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‘Our fans are sort of the opposite of “don’t worry, be happy.” ’ : Devo Fans Elated: The Group’s Back on Tour

Whitesnake fans may hurl underwear at their heroes and U2 may have the undying loyalty of millions, but Devo has to have a more interesting mailbag.

According to band front man Mark Mothersbaugh: “We’ve gotten fan mail from people who say, ‘I work in a recombinant DNA lab because when I was deciding on a major in college, one of your songs talked about recombo-DNA. Come visit our lab next time you’re in Toronto.’

“Or we get them from people who say ‘I . . . always felt . . . like a robot. I feel a lot better that I’m not alone.’ Our fans are sort of the opposite of ‘don’t worry, be happy.’ There’s a lot of worried men and women in our audience, ones that look at the news and get scared.”

They must be glad Devo is back. The quintet from Akron’s current 50-city nightclub tour, which includes sold-out shows at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano tonight and Wednesday, is its first in 5 years. And there are 4 years of dust on its last major label release, “Shout.” But “Total Devo,” released this past summer on the independent Enigma label, finds the boys no worse for wear and little changed by time.

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Founding members Mark and his brother Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerry and his brother Bob Casale, abetted by new drummer David Kendrick, still sport uniforms which seem designed for a fifth-column custodial service, still play Angst -ridden industrial-grade jerking rhythms (as exemplified by the 1980 hit “Whip It”), and still profess their theory of de-evolution, positing that the accepted chart of mankind riding an upward evolutionary spiral actually is being held upside down.

Given the vantage of time, Mothersbaugh suggested that de-evolution is not so much theory now as it is proven fact. “I think if anything in the last 10 years, all the things we talked about with de-evolution have unfortunately come true,” he said by phone from Austin, Tex.

“Twenty years ago you never would have been able to convince me for any amount of money that the American public would be stupid enough to vote a CIA director into the presidency. I think it’s all signs of de-evolution: Eight years of Reaganomics, exploding space shuttles, Star Wars’ systems that blast commercial airliners out of the air. And it’s not nuclear bombs that will destroy us, it’ll be deodorant cans.

“We’ll go in a whimper, through our own technology and industrialization, conspicuous consumption and lack of humanity. As a species, humans would be very lucky to last as long as the dinosaurs, and I don’t think we will.”

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While critics and the general public may have dismissed Devo as a novelty act, Mothersbaugh and company have never found difficulty in seeing significance and import in their work.

“People have been confused oftentimes of what Devo was about. Some of that was inflicted by record companies that didn’t know how to market us. We didn’t fit into any easy mold, so we were portrayed as wacky and zany, which unfortunately defused what we were doing, giving people a way to not take it seriously. People still hold misconceptions about the band, and we can only keep doing what we do, and eventually people may get it,” Mothersbaugh said.

After a not entirely amicable parting from Warner Bros. 4 years ago, the band members went their separate ways. “We needed a vacation from the album-video-tour-album-video-tour thing. We’d done seven albums with Warner Bros., five world tours and 22 videos.”

In the time off, Mothersbaugh returned to gallery exhibitions of his art (he was an art major at Kent State), worked with avant garde Japanese composers and created music for the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” TV program.

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He said the band members’ “genetic imperative” has kept Devo together and is what has them climbing up from the bottom again.

“I’d be lying if I said a club tour was what we had in mind as the ultimate way to present our music,” he said, “but we’re just making do with the resources we have. In terms of production values, it’s more stripped down than any show we’ve ever done. We’ve done some massive theatrical productions.

“We used to have money, so rather than buying big mansions, we put it back into the aesthetic and gave people these great shows, like the one with the Greek fast-food temple with conveyor belts coming out on the stage, or where we appeared as three-dimensional videos of our songs, with digital animation.

“This tour is more like Devo 10 years ago, where all the energy comes from within us. There isn’t that big moat between us and the audience, and it’s more immediate and exciting for us.”

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Along with Devo’s “greatest hits” (including a display of the band’s old red flowerpot “energy dome” hats), the show offers early unrecorded material and newer numbers including several from “Total Devo.” If the new stuff should sound more mainstream to listeners, Mothersbaugh doesn’t think it’s because Devo has shifted position:

“If people aren’t shocked to hear us using V2 rockets and mortars for drums anymore, maybe it’s only because nobody else was doing it 12 years ago when Rolling Stone magazine attacked us for it and said, ‘Do you call this music?’ Now most middle-of-the-road artists are using some mutation of the same instrumentation. George Michael and Madonna have electronic percussion in their songs, and it’s no big deal anymore.

“I think the politics of Devo are pro-information, pro-ideas, anti-stupidity,” he added. “We would want people to choose their mutations carefully.”

Devo plays tonight and Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $19.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.

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