On the Trail with Gerald Casale

If your familiarity with the band Devo extends only as far as the hit single “Whip It,” then you owe yourself a good weekend of listening to their back catalogue (and watching the scene from Casino where Scorsese spins their cover of "Satisfaction"). Albums like Are We Not Men? We Are Devo and Freedom of Choice have long established the band as more than just new wave wonders. Devo is firmly in the realm of the intellectual and brilliantly wacky when it comes to rock and roll. Not only is Devo considered one of the most important and revolutionary rock groups of all time, their music and extreme creativity still holds up today. Founded by a pair of brothers from Ohio in the early 1970s (the Casales and the Mothersbaughs), David Bowie once called them “the band of the future.” He wasn’t too far off. Forty years later, their songs and ideas sound just as fresh, and the band’s comic warning of societal de-evolution perhaps even more dire. Neither the Mothersbaughs nor the Casales ever accepted the mainstream restraints of the modern rock band, however. Their artistic reach led them further into the realms of conceptual and visual art, and—in the case of Gerald Casale—to wine. 

I was introduced to Gerald via a mutual friend earlier this year and he invited me to try some of the wines from his label 50 by 50: a Sonoma Coast pinot noir and a rosé from the same origin, both of which are in stock now at K&L. Not only were the wines delicious and interesting, in true Devo style there was much more to the project than simply fermented grape juice. The 50 by 50 (you can learn more by visiting the website) is also an architectural quest; an agricultural vision; an attempt to fuse core elements of calculated modern design with the uncontrollable forces of nature. Something like that, I think. Maybe I should let Gerald tell you. I caught up with him earlier this week for a conversation about music, wine, and the continued effects of de-evolution.

David: How’s it going today?

Gerald: Great! I just voted.

David: (laughs) How do you feel about that?

Gerald: I feel like even if you’re a rationally-minded person there’s a lot to be cynical about.

David: It’s funny you bring that up. As much as I think I know the guests that I interview from time to time, I always do a bit of research beforehand just to make sure there’s nothing I’m missing. As I looked at the history of what brought Devo together as a band, so much of what you guys were talking about in the 70s—the idea of devolving as a society—seems to have come true.

Gerald: Yeah, what we were concerned about, what we complained about and were satirizing, only escalated exponentially. I think the people with my point of view ultimately lost. They won culturally with what’s supposedly hip, but they lost politically. What the institutions are really like now and how money controls everything, how the military industrial complex became a corporate oligarchy, these were all things we were afraid would happen. That, plus the decimation of the education system. The movie Idiocracy that Mike Judge wrote should have been the film that Devo made because what we were talking about predated that movie by thirty years.

David: I was going to bring that up! That movie pretty much sums up your original fears. Did you enjoy the film?

Gerald: I got to read the original script and it was really good, but I feel like he didn’t have the money to make it a reality. I liked the ideas in the movie very much, but I liked the script even more. What a great device: a Rip Van Winkle story where a slacker ends up being the smartest guy on the planet!

David: I think we all feel that way sometimes—like we’re the only sane people in existence. It’s that feeling that often drives me to drink! Sometimes drinking a bottle of wine and knocking myself out on the couch is the only way I can deal with those emotions (laughs).

Gerald: Well, as long as you’re young and healthy you can do that.

David: Obviously that frustration with society played a big role in Devo’s music. Did you guys ever drink to relieve that initial angst in the early days?

Gerald: No, I wasn’t a big drinker at all. None of us were back then. We were practically teetotalers. I actually developed an appreciation for wine as a direct result of Devo’s success—touring, and meeting a certain class of people. I don’t mean that they were necessarily classy people. They were people in the business who had money, but let’s forget about values. As you probably know, often times people with horrible values have terrific taste in food and wine.

David: (laughs) No comment!

Gerald: It’s a lament that I think a small nucleus of people share. It would be nice if one’s knowledge of food and wine were connected with values—if it was humanistic (laughs).

David: So you met these guys on the road and that’s how you were introduced to good wine?

Gerald: Yeah, someone would order a bottle and say, “Here! Do you like wine Gerald?” Not really, I’d reply. “Well try this!” So I did and, oh my God, I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about. I grew up blue collar. Wine to me was Mogen David and cheese was Velveeta. I wasn’t around cultured people. It changed a little in college, but students typically don’t have the money for anything but rot gut. Most of my discoveries came after that. When it comes to these things you either have an interest or you don’t, and I got hooked. I became a consumer. Devo finally got some success, we travelled throughout Western Europe, Japan, the U.S., South America, and Canada, so pretty soon I was drinking wine from all these different regions. Then you want to know more. Why is that wine good? Why was the syrah from this place good, but the other one was so terrible? You start asking questions. Then I started reading, and I befriended people in the business. I took some wine classes. You start learning by drinking. Drinking analytically. 

David: So when did this interest in wine begin? Around what time are we here?

Gerald: It all starts around 1978. By the 90s I’d already developed a knowledge of wine beyond the standard consumer. Back then I wished I could live the life that I saw while traveling through Italy and France—the villas and the châteaux, this town and country lifestyle that these winemakers had, how cool it was. To me there’s no better life because it’s connected to nature and enjoyment that’s not toxic enjoyment. You’re not enjoying things at the expense of other people.

David: I love hearing a famous rock star from one of the most influential rock bands of all time, a guy who’s travelled all over the world playing for huge crowds, say: I wish I could be more like these small farmers in the countryside. So many people would say they’d rather be you!

Gerald: Well, it’s true. 

David: The grass is always greener, right?

Gerald: Oh yeah. If people out there think they’d rather be a public figure in a famous music group, they probably have no idea how little of it has to do with your actual talent and the moment you’re on stage enjoying what you do. The rest of it can be absolutely horrific. Imagine if you worked hard for a long time, put something out there, and then suddenly all these surrogates, handlers, and middlemen take absolute control of your destiny. It’s frightening. People who create nothing and are always taking.

David: That sounds like booze distribution! How did the rest of the band take to wine? Did any of them follow suit in that same passion?

Gerald: No, that’s what was interesting. Neither of the Mothersbaughs were very interested in wine. My brother Bob had a fleeting interest. Alan the drummer, absolutely not. He smoked pot, but that was it. He was never tempted by drinking. He was a tai-chi expert.

David: When I want to drink, I like having people around. How was it for you on the road? Did you have to escape? 

Gerald: We were more often than not beholden to label people when we were on the road, so we’d have to go out with them, or publicists, writers, and promoters, and they all drank. So it didn’t matter if the band joined in or not. I found plenty of people who loved wine everywhere.

David: And now today you’ve established your own wine label, 50 by 50. How did that come about?

Gerald: About twelve years ago I befriended some amazing guys who became restoration architects. One of them was a trust fund kid and, unlike most trust fund kids, he was not a slacker. He wasn’t drugging, and drinking, and pissing away the fortune he inherited. He’s an expert on mid-century architecture. He’s been involved in restorations of both Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler. I got involved in one of his Neutra restorations—the Kun house in West Hollywood, up in the hills. It was an eye-opening experience. The first vintage of 50 by 50 was actually launched at a party in the Kun house before we had to sell it. 

David: I saw that the labels on the bottle were quite modern in their design, reflecting some of that architectural influence.

Gerald: Right. So this guy loves Northern California and he wants to live up there. He knows nothing about wine; in fact he doesn’t drink at all, but he appreciates my knowledge of wine. He wanted to build this house by Mies van der Rohe. Mies never got to build it, but he designed it in 1950—it’s called the 50 by 50, oddly enough—and he went to the heirs in Chicago to get the rights to the plans. It’s a plan that was kinda used in what’s called the Farnsworth house in the midwest. It’s a one-story glass house on stilts, but in that version the interior is entirely different and the glass frames are much smaller. In the 50 by 50 plan that will be built along Montecello Road in Napa, each panel of glass is twenty-five feet long and ten feet high. Two panels per side of the house with only a load-baring post at the parameter of each side. So basically you’ll be sitting inside of a glass box looking at vineyards and nature—oak grove trees, the side of a valley, etc. Their quest to build this holy grail in Napa went on for years, but now it’s finally coming to fruition.

David: And your plan is to eventually plant vineyards around the house to finalize what will be the 50 by 50 estate?

Gerald: We’ll have about five and a half acres planned that may go in before the house is finished. We’re going to plant the best cabernet sauvignon clones we could find; from what Robert Craig uses actually—really good stuff. But those vineyards won’t be usable for years.

David: So in the meantime you’re buying fruit and making pinot noir.

Gerald: I’m going to keep purchasing pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast because I like the vineyard I’m getting this fruit from currently. The vines are sixteen years old and are hitting a nice peak. The Pommard and Dijon clones are really good. You go in there and it’s like a gold rush, me fending for my rows and blocks. I get the same fruit each year. I’m probably not going to increase production yet as my costs would be too high. I’m just trying to break even at this point selling the 300 cases each year. 

David: I think starting small is the best way, personally. There’s so much to learn in the booze business that can only be learned from experience. There are a lot of mistakes you can make if you push for growth too quickly. 

Gerald: No kidding! 

David: I know plenty of people from the entertainment business who have been inspired to jump into the booze industry and they’ve all said: I never thought it would be this hard.

Gerald: I think it’s easily as hard as making music and expecting to be successful. You can make it, but who wants to buy it? Selling it becomes the entire thing. It’s like a person who loves food opening a restaurant. You find out quickly that making good food is only about ten percent of what it takes to stay in business. Being successful is an entirely different story.

David: What did it take for Devo to be successful? What was the watershed moment for you guys? Playing that first gig on SNL?

Gerald: For me it was when I saw David Bowie in Cleveland on the Diamond Dogs tour in the Fall of 1975. I had been making music with Mark at that point for a couple of years, experimenting. We’d sit there for hours and talk big ideas and plans, but it was all talk. It wasn’t being followed through with hard concentrated focus, energy, and action. It was still bogus art rap. I saw that tour and I saw something so amazing—somebody who obviously took his ideas all the way, with the sound, and the songwriting, and the visual production that was so cutting edge, beyond anything we’d ever seen. I really respected that and it made me feel foolish about where I was at personally.

David: That’s what lit the fire under you?

Gerald: That was it. I knew we had to start working harder, to develop a work ethic. I became the field marshal, getting everyone together five nights a week, staying in the basement, playing and working. Doing things. I had been talked to my friend Chuck Statler who took filmmaking classes at Kent State, which is where I befriended him. He had moved to Minneapolis, but he was serious about making short films. We didn’t think of ourselves as the music video types, so together Chuck and I funded the first ten minute Devo film: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution. Through his connections and his knowledge of the industry he got it in the Ann Arbor Film Festival where it won best prize for a short, so it travelled with the festival from art house to art house around America. This was a highly-attended thing and because of that Kit Cohen of A&M Records called me and wanted Devo to come to Hollywood. But we couldn’t even play a set at that point, so I bullshitted him that we had all these gigs in New York and couldn’t get there until summer.

David: That was to stall for practice time?

Gerald: Yes, I calculated how long it would take to get good enough to play in front of a real audience that wasn’t going to be your friends and was going to coldly judge you. Luckily, I drove to New York on Spring Break after that and I stayed in this leaky loft in the East Village where I pretended to be Devo’s manager, booking us gigs at CBGB. 

David: What was that like? CBGB in the late 70s? I’d kill to have been there.

Gerald: The Dead Boys were there. They had become Hilly’s favorite little pets at that point. They attacked us on stage. Cheetah Chrome spit at us. Mark got into a wrestling match with him live. Then we were OK though. It was like a stupid playground fight with adolescents, but the crowd accepted us after that because we were so aggressive and gave it right back. We shared one thing with punk: the aggression and anger. But our anger was focused, and political, and rationalized, whereas their’s was just nihilistic and anti-intellectual. We were more like punk scientists.

David: How do you feel as a winemaker now, almost forty years later? Are you still channeling that same anger and discontent into your wines (laughs)?

Gerald: (laughs) You know, at a certain point anger is not healthy. Wine is my surrender to nature and fate. Wine is my appreciation of those forces we cannot control. Because no matter how much you know you’re at the mercy of so many elements. I love how organic wine is. I love how the same plot of land year after year produces vastly different wine. How when you drink the last of your 2012 vintage nothing else will ever taste that way again. It’s fleeting. It’s a memory. Like the girl you met on the road that you stay in love with. 

David: As wine continues to evolve over the years, does that fly in the face of de-evolution? 

Gerald: Right. We’re all constantly trying to beat back against de-evolution. It’s like good and evil. It takes very little good to balance the preponderance of evil. Just like they found out dark matter is—what?—like ninety percent of the universe? What we can see with our own eyes makes up a very small part. Climate de-evolution is making it harder to make good wine, however. Until recently, it was just about artistry and knowing how to roll with the punches, but now you have to ask: where do you go that’s left to grow the grapes?

David: What do you hope to see happen with 50 by 50 over the next decade?

Gerald: I would love to continue to make the best possible wine I can make until it was something that people talked about in the company of the finest pinot noirs. The finest Russian River Valley pinots and Oregon pinots—I would love to just get close. And I would like to expand. I would also like to make a very, very serious Bordeaux-style blend that, unlike all these fruit-forward, jammy, macho things that people like in California, this would be a more food-friendly wine. Something versatile that pairs with the way we eat now, which is not heavy red meats all the time and sauces, carbs, and fat. That’s not how we eat today.

David: I’ve been singing “Jocko Homo” all day, knowing that I was going to talk to you later in the evening. Does that song now apply to California reds and are you going to ask the same question?

Gerald: (laughs) Well we did answer our own question as to whether we were men or not. We are DEVO! We’re all Devo. But I think it’s already going that way with the next generation of young winemakers and lower alcohol wines.

Gerald Casale will be in the Hollywood store for a tasting of the 50 by 50 wines on Thursday July 14th.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll