MY LA: Mark Mothersbaugh Talks Life In the City Angels and A Chance For Changes
By Beatie Wolfe
Published Issue 086, Birdy Magazine
Originally published January 13, 2020
AS PART OF HER COLUMN FOR LONDON’S EVENING STANDARD NEWSPAPER, BIRDY FRIEND, ARTIST BEATIE WOLFE, SITS DOWN WITH AN INSPIRING LOS ANGELES RESIDENT. THIS MONTH? DEVO FRONTMAN, COMPOSER AND VISUAL ARTIST MARK MOTHERSBAUGH.
Co-founder and frontman of the trailblazing avant-garde rock band DEVO, Mark Mothersbaugh is one the most distinctive figures in music history. David Bowie (a patron saint of the group) called DEVO “the band of the future” (with one of their numerous innovations including the invention of the music video format pre-MTV) and from early on DEVO was celebrated by the likes of The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Neil Young and Andy Warhol as precisely this.
As an award-winning composer, Mothersbaugh has scored everything from global box office hits like The Lego Movie and children’s television classic Rugrats through to the majority of Wes Anderson films, including Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and The Life Aquatic.
Not one to be confined by easy categorisation, Mothersbaugh (who considers himself a kind of social scientist) is also a prolific visual artist, featuring in the Yo Gabba Gabba! TV show and having held numerous acclaimed solo exhibitions of his work.
Artist Beatie Wolfe sat down with Mothersbaugh, an LA resident since 1977, to talk about the best (and weirdest) things about life in LA.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got about four films in different stages of development. One of my favourite directors in the world, a guy named Beto Gómez, called last night and said he’s got a film. He grew up on the other side of the border in Sinaloa, kind of parallel with Wes Anderson who was growing up in Houston, and they have a similar kind of aesthetic, their visuals are similar but Beto has less affectations.
What do you love about Hollywood?
Hollywood is an amazing place and it drives people on the East Coast crazy because it’s both immature and has a lot of the most creative people in the country here. Everybody who got thrown out of Europe for being too crazy started moving further West and if they couldn’t handle being in New York or Boston they kept moving and if they couldn’t handle being in Chicago they finally got to the coast and that’s as far as they could go. So you ended up with the craziest people in the country all out here, but also the most creative people, and I think it contributed to something that still endures. It’s always been a city with a lot of potential to it.
Your first impression of LA?
In ‘77 when I first came here with DEVO we got out of an Econoline van at the corner of Vine and Hollywood and said, “Ah, here we are Tinsel Town!” But then I’m looking around and thinking this place is horrible, this is a dump. And then some crazy old woman walked up to me and she goes, “You want to buy my glasses?” I’m like that’s not Betty Grable! These are the craziest of the crazy people!
What brought you out here?
Well, we made this film in 1974 called The Truth About De-evolution and what do you do with a film in ‘74? Nothing. There’s nothing you can do with it. So the director entered it in a short film fest and it won first place and got on a list of films. There was a short film circuit that would go to art theatres (where you’d go to see films like Clockwork Orange or Eraserhead or Kurosawa). So it got on this circuit and ended up out here in late ‘76, early ‘77, and this guy at A&M Records saw it and gave us $2,000 to drive out to LA and do this showcase at Starwood.
Has living in this city changed you in any way?
First off, getting to work in music so much, it’s much easier here. I grew up in Akron, Ohio, which was an industrial town and once the “Rubber Capital of the World.” In Akron, there was a lot of resistance to what we were doing and we considered ourselves a lightning rod for hostility. Back there we thought, if we’re pissing these people off, we’re doing something right. That’s how we had to think about it when we got in a fistfight during a show or got asked to stop playing. Then we came out here in the mid-70s and met people like Dennis Hopper, Neil Young, Dean Stockwell, Toni Basil and they were so accessible and so interested in new art and artists like us. So coming to LA I met all these amazing people even though I had to be with a record company, which was the bullshit part because they didn’t have a clue what we were about or why and only signed us because David Bowie was a fan and they were trying to get him to do a production deal with them.
Something you find interesting about this city?
So much of it gets torn down and reinvented, I think that’s interesting that this city does that.
Something you’ve done here that you couldn’t have done anywhere else?
Meeting people who felt the same as me who were involved in expressing themselves through multimedia. And it was easy out here because it was so cheap to live, even up to the year 2000 or so. You could get these giant apartments for like 300 bucks so it was very artist-friendly. Now we’re creating the crime that has screwed up so many other big cities around the world where we’ve made housing so expensive that the artists and new creative minds have a hard time being here.
Do you have a favourite film that was shot in this city?
I love a lot of films. I like corny, teen stuff where you see what Hollywood looked like in the 60s and you see the clubs or diners that don’t exist anymore, like Mel’s diner that used to be Ben Frank’s, but some touchstones that are still there. I would have loved to have been here about 30 years earlier. The golden age of film is long over and the most amazing films were made 60 or 70 years ago. Hollywood doesn’t really make To Kill a Mockingbirds or Citizen Kanes anymore. It’s more like a cinema-graphic amusement park than it is about art anymore. And I guess it always was about money. The “American Dream” is to be rich, isn’t it? It’s capitalism and it’s consumerism and that’s America. So it’s always been that way but somehow artists seemed like they were more in control at one time.
Your most enjoyable score?
It changes, but I’m fond of the stuff I did with Wes Anderson. I enjoyed working with him, he’s an interesting artist. He’s also very agoraphobic and wouldn’t let me use a recording studio where I could have a big orchestra. I had to bring six or seven people in at a time to record and it would take us four times as long, but he could sit on that couch and feel more in control. I think he felt safe in here.
Tell me more about your connection with Bowie?
David was a patron saint for DEVO. I lived with him for a bit in New York when I had nowhere to go and we’d go out to the theatre and somebody would notice it was David Bowie and soon there’d be a big mob scene and I’d be sitting in the back of a car with him and with all these people pushed up against the window going, “David, David!” And I’d go, “it’s David Bowie, it’s him.” I’d be sitting next to him as freaked out as they were. David Bowie and Brian Eno were early patron saints for us and they paid for our first record.
Didn’t David Bowie first discover you with Iggy Pop?
Yes. They were touring The Idiot with David playing keys, backing up Iggy and we went to see them in Cleveland and a girlfriend of ours was cute enough to get backstage and give them a tape. Then when they were back in Berlin to record Lust For Life they were like looking for something to listen to other than German radio and so Iggy started going through the box of tapes and pulled out the DEVO one and they put it on and they said: “This can’t be real!”
Were there other interesting people who were early fans of DEVO?
Well, DEVO was this band where people would tell one another: “I’ve just seen the weirdest thing! These guys, they hung a curtain up and they had a movie projector and show these films of themselves playing songs and then come out and play the songs dressed like factory workers and janitors.” So after one show, everybody started turning up, like Andy Warhol would be at a show and that’s how we met Dennis Hopper and a lot of people.
Who were some of those early people who made this city for you?
I met two of the most positive people I’ve ever met on the planet in this city. One of them was Timothy Leary and the other one was Allee Willis. Allee threw parties every couple of weeks and Norman Bates would show up at her house (I meant the actor who played Norman Bates) or Earth, Wind & Fire would be there. And with Allee, it wouldn’t matter what it was, if you gave her a little gift or you showed her something, she would go: “OH MY GOD!” She would be so over effusive and so incredible and it was such a beautiful energy. Allee has always been this person who just emanates incredible, giving energy to people. That’s my takeaway from her. She’s a special person and there aren’t that many. She was a personality out here that just …
… wouldn’t exist anywhere else?
I don’t think so. I think it was easy for her to be out in The Valley. There were thrift stores, plenty for her to plunder and to go through. And me and her and Prudence and Paul Reubens, we’d go somewhere out in the desert and there’d be a thrift store which they both had already sussed out and they’d race to get inside the place and fight over things. You know like some plastic thing where you’d hit a button and it would shuffle a deck of cards or something. They would fight over it, but then they wouldn’t fight over it in front of the people that owned the store because they’d be afraid that the price would go up. They were both so hilarious.
Do you have a particular memory with Timothy Leary?
Well I used to carry a 3D camera around in the 80s and 90s and I have photos of Tim Leary and me fully dressed in this heart-shaped bathtub that was Althea Flynt’s bathtub and it was about a week or two before she committed suicide in the same bathtub because she was one of the first people I knew who had AIDS and back then it was really a death sentence.
Something people might not know about you?
I never used to talk about myself. I was kind of shy. I was not the articulate one in the band.
Have you got a favourite time of day and why?
I like either late at night or early morning. That’s when I get to do artwork because nobody’s bugging me. Right now it’s pretty quiet at Mutato. Normally everybody gets here at 9 a.m. and I come in between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and I have the place to myself for a couple hours where I can write whatever I like and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with work. I can write for our Orchestrions (for instruments that I’ve built) or I can write for a six-sided keyboard or I can work on visual art and that’s my favorite time. Nobody’s bugging me. And then I have to be a responsible business man.
And how about in relation to the city?
To me, it always seemed crazy to come out to LA, and if you weren’t going to live by the ocean, I wanted to be up in the Hills. So I live in Laurel Canyon and I’ve always loved being up there because I can see the sky and the ocean and all of LA and there are times when I get up in the morning and look out the window and there’s no city — because of thermal inversion. It just looks like puffy clouds, like you’re on the seashore somewhere up North or in Northern England. And then it will start to dissipate and as it does you’ll see little skyscrapers starting to poke through, in downtown and Century City and Beverly Hills, and I love that time of day.
Is there somewhere that always inspires you?
I like Huntington Gardens. Even if they’re really manicured and maintained, I just happen to like gardens. My family were coal miners on both sides and both of my grandmas had gardens. They barely had anything, but they both had gardens. My one grandma had roses and they were so soft and beautiful and her gardens smelled so good. There was just one grapevine and the grapes that grew on it were super sweet, sweeter than almost any grapes. So I love gardens.
Do you have a favorite space to see art in LA?
Hauser & Wirth. I like the way the space is set up and I like that it’s got a nice restaurant attached to it because in LA it’s so hard to get around nowadays, traffic is so crazy, that a meal has to be included. And I like their choice of shows. My daughter’s been keenly interested in shows we’ve seen there and that makes me happy.
What’s one of the strangest things you’ve seen here?
I’ve seen grotesque and strange stuff in this town, but we’re in a time in this world where there’s a chance for change. When I first came out here success was measured by looking around and saying who’s successful. And it was people like Weinstein, those were the people who were making great movies, who had energy and power. And when you’re an artist it’s hard to know how you’re doing. Acting might be the worst. Cause there’s always somebody younger than you, someone making more money. So it’s hard to measure success. But I do see this is a time where there’s a potential for change and role models are changing and it’s less important whether people like Harvey Weinstein gets his head cut off physically, than his ideology has been questioned and things are changing.
How else has LA changed?
I was around when it was all about excess. Now if you go to any record company or film company for a meeting someone takes an order for Starbucks and everybody gets their cappuccinos and are ready to go for the meeting. I remember our very first meeting here, after we’d signed with Warner Brothers, a guy walked in and pulled out a canister of cocaine and everybody did a line so they could all be creative and sharp for this marketing meeting. I was the luckiest person in showbiz because that stuff never appealed to me. But that was accepted, that was the norm, and those were the kind of things they taught you out here were okay. Obviously, Prince must be doing it, Madonna, everybody that’s successful because they’re at Warner Brothers too, so Warner Brothers must know what they’re doing.
Is there a piece of music that feels like the soundtrack to this city for you?
I’ve got an odd perspective because I’m a film composer. So when I think of this town, and music, I often think of the other composers who are up for the same films as me, like Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, we use a lot of the same engineers or we use the same orchestra. So when I think of music in the city, I do think of scores and it’s never one piece, it’s too complex. And that is kind of like the city, because it’s not one thing. There’s so many pieces of it and they’re all different and they all contribute.
A neighbourhood you particularly like?
I like the Venice Canals. In the 70s, they were filthy and there was garbage and tires floating in it and now it’s all very gentrified. I like the idea of there being canals in LA. I like parts of West Hollywood. When I get tired of being fat I walk around West Hollywood and I like these little streets where there are small houses and everything’s all neatly kept and they all have gardens connected to them. So I like that.
Favourite sign and why?
The “In-N-Out Burger” sign. When I first came out here, In-N-Out Burger used to pass out these bumper stickers if you went through the drive- through and kids would cut a letter off the end of each side of the sticker so it would say “In-N-Out Urge.” And I love hair salon names. There’s one somewhere out towards Silver Lake called Hairllucination.
Sunset Boulevard. I think about the history of the street all the time. I walk on it and I think how I would have loved to have been here in the 60s and 50s. But it still has a good energy.
Biggest misconception about this city is?
People think it’s only one thing and it probably is that thing but it’s also a lot of other things too. I am always going somewhere and getting a surprise. Like Chinatown, when you’re just driving through it looks like a blight mostly but then when you go in, you see there’s amazing stuff happening. There are amazing activities that don’t necessarily hit your vision. You only find them when you scratch below the surface.
Something that only happens here?
The thing that freaks me out that happens here is people fail upwards. It probably happens everywhere but I see it here so much. People that blow it at one thing and then they show up, they resurface somewhere else.
Is there a hidden gem that you would like to shine a light on? It can be anything.
I would even say one that I can’t go to because my one daughter is on the strict ballerina diet, and I should be too, but I would say Mashti Malone’s.
LA in three words?
Devolved, devoid, divine.
If you were a juice, what use would you be and why?
I would be green juice because green juice makes me happy. And it feels like I don’t have to make apologies for drinking it.
This interview was first published on January 13, 2020
Beatie Wolfe is a London-born, LA- based artist and innovator who has beamed her music into space, been appointed as a UN Women role model for innovation and held a solo exhibition of her album designs at the V&A Museum. Beatie and Mark recently collaborated on a protest art project called Postcards for Democracy which they will be speaking about at SXSW 2021. See more at beatiewolfe.com and on Instagram.