something other than a band and that there could have been two or three versions of Devo going out and performing. And it was suggested with that idea in mind. And Disney said, 'Sure, let's do that'.
“With the work I'm doing now I solve an artistic problem and then move on to the next one,” he says.
The Visual Art of Mark Mothersbaugh 2006, featuring the Postcard Diaries and Beautiful Mutants, is at Norwich Arts Centre from Monday May 8 to Wednesday June 28. The gallery is open from 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday and admission is free. A launch event, including a question and answer session with Mark is being held on May 8. For full details contact 01603 660352 or alternatively visit www.norwichartscentre.co.uk.
For information about Mark's art and music visit www.mutato.com and www.clubdevo.com.
Devo were one of the most important bands to emerge from the 1970s and 80s. Credited as early pioneers of synth-pop the quartet's 1978 debut LP, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was produced by Brian Eno.
The band formed in Akron, Ohio in 1972 and performed live for the first time the following year at Kent State University's festival.
Devo released nearly 20 albums over the next 20 years, and spread their message on the devolution of the human race.
The band are well known for their image - stagewear has included chemical-protection suits and 'energy domes'.
Their best-known hit is probably Whip It, released in 1980.
Mark Mothersbaugh's company, Mutato Muzika, employs guitarists Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale - the former as a composer, the latter as a recording engineer.
Mini-tours of the USA and Japan have increased recent interest in the band.