At first, Corey Busboom thought it was a prank.
When the local artist and musician answered his cell last January and heard the geeky voice of Mark Mothersbaugh on the other end, he suspected telephonic trickery by his friends.
Boy, was he ever wrong. It, indeed, was the lead singer and eccentric instrumentalist for 1980s hit-makers Devo.
"Luckily, I played it cool and didn't hang up on him," Busboom says.
He spent the next 30 minutes having a "dream conversation about nerd stuff and instruments" with the frontman of one of his favorite bands ever. Then Mothersbaugh made Busboom an offer he couldn't refuse: He wanted to purchase a dozen of the funky-looking rudimentary synthesizers and homemade sound-generating machines that Busboom creates in his spare time.
"I was surprised that he just called me up out of the blue and said, 'Hello, Mark Mothersbaugh here,' and wanted to buy 12 of my instruments," Busboom says. "I was absolutely speechless."
It's a lucky break for Busboom, 31. Mothersbaugh became aware of the artist's DIY devices after he purchased a microphone — made from an old-school rotary telephone handset — from the artist over eBay in 2008.
That auction closed at about $10, and Mothersbaugh got more than his money's worth. When Busboom mailed the original mic to the Devo vocalist, he also threw in something extra: a combination oscillator/synthesizer built into a an old Casio desktop calculator.
Mothersbaugh loved it so much that he bought a dozen more devices from the artist. Busboom started making instruments to be used in his art-rock band The Coitus and other musical projects almost a decade ago. As I described in a music feature on Busboom four years ago ("Off on a Bender," August 3, 2006), these circuit-bent constructs often involve rewiring children's toys, like old Speak & Spells, to emit weirdly warbling tones or turning the shells of secondhand home electronics into lo-fi synthesizers.
It makes sense that a musical mad scientist like Motherbaugh digs the devices.
"Big-time companies — Yamaha, Korg, whatever — send him free instruments all the time — all their prototypes — and then call him up on the phone and say, 'What did you think of that instrument?' And he would give them his honest feedback and they would go and change things because they trusted him," Busboom says. "And now he's interested in my stuff? Unbelievable."
Mothersbaugh says he's been a fan of the art of circuit bending for years.
"I just love this genre of instruments because it really goes to the base of what Devo is all about," he says. "I felt like a kindred spirit with guys like Corey and feel like quite a few of them could have been members of Devo if we would have all lived in Akron, Ohio, together in 1970."
Busboom dreamed up such freakish-looking devices as the Duck-Billed Plata-Synth, a photo-Theremin that is strapped to an old tennis racket and is topped by a plastic Donald Duck head. Operating much like a regular Theremin, which broadcasts a series of high-pitched squeals, Busboom's version utilizes a photographic sensor (as well as a series of knobs and switches) to regulate the cacophony that's being emitted.
Also included in the order was The Rock & Roll Clown, a photo-Theremin that Busboom based on an old Ronald McDonald toy, and other madcap machines.
The contraptions were a hit with Mothersbaugh who paid Busboom about $2,000 for all 12 instruments.
"Corey's calculator just kicked ass. Everybody loved the sound of it and it brought something to the table that we wouldn't have had otherwise," he says.
Getting paid a couple grand by a celebrity was awesome enough in and of itself, but things got even better.
Busboom's circuit-bent offerings and case-mods were not only seen in the pages of Rolling Stone but were wielded by Mothersbaugh during Devo performances at last year's South by Southwest and in an episode of off-the-wall kids' show Yo Gabba Gabba! earlier this year. (Busboom also was profiled in an online video for Scion Magazine in January.)
Here the biggest coup: Mothersbaugh used Busboom's instruments significantly when creating Something for Everybody, Devo's first record in 20 years.
Listening closely to the speaker of a vintage turntable in his cluttered basement while the album spins at 331/3 RPM, Busboom picks out portions of the warbling electronic backbeat of "Please Baby Please," "Cameo," "Human Rocket," and bits of other songs that were generated by his brainchildren.
"Every time I listen to the album, it brings a smile to my face," he says. "It's just so unbelievable, a dream come true. When I'm 80, I could put that thing on a turntable and hear how it influenced that Devo album."
Mothersbaugh says that Busboom's instruments are "complementary to the vibe" of the new album.
"I ran one of his calculator synths into various foot pedals and a whole bunch of stomp boxes," he says. "You can hear it in the crazy synth solo of 'Please Baby Please,' and Greg Kirsten sampled a number of times on different parts of the record."
Busboom is still astounded by the fact he's now a part of Devo history.
"It's kind of crazy that an ordinary fan can influence the band. I wasn't even born when they first started and now one of my heroes is sponsoring my hobbies."
That includes his interest in demolition derby, which Mothersbaugh has also supported and funded. Last fall, Busboom transformed a 1974 Ford LTD into a vehicular tribute to the band's debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Painted banana yellow and sporting a two-foot energy metal energy dome (the pyramid-like red hats worn by band members in the "Whip It" video) on its roof, the souped-up sedan bashed its way around the mud-drenched grandstand arena at the Arizona State Fair. He's also previously competed in a neon green '88 Ford Country Squire painted station wagon with "Mutato Muzika" on the side.
When Mothersbaugh learned about both cars, he gave his blessing and provided jumpsuits and energy domes for Busboom and his pit crew, chipped in a couple hundred dollars for entry fees, and requested pictures for band promotion.
Mothersbaugh is a longtime fan of the sport, having attended derby events while growing up in Ohio, in the early 1960s.
"There was nothing else to do in Akron at the time," he says. "In 1962, before the Beatles were around, it was pretty hot. It was like the best thing I'd seen in my life."
Sadly, despite having his hero's backing, problems with busted steering linkage kept him immobile during all three nights of last year's derby.
"The [yellow Devo car] got second place in the beauty parade, which is where the crowd judges their favorite car. And with a bunch of rednecks, that's pretty good because I'm sure half the people at the fair don't have any clue who Devo is."
Busboom is already working on another car for this year's state fair, which Mothersbaugh has pledged to support.
The Devo vocalist has some ideas of his own, including having Busboom smash up more than just the other vehicles.
"My strategy would be put a cow catcher on the front of the car," he says. "I think he should make an attempt to leave the track. If he can take out the funnel cake kiosk I'll send him something special, like one of those weight reduction belts that vibrates."
Mothersbaugh says he'll tell Busboom all about it if he sees him during Arizona Fall Frenzy this weekend. Devo is scheduled to perform Saturday, and Busboom is hoping for a backstage invite.
He's also hatched a plan to mail circuit-bent devices to the members of another of his favorite bands. It worked out pretty well the first time.
"Now I'm thinking I should send some stuff to Kraftwerk next, because they have a song called 'Pocket Calculator,'" he says. "They love technology and would probably love my stuff."