PHOTO: Michael Heeg/Courtesy of Devo
Living Legends: Devo Subverted The Herd Mentality Beginning In The '70s, But Their Art Punk Aesthetic Is More Relevant Than Ever
Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale discuss the evolution of devolution, and the video revolution they helped whip into reality: "We drew a line in the sand, and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo"
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. This week, GRAMMY.com sat down with Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, members of seminal new wave/post-punk band Devo, who challenged the status quo with irreverent, catchy songs.
The average music fan thinks of dome-shaped headpieces and whipping it good on the dance floor when they hear the name Devo, but for an entire generation of music lovers, the four-letter moniker means something much more.
The Akron, Ohio art rock band formed in 1973 to spread a message about societal regression, driven by herd mentality and negative cultural influences (the name is short for "de-evolution"). The music they created was infectiously fun, with catchy choruses and a synth-driven futuristic energy that fit in perfectly with the new wave genre that was becoming popular in the early '80s. But behind the campy outfits and colorful videos, there was a nonconformist message — which the band managed to maintain even at the height of their popularity.
From the science aesthetics of Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Duty Now for the Future (1979), to the subversive empowerment of Freedom of Choice (1980) and
New Traditionalists (1981), Devo approached their output as a sardonic experiment. Their sometimes deceptive lyrical simplicity and sonic nuances created alchemy, and their charisma individually and as a unit made for a compelling blend of nerd rock meets post-punk.
Devo’s dynamic videos always had a message driving the madcap imagery and ideas. Maybe even more than Sparks, who were touted as "your favorite band’s favorite band" in their recent hit bio-doc, Devo’s influence on music is substantial, with everyone from Talking Heads to David Bowie (who helped discover them) taking obvious cues over the years. If some thought Devo a novelty act, they proved otherwise a long time ago.
As Devo celebrates the 40th anniversary of their fifth album Oh No! It’s Devo this month (as well as their third nomination for consideration into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame), they are also cementing their legacy as a band who call out the ills of the world in their music and actively work to change them, too. Throughout the month of April, Devo will donate all proceeds from their catalog to aid Ukraine. The band also have a top slot on the highly-anticipated Cruel World music festival in Los Angeles this May, which some have nicknamed "Gothchella" thanks to its darkly nostalgic, '80s-heavy lineup.
The story of how Devo emerged as a force in music includes some very big names, including David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Can you share how they and others had a hand in your early success?
Jerry Casale: We popped up on the radar through many efforts that we made, and they finally succeeded in paying off, where Iggy became aware of us and we spoke with him in Cleveland, when he was playing on the Idiot tour and David Bowie was playing keyboards for him. We got him a demo cassette, and you would assume those things go in the wastebasket, because I know how that is when you're on tour…. He actually listened to it and Dean Stockwell and Toni Basil, who I had also gotten to, they talked to Iggy about it. He played it for David Bowie.
So then David Bowie heard it, and told Iggy to put me in touch with David's lawyer Stan Diamond in L.A. and we started a dialogue. Then Toni and Dean played it for Neil Young in San Francisco about the same time. So then [Young] called up and wanted us to be in his film, Human Highway. And it all started snowballing.
We did everything we could, and that was a do it yourself aesthetic. Back then, there was no internet…. We sent packages to Saturday Night Live over and over too, with the videos and the songs because we loved that program and we wanted to be selected to play on it. Of course there was no chance in reality that Devo was going to be able to do that then. That took having a manager and a label. We got on Saturday Night Live in October of 1978.
It’s been over 40 years since Devo became hitmakers and you are still getting recognition for your work. In a general sense, what do awards and honors mean to you at this point in your career?
Mark Mothersbaugh: You know, it's nice to be recognized. We're in a business where there's always somebody younger, somebody cuter, somebody who got there faster, somebody who's getting paid more, somebody who had a bigger hit — there's all these things that figure into people wondering, Where am I? How am I doing? Did anybody pay attention? So it's kind of really nice.
Casale: I think that any artist would have to be a bit dishonest if they said they didn't like the fact that they are being recognized by some official organization or outside body of self-proclaimed gatekeepers. Yeah. It does mean something. I mean, my God, when you're a performer, you get up in front of people. Think of the nerve it takes to get up in front of people, like, why should people watch you? You were looking for approval, right? From the time you're a kid, you're looking for approval.
In 1985, Devo was nominated for a GRAMMY for your video work, which was always such a big aspect of what the band was about.
Casale: Yeah, it sure was. I directed all those videos, and from the beginning, was kind of spearheading the visual aspect of Devo. We had agreed that it was going to be a multimedia kind of experimental art collective. So from the beginning that was very intentional.
For those of us who belong to "Generation X," Devo are a very significant band, especially the album Freedom of Choice and the releases that came after. Do you hear a lot from fans of different ages about how formative you were to them?
Mothersbaugh: I have two daughters and I watch them and what things help them figure out what's going on in the world. Music plays a big part of that. I do get those letters and I meet those people at our shows, and, yeah, I like that. That's kind of sweet. For me, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And, you know, for them, it's Devo and that tickles me.
Casale: We were very polarizing without even wanting to be, but we just were. Because of the way we looked, the way we sounded, the way we acted and what we said. We drew a line in the sand and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo. So a lot of young fans would all tell us the same story about how they got harassed or beat up or made fun of in school because they liked Devo. We inspired a lot of people to start bands, and a lot of bands that came after us that we respect have cited us as an influence. So we were an artist’s artist. That's heartening.
How did you two come together?
Mothersbaugh: When I met Jerry at Kent State University, he was a grad student and I was a sophomore. We collaborated early on on visual things. He had come up to me and said "Are you the guy that's sticking up pictures of art and astronauts holding potatoes standing on the moon?" And I go, "Yeah, what of it?" He goes, "What does a potato mean to you?" I really liked that for an opening conversation.
Before there was a word for posting up art or graffiti, before there was Shepard Fairey, I was a teen who was posting artwork around school at Kent State. I don't know why I did it, but I had to do it for some reason. So that's how we met. We were visual artists, and we collaborated on visual projects. He liked that I was making these decals that stuck on things, and he liked that I liked potatoes. So I made these potato decals for him for his senior graduation class project… that he hung all over photos he’d blown up from his high school yearbook of different kids he didn't like.
What is the significance of the potato?
Mothersbaugh: We were trying to figure out, who are we? And how do we fit into the world? We were both the kids of working class parents, and we decided we weren't asparagus people or part of the elite or the rich, we were like potatoes. We were like spuds. We were like asymmetrical, not very good looking vegetables that came from underground. But they were a staple of everybody's diet in the USA.
The interesting thing about potatoes for us, it's like, potatoes have eyes all around, so they see everything. So we called ourselves spuds, and we used that term in exchange for comrades or mates.
In terms of presentation and imagery, including costume, your most iconic has to be the red dome hats. How did the idea for those come about?
Casale: The inspiration for the design came from an Art Deco 1930’s ceiling fixture. So imagine a milk glass-like fixture that looked like a dome hanging from three chains on the ceiling with a bowl. But upside down, right? I used to just stare at that when I was a kid in my grade school and I always thought it was such a cool image.
And so years later, when we were talking about Devo wearing some kind of headgear, I kept thinking of that. Making them red and making them plastic and wearing them became a thing. Then we could make multiples and we could sell them to people because people wanted them. In fact, people were stealing them. So we started selling them.
Devo had chart-topping success but the project was always sort of out of the box and different, even weird to some. Now bands like yours seem to finally be getting the recognition they deserve.
Mothersbaugh: Because Devo had content. A lot of the bands that were out at the same time as Devo, you could just kind of group them together. We had a concept that was unique, not just only for the time period we were in, but actually, for a much bigger time period of rock and roll.
Just even questioning man's central glory on the planet. We kind of pose the question that maybe humans, we're not the best species on the planet; maybe we’re the only insane species. We might be the only organisms out of touch with nature and destructive, as opposed to being a symbiotic part of everything. And you know, that didn't win friends and a lot of people took offense to that. They're usually the people that should take offense to it, because we were probably talking about them.
So we had a pretty unique concept, and it was what we wrote our music about. I think there are a lot of artists out there that respect that or understand that.
Casale: The test of time proved that those bands weren't so weird after all. I mean, look in the '60s, '70s and '80s: Those three decades, there was an explosion of diversity — of creativity, of technology, of new ideas, new sounds, and groups who performed a body of work well. If you bought a record because you liked one song on that record, you probably ended up liking five or six songs on that record, because it was a piece and all connected.
I think that's what kids today miss. They miss that reality. There were real groups, and real artists that did something with a whole body of work that mattered. And it was exciting. The packaging mattered and what the artist said mattered. We had MTV playing the videos. So [the '80s were] like the last decade where this explosion of Western culture was exciting, at the top of its game. That was the end, then it started to devolve and decline.
In addition to its statement- minded subtext, your early stuff was so atmospheric and that seems to have led you both down cinematic paths later in your careers, Mark with your scoring of shows like "Pee-Wee’s Playhouse" and "Rugrats," and appearance on the kids show "Yo Gabba Gabba," and Jerry with your directorial work.
Casale: Devo was kind of put on ice in the '90s and Mark wasn't interested in doing anything except scoring and composing for TV. Because I had directed like 20 Devo videos, [I started] directing videos for other bands.
So I had a whole music video career as a director for bands like Rush, Soundgarden and Foo Fighters — the first video they ever made. They were anti-video because all the grunge bands were anti-video, but Dave Grohl said, "You know what, if we have to do one, let's get that guy from Devo because I can trust him because he's been in my position as a band member on stage, so he won't make us do foolish things." That led me to commercials. So then I had this whole directing career doing TV commercials up until about 2005, when it kind of trickled out as the business changed a lot and the money went away.
Mothersbaugh: I can tell how old somebody is when they say, "Oh, I really like your music," and they're talking about they're talking about "Rugrats" or "Pee Wee's Playhouse." And if they're talking about Devo, they probably have gray hair. Except for kids, because the internet is this amazing place. They’ve got the whole world right there in their hands.
So yeah, now we get people of all ages, asking about Devo, who are knowledgeable about it. So that's kind of interesting. In the early days we sounded like some sort of outer space version of Captain Beefheart mixed with Sun Ra or something like that. Jerry and I always thought about sound and vision.
One of the things we learned at Kent State was protesting isn't the way to change things in this country, because when they get tired of you, and when the government finally is irritated enough, they just shoot you. Like they did at my school. So we thought, who's changing things…and we were looking around and we thought… Madison Avenue, that's who changes the world. They get you to buy stupid cars, eat food that's not good for you, buy clothes you don't need and you're happy at the end of it.
We just thought well, what if we use those techniques in reverse, and figured out a way to talk to people about reverse evolution, talk to people about how to change the trajectory of the planet. We looked for ways to add hooks into our songs but our whole idea was just to get people to come in, find out what we were. If they liked the song, they’d buy the album, and then they'd listen to the album and hear “Jocko Homo” and or they'd hear “Too Much Paranoia,” or they'd hear the last line in a “Beautiful World": "It's a beautiful world for you, for you, but not for me." And the videos were made to show that.
Your devolution message has sadly never been more relevant.
Mothersbaugh: I agree that the world has devolved. It's even more complicated than ever to find out the truth about things. Jerry likes to call Devo, "the band playing on the Titanic while it goes down."
I'm the eternal optimist. I keep wanting to think that between technology and just people becoming aware of where we are, you know, that they can figure out ways to turn things around. So I like that our music is being listened to and I hope it has a positive effect on people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Francois Rousseau
Living Legends: Electronic Music Pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre's 50-Year Odyssey Of Audio Experimentation
"I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character," the French musician says of his decades-long desire to democratize sound.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Jean-Michel Jarre, whose work has greatly influenced the scope of electronic music and broken multiple records.
Jean-Michel Jarre is living proof that age is a construct.
The 74-year-old electronic music legend is just as curious and excited about music as artists in their 20s heading out on their debut album tour. For 50 years, Jarre's resume has overflowed with a spirit of ingenuity.
Jarre first sparked international attention with his 1976 album Oxygéne, which was one of the first to solely utilize synthesizers in the creation of three-to-four-minute pop songs. The LP’s second single, "Oxygene, Pt. 4," merged then-unheard bubbly synth sounds with a clear sense of melody and song form — launching both the technology and electronic music to new heights.
In the decades that followed, the global music community took note of Jarre's innovation and the artist became a sought-after collaborator. He’s worked with classical composers including Hans Zimmer, dance music stalwarts such as Detroit techno icon Jeff Mills and trance legend Armin Van Buuren, collaborated with Moby, and partnered with burgeoning talents like the anonymous music project, Deathpact.
But the reach of Jean-Michel Jarre extends beyond his discography; he continually redefines what electronic music can be in both the listening space and the live space.
He’s invented hybrid instruments like the laser harp. He’s broken records with his performances, playing for audiences of over a million people on multiple occasions. Jarre has also broken geographic and cultural boundaries with his performances; in 1981 he became the first Western artist to perform in China in the post-Mao Zedong era. On Nov. 25, Jarre celebrated the 40th anniversary of these historic performances with The China Concerts, a remastered edition of the live recordings from those five concerts.
But Jarre is doing more this year than looking back into his extraordinary past. His 22nd album, Oxymore, came out in October and is billed as the "first commercial release of this scale" to fully utilize multichannel and binaural sound in the production, composition, recording and mixing processes. This spatial 3D audio allows listeners to feel as if they are physically inside the music — a concept Jarre has wanted to bring to life since he first saw Chet Baker play trumpet in Paris when at age 10. The album was developed in the "Innovation" studios of Radio France and is a homage to the late composer Pierre Henry, Jarre's mentor and a pioneer of electronic music.
Jarre created an Oxymore-based VR world, Oxyville, and has hosted several performances in the metaverse. During a digital meet and greet with fans and avatars, "one girl was very excited. Asking lots of questions and moving and bouncing everywhere," Jarre says from his home in Paris. "I discovered by talking to her that she was quadriplegic and it was her first time she attended a concert and danced all evening."
Such an interaction is what keeps Jarre excited about what’s coming next in his career. It’s not technology. It’s the magic he can generate by sharing creative, physical experiences with other human beings.
"Who cares about the technology? When you are in a restaurant you don’t care so much about the kitchen and how it’s done. You just enjoy the food or not, and it’s the same with music or art," Jarre says. "I think mystery is key. I have a son who is a great magician and the last thing I want to know is how he is doing his trick. It’s a magic killer."
Jarre is still finding that magic. He spoke with GRAMMY.com about his two new albums, his continuing relationship with experimentation, and how the role of art and culture in the world has changed (or stayed the same) over the last five decades.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I read that you started your musical experimentation as young as age 11 with a secondhand tape recorder. Have your feelings towards musical experimentation changed or stayed the same over that time?
When I started at the age of 11-12 with this second-hand tape recorder that my grandfather gave me I became obsessed with the machine. I was basically recording everything all day and sometimes at night, but I had no idea that it could be a link to any future linked with music.
One day, I played the tape backward and I had the feeling that some aliens were talking to me, and from that moment I started to record. I was starting to play in some local rock bands with friends, and so I was recording some of my guitar and organ and playing [the recordings] backward, changing the speed, just doing experiments with sounds but with no preconceived ideas.
And then when I discovered [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] in Paris, one of the origins of French electro-acoustic music, I discovered that some people were considering music in a different way. Thinking about integrating noise and sounds into music, and it became very obvious that it was really a revolution — a revolution in music.
I was listening to American rock bands or British rock bands, and it was a revolution globally around the world, but I felt that something else could be explored. These days were right in the middle of the student revolution where it was cool to rebel against basically any kind of establishment and, in a sense, electronic music was a way to rebel against the establishment of rock. We tried to find a different voice in a different way, and at that moment I was experimenting with very limited technology…. doing field recordings and processing sounds, or stealing some oscillators from radio stations to create the first DIY type of synthesizer.
Today whatever you do — hip-hop or rock or pop or techno — we’re all integrating sound effects into our music. We all became sound designers as well as music producers. Today, the emergence of immersive technology and immersive worlds are two other disruptive moments very potent in my career.
Does that drive to revolutionize music still play a role in how you move forward as an artist?
I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character. I’ve always been interested in new ideas or new tools. I’ve always considered that technology is dictating styles and not the reverse.
It’s because we invented the violin that Vivaldi made music with it. It’s because we had 78s in Elvis Presley’s time that you could only cut three minutes on the 78 and it was the only way to put a record in a jukebox. The pop single as a format started to be played on the radio and not the reverse. This link between tech and culture has been always something quite essential in music production.
I’ve always been curious about new techniques because the beauty of lots of music productions is the idea of hijacking technology — to take technology which has not been devised or designed for us, but stealing from them. We are all robbers.
It brings us back to the idea that great art goes against what’s come before.
[Electronic music is] probably the most popular music in the world, but it still has its underground feel, its underground image.
Every emerging movement in music has been rejected by the previous one. The first jazz was quite rejected by classical musicians. Then the first rock musicians were rejected by jazz.
When I started with electronic music it was really against the establishment of rock. Lots of rock artists [were saying] "What’s all these machines with knobs? They are not real instruments," and a few decades later these instruments are still called machines.
All these signs are showing that electronic music is still underground. It’s still truly something linked with a kind of rebellious approach about sound production and music production.
Considering the "machine-instrument" relationship, you built the laser harp, which no one can deny is a machine, but no one can deny is an instrument either.
Exactly. It’s all a cultural thing. What is an instrument? A saxophone is a fantastic piece of technology. A clarinet is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s quite sophisticated. And then it’s a machine. It’s an acoustic machine. It’s a manual machine. It’s not electric but it’s a machine also.
For Oxymore you were the first person to conceive and compose an album from beginning to end using 360-degree audio. What’s it like for you to use different forms of technology in your music today?
[I don’t consider] myself a geek. I’m not really interested in technology for the sake of it. The same way you don’t ask a pianist to fix a piano. It’s the same thing, but I’ve always been interested by the relationship between my music and space. Even in times of Oxygéne, I was …finding delays or reverb to try to enlarge, widen the soundscape in a sense.
We have, culturally, this kind of frontal relationship with music. When you compose for a symphonic orchestra you visualize the orchestra in front of you. When you’re producing music in a studio you have two speakers in front of you. When you are in the festival or concert hall you still have the PA system in front of you.
So our relationship is more a kind of representation of music than an immersion into music. Stereo doesn’t exist in nature. When I’m talking to you I’m in mono. When a bird is singing it’s singing in mono. It’s the environment around us and our ears which are creating the perspective in audio.
And then modern technology is allowing us to go back to a very natural way of experimenting and experiencing sounds, and for the first time, we can be inside the music. This is a total disrupting moment.
At the moment, lots of spatial audio is conceived and composed in stereo but then spatialized later on. I conceived and composed the music [for Oxymore] in space. Putting every element of my arrangement in speakers that go all around me is a totally different approach. It’s like going from painting to sculpture.
How did you conceive of and compose this record in spatial audio?
I started in my own studio in 5.1 [speaker setup] because only 5.1 was allowing me to put the sound in space. Then I went to Radio France Internationale, the French BBC, and they have a very sophisticated studio with 36 speakers where you can really adjust sounds by degree.
Then you could say "that’s interesting, but who can listen to that?" And the answer is important.
Binaural — the multichannel audio version translated for headphones — was not devised for music at the beginning, but more for movies. We had to twist the system to get a convincing binaural version [that would sound] very close to the experience you could have with real speakers around you.
The binaural version, for me, is essential because it’s the real democratization of immersive sound. With just your standard headphones and any kind of smartphone or laptop, you can have access to the immersive experience. With the development of the metaverse and VR, with the development of electric cars that are more equipped with immersive sounds, we know that this technology is going to be the next step.
I’m actually convinced that in maybe in five years’ or six years' time, we’ll probably consider stereo with the same nostalgia that we are considering the gramophone of our grandparents.
I’m also convinced that new styles and new artists in hip-hop, punk, and the pop of tomorrow will depend on this new technology. As all the previous genres of music have been depending on the tools we were using as music producers.
You’ve said your first physical experience with music came when Chet Baker played his trumpet for you at the age of 10. Fast forward to today and you are performing in VR worlds with 360 audio where people are literally surrounded by the music. How does that physical experience of VR and spatial audio compare to your experience with Chet Baker?
In a sense, it’s very similar. I always consider our relationship with any kind of art form to be organic and based on emotions and feelings, physically. When I think about what happened with Chet Baker and this physical feeling I got with the air of the instrument on my chest, it was absolutely purely physical and the feeling was from an organic process.
It’s the same thing with VR. The first VR object is a book; you are projecting yourself and you imagine the face of the characters and you become inside the fantasy world as a watcher or as an actor. VR is one step further where you are sending your digital twin into a VR world. But it’s still emotional; it’s still very organic.
When I was playing in VR I have my instruments in the physical world, but if I’m in front of an audience made of avatars, these avatars are digital twins of real human beings, a real audience. So after five minutes, I’m sweating. I’m nervous or I’m enjoying it in the same way. It’s even strange to think that after five minutes you forget you are in a virtual world because you are still feeling, physically, emotions.
There is a social dimension that we forget when we’re talking about the metaverse because lots of people these days are mixing the metaverse and cryptocurrencies and saying the metaverse is linked only to business.
Actually, there is a fantastic creative potential, poetic potential, a kind of Romanesque approach to creating your own world even from your living room. For the last 20-30 years you can produce, compose and distribute your music from your living room with a laptop. The same thing is going to happen with VR. A young artist could create his own fantasy world with some tools from his home.
This month you will celebrate 40 years of your performances in China, which remain an astounding testament to how music can generate unity. In today’s world, we are seeing so much division and turmoil. What do you think your role is as a musician with a huge audience to address that?
I was raised by an extraordinary woman. My mom used to be a great figure in the French resistance and after the war. When I was a child, she told me about this idea that we shouldn’t mix ideology and people.
I think we have to go everywhere where people don’t have the same freedom of speech and freedom of expression as we have. And I think that more than ever culture should be considered as a trojan horse.
The beauty of VR is tomorrow you can have people from Iran or from North Korea — if they have a headset or even a laptop — and they can have access to the concert we can do in New York or in Paris or in London.
When I look back, I think that China concerts are very special to me because it was like playing on the moon for both sides. At that time people had absolutely no idea about what was going on in the West. I went there with a stage project that was even revolutionary from the Western point of view —with electronic music, with lasers, things that were totally new. But you can imagine from the Chinese point of view, in those days, it was a real shock.
That your career has lasted so long to allow for a 40th anniversary album is kind of unbelievable. When you think back on your decades as an artist, what are your key takeaways?
What I learned is the importance of curiosity. Every time you start a project is to touch reset. I’m starting again as a beginner. I’m not really interested in what I’ve done before. It doesn’t really belong to me anymore. I’m more interested by what’s next — not to try to beat records, but as a kind of excitement. As long as this excitement exists, I think you go on.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].