Welcome to Dan LeRoy's Bonus Beats!
Based on my new book, Dancing to the Drum Machine, this newsletter gives you exclusive info about the most controversial musical instrument ever created!
Welcome, everyone! This is Dan LeRoy's Bonus Beats. It’s a continuation and expansion of my new book, Dancing to the Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered the World. As far as I know, it’s the first real history of the drum machine.
The book was just released by Bloomsbury International, and features new interviews with more than 130 musicians, producers, and inventors, including many of the pioneers of electronic percussion. And there’s a lovely foreword from newly minted (as of last night!) Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, who was one of my first and most enthusiastic interviews for this project.
I’ve wanted to write this book since I was a teenager fascinated with hip hop, new wave, MTV, and Mattel Synsonics Drums—not necessarily in that order. And I was incredibly fortunate to be able to speak with so many important people in drum machine history.
The bad news was that I accumulated so much material that it could have filled at least two books. (That’s not hyperbole: The notes for this book, which had to be left out because of space, clock in at more than 60,000 words, and there’s an entire chapter that had to be cut which adds another 10 to 15,000. More on that in a second.)
The good news, however, is that I want to use this Substack newsletter to share the extra material. Many of the folks I spoke with are getting up there in age. This incredibly important era—and all its stories—won’t be firsthand-accessible forever. That was part of the motivation for writing this book, and it’s part of the motivation for starting this newsletter.
I hope you’ll consider subscribing. I’m starting out free, but will move to a dual paid/free model soon. I want to incentivize the paid part of this, so I do plan to offer some special stuff for paid subscribers. One of those incentives will be the chance to read the “great lost chapter” of this book—describing how a drum machine helped break up the iconic postpunk band Gang of Four. It has interviews with all the key players, including one of the last interviews the late, great Andy Gill sat for, before his untimely death early in 2020. This will be the only chance to read that story. Stay tuned for more details!
In the meantime, let’s kick things off with some additional material from a guy who truly loves drum machines—maybe even more than you think!—Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh.
“Drum machines have always intrigued me.” —Mark Mothersbaugh
“I wish there were a way I could send you this drum machine,” Mark Mothersbaugh is musing. He’s talking about a wooden device made in India that is part of his extensive collection of music gear.
“I would love to just loan you some things so that you could try them out, and just say, ‘Wow—that is just so crazy a drum machine!’”
It’s early February, 2021, and Mothersbaugh is calling in from his Mutato studio in Los Angeles. This is the studio where, through Mothersbaugh’s production company Mutato Muzika, dozens and dozens of hit film and TV scores have been created, from Mothersbaugh’s work on the Nineties TV series Rugrats to his music from Thor: Ragnarok. It’s also the place where his band, new wave legends Devo, occasionally convenes.
When it comes to drum machines, Mothersbaugh’s perspective is global. He launches into an enthusiastic description of another wooden drum machine that he acquired years ago. It was a windup device powered by a spring. And it used a system of pegs to determine its rhythmic patterns. This peg-based “programming” method goes back to the very origins of drum machines, in 12th century Upper Mesopotamia, and the brilliant inventor Ismail al-Jazarī.
“Drum machines have always intrigued me,” says Mothersbaugh. “And I just loved this one.” Sadly, this wooden drum machine wound up smashed by a careless assistant. But Mothersbaugh’s collection of vintage rhythm devices remains formidable.
“There are some home organs that are just mind-boggling as far as what the drums can do,” he points out. “Especially if you use them ‘incorrectly.’”
What made him so interested in programmed rhythms? Mothersbaugh puts this interest into a wider context: a lifelong fascination with unusual sounds.
Early on, he remembers, he became fascinated by binuaral recording. “You know, there were Beatle albums, Motown albums, where they were splitting the instruments up onto the left and right channels. They’d put all the drums on one channel, and maybe the bass and horns on the other channel,” Mothersbaugh recalls. “In the case of ‘Paperback Writer’ by The Beatles, if you turn it to the left channel, you can hear this muffled bass in the left channel.
“That’s on the original vinyl,” he points out. “When they remastered those albums, they destroyed George Martin’s original mix.” The rationale, he says disgustedly, was ‘We’re gonna make it better! We’re gonna make it stereo’.”
But the memories of those LPs remain fresh. Mothersbaugh recounts his surprise at flipping between left and right channels and being able to hear, faintly, John Lennon and Paul McCartney clearing their throats as they prepared to sing their chorus vocals.
“That to me was the kind of important clue—about how a song was written, why a song was written,” he says earnestly.
When he was given Perrey-Kingsley’s 1966 space-age cocktail album, The In Sound From Way Out, Mothersbaugh was able to hear “instruments making sounds that no instruments were able to make.” He enthusiastically mimics some of those noises, made by meticulously manipulating the heads of tape recorders, then reflects, “It must have taken them so long to make that album.”
The payoff for Mothersbaugh was more than just hours of intense listening. “I started writing music to those tracks,” he says, “and later brought it to Devo.”
Those early Kingsley-inspired experiments, Mothersbaugh adds, were “what inspired my younger brother Jim, to build what some people would say was one of the first electronic drum kits.”
That pioneering kit didn’t last long, though Mothersbaugh has fond memories of that era. The love of experimentation that inspired Devo’s formation is a subject he returns to often during this interview.
As most people know, Devo got its start in Akron, Ohio, in the aftermath of the 1970 Kent State massacre. Mothersbaugh and multi-instrumentalist Gerald Casale were both well known artistic provocateurs on campus, and when they crossed paths, they began to channel those impulses into music.
The people who thought Devo and its performance art antics were a joke, however, didn’t realize how much thought had gone into the formation of the group.
The Kent State massacre might not have been directly reflected in the group’s music, but the event had forever altered American culture. The ripple effects, Mothersbaugh, points out, included music. And the styles that emerged in the 1970s provided the perfect backdrop for Devo’s commentary.
“It went towards disco, and it went towards concert rock. And the politics of both of those were pretty conservative,” Mothersbaugh says. “Disco was kind of like a beautiful woman with no brain. It had great sounds, but the lyrics were things like, ‘I was born to be alive’. Like romance comics, and things like that. Nothing of any intellectual substance.
“And then concert rock was bands like Styx and Foreigner and Boston. Which led into heavy metal. And the politics in those days were pretty much, ‘I’m white, I’m misogynist, I’m a conspicuous consumer—and I’m proud of it.’
“Neither of those appealed to us. What we saw was the world falling apart. We were looking at the world through a different set of glasses,” concludes Mothersbaugh. “We saw human as the unnatural species—the insane species—that was out there destroying nature and destroying the planet.
That meant that the band’s focus on “de-evolution” wasn’t just a catchphrase, nor was it a goof.
“We weren't pro-de-evolution,” Mothersbaugh insists. “We were just like reporters, reporting the news.”
“I got a little bit of static from the band when I started bringing drum machines into our sound. But drum machines added a different complexity to it. Including more things that could go wrong.”
So what drum machines did Devo use in the early days? Mark Mothersbaugh considers. “It’s possible that it was something I built—a PAiA?” (This DIY kit was the programmable drum machine that Peter Gabriel would use, a couple of years later, on his third album, to power such songs as “Games Without Frontiers” and “Biko.”)
“It sounded like such a beast because I ran it through this pedal that nobody gave much love to,” says Mothersbaugh. “Electro Harmonix made this thing called a frequency analyzer. When you ran drums through it, it sounded beastly.”
Of course, Devo’s sound and image always suggested a high-tech aesthetic. They caught the magpie eye of David Bowie in 1977; after witnessing a show at Max’s Kansas City, he proclaimed them “the band of the future.” (Just as he would do, a year later, with The Human League.)
And after signing to Warner Brothers, Devo recorded its debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, with producer Brian Eno, who was by that point a dedicated drum machine user. They recorded it at the German studio of Conny Plank, another drum machine pioneer.
Yet other than “some stuff we mixed in ‘Shrivel Up’,” a song that appears on the group’s debut, “that might be it,” Mothersbaugh says.
In fact, drum machines actually played a very small role in the band’s first three albums. They’d acquired drummer Alan Myers—a precise, metronomic percussionist. And as the band began to tour steadily, old songs that featured early drum machines, like “U Got Me Bugged,” eventually “dropped out of our repertoire, because it was too hard to play them onstage,” Mothersbaugh says.
That didn’t put an end to the group’s percussive experiments, however. As one example, Eno had proposed using a tape loop for the breakdown of “Jocko Homo.” This song, featured on Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, had become the band’s live showpiece. Or, as Mothersbaugh puts it, “Here’s where we became a lightning rod for hostility. We’d strip off our clothes and do this ‘Are we not men? We are Devo’ chant. However long it took to get a reaction.
“It often ended our shows,” he adds with a rueful chuckle, “because we’d end up in fistfights with Vietnam vets who just wanted to get drunk before they went home and beat up their wives.
So Eno “did this thing that he did on a lot of his recordings. He’d make a 20-foot long loop and put it into a two-track machine And then he extended that piece out. And he insisted that we put that on the breakdown period.”
Using the tape loop live, however, was a bridge too far. “We tried to do that onstage, and we were so excited that we were playing much faster, and the whole thing just went way off. So you could see why people didn’t want to use drum machines.”
(There was one slightly more successful use of programmed percussion that made its way into Devo’s sets. The group’s biggest hit, the 1980 Top Ten single “Whip It,” features a whipcrack sound that was generated by an EML 500, a monophonic analog synthesizer with dual VCOs.
That sound was then triggered onstage through various devices, including a Synare—a drum synthesizer in the form of a snare drum-shaped pad. “Sometimes it would sound great, and sometimes it sounded awful,” Mothersbaugh remembers. “It was always like, ‘What’s the whipcrack going to sound like today?’”)
“I was always interested in new technology. I was fascinated by it. I looked it up, I tried it out. In those days, Devo was a cool band to be associated with for techno-nerds.”
Drum machines didn’t re-enter the Devo picture until “around the time we were recording Freedom of Choice, we discovered the Linn LM-1.” Mothersbaugh enthusiastically describes one of this machine’s signature features: its tunable drum sounds. “The tuning offered a lot of latitude, he recalls, “so you could make a bass drum go really wide”—here he makes an explosive noise—”which was great!”
By 1981’s New Traditionalists, drum machines were coming back to the forefront for Devo. And not long afterward, the band invested in a Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument), an Australian-made all-in-one digital audio workstation. While it got less than rave reviews from many artists for its overall performance, it became a popular source of drum sounds.
“It looks like a Soviet-era prop. It was huge and clanky, and it doesn’t look like it could be real,” says Mothersbaugh, adding with a laugh, “So of course I was incredibly impressed!
The rest of the members of Devo, he admits, “were less impressed. Especially since I’d just convinced them to spend $37,000 on it.
“I got a little bit of static from the band when I started bringing drum machines into our sound,” Mothersbaugh says. “But drum machines added a different complexity to it. Including,” he acknowledges, “more things that could go wrong.
As the 1980s progressed, Mothersbaugh found himself alone more and more of the time, surrounded by increasing amounts of technology. The band had relocated to California, and, he says, “you know Hollywood has its diversions. The cold in Akron Ohio kept us in the basement writing material. That’s how I ended up writing music for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
“I was always interested in new technology. I was fascinated by it. I looked it up, I tried it out,” he adds. “In those days, Devo was a cool band to be associated with for techno-nerds. Korg and Roland and the other companies, they’d send us stuff, and I’d get to try it out.”
The band looked like it would get a fresh start in 1990, when Devo signed to Enigma Records and released the comeback LP Smooth Noodle Maps. “We were told [Enigma] were the next A&M Records. It turned out, they were on their way to bankruptcy,” Mothersbaugh says. The album disappeared, and would be the group’s last effort for two decades.
While Mothersbaugh went on to soundtrack success and acclaim, he becomes a little wistful when talking about his old band.
“I wish—well, I don’t know what I wish. I like what happened with Devo,” he says finally. “Whoever wrote a song, everybody contributed to it. I think that’s when we made our strongest material, when everyone was working together. And the reality of that is, I think the strongest stuff from the very earliest days—even before the first album.
“We’re still pretty good at what we started doing back in the Seventies,” he adds. “And hopefully, we’ll have a chance to do it again soon.”
In fact, Devo did have the chance to play live again, with some late 2021 shows, a couple of gigs earlier this year, and a booking for the “80s Cruise” set for March 2023. Check out Devo’s website for more information, and visit the Mutato site for more about Mark Mothersbaugh’s film, TV, and other projects!