Devo are one of our all-time favourite bands! They were punk before punk. Staring out in 1973, the band was born out of the transformative effects of a historic tragedy, the Kent State Massacre Shootings – Kent State being the university where Gerald Casale, soon-to-be Devo co-founder, was in attendance. Four students were shot during the protest against the Cambodia Campaign (US military operations, including the illegal bombing of Cambodia). Gerald was there on the front line and saw “exit wounds from M1 rifles out the backs of two people” that were friends. The Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds at unarmed demonstrators in 13 seconds! Witnessing this changed the course of Gerald’s life, he took the anger, frustration and disappointment in the powers that be – he saw “clearly, and horrifically, how everything really works, and how the truth doesn’t matter” – and channelled that into music and visual art, thus creating Devo, one of the most original bands that ever was.
Our editor interviewed Gerald in-depth for her book on punk, creativity and spirituality that will be out later in the year. The following is just a short extract from the larger chat.
Have you always been a creative person?
GERALD CASALE: I guess I have been, you don’t think of it that way but in retrospect, yes.
What attracted you to taking that path?
GC: I don’t think creative people choose to be creative, personally. I think that they are and they can’t help it. Furthermore, I think that so many young people as they grow up are innately creative, but they are somehow socialised to quit being creative and to quit trusting their instincts and their intuitions and they lose that ability. Whereas people that end up being called creative, all they did was stay true and in touch with their ability.
What has fuelled your creativity?
GC: I’m not sure about that in the beginning… as children we have all these dreams and intuitions and fantasies and epiphanies that the human complex brain, even in a child first making connections, you’re unfiltered then and uncensored, so you start writing things or drawing things, whatever you do. What you’re doing is externalizing your thoughts. If you become “artistic” or the other people in society in your group of humans decides you are artistic, you start doing things consciously because you’re getting rewarding for “oh, that guy can draw” or “wow! That’s a great short story he wrote”—we all want to be accepted and find a reason to be part of a society where you’re rewarded. So the artist finds out that they can still be accepted and still be true to themselves.
Have there been times in your life when you haven’t been creative or maybe doubted your abilities to create?
GC: [Laughs] Anybody that would say that hasn’t happened would be lying. As you get older and the pressure mounts and the forces of conformity and survival basically attack your freedom and your creativity, you go through periods of course where you give up or question what you’re doing. So, yeah, it’s cyclical.
What’s been one of the biggest challenges for you in regards to your creative life?
GC: Opportunity. I have no shortage of ideas and insights and plans but of course so much of what an artist does depends on opportunity, mostly financial but also distribution. Here’s an idea… how does the world see that idea? Well, someone has got to let them see it, there’s all these gatekeepers, all these middle management censorship kind of people and they don’t share your vision, your originality, they don’t share your ability to create, but what they’re there to do is to decided which creative people get seen and heard. That’s what you read about all the time, that’s why people feel so disenfranchised, as minorities, as disenfranchised people because of their sexuality or whatever, they’re not getting the same opportunities; certainly historically they have not gotten the same opportunities as “insiders” the people that are embraced as the ruling class.
Was it hard for you to balance expressing yourself and being an artistic band and then when you got really popular and broke into the mainstream; was it hard to balance these things?
GC: Certainly, but not consciously. DEVO was “an art band”. We became popular for doing exactly what we wanted to. We didn’t change what we wanted to do to become popular. Suddenly here’s an artist doing something nobody cares about that everyone is making fun of, everybody is putting you down then suddenly that same exact thing hits a moment in the cultural zeitgeist where people go, “oh, these guys weren’t clowns, they were right” and now you’re popular. Now the only challenge is to stay relevant and keep doing what you do rather than letting your popularity stop you from doing what you were doing. In other words the artist is ultimately responsible, you’re always going to have your enemies, you’re always going to have people trying to thwart you and block you and bring you down but finally, the artist is the only one that can bring themselves down.
Read the full interview soon in book, Conversations with Punx.