After reading author and journalist Evie Nagy’s “Devo’s Freedom of Choice” (part of the 33 1/3 Book Series) it’s crystal clear that there is more to ’80s New Wave/nerd rock pioneers Devo than meets the eye. Beyond their notorious fame for commercial hit “Whip It” there is a band with a complex history of struggles and perseverance whilst in pursuit of staying true to their musical and philosophical course, from their early Ohio hey day to the present. Nagy dives into the depths of Devo’s career, song-by-song, peeling back the layers of what made their musical journey so unique. Along the way, she discovers many detailed gems and anecdotes of personal histories and accounts from the band, Devo-tional fans, critics and everyone else in between, whose world was absolutely touched by Devo.
We chatted with Nagy to learn more about Devo’s long-lasting influence, the experience of writing a book while pregnant and more. Read on!
GG: Many people have been drawn to Devo, both fans and fellow musicians. You talk to Wayne Coyne, Henry Rollins, and mentioned some of the people that have covered them like Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam. What drew you to Devo?
Nagy: Well, there’s kind of two answers to that. One is what Devo means to me as a fan, when I was a kid, and I’ve talked about this a little bit in the introduction. I mean, even when I was very young, the understanding that they had a subversive sort of lens on the world and society and everything that was going on. They’re obviously very funny in a very absurdist-comedy kind of way, and that has always been my sensibility, and I think they write great songs. I could listen to their songs over and over again. As a fan, there are all those things that have drawn me and lots of other people to them.
As a writer, I had actually interviewed them at length for a feature in 2010 when their most recent album, Something for Everybody, came out. I was just really drawn to their story: The story of how they started, and the trajectory of the band, and the fact that they had this huge mainstream success, and popularity both critically and commercially in the early 80s, and then how it has been sort of a struggle since then, but that they also continued having all this influence.
GG: In the book, you go in depth and get to the heart of every song in Freedom of Choice. What’s your personal favorite track on the album?
Nagy: The title track, “Freedom of Choice,” is definitely my favorite. I like them all, but that one just to me is sort of the perfect Devo song in a lot of ways. It puts their message pretty clearly out there. A lot of their songs, especially their early material, is a little more abstract; it’s not quite as clear as to what their philosophy is, whereas “Freedom of Choice” absolutely is clear. It explains what they’re about. It’s also just an awesome sing-along party anthem musically. I can listen to it over and over again; I never get tired of that song. At one point, Jerry [Casale] said to me that he could never understand why that one wasn’t a hit, and I totally agree. I think it’s an awesome song.
GG: When you were writing the book, what did you find to be the most rewarding part of the process and, on the flip side, the most frustrating?
Nagy: I think the most rewarding was just, you know, this was my first book. I’ve been a journalist for ten years, and a music journalist, and I’ve done longer pieces and interviewed hundreds of people, but this was, I think, the first time that I’ve gone head down, super deep into something which included lots and lots of hours of interviews and archival material, all kinds of older articles and reviews, and really had a reason to look deep into historical journalism and materials and music. It was incredibly rewarding to look at that whole scope of sources and really learn a whole lot about this band and about this album in a way that I hadn’t done before. The most frustrating, honestly, I have a full-time job and I have a two-year-old, and I was pregnant the entire time I was writing this.
GG: That’s a handful!
Nagy: The most frustrating part was finding the time I knew that I needed to devote to this. My husband and I worked out a very structured schedule as to nights and weekends and vacation days where I would take to work on this. That part was exhausting. I would’ve loved to just be like, “Okay, I’m taking three months off of work, and just working on this,” but that was not an option.
Right, and then of course even when I’m done with work I have a toddler, so that was very very challenging. I also knew that if I didn’t finish it, or I didn’t finish it on time, that I would be very unhappy with myself, so I just made it work.
GG: Was there anything in the writing, researching, interviewing process that surprised you? Anything that stuck out to you as an “A-ha” moment?
Nagy: One of the core questions about this album in particular is, “Why did it get so popular?” This was a fringe art band that had started very much as performance artists and then did sort of break out nationally in 1978 with their first album, but that was still very much considered art rock. Rock stars were big fans of theirs, and they definitely had the cult following, but it’s not like they sold a ton of albums or anything, and they weren’t played on the radio. Freedom of Choice was different; it kind of launched them into this worldwide stardom. I was really interested in finding out why … I figured it had to be much more than that, but I didn’t know what the answer was. What was interesting and sort of pleasantly surprising to me was that I talked to the three living members of the band, as well as the producer and other people, and they all had the same explanation, which I didn’t expect.
Every one of them said it was the best time for the band, creatively, and personally and everything else, which was kind of gratifying in a way because you want a band’s most popular music to be the music that they themselves enjoyed the most creating. I think in a lot of cases, whatever the big breakout thing is, there’s a lot of other reasons for that. So that’s not a sexy, shocking thing, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover that there was a real story behind why this album did so well, and then it went along with what was going on in the world at the time, both the political and pop culture movement. It was a perfect storm with this album.
GG: There’s also mention in the book of certain critics who felt tricked by Devo and weren’t sure what to make of the band. If you were talking to a new listener or someone revisiting Devo’s discography, what would you suggest is the best way of listening to them?
Nagy: That’s a really good question. I think first and foremost, if you’re deciding if you like a band, does the music grab you at all? If it doesn’t, with a band like Devo, there are reasons to listen beyond that obviously, but from what I can figure out in reading all of the press about the band in the late 70s and early 80s is that critics really wanted to be able to define what Devo was, whether they were just a joke novelty band or whether they were a political movement … The fact that they couldn’t quite do that made them very suspicious or skeptical of what they were doing, and basically decide that they were just pulling a big practical joke on everybody. The thing is, in some cases they were, and in some cases they were very straightforward about what they were doing. Anyone coming to them for the first time, first of all you should know that there’s something more there than just the goofy quirkiness that might come off that first listen or first glance, because for a lot of people what really strikes people is the visual.
There’s really more there. I would say have an open mind and listen to the lyrics, and really get your head out of the idea that they’re the one-hit wonder because there’s so much more going on there.
GG: So while Devo might have been misunderstood by many, there are also plenty of fans that are Devo obsessed. What would you say is a common thread that you’ve found among Devo fans?
Nagy: What a lot of people told me that I’ve talked to is that Devo was one of the first bands they thought was really saying something truthful about the way society works, but was saying it in a way that spoke to them, that they could really understand. I know that Michael Pilmer, who’s their webmaster and archivist and does anything and everything for the band, discovered them because he realized there were other people who thought like him. They appeal to outsiders, to people who don’t think they fit into mainstream culture. That’s definitely the thread.
I presented a paper at the EMP Pop Conference, which is sort of a pop music/academic conference in Seattle in April, about how they really pioneered what I would call nerd rock, which is the idea that rock stars can speak to a more marginalized social group and they can be that. They don’t have to be these big aspirational rock gods. They can be sort of “everyone’s in this together,” and that was their philosophy and I think, to anyone, that really speaks to that we’re all the same, we’re all in the same shitstorm together. That’s really what speaks to a large number of Devo fans.
Words/Interview: Emily Saex
Evie Nagy will be discussing her 33 1/3 book “Devo’s Freedom of Choice” together with Jake Fogelnest (Writer, Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Difficult People, Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street), at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Saturday, June 27th. Mark your calendars for a Devo-riffic time!
To purchase “Devo’s Freedom of Choice” online click here.
Devo – “Freedom of Choice”
Devo – “Girl U Want” (Live in Santa Ana I Moshcam)
Pearl Jam “Whip It” Live Devo Cover