"Are we not men?" Mark Mothersbaugh asked as the leader of Devo, the legendary '70s new wave rock group.
Today, Mothersbaugh has a different question: "Are we not rug-rats?"Mothersbaugh, the creator of that bizarre rock classic "Whip It," is now the musical force behind the Nickelodeon animated kids program "Rugrats." And as the show evolves from TV phenomenon to Broadway-style touring spectacular (coming to Salt Lake City Sept. 18-21) to a feature film (due in the fall), the 48-year-old composer is riding each wave of success.
"It was a natural progression of our cycle of de-evolution," he says drolly of his second (and decidedly more commercial) career as kiddie writer.
Indeed, the gap between Devo and "Rugrats" may not be as large as it seems. Even as it lampooned pop culture, the band embraced it - and nothing could be more popular than the Nickelodeon series.
"We were influenced not so much by pop music, but by everything that was going on in the world around us: elevator music, TV commercial music," Moth-ers-baugh explains. "I quoted Burger King (jingle) lyrics on our first album."
Now, Mothersbaugh is steeped in fashioning the "Rugrats" soundtrack. The show revolves around the hi-jinks of a host of toddlers - Chuckie, Tommy and the slightly older Angelica, who confront such burning issues as toilet-training and who's their favorite TV character.
Mothersbaugh admits he was skeptical when he was first approached by the series' creators, Gabor Csupo and Arlene Klasky. He was hoping for something with "Ren and Stimpy"-like subversive undertones; they were pitching a far more family-friendly show. But the idea that Rugrats presented a self-contained children's world - kids talk to each other, even if their parents hear it as gibberish - gave him an interesting musical starting point.
"I was looking for something that would create their audio universe," he says of his music, which sounds something like nursery tunes played backwards.
For the stage show, Mothersbaugh was free to think bigger - and add actual songs. "There's a song that sounds like a James Brown-style song. There's one that's like a gospel song. There's a reggae song," he says. And don't forget Angelica's main number: "If I Were Princess of the World," a fitting anthem for the series' most self-absorbed character.
As for the "Rugrats" film, Mothersbaugh promises more of the same, including a song he's recorded with Beck, Jakob Dylan, Lou Rawls and Iggy Pop, among others. It captures the scene in a hospital nursery, packed with day-old infants.
Not bad for a guy whose signature artistic contribution may have been turning a flowerpot into a fashion statement about headgear. And who could forget those yellow lab coats Devo sported?
"We were looking for something to wear on stage and we found these chemical clean-up outfits," Mothersbaugh recalls with a laugh. "It cost us five bucks apiece to buy these little plastic suits."
But Devo was about more than plastic suits. The band, consisting primarily of Mothersbaugh and his brother Bob (lead guitar) and siblings Bob and Jerry Casale (guitar and bass, respectively), formed in Ohio in the mid-'70s. Since the members were art students, their focus was on the visual - and they saw the group as a way to make a statement about an increasingly mechanized, soulless world. A world in which man was essentially "de-evolving"; hence, the group's name.
Devo began by making movies, not records, but eventually a few of their songs found their way to vinyl. They caught the attention of everyone from label executives to art rockers Iggy Pop and David Bowie. By 1978, Warner Brothers released their debut album, the boldly titled, "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" The new wave had its first heroes.
The band reached its commercial peak in 1980 with its third album, "Freedom of Choice," which featured the gold-selling "Whip It." The song's video, a favorite of the young MTV network, featured some of the most arresting images ever to air on music television: cowboys whipping cowgirls in a bizarre spoof of Reagan-era home-on-the-ranch politics. But some feminists saw it otherwise - as a statement encouraging violence against women.
"We dealt with a lot of irony, and that is always misunderstood in this country," says Mothersbaugh.
But the biggest misunderstanding may have been labeling Devo a rock band when in fact it came much closer to the spirit of performance art. "It was record companies who pushed to minimalize that," says Mothersbaugh of the group's creative leanings. "They wanted us to be a rock band. That was what they knew how to market."
Devo's run lasted into the early '90s. And although technically the band has never broken up (and even played Lollapalooza in 1996), Mothersbaugh was free to pursue other projects, from scoring feature films ("Happy Gilmore") to writing the theme to TV's "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."
But "Rugrats" in all its guises - TV, stage and film - remains his biggest undertaking. Bigger in some respects than Devo, he says. If you don't believe him, just ask a group of kids.
"It's kind of like the `Rugrats' are their Beatles," he concludes.