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Interview With Mark Mothersbaugh

Mark Mothersbaugh is a legend. Throughout the decades, he has intertwined art and sound as co-founder, lead singer and keyboardist of Devo. He has had a prolific solo career - you're likely to have heard his scoring work before, which includes films like Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; The Lego Movie, Thor Ragnarok and more; television shows like Pee-wee's Playhouse, the iconic theme for Rugrats and more; and even video games like Crash Bandicoot and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. In addition to music, his artistic expression spans drawings, prints, installations, you name it. He's an electronic music pioneer, innovating with the synthesizer at a time when it was brand new. I could go on with this introduction, but attempting to put all of Mark's contributions to the world of art and music into words seems nearly impossible.

Synth History was lucky enough to visit Mark at his music production company, Mutato Muzika, here in Los Angeles, California.

As down to earth as he is a creative genius, without further ado, an interview with the legendary Mark Mothersbaugh.

All photos by Ambar Navarro for Synth History.

Mark Mothersbaugh
Mark Mothersbaugh by Ambar Navarro (rug made by Mark).

Synth History: Can you tell me about Booji Boy Boy and General Boy for those that don’t know who they are?

Mark: In the early 70s I became this character called Booji Boy who was kind of like the infantile spirit of Devo. Jerry and I created him. We lived in Akron, Ohio, this was the late 60s, early 70s. We didn’t like to bowl, we didn’t have an Econoline van to drive around in and we had nothing in common with other Akronites, so to entertain ourselves we’d buy masks and we’d become characters. Booji Boy was basically a baby mask I found at a novelty shop in Canton, Ohio. I’d wear it all day. I would be Booji Boy all day.

In a bigger sense, Booji Boy was the trickster. He was the element of Devo that was kind of… you never knew what was going to happen. Even to this day, if we do an encore and Booji Boy comes out and sings, which is at most of the shows we do, he often doesn't know what he’s going to talk about until he gets out there. It can be about anything. A stream of consciousness. Maybe, it will be loosely based on the shows. We’re going to do shows this summer and fall in different parts of the world, loosely based on the first 50 years of Devo. He might talk a little bit about the shows, but he’ll also talk about the next 50 years. He’ll probably ask everyone that’s there to show up 50 years later to do the Devo 100 year anniversary together. You never know what he’s going to talk about and it can change from day to day. He always keeps people on their toes and he gets away with stuff, because he’s the trickster. But you know tricksters, oftentimes, just trick themselves.

His father is General Boy. When we were making our first film, Chuck Statler made the first Devo film called The Truth About De-Evolution, we started the film off with Booji Boy. He has some papers in his hands and runs by this building in Akron, up this staircase, and he goes into the office of General Boy. General Boy asks, “Have you got the papers the China-Man gave you?” And Booji Boy responds, “Here they are!” He hands the papers to General Boy and General Boy exclaims, “Now the whole world will know the truth about De-Evolution, we’re all Devo!” Then Booji Boy says, “Oh we’re all Devo, dad!” And that’s how we start our first film.

Booji Boy has been around for a long time. There are other characters that we made up through the years, especially back in those days, but he’s the one that’s had the most longevity and has even threatened to put out his own album, although he’s not organized enough to do that. He has sung on quite a few songs though, including possibly the first ever version of “Hey Hey, My My”, a song that Neil Young wrote about the Sex Pistols. I think he wrote it right after the Sex Pistols broke up. Devo happened to be there at that show in San Francisco, that was the last Sex Pistols show and they came over and hung out with us afterwards.

Synth History: Can you tell me about Devo’s experience with the Neil Young movie Human Highway? How did that come about?

Mark: Neil Young, you know, two points for him, he was interested in new music. Although, you wouldn’t automatically assume so because he was in bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which we kind of thought of as “grandpa granola music”. But he was friends with people like Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn and Toni Basil. Toni Basil was friends with people like David Bowie and Iggy Pop; and Iggy had told Toni about Devo because he had found one of our demo tapes that we’d given to David Bowie. Bowie just threw it in a suitcase and when they [Iggy Pop and David Bowie] were in Germany looking for something to listen to, they just pulled it out and went, “I don’t believe this is a band!” They learned our songs and Iggy and Bowie started playing DEVO songs in Germany while they were recording the Lust for Life album.

Anyway, when Iggy finished the album, he came back to LA and he told Toni about Devo. She said, “Hey, they’re playing at the Starwood!” So, I don’t know, they were all friends with Neil and passed the information along to him. He was making a music movie called Human Highway. His movies were really loose-knit, they were kind of like, do you know anything about Robert Downey Sr.? He was the total opposite of his son, Robert Downey Jr., he was very avant-garde, very experimental and on the edge. Neil Young was kind of making things in that style, with that kind of freedom.

He liked Devo and so he said, “Hey, will you be in my movie?” We said, “Ok! But you have to buy us all cowboy boots and cowboy hats.” He agreed and that’s how we ended up in the movie Human Highway.

Synth History: I wanted to ask you, Devo recorded Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! with Brian Eno mainly at Conny Plank’s studio in Cologne, West Germany. How did that come about?

Mark: In the summer of '77, Devo was finally playing outside of Akron and Cleveland. We kind of instantly became the band to see when we went to New York. People who saw us at our first show at Max’s Kansas City said, “OK, you gotta go see these guys! They hang a sheet up in front of themselves and use a projector to show a movie of them playing songs. Then they take the sheet down and then they play the songs! It’s the weirdest thing. They have these outfits that they tear off. You gotta go see this band, there’s nothing like it.” In interviews, people were asking us who we wanted to produce our music when we made an album. I would say, "My first two choices are Brian Eno and David Bowie." I really liked both of their music. To me, Eno had done the most interesting things with electronic music, which I was totally obsessed with - electronic music and synthesizers, just all kinds of alternative sounds for pop music.

I remember thinking, “It’s 1972, rock and roll has got to be over with soon. It’s so boring; it just keeps repeating itself. I think it’s gonna be electronic music.” Then, Chuck Statler showed us this Popular Science magazine, and on the cover there’s this young, happy ‘60s couple with this round disc they’re holding up. It was the same size as a 12” LP but was metallic silver. The magazine said, “Laserdiscs: everyone will have them by Christmas.” And everybody in Devo, we’re all very visually oriented. Jerry and I met at art school; we were both artists at Kent State when we met. We thought, “That’s us! We’re gonna be making products for Laserdiscs! That’s what we’re gonna do. Instead of a black disc that holds like 40 minutes worth of music, it’s gonna be a silver disc that holds 80 minutes worth of music and 80 minutes worth of film. Sound and vision, that's us!”

So both of those guys [Eno and Bowie] came to Devo shows and both of them said they wanted to produce us. He [Eno] came to Max’s Kansas City and saw us and it was just incredible. The next weekend, David Bowie showed up and came on stage and said, “I’m going to produce this band in Tokyo this winter!” And we’re like, “pfff, that’s OK with us!” A week later he said, “Oh man, I just got this part in a movie called Just a Gigolo. It’s filming in Berlin and we’ve got to push it off ‘til summer.” We’re all going, “We don’t have anywhere to stay, we gave up our apartments in Ohio and we don’t have jobs and we don’t make money.”

Mark Mothersbaugh.
Mark with the Triadex Muse by Ambar Navarro.

Synth History: The early days!

Mark: When you play at Max’s Kansas City, it’d be like, “OK, you get $100.” But everyone we put on the guest list had to come out of our pay, whoever it was. So if Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts showed up at the show and got in for free, that meant instead of $100, we’d get $85. Then, if Denis Hopper showed up with his girlfriend, that meant we got $75. If Frank Zappa’s band showed up, like 6 or 7 people, that meant we made $35. We’d have enough money to buy a couple of pizzas to split up at the end of the night, but that was it!

So anyway, Eno said, “I want to record you guys at this studio, Conny Plank’s at Neunkirchen, Germany.” He said he’d fly us over, and I remember going, “Yeah, that’s great, but we don’t have a record deal!” Eno said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll pay for you to go into a studio, and I’ll produce you. I know we’ll sell the records, so I’m not worried about it.” I go, “Man, nobody has ever offered us anything like that. We’re sleeping in a van tonight, so that’s an incredible offer!”

So, he and Bowie decided to work together. They had just worked together recently on the Low album. We were all in Neunkirchen.

Synth History: What was the experience like working with them and were you inspired by the music scene in Germany at that time?

Mark: Eno and Bowie would wait ‘til we left at night, after we had spent a whole day recording, they’d go into the studio and sing extra backups, play guitars and play synths on top of our songs. For the most part, I didn’t want it on the album, because so many people had already come up to us and said, “Hey, we want to record this before you do!” Like Blondie, they wanted to record “Come Back Jonee” before we did. Iggy Pop even said, “I want to record this whole album before you guys record it,” and I’m like [sighs], “I want to be the first to record my music!” We were so nervous about people wanting to put their imprint on us.

We’d be sitting in the studio doing a mix for one of the songs and Eno would be sitting in the middle at the desk in control of everything. He’d put in David Bowie’s thing, an extra backing line, a synthesizer that he put on it. How you did mixes in those days was analog, there was no automation. You’d have to do everything, every time. All the moves until finally you’d go, “OK! That’s it! That’s what we want it to sound like.” You’d run a two-track stereo tape and then you’d hit the multitrack and you’d start the recording.

But I remember on at least half of the songs - keep in mind everybody’s staring straight ahead because they’re stereo speakers and you’re trying to get equal information - I remember as we’re staring straight ahead, I’d reach up and put my fingers on the Eno and Bowie tracks and I’d slowly pull them down, so that by the time the song starts, they weren’t there. I just remember seeing Eno’s head go [makes a whipping sound effect], like looking over at me. He never said anything. I think he didn’t because he was the one who introduced us to Oblique Strategies, you know? And I thought, well, this is kind of like Devo’s Oblique Strategy! In retrospect, I would love to give him those master tapes again and say, “You wanna mix it the way you were going to mix it? It’s probably going to sound a lot better than what we came up with together,” but who knows.

We liked working at Conny’s because there were pictures of bands like Guru Guru and others that nobody in the US knew anything about. People in the US kind of knew about Kraftwerk, but hardly anybody knew about Neu! or Michael Rother, Moebius and Roedelius, Can and Holger Hiller. A lot of these people showed up while we were recording.

On the first day we were there, Jerry had missed the flight to Germany and had to fly out the next day with a couple of stops before he got to Cologne and then got to Neunkirchen, so we spent the day setting up microphones and everything. The first day we were in Germany, a bunch of Germans jammed with us while we were playing Devo songs. Bowie and Eno jammed with us, but so did Moebius, Holger Hiller and Can. It was fun.

Synth History: That’s so cool! Can you tell me about what you were showing me earlier? [before the interview Mark showed me a Moebius record that he worked on]

Mark: Yeah, this is a disc that’s going to come out soon. It’s a tribute to Moebius. The label took a bunch of Moebius cuts and handed them out to different composers that they liked. They said, “Go ahead and deconstruct, reconstruct, add on, remix, whatever you wanna do. Go ahead and feel free to do some other version of the song.” And so, it just showed up today. You showed up just the same, it coincided with you guys showing up. Curious Music is putting it out and I have one cut on it.

Synth History: For Freedom of Choice you worked with Robert Margoleff and TONTO. How did that come about and I understand you had [TONTO] here for a little bit?

Mark: The first two albums came out of existing tracks, but for our third album, we wrote most of the music here in California. It was the first album that wasn’t already written before we got a record deal. We were thinking, “What would be a good sound for Devo? What would Devo funk be like? What kind of funk producers would we be able to work with? Because I don’t know if anybody would want to work with us.” We were looking around and we came across Bob. He had done albums with Stevie Wonder, but he had also been a pioneer experimenter in electronics. Years before he worked with Stevie, he built this synthesizer with Malcolm Cecil. They called it TONTO. It was modular and it had some of the oldest and very earliest Moog, Buchla and ARP modules; it even still had tubes. It was early days.

Their concept was, “We’re going to build the first polyphonic synth.” They had enough modules and four keyboard controllers. They had two podiums, so two people could stand next to each other and have two keyboards each. They could each use two fingers: one finger on one mono keyboard and another finger on another mono keyboard. Between the two of them, they had four notes, constructing a chord. So, they considered it the first polyphonic synth.

They tried to play live with it, but because it was the early days of synth modules, the changing room temperature would cause everything to go out of tune within the first song. It didn’t work for live performances, but a lot of people recorded with it: Dylan, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, of course. Then it went into storage. They [Malcolm and Robert] got into a fight, for whatever reason, and put it into storage until ‘79 or ‘80. I got this place [Mutato] like 30 years ago and had a whole downstairs room that was empty. I said to Bob, “Hey, where’s TONTO right now?” He said, “Oh, it’s just been in storage for 20 some years.” I asked, “You wanna set TONTO up downstairs?” He asked, “What will you charge us?” I said, “Nothing! It’d just be great to have TONTO assembled so we can hear it!” And he goes, “Really?!”

So he and Malcolm, they had forgotten what they were fighting about, the thing that made them not talk to each other for, you know, however many years it was, and they put TONTO together downstairs.

With TONTO, it felt like you were standing inside of an orb; it was beautiful. The racks here [points to rack] are straight up and down, but with TONTO, they built the racks so they curved—like this [makes a curve motion]. It felt like being in a spaceship, like Sputnik, but with lots of cables.

People started finding out that TONTO was here and so, you know, like Trent [Reznor] and Ministry and all sorts of people came over and played with it. They’d work all day and maybe get one really amazing bass sound or some other sound they really loved and they’d record it. They all went away with the same lesson: that technology sucked back in the early 70s and there’s a reason people moved away from tubes and all that stuff. People have a romantic notion about it to this day, and I get that.

Mark Mothersbaugh with Minimoog.
Mark and the Minimoog by Ambar Navarro.

Synth History: Do you have a favorite synth?

Mark: I love my Minimoog. Of all the synths, that’s probably my favorite synth because it’s the one I learned how to play synths on. If I joined the army and they handed me a rifle, and expected me to learn how to take it apart blindfolded and put it back together, that’s how I was with the Minimoog. For me, it was my army—the Devolutionary army. I was looking for sounds, and the Minimoog was perfect for making sounds that belonged in 1975, you know? That was an incredible instrument. I felt like I wanted to make sounds that nobody else was making in pop music and that nobody else was making in art music, really. I wanted to make sounds that related to our culture. The Vietnam war was still going on and I wanted to make V-2 rockets and mortar blasts, but I also wanted to make raygun sounds like in Italian sci-fi movies, and Anacin TV commercial sounds, like where a woman holds her head and you hear: [makes synth-like sound]. You know, I loved all that stuff and felt that it belonged in pop music. The Minimoog became my instrument; that was my first synth, the one that I, to this day, still have the most fond attachment to.

Synth History: Do you remember some of your other early synths after the Minimoog?

Mark: Yeah! I got an EML-500. It had these variable settings on it that were not quantized for pitch, for stretching the pitch, so you could make it a microtonal or macrotonal keyboard. That made it hard to play along with other people though, if you were looking for tonal things. But if you were looking for a whip crack or a machine sound for Freedom of Choice, it was the perfect synth! I loved that synth, I still have that one, it’s around here somewhere.

The ARP Odyssey was one of my first ones. I also built Paia Modules. There was this company in the early 70s where you could buy an oscillator for $19. They’d send it to you in pieces and you had to use a soldering gun and a screwdriver to put it together. You had to build the whole oscillator, but you had a $19 oscillator which was awesome! Then, you’d buy a filter and an envelope and another oscillator and another filter and a keyboard, you’d get all these parts. That synth was the main synth behind things like “Mechanical Man” and some of the other really abstract early experiments I was doing, where I was kind of taking the sound, before we dialed it back a little, I was taking the sound way out there. I loved the Paias and I think that was an amazing experience.

Synth History: That’s really cool. I remember coming across an old ad for one with a woman in a wizard hat or something!

Mark: Oh, that’s awful [laughs]. That’s hilarious.

Paia Wizard

Synth History: Do you remember the first time you heard a synthesizer in a song?

Mark: I mean, I heard electronics when I went to Kent. They had an amazing art department and brought in people like Morton Subotnick who had a modular synth that was playing like [hums a synth melody]. It was pretty cool, but for me, I have to say, there was one song that struck me. I had heard all these prog rock bands who were using synths and it just sounded like a silly organ or a calliope, a silly accordion. I thought, “Those sounds are awful, of all the things you can do with a synthesizer, why would you choose to do that!?”

But there was one song that really made me feel like, “This is the only guy that’s got it,” and it was on a Roxy Music album. It wasn’t even one of their best songs on the record; it was kind of a throwaway b-side called “Editions of You”. There are a bunch of solos in the middle of the song. The sax player gets a solo, the guitar player gets a solo, but the synth player also gets one and that synth player was Brian Eno. He did this solo that made the hair on my arms stand up. It totally blew my mind. I thought, “That guy totally gets it, he knows what he’s doing.” For me, that’s what made me want him to produce with us. He seemed like the first guy to really bring abstract electronic sounds into pop music with that song. They didn’t give him much of a chance to do that in the band. That was his one time he got to stand up to bat, and he hit a home run. It was amazing. Then, he started going solo and kept making great music. That’s all I can say about him. But that was the first song I noticed that made me think, “That’s what I’m doing, that’s someone who thinks like me.”

Synth History: Devo’s Working in a Coal Mine and Through Being Cool were featured in the 1981 animated film, Heavy Metal. This is one of my all-time favorite animated films, I have the laserdisc and the VHS! In the movie one of the characters, Tarna, walks into a bar where a Devo-esque animated band is playing. Did you see the movie in theaters and how did you feel about Devo being animated in Heavy Metal?

Mark: I never saw it in theaters, but I got a laserdisc and, of course, saw it. I like that they animated us. Here’s the funny thing: record companies left us alone for the first couple of albums. For the first three albums, they thought, “Ehh, these guys are just weirdos,” you know. Back in those days, a company like Warner Brothers would sign something interesting, like Captain Beefheart or Wildman Fisher - not to make any money but to simply say, “Oh yeah, we have cutting-edge music on our label.” Because of Bowie’s and Eno’s interest, they were like, “Yeah, let’s sign these guys,” but [record companies] didn’t really pay any attention, they didn’t like our music particularly. So, it wasn’t until "Whip It" almost accidentally became a hit that suddenly all these people at Warner Brothers went, “Wait a minute, they’re on our label, we put that record out!” Then they started showing up, offering suggestions, and talking to us. Before that, they left us alone. It was so weird to have people from Warner show up and say, “Hey! How are you guys doing? Working on your new stuff? Just remember, whatever you do, make sure you do another ‘Whip It,’ that’s all!” Meaning, do another song to get on the radio. We thought, “Oh man, it was better when they left us alone and weren’t interested!”

So anyhow, we were playing our album, New Traditionalists, for the executives at Warner, all the songs that we had recorded. They listened and said, “Yeah, but you know that one song, 'Working in a Coal Mine'? Get that off the record. That’s not even your song, so just take it off.” We said, “What? Well, we really like that song. We want it on, but okay, we’ve got another song to replace it with.” And so we did. Then, we got a call from Heavy Metal looking for something to put on their soundtrack, so we gave them “Working in a Coal Mine”. Of course, the movie came out a month or so before our album was supposed to, and “Working in a Coal Mine” started going up in the charts. Everyone at Warner Brothers was panicking; that was the song they had pulled off the album! They decided to press singles and include them in the album for free. It was so stupid, they had already printed the album. Anyhow, we really liked the movie and how they redesigned us as the lounge act in the outer space bar.

Synth History: Technology was growing pretty rapidly throughout the 80s, sampling became popular with synths like the Fairlight CMI for instance. What did artists think back then when sampling as a technology came out - the Synclavier, Emulators, etc.?

Mark: I think people loved sampling. Oh, I don’t know if everybody did, but I did. I totally loved sampling and my first sampler was an Emulator. They used to give you samples for free; they didn’t even think about paying royalties to the artist. So, on the first Emulator, you got all sorts of things. They gave you samples of James Brown, like a “Woo!” and a “Yeah!” screaming and stuff. They didn’t even think that they should have maybe consulted him to see if they had the rights to do it. It took a while before they even figured out what sampling was and that you can't just sample people and make a song out of it. But I loved sampling, and I played with a sampler a lot.

Sampling is how I created the sound for the Rugrats, really. Instead of an upright, electric, or synth bass, I went “bom” and sampled it, quantized it, and made all these sampled sounds. I used those for the bass on all the Rugrats stuff back in the early days. I did other voices, too, for midrange and higher sounds. I had a lot of fun.

You know, during that time, there was this thing called “backward masking.” Heavy metal bands were putting in satanic phrases like “The devil is real” and other things like that. I don’t know what they’d say exactly, different things about Satan, but there were groups that were protesting, saying: “They shouldn’t be allowed to do that; it’s going to affect our children and freak them out!” and all that stuff.

So I thought, “Hmmm… OK. We know what the satanic backward masking is, but what would Christian backward masking be?” I started fooling around with different things, saying them into the Emulator. Finally, I said, “Jesus loves you,” played it in reverse, and it went: “weyes field sausage.” Then I sampled “Jesus loves you” in a wackier voice, and it went “we smell sausage.” I loved it. It was so cool! That was the weirdest thing. I couldn’t stop. I used it on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I think I stuck it in something there. I also stuck it in Rugrats probably a couple of times, and in other things.

Synth History: Can you tell me about Muzik for Insomniaks and it’s relationship to Rugrats?

Mark: Yeah. I was looking for music to listen to that was instrumental and there were no interesting instrumental music radio stations in California. They had stuff like The Wave, which I wasn’t into, or you had to go all the way to classical. There was nothing electronic, so I made up my own electronic music to listen to in my house while I was just doing stuff, like the laundry or fixing breakfast or something. Around that time period, like mid-80s, I was writing music for different art bands in Japan, like Hajime Tachibana from The Plastics. There was a company over there called Tokyo Radical Artists, and they had come to one of his sessions that we were doing and heard the music I was just playing in the background on my own for myself. They were like, “What’s that?!” and I told them, “I call it Muzik for Insomniaks,” and they said, “Could we put it out?” So, they pressed it up and made a release. I designed a box in the shape of what condom boxes looked like in Japan at the time and put a deck of cards in it so you could play cards while you were waiting to fall asleep. Anyhow, Gábor Csupó, part of Klasky Csupo, called me up and said, “Mark, I’m doing a TV series called Rugrats, and I’d like to use one of your Muzik for Insomniaks songs for the title of the show,” and I said, “Well, you know, I’ve scored TV shows; why don’t I just write you something in that style, using the same instruments?” It was mostly a Fairlight, a Roland, a Minimoog, and a couple of other synths that I used to create that music with. I said, “Why don’t I just write an original piece for you?” and he said, “Oh, that’s even better!” So that’s where the theme song came from, and that’s how that started.

Synth History: Do you remember what synth specifically was the main melody [hums Rugrats theme]?

Mark: That was a Fairlight and voice samples were part of it, but those were mostly flutes or something. I didn’t even bother worrying about playing them in the correct octave you play a flute in. The thing is, what I liked about Fairlights - and Muzik for Insomniaks took advantage of this - is the samples didn’t really sound like the instruments they were supposed to be. Although [Fairlights] sampled a guitar, a violin, or a clarinet, the samples kind of sounded like the formica version of that instrument, you know what I mean? You know how plastic wood looks kind of real, but it’s not; it doesn’t really look real, it looks like plastic, but it looks like wood, too? That’s how I thought the Fairlight sounded. It had very short samples, a maximum of two seconds and real low resolution. They were very low-tech, but I loved that kind of formica, linoleum sound of the Fairlight and I was writing the music using that kind of synthetic, acoustic sound.

Mark Mothersbaugh
Mark with his Optigan by Ambar Navarro.

Synth History: You’ve composed the music for lots of movies and TV shows. What is it like as a musician when you go into the movie theater or turn on a streaming service and you get to watch something with your music in it - do you remember the first time you experienced that with some of your original composing work for film or tv?

Mark: I wish I could say I enjoyed listening to my music in theaters, but I gotta tell you, from the beginning, I remember when we first started hearing songs on the radio that we’d written. I remember listening to "Whip It" and going, “Why does the hi-hat sound like that… what were we thinking, what was I thinking?” I remember thinking, “I should have paid more attention to it then because I didn’t know it was gonna sound like this!” You know? It takes me a long time to be able to let go and just enjoy it. That does happen, but I find myself critiquing things that pull me out of the story. I can’t watch TV, and I don’t even like to go see modern movies anymore. I’ll know the composer or something and I’ll think, “Well, why’d they have him do this? This sounds like a knock-off version of something Danny Elfman wrote for a film that he did,” You know? That happens because the picture editor puts in music that he can cut to, and the directors fall into “temp love”. They love this music that they don’t own, that their picture is cut to, then they ask the composer to copy it, but you can’t really do that because you know you can’t really copy other people’s music or you have to give them credit for writing it. So for me, it takes a long time to listen to stuff.

What I do at night when I come back from work is, I put on TCM, or one of the stations that play old black and white movies, because for some reason that takes me out of work. I don’t feel like I’m at work anymore if I watch old movies from the 50s or the 40s in black and white. To me, black and white kind of reminds me of dreams anyhow, so it’s easy for me to just get into the story and get into the pictures and sound. I don’t question it or find myself critiquing things that pull me out of the story.

Mark Mothersbaugh
Mark outside Mutato Muzika by Ambar Navarro (3D miniature print by Danny Baxter).

Synth History Exclusive.

Interview conducted by Danz.

Photos by Ambar Navarro.

Camera and lighting assistant Max Flick.

Interview transcription and additional editing by Matthew Reilly.

Special thanks to Laurel Stearns and Mutato Muzika.


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