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David Thomas of Pere Ubu shares a few secrets

Pere Ubu frontman tells Goldmine that the band has "always been about destroying artifice.”
 David Thomas of Pere Ubu performing at The Garage in London, England. (Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns)

David Thomas of Pere Ubu performing at The Garage in London, England. (Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns)

By Lee Zimmerman

It’s fair to say Pere Ubu defies description. It’s also fair to say that they do so deliberately. Over the course of a 40-year-plus career, the band has procured its own twisted mesh of grunge, punk, rock, jazz, atonal imaging, art, angst, and industrial intents, a sound that founder, singer and sole constant David Thomas refers to as “avant-garage.” That term seems as suitable as any, given that the band continually defy expectations and chart new courses laden with daring and defiance.

The band’s personnel has shifted continuously over the years, and even Thomas opted for a solo career at one point, releasing various solo albums that included collaborations with Richard Thompson and various members of another experimental outfit, Henry Cow. But inevitably, he decided to reform Pere Ubu, leading a new group of players into destinations unknown. Sixteen albums on, they remain as provocative and challenging as ever, due in no small part to Thomas’ determination to ensure they stay that way.

The band’s latest effort, the sprawling 20 Years in a Montana Missile Site is as dense and unwieldy as the title implies, and while in some circles it might be referred to as a concept album, it’s not a term not so easily imposed. Thomas himself refers to it as the “James Gang meets Tangerine Dream,” which, of course, leaves lots of room for interpretation.That said, Goldmine decided to go straight to the source and ask Mr. Thomas to give us his perspective on Pere Ubu and all it’s accomplished, seemingly despite all odds. It proved to be a daring move. Given the bark, yelp, howl, and strangulated vocal style with which Thomas expresses himself, one can’t help feel a bit intimidated at the outset. And when he takes a compliment with a distant, detached “thank you” in return, one has to wonder what kind of conversation it will lead to.

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Though he was polite but reserved at the outset, once the conversation got underway, Thomas then became all too willing to share his muse and motivation. Still, he’s no ordinary interview. His process of creativity is complicated and in constant motion, and while he often deals in the abstract, his visionary view fascinates and inspires all at the same time.

“Pere Ubu is a very simple idea,” he insists.

GOLDMINE: You’ve been the constant in this band for more than 40 years. What is it that allows you to keep it going?

DAVIS THOMAS: Well, a stubborn refusal to give in. One of my earliest memories of rock music, which has nothing to do with rock music, was Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations pounding his shoe on the table and saying, “We will bury you,” and the point of that was not some Cold War diatribe, we’re going to annihilate you with out bombs etcetera. No — we’re going to last longer than you. Which was ironic of course, because it didn’t really work out that way. I think of all the rock musicians who played all the big places, the local guys playing for a thousand people, and we couldn’t get 10 people to come see us in our living room. And I kept on thinking, we will be bury you, we’ll outlast you, and you’ll be gone. Which isn’t really much of an ambition. No, Pere Ubu really hasn’t changed. We have some very simple ideas. I don’t make the rules. I enforce them. I see that they’re carried out. We haven’t changed the idea; we simply decided to pursue it. From the beginning, each album was not a destination. Each live show was not a destination. It was simply a moment in time that we captured. It’s like writing a story for a newspaper. At a certain point, you have a deadline and the story’s not done, but this is what you’ve got and we go with what we’ve got right now. It’s not necessarily what we’re going to have tomorrow.

GM: For starters, this has to be the first time we’ve heard a Nikita Khrushchev analogy attached to rock ‘n’ roll.

DT: What did you expect? When you’re talking to Pere Ubu, you’re going to hear something you’ve never heard from another rock musician. Otherwise you might as well hang it up.

GM: Of course. So what was the original idea in the beginning?

DT: The idea is, to reduce it to its simplest explanation, is to tell a story in a certain way, and that story evolves in a certain way as well. It’s what I’ve called over the years “the intrusive other.” There’s a narrative line, and then there’s going to be a counter narrative line that’s exactly opposite to where the main narrative line is going. There’s going to be oblique lines that go off in irrelevant directions. So telling any story involves four or five layers, four or five interactive narratives in which no one person controls the narrative. It’s like when you watch TV today or you go to a Hollywood movie. You know exactly what the narrative is going to be within 30 seconds. You know there’s going to be some moralistic, simplistic, pathetic story of the day, whatever the flavor of the day is supposed to be. So you get hammered over the head with this sort of nonsense for the next hour and a half. And the writer and the producer and all the hundreds of people working on it make sure the story beats you over the head. The idea with Pere Ubu is that the story should have the integrity. The story should go where the story says it’s going to go. Nobody should be out there making sure it has a happy little ending or a moralistic sort of ending. It’s going to go somewhere and a lot of the places where it goes you’re not going to feel comfortable. You’re going to go “brrrrrr” about where the story ends up. That’s life.

GM: We live in such a simplistic society where people prefer black and white, and in today’s environment, it’s one way or the highway. People are locked into their points of view and don’t want to be dissuaded otherwise.

DT: Exactly. That’s essentially the same thing. You’re locked into the way you want the story to end up. The story has to end up the way one wants it to end up. So yeah, I don’t see a conflict between our two views.

GM: Still, making this music seems like an enormous challenge to find these different narratives, all these different layers. It seems like an awful lot of work goes into what you do.

DT: Yes, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. (chuckles) It has something to do with the title of the new record. It’s not the reason, but it’s related. It’s an emotional/sensuous relationship that I picked up from it. Which is that you have this guy who’s done 20 years in a missile silo, every day checking in and staring at the button to the end of the world. When he goes home at night, his wife meets him at the door and says, “How was work today, honey?” And he’s got the kids, and on and on and on, and over the years he develops a certain dedication to the mission in a claustrophobic environment. Then he comes out on his last day of service and he says to himself, “I’ve spent 20 years toe to toe with Uncle Joe, for this.” It’s a feeling I related to when the story came to me. You work hard on a mission, in this case for 40 years, fighting the ordinary and you bang your shoe on the table saying, “I’ll bury you.” You come out 40 years later and look around, and damn, the ordinary has won. It certainly seems to have the upper hand.

GM: In the old days, this would have been called a concept album.

DT: Somebody once asked me, “Is this a concept album?” and I said, “No, we don’t have a concept career.” It’s back to that earlier comment of mine, that there is no final point, there is no destination to be reached. It’s simply a moment in a stream, and you take a picture of that moment and the stream is gone.

GM: Still, your music is unquestionably challenging and beyond the norm. That goes without saying. But to carry this vision on for some 40 years, that says a lot about your persistence and your ability to reach an audience in the process.

DT: I appreciate that complement and that, plus $4.50, buys me a cup of coffee. They ought to stick me in the damn Hall of Fame. But you can’t sit around patting yourself on the back. I’ve got work to do. When I was younger, we were given a magnificent vehicle, chrome plated and sterling silver and gleaming and we had the chance to get it out on the road to see what we could do. So we got it out on the road in Pennsylvania, went across the wilderness, on the interstate and after awhile we come to an exit that says “Satisfied City, one mile,” and we said, there’s nothing wrong with exiting there. Satisfied City is a pretty good place to be. But then you see interstate, peering over the hills in the wilds of Pennsylvania, and you think, “I gotta know what’s there, what’s over that hill.” So there’s nothing to do except to keep going until you hit the Pacific Ocean, I guess.

GM: The people that come to your shows are likely familiar with your work. However do you get people who are new to your music and there to check it out? And what does their general reaction seem to be?

DT: There’s no trend. In one city where we’ll be playing, there will be lots of young people and a group of older geezers, maybe a family with husbands, wives and children. But maybe in the every next city, maybe a 100 miles away, it will be three old geezers and their dogs and that will be it. That sort of thing is impossible to judge. I don’t want to sound weird or anything, but you get a damn lot of 17 year olds coming up to you and saying, “You’ve changed my life.” And I think to myself, “Hey kid you’re only 17, what life has there been so far? But you’re very kind to say I changed your life.” So I say thank you, you’re very kind, you’ve obviously exaggerated things immensely. But then you get these 50 year old people — husbands and wives and they’re bringing their teenage children, and they say, “You’ve changed my life,” and again you go, “Ah jeez. Well, thank you,” but it’s not something you can sit around and think about. It makes you weird and turns you into this sort of musician that you don’t like.

GM: But at the same time, the bar was set very high. Do you feel that way?

DT: Of course.

 Pere Ubu performing at CBGB's in New York City on March 2,1978.

Pere Ubu performing at CBGB's in New York City on March 2,1978.

GM: Do you feel like you have an obligation to meet that high bar every time?

DT: Of course. When we put Pere Ubu back together, the reason we reformed was that we were sitting in a hotel lobby in Holland on one of my solo tours, and everybody was saying how much the band sounded like Pere Ubu. And we looked around, and everyone had been a member of Pere Ubu at one time. So we had this discussion that basically went, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, and not to take on the history and obligation of the name Pere Ubu would be cowardly. It’s not something you can just dismiss. So we said, yes, it’s a duck and we’re going to be Pere Ubu again, and we knew what that burden was. Not to be too heavy about it, we knew there was an obligation.

GM: So many musicians have come and gone from the ranks. So how long does it take to break the newcomers in?

DT: It’s a self-filtering mechanism. Number one, if you’re a musician and you want to be in Pere Ubu, you have to realize you’re not going to get your beach house in Malibu (chuckles). So whoever is attracted to the band and makes themselves known as a musician and available, as it were, has already been filtered out as A) someone who understands Pere Ubu, and B) has followed Pere Ubu since they were children — because they’re all younger than me and they know what the band is and they want more than anything to be in that band. So you cut out a lot of ne’er-do-wells as it were. That’s really the essence of how self replicating it is. If you want to be in the band, you’re in.

GM: And do they get it right away?

DT: Oh sure. Yes, they get it because they want in and they want to be part of it. The point is though, that the newcomers are not clones of the guys that were there before. Each is his own man. So they’re their own men, their own women and that’s what the deal is. The point of Pere Ubu is that there’s conflict, and that’s the point of the dark room methodology for this album... that nobody knows what’s going on here. You’re in a dark room with an object, and by touching only part of the object, you have to describe what it is. It’s usually an elephant or something. There’s too much artifice and Pere Ubu’s always been about destroying artifice. The guitarist has his idea, and the bass player naturally wants to go along with it. Well, I don’t want that cooperation. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock once said, the worst part of making movies is the actors. They screw everything up. I believe the worst part of the process of making music is the musicians. They screw everything up! They screw it up by wanting to cooperate with one another, by wanting to have a nice tidy package at the end of it. I like to work with people who do things in a way so there’s not a tidy package at the end. There’s conflict and resolve, and I’m the conductor, and I see all the different pieces, and I see how all those pieces can be made to fit together and to tell a story that has integrity and is under nobody’s control. I don’t have any more control over it than anybody else. I write the words to tell a certain story, but the guitar player is working under a totally different agenda. The bass player, totally different, and on and on and on. So my job, as the conductor is to take all of that and find the one place where it all fits together, and that’s the story.

GM: It seems like these musicians have the opportunity to really be creative and let loose without having any sort of clamps imposed on them. Is that a fair assumption?

DT: Yes, that’s the idea of Pere Ubu is that there are very few clamps. Everybody is encouraged. That doesn’t mean they’re going to get their way. (chuckles) Everybody fights for their idea, and if you’re not willing to do that, then the idea isn’t worth it, isn’t worth bothering with. It is, to some degree, a process of natural selection. The weak are less preserved at that point.

GM: Still, we have to think that there is some degree of intimidation. They’re encouraged to be creative but they still have to please you. You’re the guy after all. At some point, they aim to please, and that in itself might be stifling because they’re aiming to please you. They want to impress, to show off. Do you have to talk them down from that point.

DT: Well no. There’s a triple rule that governs everything. And this is the most misunderstood rule, because it implies something that’s the opposite of what it’s implying. There’s a standard that’s the opposite of what you think. The rule is that David is always right, even when he’s wrong. Even when he’s wrong, he’s right. So it requires some thinking about because it’s the opposite of what you think it is. The point is that, yeah, I throw curve balls at people. The moment anybody starts getting comfortable with any particular moment in Pere Ubu, I throw a curve ball right at their head. They have to hang in there. “This ball is heading right for my head at the moment, but it’s going to curve down over the plate.” So as it gets closer and closer, you have three nanoseconds to react before you get a beaner. They stand in there. “This one’s going over the plate, I know it.” That’s the deal. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a damn genius. I don’t know. I don’t think I am.

GM: Maybe you are.

DT: Well, maybe I am and they ought to put me in the damn Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or give me an award or something. I have these moments that will be the last moments I have on earth I’m sure. One of them was about five years ago. Van Dyke Parks introduced me to Brian Wilson and Van Dyke said to Brian Wilson, “Brian, I want to introduce you to David Thomas, the other American genius.” You get told something like that and you can dwell on that sort of nonsense. I’m a guy that follows the system, and I know what the system is. I have faith in the system, and so I just sit there and follow the methodology. Wherever it goes. The only thing that Pere Ubu can be credited with — and this goes for the old members and the new members as well — is that in the early 1970s, we saw the manifest destiny of rock music, running from Ike Turner to Elvis Presley to Brian Wilson to the Velvet Underground to the introduction of the analog synthesizer and abstract sound. We saw this as a straight line heading right for us, and we were paying attention. This is the only thing that we can be credited with. We were paying attention. We saw this thing was happening, that it was coming towards us. Like a bus coming to the bus stop. We were standing at the bus stop and we got on the bus. That’s it. That what I/we can be credited with. Paying attention.

GM: Clearly, it seems like you’re still on that journey. As you said earlier, there’s no clearcut destination. And after 40 years. you’re still in pursuit.

DT: What do you want me to do? Do you want me to quit? I don’t know. I thought everyone was supposed to do that. That’s how young and stupid we were as youngsters. We thought this was what we were supposed to do. This is why we all gravitated to rock music, by coming into young manhood, making a mark in the world as an expression of art or whatever. Most young people did gravitate into rock music as opposed to sculpture or painting or novel writing or even jazz at that point. It was a hot road, this was the pinnacle, this was the ticket... so I have not been dissuaded from that point of view.

GM: What was the idea behind the need to launch into a solo career then?

DT: I think the point of that was really simple. It wasn’t even my idea. Jeff Travis from Rough Trade (Records) said, “You ought to make a solo record.” He asked me, “Who is the one guitarist in the world you’d like to work with? Just say it.” Of course, I immediately said Richard Thompson. Because in Cleveland, where we lived at the time, Richard Thompson in the early ‘70s was Mr. Guitar God. Along with Clapton or Lou Reed or whoever, it was Richard Thompson. So we put an album together. I discovered I liked working with different people, working in different methods, doing something totally elsewise. So the solo thing allowed e to work with different people and to work in different ways, and use different rules and different methods. I don’t make solo records at all any more, but I do lots of solo projects where I work with people who aren’t in Pere Ubu, and with people in Pere Ubu who are working in a totally different methodology. There’s a Pere Ubu Moon Unit.; it’s a pioneering ranger unit which rushes out ahead and tries different crazy ideas and deconstructs things. We were deconstructing the music on this album about two months ago at some festivals in Europe before the album even came out. And there’s a Pere Ubu film unit, where we do live soundtracks to films, classical grade B movies. I did a project where I had a band for three songs consisting of Steve Earle and David Johansen on guitar, Van Dyke Parks on accordion, Percy Heath on bass and Phillip Glass on piano. This is what you call fun. It’s like working with brilliant people the way you want them to work. I’d say to Van Dyke, “Vamp on this.” Then Johnasen is doing this thing. I get to ask Phillip Glass, “What kind of boogie are you going to play here?” I like doing all that stuff.

GM: It seems like such an unlikely combination.

DT: It worked pretty damn good. The problem is not the will. It’s the time.

GM: So what was the meeting with BrianWilson like? It must have been interesting to say the least.

DT: Those kind of meetings are always awkward, because what the hell are you going to say? Van Dyke introduced me and I said something like, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Wilson.” I’ve never been good at meeting people, especially some I admire, It’s like, “It’s an honor, sir.”

GM: Do you think he was aware of who you are?

DT: I don’t know. Probably not. He’s Brian Wilson. Why is he going to know who I am? I have no idea. Does it matter? Give me a break. What does he need to say. That’s sort of my attitude about meeting him. There’s nothing I can ask him. There’s nothing I’d want to ask him. Everything he needs to say, he’s said.