The End of the World as They Know It
At a time when music is consumed blindfolded, in minute dollops of scentless, de-contextualized binary info, it is all the more important to explain to the kids where their music comes from, idea-wise. There’s nothing wrong with music as entertainment, as escape, as elevator respite; but that bond between listener and listened-to can only be bulked out, concretized when the sounds are cracked open and you can get your hands wet in its mucousy ideological substrate.
The band Devo and solo artist Dan Deacon are prime examples of fascinating musicians formulating sounds from odd ideas. Fellow travelers, decades apart, they both fuse infectious, caffeinated, good-time sounds with hyper-critical, nearly apocalyptic visions of contemporary society. They also both share a certain theatricality: Devo through goliath stage productions and bizarre videos, Deacon through his sing-along, solo-electronics freak-outs. And don’t forget the shared interest in the childish and the absurd—just check any Devo video, or Deacon’s nonsense lyrics, for proof.
In the lead up to their June 26 McCarren Park Pool show, Deacon and Gerald V. Casale of Devo agreed to an email exchange, Casale from a tour, Dan from the computer lab he snuck into his apartment. They talked of end times, mass die offs, scavenger culture and crowd-pleasing—delving into the nitty-gritty of conspiracy theory. They provided ample evidence that if you’re going to have an interesting music culture, you need more than just music.
NYPress: Devo has always dealt with the dumbing-down, sloping-off and generally illusory nature of human progress. Although Devo addresses devolution in a winking, often hilarious way, the root issue is a colossal bummer.
Dan, you’ve referred to “Future Shock” as a problem between today’s culture makers (artists, musicians, etc.) and the mechanism of that culture’s dissemination, i.e. this super speed, suck-up spit-out, new-worshiping blog culture. Your music is nonetheless affirmative, sometimes tweaky party music. How does the present match up with your ideas of the future?
Gerald V. Casale: The present surpasses my darkest-held ideas about the future. Weird would be better than what it is: depressing and stupid. Despite any high-hoping message of better days ahead, it’s way too late to fix what is broken. The kernel of decency inside much of the human species is no match for the sheer volume of evil, both intentional and otherwise, unleashed upon the masses in present culture. The very ideas of freedom and equality are being eroded both philosophically and by environmental crises resulting from overpopulation and corrupt government. Corporate Feudal control backed by military regimes will eventually become the norm. The earth will become so sick soon that it will regurgitate the shit back on to the humans who put it there in the first place.
Dan Deacon: I guess it depends on how deep into the future we look. I agree that there are way too many people and that the proper infrastructure to support them isn’t and will never be there. I also agree that we are entering into a new Dark Age, far worse than the current imbalance between the elite and the masses.
I think companies like Monsanto, Blackwater, Microsoft, etc. and organizations like Federal Reserve Bank, Trilateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations, etc. have mapped out the future, and I’m sure it involves about five billion less people alive on earth. But as evil and sinister as these human-corporate monsters are, they have always tried to alter nature and ultimately failed. If we look deeper into the future we’ll see a world free from the torments of human domination. If we look at industrialized civilization as the fire and the earth as the forest that is consumes, I think we will see a new forest growing from our ashes.
What has influenced these future-negative ideas for the two of you?
GVC: Besides copious helpings from 30 years of anecdotal observation, people far more intelligent and disciplined than myself have been clearly warning us in non-fiction and in fiction regarding what was in store for a species attempting to avoid living in harmony with nature and refusing to regulate itself. Bush and his unholy junta had been predicted as far back as Orwell. B.F. Skinner’s experiments in behavioral psychology and Wittengstein’s musings on the atrophy of reason lent scientific weight to the worst dreams of fiction writers. From there, semiotics and postmodern deconstruction mapped the social and physical evidence of de-evolution.
DD: “Conspiracy” theory culture has always been a major influence for me. I guess I first got into thinking about the controlled and calculated mass die off was after my mother died of cancer. I started researching the history of cancer and demography, cancer’s and heart disease’s role in developed nations for maintaining a minimum population growth. That opened my eyes to a lot of evils that seemed to be implemented by the power elite. The parallels between industrial and corporate growth and the rates of human suffering seem too glowing and obvious to not see. Most recently “Ruled by Secrecy” by Jim Marrs and the recently made video “Zeitgeist” on Google video have really changed the way view system and patterns in society and media.
How do these ideas find expression in your music (not just via the word content of music, but maybe music technology as well [...Dan]), or does it?
GVC: Computers and digital software programs have not resulted in a higher percentage of good songs to bad songs. That percentage is a constant of the limits of human creativity. The sound choices have increased exponentially as a result of new technology, but the capacity for new ideas has inversely decreased. I include Devo in this equation. We did as well as we could as long as we could and at least we were so new that, while no longer ahead of our time now, we still manage to sound oddly relevant, being that De-volution is REAL.
DD: Beyond music technology, I think it’s important to look at the context and setting that the music is made in. I think a lot of bands that are involved in DIY culture are focused on putting forth the vision of a sustainable and scavenger-based society; living in and performing in old factories or warehouses, building your own equipment, eating out of supermarket dumpsters, using society’s wastes as the fertilizer for new art and ultimately new life. Experimental, noise-influenced pop music attempts to expand the boundaries of what pop music is and what it can do. Major-label pop culture is extremely similar to a rotting post-industrial city. Both of them provide the framework for new radical ideas to grow in. Even an expensive show like this, that the article is promoting, is in an old, broken down pool, a relic from when the city had a greater investment in the comfort of its inhabitants.
Dan, how did you understand Devo as a kid?
DD: Before I answer this question, I guess it should be stated here that no other band has influenced my music more than Devo. When I was in high school my sister’s boyfriend bought an old beat-up copy of Q: Are We Not Men on vinyl from a yard sale. The album was just perfect. I immediately began collecting their work. They were the band that had finally figured it out. The music was really poppy but still super weird and aggressive. The songs were simple and easy to latch on to yet still complex enough to withstand countless listens. They created an entire culture, a new way to look at pop music. They have a greater understanding of performance and theatrics than anyone.
Playing this show with them is a dream come true. When I started rooting through dumpsters for oscillators eight years ago I never thought anything would ever happen...I hope I’m not just creeping them out.
Email 2: Gerald, from your answers, it seems like we’re just beckoning the end times to arrive sooner every day, that the world is a hyper-tech shit puddle we’re all drowning in, and when we unclog the toilet, all the humans are going to be flushed with it. Whatever the case’s merits, it’s kind of a bummer.
On the other hand, Dan, you’ve offered inklings into how to acknowledge the current scatological (read: shitty) state of things without delving totally into eschatology (read: the MF-ing apocalypse) and posing answers to the problems of a de-evolved society through DIY scavenger culture.
Gerald, do you think the cultural pathways offered by Deacon represent a sustainable path forward? Is it possible for people to change their lives enough to at least weather the storm?
GVC: Dan’s answers are intelligent and perceptive attempts to cope with the 800-pound Gorilla of the Apocalypse. I appreciate and respect his insights and would absolutely love to participate in his optimism. The organism strives to fight death until the end.
DD: I’m not sure if I got this point across earlier, I don’t think the human species will survive “as we know it.” I do think a new Dark Age is coming, and it will be long and difficult and much pain, death and suffering will exist within our kind. However, an 800-pound gorilla can kill most of a village, but some run faster and know how to hide, or are already hidden. I don’t think we will ALL, as a kind, will perish, but even if we do, the beauty of light, sound, and time will still exist to some end, whether any person sees it or not. Even if these are the “final days,” I don’t think it’s wise to spend them staring at the clock waiting or wishing. I’d rather be naive/stupid and proactive about the future than wish for the lights to go out, as beautiful as it might be.
As a final issue, I’d like to bring up performance. What makes a performance a success for you? Is there a specific response that pleases you? With jaded audiences and 10 billion bands, how do you make something special, or at least memorable?
GVC: Watch the Nicholas Roeg film, Performance, starring Mick Jagger from 1970. The artist trades places with real-life criminals. They suggest that the best performance is one that transgresses the boundaries of what is safe and thereby moves the audience to catharsis. It can be very positive or very negative. We have experienced both at least once.
DD: I’ve been trying to work with the difference between those that participate and those that don’t. The first show I did at McCarren Pool last year, I made a really pompous and arrogant statement toward all the people who weren’t dancing. A review from Brooklyn Vegan called me out on it, and they were right. Everyone enjoys a performance for different reasons. Not everyone likes to dance, or sing along, or watch, or sit or whatever. The long/short of it is, hopefully people leave the show thinking they either participated in something unique or were there to see something unique unfold before them. I sound like such a fucking stupid hippy.
There will be a large span of age groups at this show (at least I hope so), and it will make for a very interesting experience. I’ll really have to work to win over a lot of the crowd that is there to see two legendary bands while some unknown dickhead tries to convince them to kneel on broke concrete for five minutes as soon as they get there. I wish it wasn’t $50. But that’s another article all together. I just hope people have fun at this show. Life should be fun, right? Yes! To the future.
Dan Deacon & Devo perform, along with Tom Tom Club, June 26 at McCarren Park Pool (Lorimer & Bedford St.), Brooklyn; 6, $52.
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