Interview: Mark Mothersbaugh Gettin’ Satisfaction Through Art

1964 Monument to the Conquerors of Space // Mothersbaugh
1964 Monument to the Conquerors of Space // Mothersbaugh

Words by Alex Norelli

Mark Mothersbaugh, perhaps better known for his role as the lead man of DEVO, the raucous techno-punks who took subversion into the digitally infused era, now has a traveling exhibit of his visual work, coming to a city near you. While most people know him as a musician, in the past 30 years he has made a postcard diary of over 30,000 postcards, scored a handful of cult classic films (many Wes Anderson Films), TV shows(Pee Wee’s Playhouse), continuing to make and innovate on a daily basis, including making rugs of his illustrations. As part of his art opening, he introduced the world to a piano that takes 6 people to play. He shows enough curiosity and imagination in his work to make every 80’s John Hughes’ Principle collectively let out a scream of discontent(perhaps jealousy).

Currently at MCA Denver, but there’s also a companion book and postcard set if you just can’t make it there, or at too impatient to wait until 2017 when it comes to NYC.

Left Bank: Do you have a favorite part of the show at MCA? Youre Orchestrions were very awesome, have you ever wondered what birds would think of them if you set one up in a field or a forest?

Motherbaugh: My guess is that birds in a field or forest would think the sounds coming from my bird aviary were curious, yet insane. While I use birdcalls that were built for mimicking the calls of specific birds in the wild, the composition of my musical pieces purposely defy and ignore the subtle nuances of most of the birds whose calls are being repurposed. Specifically, the calls are used to create mechanical rhythms that are more akin to drum tattoos and draw from various musical stylings. I suppose you could easily create sound pieces that held a greater concern for the authenticity of specific birds in the field or forest you were going to perform in, and that would probably hold their interest longer.

LB: If you could turn anything in the universe into an instrument what would you and why? What would it sound like? 

M: Human odors. You could hear them coming, and know in advance if you needed to get out of the way.

LB: Looking through all the postcards I noticed that you always seem to be trying something new, whether its a style, a paper, an under-printing, etc. What are your earliest memories of postcards of working with postcard, and what are you trying to do with each postcard?

M: They represent the closest thing I have to a diary. They have been my therapist and my confessional, and a place to work out ideas, thoughts, rants, lyrics, without embarrassing myself in public.

LB: Do you ever think what youd be doing now if you never did music? I know youve said that music and visual art are the same for you, but you also said that if you had to give up one youd give up music. How has the experience of music added to your life and art?

M: Well, to me whether it is performance, music, or drawing and painting, they all come from the same place. I draw every day. I write music almost every day. There are other mediums I work in, so this is a generalization at best. The experience of music has afforded me a chance to work with some of the best musicians in the entire world. I’ve experimented and composed for a large percentage of electronic instruments, both historical and current. My music has been performed by the London symphony. I’ve worked with some of the best musicians and singers in a wide array of styles and instrumentations, from all over the world. My mind does not feel a need to create a separation between sound and vision. I love music, and hope I never have to make that choice.

LB: If you were a Rare Earth Mineral what would your qualities be and where would you be found?

M: I would be a Rubberized Emerald, and I would be mined in the heartlands of downtown Akron, Ohio.

LB: It seems like you have been the actor/director in a wild stage play that has never ceased production. Looking back on what youve done, what would you say are the most important qualities of yourself that have helped you do what you do?

M: I enjoy taking advantage of unanticipated opportunities, and I’m a hard worker. Also, I have an advantage in writing music. I am mildly dyslexic, and I can think about a classic piece of music I want to evoke, and my dyslexia allows me to listen to a piece of music, and think about it as I compose. The dyslexia keeps it from ever becoming misappropriated.

LB: What technologies, past, present and future excite you? 

M: I love early electronics, but the Internet and apps have made this the best greatest time in the history of man to be involved in sound or vision arts. Sound artists no longer have to find a record company that is willing to allow them to record their music… a kid can sit on the bus on the way home from school and hum into their phone, and there are apps that can interpret that sound as midi notes, ready to be changed into bass, drums, guitars, whatever instruments you would like to compose for. If that person comes up with something they like, they can make a video with their cellphone or pad, and post it on YouTube or on their own website, and it becomes instantly available to the whole world. I wish I was 18 years old, and just getting into the arts… the resources available to everyone in the whole world are almost too amazing to believe.

LB What is it like to see so much of your work put out for display? How has the process of putting on a show of your work made you reflect on what youve done and what you

plan to do? 

M: A large portion of the art in this show was never meant to be viewed by a public. Drawing and painting for myself as the sole audience, gave me the freedom to be much more honest and spontaneous than if I had ever thought this show was going to one day come about.

LB: Buckminster Fuller was severely myopic but he said that his impairment forced him to pay attention to large patterns, and made him less likely to prejudge the things he studied.How has your Myopia influenced your world?

M: Myopia definitely made a daydreamer out of me, allowing me to be able to block out the hard-edged world of focus and slip into the fog that acts as a portal between reality and imagination whenever the desire arises.

LB: If you had to compose a musical score for a planet, which one would you choose and why? What instruments would you use? 

M: Earth. Because after all is said and done, I am a human and I think I write music for humans. I would use the Internet; all of that information stored out there in the stratosphere somewhere. Oh yes, that, and…every single instrument that has ever been invented or discovered by humans through the ages.


The Book:

Myopia, published by Princeton Architectural Press, features a forward by Wes Anderson and essays by Maria Elena Buszek, Adam Lerner, Carey Levine, Shepard Fairey, and Steven Wolf.

Show Tour Dates:


October 31, 2014 – February 15 2015


June 21 – September 6, 2015


October 7, 2015 – January 9, 2016


February 6 – May 8, 2016


August – December 2016


January – April 2017

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