While some musicians might resent being compared to inhuman technology, Jerry Casale – the co-founder of groundbreaking new-wave/punk icons Devo – intends the remark as supreme tribute to Alan Myers, Devo's drummer during the group's most vital decade, who died Monday from stomach cancer at 58. "He was like a robot playing drums," says Casale. "A human metronome." In fact, Myers' angular playing proved so absurdly precise on Devo's most beloved classics – the band's provocative 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, the 1979 follow-up Duty Now for the Future and 1980 mainstream breakthrough Freedom of Choice (featuring the era-defining hit "Whip It") – that his beats were frequently mistaken for a drum machine.
That distinctive style ultimately made Myers one of the most influential drummers of his generation. His ability to make complex, often bizarre rhythms feel natural can be heard in artists spanning the jumpy pulse of LCD Soundsystem, Big Black's unhinged percussion patterns, the jagged lurch of Soundgarden and the conceptual rigidity of the entire math-rock genre. Dave Grohl's approximation of Myers' artful awkwardness on Nirvana's cover of Devo's "Turn Around," meanwhile, provides a key insight into the foundation of Grohl's nervously intense pounding. "Although he wasn't one of the writers, Alan's abilities allowed us to do what we were trying to achieve: attempt to recreate what people were doing with machines, but use humans to do it," Devo singer Mark Mothersbaugh tells Rolling Stone. "He was a great guy to work with – he really helped shape the organized, aggressive sound of what Devo was attempting back then."
Myers' entrée into Devo was as unexpected as the sounds he would create. He was actually Devo's third drummer, replacing Mothersbaugh's brother, Jim, in 1976 thanks to an especially odd, auspicious audition in the band's original spawning ground of Akron, Ohio. "Finding Alan was a stroke of luck – like a needle in a haystack," Casale says. "We were at a loss; nobody wanted to try what were doing. Then [Devo guitarist] Bob Mothersbaugh ran into Alan in a café in West Akron, and brought him over to the house we were renting. Alan looked like a complete nerd – he was wearing a stocking cap and hoodie, way ahead of his time."
Myers came from a jazz background, and his virtuosity absorbed any challenge thrown his way, no matter how insane. "It's apocryphal now, but we actually told Alan we wanted to see him drum with just one hand, using no fills or cymbals," Casale says. "We actually duct-taped his hand behind his back – and he was into it! We thought maybe he'd tolerate us, and he just created just perfect beats. When you looked at him playing, his body wasn't moving – just his wrist and forearms; it seemed impossible. And then, at the end of the session, we turned around and he was hovering with one foot in the air. We were like, 'What's that?' He was a serious tai-chi practitioner – he'd do it before every show, then play one beat at the same BPM for half an hour straight, without straying. Alan was like a Zen priest."
According to Casale, Myers remained his idiosyncratic self in the wake of Devo's increasing success. "When we got a record deal, Alan didn't change the way he dressed, buy an expensive car or start doing cocaine," Casale says. "He was very self-effacing, all the time."
However, by 1987, Myers would leave Devo. The man who was considered the human drum machine had been pretty much replaced by actual drum machines on Devo's 1984 album Shout, leaving him creatively disillusioned. "Alan felt like his dick was snipped," Casale says. "He didn't want to play second fiddle to a machine – it was the final straw. We didn't get an inkling of the feeling we had playing with Alan back until Josh Freese came along."
Freese – one of contemporary rock's most accomplished drummers, having played with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Guns N' Roses – took over Devo's drum stool in 1996, partially in tribute to the early sway Myers had on him as a player. "I got Devo's Freedom of Choice LP on my eighth birthday and Alan Myers became one of my first ever drum influences," Freese tells Rolling Stone. "His approach, sound and style struck a chord with me right when I was just starting to get into rock music and the drums. As I matured, his style and sound continued to inspire and resonate with me. Alan was unique, creative, quirky, commanding, and blurred the lines between funky and soulful . . . and was a total metronomic machine – Devo gave him the nickname ‘Human Metronome' early on, for obvious reasons. It has been an honor and dream come true to follow in his footsteps as Devo's drummer of many years. He had a huge role in me being the musician that I am today and I will forever be grateful for him and his contributions."
The members of Devo were taken aback by the abrupt news of Myers' death. "Nobody knew how far along and serious his illness was," Casale says. "I saw him a year ago, when he was being interviewed for a Devo documentary, and he looked and sounded like Alan."
"I'd seen Alan a few times over the last few years, and he never had any outward signs of being unhealthy, and never said anything about it," Mothersbaugh says. "It's a shame, in a way. We'd held out hope to do something together again, but Alan had just gone in a different direction. That was Alan – enigmatic to the end. He fit into Devo the way it seemed Charlie Watts fit into the Rolling Stones: always amused behind the kit, just watching the wheels turn. In his head, the rest of us were the science experiment."