Pere Ubu will likely be remembered as one of the most innovative and exciting American rock bands, and singer David Thomas knows it.
The Cleveland band came to life in the mid 1970s on the heels of the short lived Rocket From the Tombs, releasing a handful of singles that can still take your breath away, followed by five albums from 1978 to 1982 that still seem bewilderingly unique and unmatched. Fire Records has recently released these singles and albums on newly mastered vinyl, and in a rare moment of looking backward rather than forward, Ubu have hit the road to perform songs from this period. Thomas is a notoriously prickly personality (a glance at their website www.ubuprojex.com will give you a taste of that), but there is no question this guy means what he says. He takes the job of rock and roll very seriously, and as he notes at the close of the interview, he’s not in this business for the fun of it.
BLANK: I know you’ve continued to perform many of these songs over the years, but in preparing these reissues and playing just these songs recently, have you thought about them any differently, or the time period they were created in?
David Thomas: Each of the albums is, for want of a better term, a sort of psychological state, and doing it all mixed up one after the other the first four or five days of the European tour was kind of like being slapped across the face with a fish. They come from different existential states, so if you get all of them in the same album you get into that space, but one after another it took a bit of getting used to. But they’re all familiar, I’m the same person now as I was then, so I can understand them.
BLANK: Does the setlist vary from night to night?
DT: No, once we settle on a running order that works we stick to it. That’s always the way it’s been, why keep reinventing the wheel? The encore is where there’s a lot of difference from night to night. We usually start off the encore set with one of our quote unquote hits, and whatever I’m not entirely happy with and might need working on is dumped in the encore set, because that’s our free time. We’ve done the contractual bit, played the show and delivered undoubtedly a professional and exciting experience, and the encore is off duty time.
BLANK: I read a quote by you where you said “the bass player is actually the band’s guitarist, the guitarist is the bassist, the synthesiser is the vocal and I’m the horn section.” Going back and listening to Ubu songs after reading that was pretty interesting. Was that a conscious approach Ubu took when developing songs and your sound or did this occur to you after the fact?
DT: I think Allen Ravenstine is the one who said that first, decades ago, but we don’t think about it consciously, it just happens to be the way people in the band have always played. Guitar players in Ubu generally have not liked to play flashy. Tom Herman always said the best guitar part is the one that required you to move your fingers the least. I think it’s a Cleveland or Midwest way of doing things. Look at The Stooges, it tends to be a geographical approach to rock music.
BLANK: Do you think that has something to do with the character of Midwestern people or is that just how rock music developed there?
DT: How the hell do I know? Midwestern rock is characterized by basic, hard grooves. A lot of that probably came from listening to CKLW, which was a heavy Motown station back in the ‘60s. Midwestern rock is riff rock, straight ahead, up against the wall sort of stuff, not fancy. Nothing overtly sophisticated about it, not a lot of chord changes or rhythm changes, just one chord and the will to rock. Ubu is based on powerful riff rock, just look at “Final Solution” or “Heart of Darkness,” the first Pere Ubu song. But what confuses people is that we don’t keep doing that year after decade after millennium when recording. We just take that as a foundation, but once you can do something easily, and we can do that stuff in our sleep, why would you keep doing it? You end up like The Rolling Stones or someone. Not to pick on them, but they’re an easy target.
BLANK: Once someone releases art or music available to the public, it’s out of the creator’s control how it’s perceived, and in some sense you can’t care too much how Ubu is interpreted because it’s out of your hands, but you also seem very aware of what’s being said and written about you.
DT: Oh, I care! I’m not going to sit there and pontificate about what the song is about because I don’t explain things. That’s not what music should be. If you can explain a song in a couple of sentences, it’s hardly worth doing, is it? Music is it’s own language, and it’s as complex as any spoken language. But the idea of having me translate it to English all the time is just an outrage. Plus, Pere Ubu is based on 20 things going on at the same time, it’s based on imitating human consciousness. Nobody ever sits there and says, “My baby left me and I feel miserable.” Nobody thinks that way, it’s impossible. You’re more likely to think, “Oh my baby left me, and she didn’t clean the floor before she left. I gotta get some milk before the store closes.” That’s the way people are and that’s the way our songs are. There are any number of conflicting or sympathetic narratives, implications and enhancements, all happening at the same time. How do you explain any of that?
BLANK: I’m mainly referring to the website, where there are all these rules, and there seems to be some frustration with writers and reviewers…
DT: Well yeah, because you guys aren’t as good as your job as I am at mine! You’re supposed to think about Pere Ubu when you listen. It’s not something you put on the stereo then go about your business. It’s like reading a novel, to get something out of it, you have to be sitting there thinking, “Why does it sound like this? What’s that noise mean, why is the singer doing that?” And that’s not a very popular way of constructing music, which is what we are, a pop band. We’re just not a very good pop band. Britney Spears or whoever the flavor of the month is makes good pop music, we don’t. But I can live with that.
BLANK: Is the idea that listening to Ubu is complex and like reading a novel ever at odds with the idea that you’re based on basic riff rock?
DT: I don’t see any contradiction there. It’s not like we’re Grand Funk Railroad. We’re not even like The Stooges. Just cause you’re a riff band doesn’t mean you can’t pile a bunch of other stuff on top. Riff music is eminently suitable for what our ambition is, which is replicating the human experience, which is predominantly physical. So building this aesthetic on top of something that is primarily physical makes all the sense in the world.
BLANK: Speaking of pop music, I saw you wrote something on Facebook recently about not ending up like Kanye West. I’m wondering what you meant by that and if you’ve listened to his music at all.
DT: Well I don’t listen to it, but you end up having it forced down you from television or radio or wherever. Look, I don’t like picking on people, but he really sets himself up for it. Musicians are scum, as I’ve said any number of times. Why anybody asks a musician or celebrity about politics or life or anything at all is absurd. I picked on Sting for years, but they’re just symbols of a notion that musicians should be listened to about anything at all other than what they’re doing musically.
And I don’t spend a lot of time listening to music at all. And the reason is simple, and it sounds totally egotistical but it’s totally logical: if they’re not as good as me, what do I get out of it? If they’re as good as me, I think “I gotta do better,” and if they’re better than me I feel like everything I do is a failure.
BLANK: Thanks for your time, David, hope the tour goes well for you guys and it’s fun for you.
DT: We don’t have fun. This is not fun, you don’t do this for fun. I understand what you’re saying, though, and we will try to have a successful and professional relationship with the audience.
Pere Ubu will perform at the Pilot Light on Wed. June 22nd. You can purchase tickets here.