Moshe Brakha Devo, circa 1981, on their New Traditionalists tour.
There are a lot of great releases on tap for this year's Record Store Day from a wide-ranging list of artists. Whether you're into The Grateful Dead, Metallica or Miles Davis, there's pretty much something for every kind of music fan. But few selections will send collector nerds racing to the bins as quickly as Devo's contribution, Live in Seattle 1981, a 2xLP recorded on their New Traditionalists tour that was pressed from a recording found buried in a box by the band's longtime archivist. The release is limited to 2,000 copies and was recorded at the Seattle Center Arena, which became the Mercer Arena in 1995. We were lucky enough to get Devo's Gerald V. Casale on the phone to discuss the record, the 1981 music scene and why the band shied away from opening acts.
Moshe Brakha Devo, circa 1981, on their New Traditionalists tour.
Do you remember this 1981 Seattle show? Certainly.
Do you have any sense of what Seattle's music scene was like then, or if there even was one? I really don't. We knew about the San Francisco scene and knew it well because we had merged with that scene and were friends with some of the bands. It seemed like the whole Pacific Northwest -- San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver - had fantastic audiences. There was a really strong demographic of people who liked the new music and they were great crowds.
So your sense is that it was more regional?
So your sense is that it was more regional?The way people behaved region to region was very different back then, probably because there was still regional control of radio station playlists, independent record stores, independent film houses. Some towns had more of their own character. Now it's like Walmart. No matter where you go you see the same ten hits in stores and the same playlist controlled by some central robot force.
Do you remember if anyone else was on the bill that night? I doubt it. Back then, since we had a certain degree of respect and clout, we billed ourselves as an evening with Devo. We didn't really like opening acts. If we had to, we always tried to get an opening act that was not a typical band. We didn't want somebody on stage making as much noise as we were about to make, burning out the crowd's ears. We had interesting, weird stuff. We even tried comedians and weird acrobatic acts, things that the crowd would boo at. We did have a four-piece chamber group play classical versions of our songs -- that was great fun. People liked that. But our show was like an hour and a half long. It had a lot of lighting and set changes and costume changes. It was a very theatrical production so we really didn't need anything else.
Your stage outfits on the New Traditionalists tour included a Ronald Reagan-style hairpiece and what you guys called Utopian Boy Scout Uniforms, which Wikipedia describes as gray button down shirt, gray slacks, and black patent leather shoes. I designed those Reagan pompadours. We were trying to make fun of the right-wing political hairdo. Every politician seemed to have the same hairdo. We had just come back from Japan and we'd come across this ultra-right-wing group there called The New Traditionalists, and they sold pins in stores. Satirically, we bought a couple of those pins. As we were writing those songs, we just decided to graft the Japanese right-wing name onto those records. We became The New Traditionalists, but turned it on its ear. We appropriated the idea of that, meaning we were going to provide you with new traditions to forget about the old ones.
And the uniforms? Those were inspired by a Japanese designer. We had seen his clothes at this big store called Parko West in Tokyo and we really liked the direction he was going. It inspired me to find a seamstress here in the States to design those.
There's an appearance you guys did on the TV show Fridays during this tour that has you riding on treadmills in front of a Greek temple. Can you tell me about the stage design and the concept behind it? It all grew out of this conceit that we were going to be these preppy conservative guys peddling a whole new radical set of thoughts. The classic Greek temple was a continuation of the uniforms. The treadmill idea was just an excuse for choreography. We had 20-foot long treadmills, and they were delivering us out of the bowels of the temple to the front of the stage and then back where we could disappear off stage. But of course it ended up being very complicated and costing a lot of money. We had to have all the motors retrofitted because they weren't really appropriate for what we were doing. They created variable-speed motors with forward and reverse and we had two guys off stage controlling them that had to learn all the cues for every song and deliver us out to our instruments and take us back. Sometimes we were walking against the direction of them, like a kid walking up the down escalator. Sometimes we would just freeze and then they would take us all the way back and disappear us into the Greek temple. It was really effective. People loved it. And since we really weren't dancers, it was synchronized choreography that was getting them off.
This all sounds pretty elaborate. Am I right in thinking that this was at the height of your touring excesses? Well the next one was just as elaborate, the Oh, No! It's Devo tour. That's where we finally got into the rear-projection screens where everything was in synch with our live playing and characters came on the screen and sang backups.
Were you touring with semis and a huge crew at that point? We had 22 people on our crew. It took three semis. The crew traveled in busses, we flew. It was a big deal.
What are your feelings about the New Traditionalists record now as it pertains to the rest of your catalog? I love the New Traditionalists record. I'm just sorry we had so many problems during the recording of it. There were problems with the actual two-inch tape that we were sold on by these engineers. "You gotta use this new 3M stuff." By the time we were laying down vocals, the edge tracks were disintegrating on all the two-inch tape. We were losing everything we were spending a lot of money and time on. We had to transfer everything to the then-brand new format of digital reel-to-reel tape and try to save what we did because we didn't have enough money to start over. Then we had to finish the record using digital technology back in L.A. at the record plant.
Are there any live records that are important to you? Do you like them? I like them when they're good. [Finding the bootleg] was a real surprise because on that particular tour, no professional recording was ever made. The one time we tried to record the show it was because a seven-camera crew was shooting and their lighting generator got crossed with our stage light generator and they blew out both sets of lights -- the film lights and the stage lights. It was a disaster. And part of the insurance settlement was that all audio and video from that show had to be destroyed because they were claiming a loss.
Do you know who made the bootleg? Somebody on the crew back then had plugged into the board and made a recording right out of the board. But luckily there was an audience mike.
This release is sure to become a collector's item. What's the most expensive Devo record you remember seeing? There was a live album from The Palace in Hollywood in 1988 I think called Now It Can Be Told, where we did acoustic versions of some of our songs for the first 20 minutes. It's a very unusual live performance and I saw it on sale for over $50, because you can't find it.