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
Basically, regardless of where you are in America, music that emanated from the Day-Glo green building on Sunset Boulevard has probably sneaked its way into your brain within the past 24 hours. What it’s doing inside there is anyone’s guess, but Mothersbaugh and his band of composers most certainly aren’t automatons dishing out pap — nor did Mutato’s founder create one of the most important music houses in America in a vacuum. Thirty years ago, Mark Mothersbaugh and his friend Gerald Casale formed an art project called Devo and started preaching the gospel of de-evolution: Man isn’t progressing, but regressing back to a primal monkey state. Is Mutato’s music sneaking into our monkey brains and messing with our monkey neurons?
The booklet that accompanies the 1987 release Devo E-Z Listening Discmight provide some guidance: In bold letters at the top of each page, a question: “What is Devo?” Below, simple answers: “Wherever you go. Devo is watching you. Unfazed by competition. Records, concerts, videos, commercials. Beautiful mutants. Freedom of choice. Concentration. Total war. Will the real Devo please stand up? You are Devo.”
Quirky. Say it. Quirky. Quirkiness. May as well get the word out of the way from the get-go, because it’s used so often in reference to Mutato Muzika’s output that it’s a running joke. “We get the Q word a lot,” laughs Robert Miltenberg, sitting in an office filled with Devo/Mutato memorabilia — as well as a keepsake water bottle Burt Reynolds drank from while doing voice-over work. “In fact, we have a pool. Whenever we’re on a call and having our creative discussions, whenever anyone says ‘quirky,’ a dollar is thrown in.” Sometimes meanings must be parsed. “We end up having to split hairs with definitions. They want quirky, but they don’t want silly, and they don’t want weird.” Miltenberg, who is usually beaming with enthusiasm, is a wide-eyed smiler who sports a well-groomed Vandyke and always has a Bluetooth earpiece stuck to the left side of his head.
Flash back to a morning last month as the dollars pile up on Miltenberg’s desk during a 15-minute conference call with an ad agency representing the maker of a popular chewy breakfast bar. The agency is launching a new campaign, and the composers in attendance — Albert Fox (10 years at Mutato), John Entroth (five years) and Silas Hite (three years) — need to understand the general tone and premise of the ad before they can start drafting ideas. The agency’s creative director is trying to convey over speaker phone the tone of the chewy breakfast bar campaign: “We want it countrified without being hickey or corny,” she explains, then adds, “Historically, we’ve used music that’s very quirky and fun.” Miltenberg motions a buck into the till. Fox nods. Then: “The overall feel is really fun, light-hearted and quirky.” Hite smiles and tosses one in. “Quirkiness .?.?.” and Entroth’s in. But no matter how much they joke about it, quirk is an approach that has netted Mutato a fortune and is embedded in the company’s DNA.
A former ad agency creative director, Miltenberg has known Mothersbaugh for nearly 20 years — he used to hire Mothersbaugh to make music for his spots. Eventually, Mothersbaugh asked him to come to Mutato to grow their ad music business, which he most certainly has; prior to Miltenberg’s hiring in 2001, Mutato was scoring two or three ads a year. This year he expects Mutato to do nearly 120 spots.
Miltenberg’s eager and enthusiastic about Mutato’s mission, and committed to helping Mothersbaugh build a business that will outlive them both. He’s a huge Devo fan — the kind who lowers his voice in conversation to impart that he considers Devo’s impact on American culture to nearly rival the Beatles’. He compares Mutato to Warhol’s Factory and confesses that he still can’t believe he’s working with Mark Mothersbaugh. He’s here by 4:30 a.m. every morning so he can get a jump start on the East Coast and make overseas calls. Thumbtacked to the wall above his computer are one-sheet job descriptions for TV spots that Mutato Muzika is either pitching or composing for: Wal-Mart, Kmart, Martini & Rossi, FX, Ritz Crackers, Quaker and a half dozen others.
Like Mothersbaugh, Miltenberg is a collector, and has a passion for the history of and memorabilia from the age of dirigibles. During a recent interview with Mothersbaugh, Miltenberg entered the room to show off a recent purchase: a dime-size piece of cloth from the Von Hindenburg air ship. When Mothersbaugh wondered aloud about the piece’s provenance, Miltenberg produced documentation. Mothersbaugh: “I think that that swatch of the Von Hindenburg is a lot like Jesus Christ. If you believe in it, and it gives you the power — gives you the vestment that you’re looking for — then good for you.”
Unlike outgoing Miltenberg, Mothersbaugh is kind of shy when you first meet him. He’ll fidget a little bit during interviews, glance down at the floor while he’s conversing. He enters rooms quietly. But once he gets comfortable, and lands on an interesting topic, he reveals a depth of thought that examines ideas from any number of angles.