Graham Reid | | 18 min read
The bare facts in any encyclopaedia of rock can't even approach what Pere Ubu out of Cleveland in the late 70s have been about. They once described themselves as the sound of things falling apart. That was close.
To hear frontman David Thomas tell it however they are the mainstream and everyone else has deviated.
"Rock music from the 50s to the 70s was a straight line of growing complexity and expressiveness," he says. "And it was very clear to us where we were in the stream of the evolution of the thing as an art form. And the next step was to be the realisation of sound as the primary poetic component of musical activity.
"So Pere Ubu didn't appear out of nowhere. Pere Ubu and groups like it were a very clear next step in the line rock music was taking."
Ubu's debut EP Datapanik in the Year Zero and their first album The Modern Dance still sound like declarations of war on standard pop and rock. Despite breaking up in the 80s then reforming and being plagued by line-up changes, they have carved a singular noisy path through rock.
Thomas's vocals can sound like a man coughing up nails and David Byrne of Talking Heads went a long way by lifting some of the less extreme vocal mannerisms and quite a lot of his jittery stage presence.
Thomas -- who has a solo career and lectures on "the geography of sound" at places like New York's Knitting Factory and the South Bank Centre in London -- is an abrupt, sometimes tetchy interview subject. He's clearly not a man who suffers fools, and you get the impression he considers most people in that category. But after a dry, monosyllabic start, he opens up for a freewheeling and lengthy discussion in this phone coinversation on the eve of Pere Ubu undertaking a tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Is this David Thomas?
I'm delighted to speak with you, I'll declare my hand and say I've been a longtime follower of Pere Ubu and some of your solo projects - but admit I'm surprised Ubu has lasted this long, I don't imagine you ever thought it would?
I don't know, I didn't think about it.
Too busy doing it?
Where am I speaking to you David?
I'm in Brighton, England.
You on tour there?
No, I live in England. I've been here for a while, it's a long story, nothing worth going into.
Pere Ubu tour much these days?
No, we don't tour much, we did a couple of weeks in Europe a few weeks ago, other than that a couple of tours this year which is about all we do. We don't play out that much.
You seem to always have any number of other projects on the go and I see you have been doing some lectures on the geography of sound at the Knitting Factory.
Yeah, I've been doing lectures for a few years now at universities and occasionally at various festivals. This year two places asked me to programme four day festivals, one was the Knitting Factory in New York and one was South Bank in London so I decided I may as well do a lecture on one of the days in addition to some poetry things by friends of mine.
And what's the nature of what you do in your lectures?
I just lecture!
Yeah, but about what? The equality of sound?
No, no. It's about the scale of sound and what's happened to it, the relationships in music and as a language, the relationship of that to geography and the nature of human consciousness and some other things thrown in for good measure. It's wide ranging and impossible to summarise here. It's about space, geography and the nature of human consciousness.
It always seemed to me that you specifically and Pere Ubu really did redraw the sonic contract. You must have felt very much out on a limb for a long time, it's almost like world has come round to your way of thinking. Is that how you see it?
Certainly the world has not come around to my way of thinking, I wish it had. (Laughs) No, our analysis of history is really very straight forward, it was very clear that rock music from the 50s to the 70s was a straight line of growing complexity and expressiveness. And it was very clear to us where we were in the stream of the evolution of the thing as an art form in the early 70s. And very clear what the next step was to be, which was the integration of sound as a language into ... not even an integration but the realisation of sound as the primary poetic component of musical activity. At the same time a number of technological developments were going on with the introduction of, and sophistication of, the analogue synthesiser and various techniques for using and integrating it.
So Pere Ubu didn't appear out of nowhere.
Pere Ubu and groups like it were a very clear cut next step in the line rock music was taking.
Do you think Pere Ubu has continued in that line or do ...
Of course we've continued in that line, we are one of the few who have continued in the line of the mainstream of rock music. We are the mainstream of rock music. It happens is that most everybody else has deviated pretty wildly from it so most of what you hear on the radio I would classify as avant-garde or experimental music. I don't think it has much to do with the main stream of pop music which is represented by groups like Pere Ubu, the Residents, Television and a few others. There are modern people, but very few, everything else has deviated into weirdness.
Within rock culture, rock has always had magpie tendencies and it would seem to me that ...
There is not a rock culture. Rock music is the expression of an American folk music, it is not a universal language. People who aren't American don't understand rock music and can't listen to it appropriately, there's always a veil of alienation that falls between foreigners and the music because of the nature of it as folk music, it's in the blood of Americans, but not in the blood of other people.
It's not in the blood of the French, that's for sure ...
(Laughs) Nor the English, nor the Australians ...
You don't think so?
Of course not, you're not Americans, you don't understand the things that Americans understand in the same way as I don't understand reggae music. It's not in my blood, when I listen to reggae music or African music - just pick any music - you listen to it, you go 'this is great' and you see things about it and it speaks to you in certain ways, but you are always looking at it through the veil of alienation and it isn't your culture. This is simply the nature of the beast as a folk music.
You don't think that it's in the nature of greater communication, an appreciation of the codes of understanding and so on that people in even this remote part of the world are very familiar with American culture in all its manifestations?
Yeah, Australia is not particularly any more remote than England is. But you're not supposed to feel bad about it. Of course everyone knows about American culture and rock music, as I explained its simply the difference between having something that's in your blood or that you are looking at from afar. Rock music has so much to do with the American sense of geography, the American realisation of space, Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kerouac, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Ike Turner ... Everybody. It's all about a certain conception of space and geography and of certain historical connectives.
It's not like everybody else is inferior ...
I wasn't talking that way ... Oh, okay. It's just I am very interested in the way people can be different. I'm not interested in the way people can copy other people's cultures, I'd rather everybody create their own. The world doesn't need a bunch of homogenised ...
You know, Australia is going to be destroyed by the future any day now just like everybody. America was destroyed by the future 20 years ago, England was destroyed by the future about two years ago. I'm sure Australia has been destroyed or will be very soon, hang on to it while you have it.
Explain what you mean by that.
It has to do with the concept we were playing around with in 1975 called Datapanik, this is why we named our first EP Datapanik in the Year Zero and ironically why we named the box set the same thing.
The idea of Datapanik which is very ironic considering what we were saying in 1975, is that we live in a state of too much information and which information can only serve as a sedative-like drug in which nothing can be true and there can be no judgment, and on and on and on ...
This is the nature of media and the future and this is why these things are all interrelated, this is why the internet is popular and why it has come to fruition at this point, why dance culture has come to fruition at this point, all these things are products of the punk-counter revolution which did much to crush the poetic thrust of rock music. Punk music represented the victory of fashion over substance, and of appearance over reality. Don't forget Malcolm McLaren said he invented punk rock to sell clothes.
Everybody thought he was been ironic and witty, we didn't think he was being ironic, we understood what he was saying, that our world had come to an end, all these are related.
Given that you now live in Brighton, being there must give you a different perspective on American culture.
No, it's ceased to exist, like any exile I live in a world that doesn't exist any more. So it doesn't really matter where my physical body happens to be, the world I live in day by day emerges from this so-called reality of the media world, television, nations, everybody ...
You assimilate all those things like everybody else?
Sure, of course, I'm watching the tv right now, I'm an American, I got the tv on.
CNN and the impeachment process today is it?
No. I'm watching a movie.
Okay I can see then that you are part of all that, but what is the project then of Pere Ubu as it enters the next millennium? Do you have a project?
No. Were we supposed to? (laughs) It's a bit late to tell us.
I didn't say you had to have one, I asked if you did have one.
No, no. We've just finished this album and nearing the end of a year touring and promoting this album. Not long after this I've got a bunch of tours coming up and an album of some of my solo things, that'll take us into the summer and we'll start thinking whether we want to do another album again and that'll take us into the fall and then, 'okay let's make another record ...'
We don't think in anything less than decades I'm afraid.
But when you started I'm sure you didn't think like that.
Well actually we did, I hate to tell you. The question that's asked of us more than anything else is 'when are you going to break up?' This is strange, we were being asked this within a year of being together. So we had a lot of practice getting the answer and it was we were either going to break up tomorrow or be here for 50 years.
Again we were very influenced by people like Greil Marcus writing about the blues. There was this passage, I don't know if it was Greil or somebody else, who wrote that folk music as in the blues was a system by which you would follow a persons career over decades and the song they wrote now would be informed by something they wrote 20 years ago. In other words instead of a series of discreet pearls on a string, songs were a continuum, a stream not a string of pearls. This struck a great chord with us, it was clear then the great strength and weakness of rock music was the song format. How do you transcend the format?
One way is to create something that is non-linear, non-narrative and that's where sound comes in. Another thing to do was create not a conceptual album, but a conceptual career where the songs are moments frozen from a stream which keeps flowing.
Again this is all related.
Sorry I can't give you any soundbites, no answer comes in less than 20 words.
That's fine. It seems if I took on in its entirety your Monster set [of Thomas solo albums] I can understand perfectly what you are saying because it is all of a piece of itself. I assume that's what you are saying about Pere Ubu, that despite the enormous number of line-up changes, the fact you did break up for a while and so on, that's the concept and project and an on-going thing.
Yeah, that's why we keep doing it, because we have a passion and we happen to be free. When we were young we were free because we were unpopular and had a bad attitude. Now we're old and we're free because we're old and we don't care anymore. You are free of all the pressures of youth and conformity, I don't care anymore, I get to do what I want to do.
We all have lives and we do it not because we think we're going to be stars, we do it because it's art, literature and a passion we have. And we're good at it.
Pere Ubu had a great sense of theatre too, that seemed to me something you brought into the context of the post punk rock period that you were talking about before. Obviously not like Kiss or Springsteen in a stadium, but theatre as part of that lineage of performance art.
I don't know. We're really a lot simpler than most people want us to be. I ended up doing lots of stories and extended stories and theatrical moments in the early years and that grew only because Allen [Ravenstine] had an analogue synthesiser and had to repatch after each song and that would take up to a minute between songs and that's a very long time so I ended up starting to tell stories to keep the thing moving. I hate to tell you, but the truth is we really are vastly unimaginative, we simply solve problems in the easiest possible way.
The easiest possible way to solve the problem is the magician's sleight of hand, you keep 'em thinking something is happening. So necessity truly is the mother of invention. See, you should never ask questions, the answers are all terribly mundane.
So what does the immediate future hold for you, do you ...
We're going to fly halfway round the world which I am really pissed off about (laughs) We're going to do this tour, come home and then do another. The future's always the same. You make an album, you go out on tour, you come home, you swear you'll never do it again (laughs) but then you forget and do it again. It's been like that for the past 24 years or whatever.
Do you think Pere Ubu has been influential in the broadest sense of the word, not just in the music I mean, but the attitude towards the music that you have brought to bear into the culture in which you work?
I'm sure we've been influential because all sorts of famous type people tell us that, but again as you point out it's not a musical influence. Pere Ubu songs don't lend themselves to being interpreted particularly. There's nothing about the song itself, it's the approach to the song which distinguishes what we do.
People always ask me about Captain Beefheart. Well there's nothing of Captain Beefheart in our music but he's clearly ... He was influential because he pointed out there were other ways of solving the problem and approaching it or looking at it. The standard problem we all have is how to accurately and powerfully communicate the human experience, this is what we're all supposed to be doing, this is what music is, what art is, what rock music is supposed to do.
It's not supposed to sell clothes or create pre-pubescent fantasy worlds, it's supposed to communicate the human experience in a naked and forceful and useful way. Anything that doesn't do that is not definable as rock music, hence there is very little rock music going on. There's a lot of electronic stuff that has a beat but it doesn't fulfil the definition of what rock music is.
There's a lot of populist gesture out there.
I don't care if it's populist or whatever. I like the standard dumb stuff too but there is a difference between ZZ Top and the Gary Glitter Band, they both do standard dumb music, but one of them does it with quality ie. ZZ Top and one is just dumb and insulting. Like all the people who died for thousands of years for truth and art and poetry and this is what we got? Gary Glitter? He should be ashamed. At least with ZZ Top there's some amount of effort gone into the thing. The only reason I bring these two up is because I was having this discussion in the pub last night.
Yes, pub discussions about the relative merits of pop bands aren't uncommon.
They had one of these wretched 70s CD and they were playing it in the pub and I was just going nuts about it.
I think one of the more terrifying things in popular culture is things seem to be going in reverse and people are more grounded in things which happened 20 and 30 years than what's is possible today.
Yeah, it's cowardice. When you look at it in a historical sense it's obvious what happened. In 1975-76 rock ... You must remember New Wave was named, we named it pretentiously, after French cinema. We fully believed we were about to create a form of literature that was as complex and sophisticated as what we call literature, but it was all of a sudden in music and in rock music in particular. Everybody looked into the abyss and most people chickened out saying, 'do we really want William Faulkner?' This is what was happening. In 76 us and some other people said 'hey, you're gonna have William Faulkner now, everybody want that?' And they said, 'ummm, no, we don't, we want stupidity because William Faulkner doesn't sell blue jeans.' Ever since then it's been the same mechanism, that's what I told you before. That's what dance culture is about.
Who causes problems?
The human voice causes problems so you get rid of the singer. You don't think the companies and corporations are delighted with dance music? You get rid of the singers, they cause trouble, they say things about right and wrong, they rock the boat. The impetus today is don't rock the boat, don't say anything that someone might object to, this is what television tells you, this is what the internet tells you , this is what dance culture tells you, this is what ironically punk rock told you.
Punk rock was safe, it was comfortable. It was like drinking hot chocolate and going to bed with a teddy bear. That's what punk rock really was.
You think that it seduced people into believing it was a revolution but it was little more than revolt transforming into style?
It was a counter-revolution, the dog returning to its vomit. It was turning away from William Faulkner and to Harold Robbins, that's what it was. But Harold Robbins is always going to be more popular than William Faulkner, no offence to Harold Robbins.
I'm sure I'm being unjust to Harold Robbins.
David, we've talked a long time and I'd like to thank you for that ...
Right, just rewrite the whole thing so it sounds interesting for someone to come and see us because I've always ruined our career by doing interviews like this instead of the ones I should be doing.
I didn't ask you what you favourite colours were though, did I?
Nope, you missed that one.