By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The Mutato Muzika building in West Hollywood is painted Day-Glo green and looks like a tipped-over hamster wheel, with mirrored windows as rungs that make the building seem like it’s constantly spinning. Beneath the main-floor recording studio is a big, cluttered circular room. To enter you pass a threshold guarded by a Speed Racer rug, and beyond this threshold is a sight that would give the Klaxons or Datarock a conniption: Korgs and Rolands are scattered on the floor. An Optigon, a rare 1970s-era console organ that uses flimsy discs to play odd, ghostly sounds, sits in a corner. Shelves hold computer monitors, cassette decks and DAT machines; tubular bells are ready to be struck; an EMS polysynthesizer and an electrocomp synthesizer await electricity. An Ondioline keyboard that once belonged to Pink Floyd. Boxes are strewn throughout, but look closer and they’re filled with more memorabilia: a hand-written score for the film Drop Dead Gorgeous; busts of Chairman Mao and JFK.
Mark Mothersbaugh, the soft-spoken but articulate owner of Mutato and founding member of legendary new-wave band Devo, is giving me a tour. He’s a little embarrassed about the mess down here. “I keep meaning to work on this room,” he explains as he steps over synthesizers and squeezes between keyboards. Whenever he or any of the composers who work upstairs need a sound or inspiration, they can dip into this treasure trove.
Speaking of treasure, one filing box is marked “Raymond Scott notes,” Scott being one of the most important and underappreciated musical minds of the 20th century. Mothersbaugh rescued much of the writing and paperwork from Scott’s garage, and though the two only met once, they seem like kindreds. In the 1930s and 1940s, Scott composed wildly imaginative and mathematical big-band music before abruptly changing gears in the late ’40s to start building early electronic instruments. He earned his living by using the machines to craft radio commercials for, among others, Vicks Medicated Cough Drops, Bendix (“The Tomorrow People”) and Auto-Lite Spark Plugs. Standing majestically in one corner of Mutato’s basement is perhaps the Holy Grail of early electronic-music instrumentation: Raymond Scott’s legendary Electronium, considered to be the first-ever self-composing synthesizer, which Mothersbaugh purchased in 1996 and has vowed to restore (though Scott never completely finished building it).
As if he’s ever going to find the time. In one of the rooms that ring the archive, a vast collection of his visual art is stacked in rows; boxes of the rugs he made for an upcoming art opening, “Rugs During Wartime and Peacetime,” sit piled in the front entryway. Mothersbaugh works on his visual art nearly every day by sketching miniatures on antique post cards, which he buys by the lot from eBay. He then transforms these little pieces into prints, rugs and whatever feels right.
And then there’s the massive database of music that’s created upstairs, which is as scattered and unwieldy as this room. “It’s so big that we don’t even have it under control anymore,” Mothersbaugh tells me. “For every commercial we get, there may have been four times that much music written. There’s this big body of music that actually could be a lucrative library at some time.”
Maybe you thought you were done with Devo. You’re not. If any of your media devices have been powered up today, Mothersbaugh, or one of Mutato’s five full-time composers (each cloned, claims Mutato’s executive producer Robert Miltenberg, from one of Mothersbaugh’s fingers) or one of the three other lifetime members of Devo — two of whom work here full time, the other as an adjunct — probably created some of the music you heard. Be it a score to a film, TV show, video game, song or a commercial, Mutato’s mutant tentacles are tickling something. The Apple vs. PC campaign? Listen beneath the classic banter and you’ll hear a Mothersbaugh-penned melody called “Having Trouble Sneezing.” It is 30 seconds of melodic brilliance that circles along like horsies on a merry-go-round and sounds like an Eric Satie gnossienne. All the music for the first season of HBO’s Big Love. The sing-song stickiness that is the theme to The Sims II video game. The incidental music from a dozen years of the Rugrats, which is buried in the mental recesses of most Americans born between 1991 and 2004. Gaze back further, to the theme to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And then there’s “Swelling Itching Brain,” “Whip It,” “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo,” music Mothersbaugh co-wrote with Devo.
Film scores? Mothersbaugh/Mutato has composed the original music to nearly 100 films and TV shows in the past two decades, including, most prominently, four of Wes Anderson’s five films, soundtracks that not only serve Anderson’s narratives, but are some of the great mixtapes of the decade. Mothersbaugh’s fluid, oft-baroque music adds a striking layer of whimsy to each film’s gestalt, a combination that has proven to be irresistible to a generation of ad agencies that have made Mothersbaugh’s work ubiquitous on the TV set and provide Mutato’s composers with soundtrack work for 100 spots a year. This in addition to the little melodies he provides to National Public Radio.