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Mark Mothersbaugh Sounds Off About Scoring the Subversive "Lego Movie"

The Devo frontman and film composer reflects on 40 years of bringing strangeness to Hollywood

One of the secret ingredients that helped make The Lego Movie both a box office smash (at over $69 million last weekend, it scored the second biggest February opening in history) and a must-see by adults, is its playful subversion. Sure, it’s a movie about product placement but it also depicts a populace held in compliance through idiotic reality TV shows and free tacos. How perfect then that Mark Mothersbaugh, frontman, cofounder, and keyboardist for pioneering New Wave band Devo, provides the film’s plasticine synth and orchestral score, and cowrote its fabulously cloying earworm of a song, “Everything is Awesome.” 

“It’s an irritant mnemonic that could work for any product from chemotherapy to Starbucks,” says Mothersbaugh of the tune, which features Tegan and Sara and the Lonely Island. “The lyrics are irritating and evil the first half-a-dozen times you hear it in the movie, but the song changes as the story unfolds. It goes from being a song about conformity to a song about cooperation and people working together.”

Mothersbaugh knows something about unlikely transformations. Since arriving in L.A. 40 years ago, he has gone from art world reject to the city's oddest multi-million dollar recording artist to revered movie composer cult figure thanks to scores for everything from Wes Anderson’s early movies to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The under-twelve crowd knows him as a bespectacled art teacher on Yo Gabba Gabba!, a gig he took at the urging of his two young daughters.

His Hollywood journey couldn’t have had a less auspicious start. Mothersbaugh drove here from Akron in the mid-'70s with fellow Devo co-founder Gerry Casale, taking their freshly minted demo tape to the hippy Topanga Canyon manse of Eagles’ axman Joe Walsh, himself a displaced Ohioan. “We didn't know him personally, but a friend of ours knew one of his roadies,” recalls Mothersbaugh, laughing. “After listening to about one song on the tape, Joe excused himself to go into the other room. I remember looking over and Joe and some other guy with really long hair were in the dining room smoking a joint, desperately trying to stifle their laughter.”

Undeterred, Devo was back in L.A. within a couple of years, playing legendary punk incubators like the Starwood in West Hollywood and Myron’s Ballroom downtown. A couple of years after that, once the plastic-headed five-piece band was signed to Warner Bros. Records, it was on to the Santa Monica Civic Center, the Universal Amphitheater, and the Forum.  

It was a dizzying ride, and not one without perks. “Gerry and I became friends with Larry Flynt and before [his late wife] Althea passed, Larry hands down threw the best parties in Hollywood,” says Mothersbaugh. "Parties where you would find yourself suddenly sitting in a room with David Bowie, G. Gordon Liddy, Timothy Leary, and Jack Nicholson, and [everybody] would be doing coke. Those were good days back then.”

The good days now are decidedly more low-key, with Mothersbaugh splitting time between driving the kids to school, composing scores (he is in the middle of writing the music for the 21 Jump Street sequel), buying property in Chinatown, and drawing. (A touring retrospective of his visual art, Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia, kicks off in Denver next year and is scheduled to arrive at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2016). “My favorite thing is to hang out with [my daughters] in the house,” says Mothersbaugh. “Having nowhere to go and nothing to do, that is really it for me. That’s what I like.”