Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh on Growing Up Blind, Carving Ruby Turds

Retrospective connects 40 years of multi-media work, from "Whip It" to songs for "Rugrats" and Wes Anderson films, sculpture, drawings and more

To some, the name Mark Mothersbaugh will forever be tied to the early-Eighties commercial peak of Devo, possibly one of the most misunderstood bands in popular music history. There was something the band touched off in people. They hit a nerve and then, as some would have you believe, just faded away. 

The truth is far from that, and the band is really just a part of Mothersbaugh's oeuvre. "Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia," the retrospective of his entire body of work that's currently on display at Grey Gallery in New York City, is a concise and intriguing look at over 40 years of output including music, illustration, gigantic orchestrions made of scraps and sculpting a giant ruby turd (more on that later) by an artist who is so much more than just a member of the band that hit its commercial peak in 1980 with "Whip It."

When Rolling Stone reaches Mothersbaugh by phone, there's a hold. He works out of Los Angeles, where he does everything from write music for scores to illustrating and building fabrications for sculptures. There's about a 45-second wait between the person who answers the phone and Mothersbaugh saying hello. During that time, Mothersbaugh's theme from the Nickelodeon cartoon Rugrats starts playing: the drumroll into the cymbal crash, and then the song familiar to anybody from the ages of babies to teens (and maybe even beyond) in the early 1990s. The same goes for his theme for Pee-Wee's Playhouse, his film scores for Wes Anderson films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, to hit films like The Lego Movie and the 21 Jumpstreet franchise. His work has spanned decades and generations. He's composed enough music to last a lifetime. 

Today, Mothersbaugh says he's been up since 4 a.m., his dogs who let him know they wanted an early breakfast served as an alarm clock. "I've already been drawing this morning, kind of just responding to some dreaming I was doing when they woke me up." Waking up early doesn't bother him. At this point in the day, he's in the middle of a move to a bigger space to fabricate art, he has the show in New York City and says he's working on a couple of movie scores "that both landed on top of each other."

Bouncing around working in different mediums, from making rugs, sculpture, illustration and, of course, music, keeps things fresh for Mothersbaugh. He likes to play around. "I got to make something out of bronze, and it never occurred to me to do that before," he says.

And then he mentions the turd. The beautiful ruby turd that is a standout in "Myopia." It is, in fact, the largest gemstone of its kind in the world. It's shaped to look like a custard in a cone, but no. That's not what it really is. 

"It started off as more like a little bit subversive and comedic," he admits. A fan of the band, a gemologist, who Mothersbaugh says had a home filled with things like "glass objects from Pompeii, Chinese snuff bottles and big chunks of raw gold that he was procuring for a sultan whose son was getting married," along with plenty of gemstones and a Mesopotamian wedding ring, handed Mothersbaugh something that "looked like red meat on the end of each end," told him to pick it up. It was heavy. Very heavy.

"And he goes, 'It should be. It's the world's largest uncut ruby,'" Mothersbaugh recalls. "He had this story about a gem mine where somebody was just in a hurry to get rid of a bunch of stuff, and he happened to be at the right place at the right time and he bought it for a ridiculously low price." The gemologist began explaining that the two types of people that collected gems were people "in the metaphysical world, spiritualists," as well as "really dark people" like "South American drug cartel people and Russian oil executives."

That got Mothersbaugh thinking. He asked if he could carve it. The gemologist asked what he'd turn it into. "'I'd like to carve it into a turd, so whoever owns the world's largest ruby, they have to buy a turd to get it,'" he answered. It seemed like a good joke at the time, but a few weeks later, the two were talking again. "He goes, 'Hey, Mark, I was just at the King of Saudi Arabia's house and I told him what you wanted to do with the ruby and he laughed his ass off and he said, 'Let him do it.'  So it's, like, sitting on its beautiful, bronze, polished cone."

There's plenty more to see in the gallery: Two floors show off old notebooks; his "Beautiful Mutants" series of vintage daguerreotypes and ambrotypes Mothersbaugh digitally manipulated to look somehow even more haunting; drawings and bits of Devo ephemera. But tucked away in a corner past the colorful rugs he created and the case containing the mask he wore when he turned into his alter ego, Booji Boy, and the famous red energy dome helmet, are tables filled with binders holding thousands of postcards that he’s been drawing since 1972. An outlet that wasn't necessarily meant for public view. "Every time I met new people they would be kind of interested at first when they saw me. They'd go, ‘Oh, is he autistic or something? We're at dinner and he's drawing something right in the middle of the dinner.'" Mothersbaugh would draw something, then file it away in one of the little red binders he first bought at a stamp collector store. He estimates he has somewhere around 450 books filled up at this point. Initially he was skeptical of adding them to the show, but Mothersbaugh came to a realization.

"I had this image in my head of dying, and flashing forward, and watching people clearing out my private studio for both music and for art. I imagined people going through, and just clearing stuff out and going, 'What do we with all these binders?' And just flipping through a few pages and going, 'Those can go to the dump.' And I imagine being in the dump, down lower on a hill, and seeing a dump truck lift up and all of the books tumble out, and one of them tumbles in front of me, open. And I had that dream more than once before this show. And now, this show has kind of erased that dream from my reoccurring dream bank."

It's something that could be said about nearly any artist, but Mothersbaugh's childhood has continued to influence him even to this day. Playfulness flows through his work, but there's also a sense of mischief. As with Devo, or his whimsical film scores, the art he creates with his own hands is filled with color, mischievous and humor. It all fits very well together. "I think being able to laugh at things isn't a bad response if you're trying to not let negative information just make you homicidally depressive," he says. 

A pivotal moment in Mothersbaugh's life came around the age of eight when he was tested and learned that he'd been walking around legally blind, without glasses, the entire time. He'd make mile-long walks to school and, "I couldn't see the roof of a house,” he recalls. "Everything was in a fog, but I just thought everybody saw the same way." He couldn't see, so the young Mothersbaugh connected more with sounds until, finally, he had a pair of glasses.

"I came out of the doctor's office and I could see for the first time," he says. "I saw everything. I saw a doorknob, I saw what a doorframe looked like, I saw the hallway I was walking in. I had never seen things like that before. Everything was always just like walking in a cloud. And when I got outside, I saw real clouds for the first time, and I saw telephone wires, which I had never seen. I had never seen the sun before. But I saw everything at once. I saw cars that were driving by, I knew by their sound. I could see a blobs of blue, or black, or red go by us, and I'd hear it but I never saw what It looked like for a car to come down the street towards you."

He recalls, "It was a joyous experience. It was something where I was like, 'This is awesome. I love this.' That kinda had a lot to do with me becoming an artist, was that experience. I wanted to record the things I was seeing for the first time." 

Other creative revelations struck him through his teenage years, "I think other things that really related to my interest in art was then getting older and just wondering, 'Why are we here?' Those kinds of questions coincided with accidentally attending a free gospel church where they were speaking in tongues, which really was impressive to me. I mean, it was kind of crazy, but amazing at the same time.” While he was concentrating as a visual artist, that accidental instance in that church rattled around in his brain, and serendipitously, happened right around the same time Mothersbaugh was discovering artists like John Cage and Captain Beefheart. As he sees it, they were "people that I felt might be artists that were working in that genre and were looking for something that I was looking for." So Mothersbaugh, using the piano lessons his parents had signed him up for a child, joined up with Gerry Casale and Bob Lewis, who had been exploring the idea of human 'de-evolution,' and that was the beginning of the most well known part of a lifelong art project that has been Mothersbaugh’s life.

"We were angry young men when we were living in Akron, Ohio. The time we were living in gave us reason to be angry young men. When we would have people get up onstage and they'd rip my mask off and start trying to fight with us, or we'd get punched, or bottles thrown at us, we thought, 'Well, if we're making those people angry, we're doing the right thing.' That used to be our take on it. And now, it's kind of like I have a wider world to work in, and I know more things, and I've been more places. I think there's a lot to be said."

Mothersbaugh comes from a very particular time and place in American history: post-war Ohio. He came of age with the sights and sounds of a once-thriving industrial capital of the Midwest. Hearing the clanging of machinery, the sight the smokestacks, the decay of cities and promises of a future were all influences.

"The whole middle of the country was an industrial territory. Not the whole middle, but quite a bit of area around Cleveland, and Detroit and Pittsburgh there was a lot of industry going on that kind of got relocated out of the country, and it was confusing to people. But when I lived there, kind of everybody worked for the factory. Whether you worked at Firestone and Goodyear or Goodrich,  or if you sold hamburgs to the workers, or did their laundry. It was a very shocking thing when all at once, the companies figured out they could- Why pay people in Akron 12 dollars an hour when they could pay people in Malaysia 12 dollars a month?"

Maybe the work that best represents who Mothersbaugh is and where he comes from are his orchestrions. The tall masses of wires, wood, organ pipes from abandoned churches and other materials that he initially started creating when working on the score for Anderson's 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom look and sound equally fascinating. They mix the visual and the audio, and also allow Mothersbaugh the chance to break down and rework the industry and technology that was all around him as a child in the Midwest. "We always thought about factories, and conveyor belts and the Laverne and Shirley opening scene kind of scenario," he says. Mothersbaugh builds things out of forgotten materials, and the results are oddly enchanting and wonderful.

Whether it's sonically or visually, he's been creating the entire time. Sometimes he's doing a few different projects at once, "Better than to just try and stay focused on only one thing at a time. I can do it. But for some reason, it makes the end result complementary if I'm doing two things at once, or multiple things at once. They all kind of seem to feed off of each other and support each other." He adds, "Whatever my limitations are, I think I found some ways to exploit them."