Mark Mothersbaugh

Mothersbaugh says he’d be “cleaning up bedpans at Akron General Hospital” if he hadn’t co-founded Devo in the late ’70s and left Ohio, where he’d been an art major at Kent State University. Now based in L.A., Mothersbaugh, 53, runs Mutato Muzika, where he scores movies (The Royal Tenenbaums), TV shows (Rugrats, Pee-wee’s Playhouse) and about 80 TV spots a year. He’s come full circle with his latest commercial work, the new campaign for Burger King’s chicken sandwich—Mothersbaugh sang BK’s “Have It Your Way” jingle on the track “Too Much Paranoias,” from Devo’s first album.

Q. When Devo diehards hear, for example, “Whip It” in the Swiffer ad or Miller Lite using “Freedom of Choice,” do they accuse you of selling out?

A. They love all that stuff. We were inspired by artists like Andy Warhol who mixed all the different mediums. He walked that line between commercial art and fine art all the time. We used clip art in our graphics when we played at punk clubs back in the ’70s—like ’50s housewives dusting or sweeping, doing inane things around the house. So when we heard the [Swiffer] concept, we thought, “Oh, they’re doing something where, if it were 1977, we would have died and gone to heaven if we would have had that to show before we came out on stage.”

What do you think of the fact that so many commercials use indie music now?

The lines are just getting blurred, that’s all. You’re not being honest if you’ve signed with a record company and you’re pretending you’re not a commercial product. I’d rather listen to OutKast than something from a bad music house in Chicago. There’s so much bad music on commercials, considering you have the opportunity to really do something. It’s always a shame when somebody doesn’t rise to the occasion.

What would be your dream project?

A Mini Cooper commercial that I got to star in, and I was playing James Bond, and every woman who saw me in my Mini Cooper had to have her way with me.

What inspired Devo to cover the Burger King jingle back in 1976?

They used Pachelbel’s canon, and they used all these different permutations. It was kind of like what Devo was doing too. We did “Satisfaction,” “Secret Agent Man” and mutated it our way. [Burger King] had a country western version and a funky version. I liked what they were doing. That they ever got around to hiring me was kind of cool. Probably no one has ever sung that song more than me. Even whoever wrote it. I might need therapy, now that I’m thinking about that.

What’s the worst experience you’ve had working on a commercial?

There’s been [times] when [clients] walked in the door, they were already bleeding from the mouth. Sometimes, by the time a client comes to me, they’ve already been through the mill. You can tell when people come in and they’ve had a great time through the whole process, and you can tell when they’re wide-eyed and look like they’ve been hooked up to electrodes for the last six weeks. You know you gotta handle them with care.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

Charging money for my art. I couldn’t afford to do it if I gave it away all the time.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the commercial-music business or starting a band?

Starting a band, do it just for the love of it, because record companies don’t know how to sell records anymore, and they don’t even know how to do business anymore. And the business at best is corrupt and inept, and it goes downhill from there. But if you love music and you can’t help but do it, then do something so good that nobody can ignore it.

If you want to get into the [commercial-music] business, don’t have children and live with your parents. Because there’s so many music houses out there, to get a chance to write a commercial and make money off it is slightly worse than winning the lottery.

What’s the last song or commercial that made you think, “I wish I’d done that”?

I know the one I wish I could do. At Christmas with my wife, we were singing, “I believe in miracles”—we did “I believe in Oreos,” because we were eating Christmas Oreos. You know the ones with red icing? We were having sugar stupidity. We thought, “Oh, Oreo should know about this!” But we never called up Nabisco.

How do you get past a creative block?

I have specific things that inspire me in my life, and I can go to those places when I need to. Since I work with visual and audio art, it’s like I flip the coin over and go the other direction for an hour if I need to, and that helps. I have kept for over 30 years now a diary and image bank. I’ve done about 30,000 of these drawings, and I keep them in albums. They are postcard size, because I used to send postcards to other artists like Robert Indiana and Ant Farm, people who were big art names in the ’70s. Then when Devo traveled, it turned into a diary. If I’m in here and I have a time crunch, I’d probably do a lot of drawing.

Give me a few words to describe yourself.

Workaholic, subgenius—the ones that work their asses off so that the geniuses look really smart and can spend their time golfing instead of sweating over the project.

What’s your biggest fear?

That it’s going to be up to me to defuse a terrorist bomb they’ve planted on our airplane. And I’ll be sitting there trying to cut the wires with the plastic knife.