Speaking from the Mutato Muzika complex on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, Mark Mothersbaugh recalled the motivations for his first band, the Wipeouters, surely the premier eighth-grade surf band in Akron, Ohio.
“We were influenced by some of the first surfing that was done, off the North Coast. Ohio was first settled by Canadians who came across Lake Erie and Lake Michigan,” said Mothersbaugh, who is better known as the frontman of Devo. “The pioneers had to wait for them to freeze over, but it would rarely freeze all the way over. They would have their wives lay down in a very stiff, ironing board fashion, and climb on top of them and paddle across.”
Mothersbaugh’s own surfing experience amounts to an involuntary one. “I was small of stature and big of mouth, and I got skipped across Lake Erie by some of the bigger, more Neanderthal types. I was the wooden plank,” he said.
So it was the little-known (possibly apocryphal) genesis of surfing that led the young men who would be Devo to first make music together. Around 1967, when Mothersbaugh, his brother Bob and Bob Casale (Bob 1 and Bob 2, respectively, in Devo parlance) were in junior high in Akron, they formed the Wipeouters.
Now, 34 years later, the trio have recorded the songs they wrote at the time, which will be released as P’Twaang (Casual Tonalities) on April 24. The Wipeouters are joined on one track by Jerry Casale and 70-year-old Casale patriarch Robert. Jim Mothersbaugh, although not an official Wipeouter, plays drums on most of the record.
Taking a break from designing ring tones for Nokia wireless phones (“They asked me to mentally reprogram people, making them kinder, gentler and more passive,” he said), Mothersbaugh recalled the glory days of his first band.
“Jerry (Casale, Bob 2’s brother and Devo’s other frontman) was a little older, and was only mildly interested in surf music. He went through puberty before us,” and thus was not a Wipeouter.
The band spent most of its time in the basement of the Casale home. “When their parents were shellacking the floor near the washer and dryer, we got promoted up to the garage for two weekends,” Mothersbaugh said. “That was the biggest thrill of our career. We opened up the garage door, and there were confused kids on banana-seat bicycles, intently trying to figure out what we were doing. It was the biggest venue we ever played.”
The Wipeouters met their demise in 1969 when Casale and the two Mothersbaugh boys discovered “pimples, BO and other complicated things that got in the way of practicing.”
Around 1972, the three Wipeouters joined Jerry Casale and Jim Mothersbaugh to form Devo, which Mothersbaugh considers “probably more successful, although it was less purist” than the Wipeouters. “That band was very optimistic,” he said, “whereas Devo was a product of the youth movement being very disillusioned.”
And that, of course, was the crux of Devo, a band that for eight albums documented what it saw as the de-evolution of mankind via herky-jerky songs like “Jocko Homo,” “Whip It” and “Peek-a-Boo” and forward-looking use of synthesizers.
During the final years of Devo, Mothersbaugh began to compose music for television and films, writing the music for “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and the films “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” “Rugrats” and “Sugar & Spice.” Each member of Devo (barring each of the band’s four drummers) works on various music composition and video projects by commission at Mutato Muzika.
But nearly two years ago, the specter of the Wipeouters re-emerged. “It happened in the routine of being asked to do odd things” he said. “’Write a song for “Powerpuff Girls,'” ’Write a song for a Jackie Chan movie.’ One of them was ’Write a title song for kids show named “Rocket Power.'” We looked into it, and it was about surfboarding, skateboarding, snowboarding, that sort of thing.
“A couple of synapses fired in Bob Mothersbaugh’s brain, and he went, ’Remember down in the basement in the Casales’ house?’ And we started to think about all the songs we had written, and how much of a shame it was that we never set up on the back patio, and really play the songs the way they should have been played.”
The older, wiser Wipeouters imposed some restrictions in order to recapture the spirit of ’69. “We decided to put the same energy into it that we had in Ohio, which meant that we could only work on it during the weekends and on the nights when my brother and I could get our parents to drive us over to the Casales’ house.”
So, thanks to the state-of the-art Mutato Muzika, songs like “Wedgie Wipeout” and “Nubie Boardsman” have now reached the digital era without ever having been committed to analog tape at the time of their composition.
It is the recorded debut of Robert Casale Sr., however, that may be P’Twaang’s most notable feature. A retired tool and die man, he was visiting his sons in California last year when he revealed that he had picked up the bass guitar.
By recording with Wipeouters, the eldest Casale has moved from telling those kids to keep it down to playing bass on one of the very same tunes. “For only two years [of playing],” Mothersbaugh said, “he has an impressive John Entwistle style.”
Mothersbaugh is hesitant to tour with the Wipeouters. “In Devo, we were looking good, and we had these really high testosterone levels. We were in our 20s and didn’t know any better. Probably what will happen is that we will foolishly agree to a few dates here and there and regret it afterwards. That’s my guess.”