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Pere Ubu/ David Thomas interview: "there's always a way around stupidity"

Pere Ubu #2, Vancouver circa 1980, by Bev Davies
5 December 2013

(Photo of Pere Ubu by bev davies, Vancouver 1980, on the tour that would later be documented in the film Urgh: A Music War. Note: I begin with a rant that is tangential to Pere Ubu. I promise: we will get to Pere Ubu eventually.)

If I were to nominate a single song as the finest achievement, the single most important moment, most decisive gesture, most powerful, durable, irreducibly brilliant song in American punk, I would pick “Sonic Reducer.” It’s been covered by a host of bands, from Jim Foetus to fictional Canadian punk legends Hard Core Logo to a surprisingly believable Pearl Jam . Versions are online by bands as diverse as the Dictators , the Vibrators and Guns N’Roses (featuring Tommy Stinson on vocals!). It has lyrics that stand as a punk manifesto, powerful and straightforward, and yet at the same time mysterious, since what exactly “sonic reduction” entails is something each listener and performer has to theorize for themselves. It probably has something to do with “reducing” music, perhaps by a process of boiling, to its very essence – something raw and primitive (but don’t ask me what a “dull machine” is!). Covering it in performance – here in Vancouver, I’ve seen it whipped out by everyone from Randy Rampage to Duvallstar to The Strugglers – is a way of situating yourself in tradition, of acknowledging your heritage, of wrapping the flag of punk around yourself; it’s also a great idea, since it seems to be a very hard song to fuck up.

What many people may still not realize is that the song is not originally a Dead Boys song. While Dead Boys guitarist, Gene O’Connor – better known to the world as Cheetah Chrome – was half the team that wrote it (and helpfully provides an instructional video in performing it, here ) the lyrics are in fact the creation of one David Thomas, during his time as Crocus Behemoth, singer for Rocket From The Tombs. I don’t think that’s Thomas singing the lead on the original recording of it, captured “live from punk ground zero,” in Cleveland, 1975. But since that band re-formed, if there’s a decisive vocal performance of the song, it has to be his – and not just because he wrote the words! (Note that a terrific studio version of it can be found on the Rocket Redux album, which every self-respecting punk should own; last I checked, the double vinyl was still fairly easy to find – as is Barfly, RFTT’s 2011 follow up LP of all new material).

As I say, this is all only tangentially related to Pere Ubu – along with the Dead Boys, the other band that sprang from the wreckage of RFTT – though of course, the concept of sonic reduction makes its way into “Final Solution,” Pere Ubu’s classic 1976 single , which has also seen a few cover versions in its day, is also a pretty important punk song, and is also based on an RFTT original , though Ubu’s version greatly improves on it. It is unlikely – though not unheard of – that Ubu will do “Sonic Reducer” during their upcoming West Coast tour. But the song places Ubu in an interesting perspective: though their recent music – the album, Lady From Shanghai, their fourteenth studio release – is vastly more complex, more artful, and less immediately identifiable as punk than “Sonic Reducer,” there’s a lineage, from that gesture, first made in 1975, through to this one, enough so that I tried to squeak in some questions about it during the following interview with David Thomas, which took place over email earlier this week. (He didn’t answer all my questions, mind you; I have left the ones he ignored – “what the heck is a ‘dull machine,’ anyway?” out of what follows). Any self-respecting music fan who has not seen Pere Ubu live owes it to themselves to go to catch one of these shows, and to ponder the weird brilliance of Lady From Shanghai. An advisable entry point can be found here – though if you don’t know their classics, Datapanik In The Year Zero, The Modern Dance, Dub Housing are all essential, as is, in different ways, The Tenement Year. (I do not know which late-period Ubu albums will be regarded as classics but I like Ray Gun Suitcase and St. Arkansas quite a bit). In addition to being one of the very greatest, most creative, most unique American bands (I place them only a notch or two below the Velvet Underground or Captain Beefheart – they’re that important, that unique), the band plays North America very infrequently. If they’ve played Vancouver since I caught them on September 25th, 1988 (with John Cale opening!), it must have been when I was living out of town. Even if your fandom for Pere Ubu is not yet ravenous, it’s better to catch them unprepared than miss what might be your only chance to see them.

Pere Ubu "Diskmuide", courtesy
(Pere Ubu European lineup, by Alexandre Horn, courtesy

One note: David Thomas is a somewhat eccentric, somewhat intimidating guy, whom I don’t have any particular insight into. I assume he feels some affinity for Alfred Jarry – the French playwright whose late 19th century play Ubu Roi gave Pere Ubu their name, and inspired a recent collaborative Ubu project, Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi, featuring animations by the Brothers Quay, and starring Thomas himself as the titular Ubu. An excerpt is here. The name “Pere Ubu” – at least, according to Barbara Wright, in the introduction to the New Directions edition of Jarry’s play – is derived from a mocking nickname given one of Jarry’s teachers, a Monsieur Hébert. We read in Wright’s introduction that Jarry was “stubborn, shy, arrogant, incredibly proud, a rebel who liked to show off but was fundamentally mild and good-tempered… he asserted himself without embarrassment and with a perfect disdain of convention… he neither wished nor was able to adapt himself to the world as it was. He ignored the conventions of life. He refused to compromise with something for which he felt nothing but scorn.” Aspects of this description may well resonate against some of Thomas’ answers to my questions, below – though he does seem perhaps a bit better adapted to the world as we find it than Jarry was; there’s a rather tough-minded pragmatism to some of his answers, though this jars against the very strange, unique, playfully surreal nature of some of his music…

While I would normally edit down, prior to publication, the somewhat long, unwieldy questions I threw at him, it seems important to show what Thomas is and is not responding to in what follows, so the following is a nearly exact reproduction, including questions that he only answered partially, but minus questions he didn’t answer at all (follow-up questions are identified as such and inserted into the text at the relevant point). Readers are directed to the website for further clarity. Chinese Whispers, the “missing manual” to Lady From Shanghai, might be a good place to start; a lengthy excerpt, which explains some of the history of Thomas’ working method, can be found online, here.

David Thomas Interview

Why call the album The Lady From Shanghai? Is there any particular relationship to the Orson Welles film? My favourite Welles, by the way, even though it’s been so meddled-with by producers.

This is covered on the website.

Is the Chambers Brothers sample on “Musicians Are Scum” the first overt, recognizable sample in a Pere Ubu song (other than “The Book is on the Table,” that is – I mean, a sample of another musician’s song). Did you sample the cowbell as well as the vocals? Maybe you could explain the background of that choice – your feelings about sampling, any interactions or opinions you might have on Lester Chambers, any royalties he’s receiving, and where exactly the decision to juxtapose that particular sample with those lyrics came from…? (Which came first?).

It wasn’t a sample – neither the drum nor the vocals.

Follow-up: Re: the Chambers Brothers, if that’s not a sample, what is it? (And it was a reference to the hardships of Lester Chambers and the sort of apocalyptic situation facing musicians today, wasn’t it? Because otherwise I guess I don’t understand the song.)

It’s Steve playing cowbell and snare rim shot.

Is your sense of the music industry these days fairly apocalyptic, or is it mellowing, or…? You seemed fairly skeptical/ cynical about it a few years ago, for instance, quoting Hunter S. Thompson on the music business [actually a misquote, apparently] on the Ubu Projex website and saying you were going to give up singing and become a DJ, to beat an absurd tax that was being levied in Europe…

My attitude to the music biz is no different now than it has ever been. It’s a business. It’s up to each musician to decide on how he/she is going to deal with it. Record companies are not philanthropic organizations. They mean to sell records. That said, many, maybe most, people in the business have some sort of passion for music. It’s perfectly possible to navigate a course that gets you what you want. Depends on what you want – if it’s pop stardom and lots of money then don’t blame the record company if it all gets nasty and cheap.

David Thomas, "Red Apron", courtesy
(David Thomas by Simon Fowler, courtesy

On that topic, a rather unpopular tax affecting touring international musicians and smaller venues has recently been put in place in Canada, too. Feel free to weigh in on how that is affecting Pere Ubu’s tour!

It doesn’t affect us at the moment because we play venues that are exempt/outside the tax. It’s up to the citizens and politicians of Canada to decide what they want – we deal with the consequences and if the consequences are that you get only stadium acts coming in to drain away the economy… well, there you go.

Pere Ubu onstage, courtesy
(Pere Ubu onstage in Europe by Alexandre Horn)

Sorry to hear about the AFM rejection of Visas for Keith Moliné and Gagarin. What will the final US lineup be? (By the way, do current band members live in different countries? It already must be complex/ daunting to mount tours of North America, without such hassles….). How do you end up re-rehearsing this material, now that you have a changed lineup, spread over two different continents?

The lineup for the west coast is the same as in September for the east coast: me, Dave Cintron (guitar), Robert Wheeler, Michele Temple and Steve Mehlman. In that lineup only I live in the UK. There is now a separate band for UK/Europe which is fluid. All Ubu line-ups will become fluid. Over the decades I have assembled a community of musicians that can be drawn on and constituted specifically for whatever the musical vision is. This has been a long term project that had nothing to do with political or economic restrictions. It just so happens that it also helps get around those ever-increasing restrictions. There’s always a way around stupidity. Part of that process was also dedicated to eliminating/ minimizing rehearsal. I hate rehearsing. It’s a waste of my talent. More often than not the musicians get together without me. Also when you work with a group of people over decades they get to know each other.

David Thomas and Steve Mehlman, courtesy
(David Thomas and Steve Mehlman, “Heir,” photo by Alexandre Horn, courtesy

Some years ago, I was startled to see Rocket From The Tombs driving away from Richards on Richards in a not-so-roomy rented van, which seemed like it was likely pretty uncomfortable, but you remarked at the time via email that the band was content with its methods… do you still tour like that? It seemed like you were placing economics vastly above creature comforts…

Yes we still tour that way. The purpose of touring is not to have a holiday – it’s to play as many venues as possible in as short a period of time as possible and to make as much money as possible within those constraints. Everybody in the band would rather ‘suffer’ discomfort than waste money on comfort. We never tour with any crew other than a soundman. A couple times in the past we toured with a larger crew but it seemed to be a waste of money – we can haul our own equipment and set it up; we can share the tour managing duties ourselves perfectly easily; etc. Why pay someone else to carry an amp? It is also in some ways a ‘philosophical’ decision – the method focuses the mind on the job at hand.

Do you have different feelings about European versus American audiences? Are they substantially different? (I haven’t been to Europe, but I lived in Japan for awhile, and the audiences there are VERY different from the ones here – they listen much more attentively, which is good, but in one or two cases I saw, they didn’t applaud at all until the very end of the concert, which might be daunting to performers who are used to audience feedback!). Would you rather an attentive, quiet audience or an expressive, vocal one? Do you have peeves about bad audience behaviour?

All audiences, all nights, are different. The audience is there simply to observe. It doesn’t matter whether they applaud every song or at the end or at all. It has nothing to do with the music. We are not on stage for them. We are there to make music in the presence of an Observer. This is all made clear if you have a fundamental understanding of Einsteinian Relativity.

David Thomas, "Wave", courtesy
(David Thomas by Simon Fowler, “Wave”, courtesy

I remember reading provocative quotes from you – and I’m sorry, I can’t pin down where – where you made statements about the vitality of art produced in free market societies, as opposed to art that is state funded. You came across as a bit of a libertarian. I try not to take anything you say at face value – I think of you as a provocateur – but I wonder if you actually still feel that way? (Because if so, there’s, umm, some irony to the band being mostly based in Europe these days, since state support of the arts is prevalent over there… and in Canada, I might add).

Yes, I still feel that way. I’ll take the dirty socialized art money but I prefer crummy little clubs where there’s a promoter who is risking his own money to put the show on. I feel no urge to thank an audience. I thank the promoter – as should the audience.

Follow up re “dirty socialized money” – is this less a matter of political principle for you, and more a matter of personal pride as an artist?

I think the government has no business in the arts at all.

Follow up: do you not think it valid, in countries that cannot compete on equal footing with the American entertainment industry, like Canada, to support their artists through government funding? I doubt there’s a Canadian musician, filmmaker, writer, or novelist who hasn’t received some government support along the way, be it scholarships, grants, fellowships, things like the Canada Council.

No, see above.

Follow-up: In a purely market driven entertainment landscape, which is mostly what we see in the States, doesn’t that lead to the proliferation of Miley Cyruses and Britney Spears and other such phenomenon? Isn’t it bad for art?

No, it’s good for them.

Jack Rabid was telling me that in an interview you did with him in the early 1990’s, you predicted the death of the CD and the sharing of music via digital transfer – years before Napster and such. (I’m not sure if the part about musicians not getting paid was part of your prediction). What is your feeling about the internet’s effect on music these days? Where do you see things going?

The internet has had a cataclysmic effect on the business. The music has been affected by musicians’ reaction to that effect. It doesn’t have to be that way – each musician is responsible for the good or bad decisions he/she makes. If he/she succumbs to the industry then that is up to him/her. As for the future, it will get uglier. The future always gets uglier until someone/ something breaks it. The musician can control his art. That’s all.

David Thomas "Outside the Bunker", courtesy
(David Thomas “Outside the Bunker,” photo by Alexandre Horn, courtesy of

San Francisco-based avant-gardist Bob Ostertag, a few years ago, decided that in fact the music business had never done him any great favors and he might as well just put his whole body of recorded work (that he owned the rights to) online for free download on his website. Which he did – more on that here. It seems a fairly different approach to the one Ubu has taken. I’m under the impression that you police copyright fairly regularly, or did so at one point. I wonder if you’d care to comment, though – on Ostertag’s decision, on the uses and misuses of the internet to promote artists – or on things like YouTube?

I don’t like YouTube but that’s mainly because I think a live performance filmed is like pornography. The live performance and the studio performance (ie recorded and like unto the YouTube experience) are two different things – so different as to be only coincidentally related. A live performance is meant to exist only in the moment and be gone forever. This is one of the real ‘problems’ with things – the blurring of those lines. Now we release quite happily recordings of live shows but we invariably choose to release only relatively lo fi recordings that simulate the chaos or uncertainty of a live experience. As for giving it away, I am utterly opposed to it. Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. Free isn’t worth much, is it?

Curious how YOU listen to music – do you have an MP3 player? CDs? Do you spin vinyl? Do you ever listen to streamed music on sites like Youtube? Have you ever had recourse to file sharing or torrent technology? Do you think these things have any positive potential – do you have any sympathy at all, even conflicted, with the so-called free culture movement?

I listen to CDs and cassettes and sometimes the radio. I don’t have a working turntable. I have had an iPod from the day they came out. I don’t listen to anything on the internet. I have no sympathy at all for the ‘free culture movement.’ Whatever that may be. I play music for free if a friend asks me to do a gig – money is not the issue (tho of course I’m always happy to be paid). But they are friends – people I know. I don’t give it away to strangers. If you run across a plumber who will give it away let me know.

Re: cynicism: I want to ask you about a curious moment. After the Vancouver RFTT show, you were sitting exhausted and approachable, interacting with fans. I asked you to sign two gig posters – one for me, one for a friend who was with me. You signed both – but with a completely indecipherable squiggle that did not, however I looked at it, resemble either “David Thomas” or “Crocus Behemoth” or any other names or words I could discern. And in fact, neither signature resembled the other. So did you think you were being exploited, that I was a dealer or something, or are you generally disinclined to give autographs, or do you just sign everything with an indecipherable squiggle?

I just sign everything with an indecipherable squiggle. Sorry.

RFTT David Thomas "squiggle"

Feel free to ignore this question if it’s intrusive or unwelcome, but at that RFTT show, you didn’t seem to be in great shape – you were walking with a cane, and pounding back beers with some fervour while you performed. I actually got the impression that you were in a fairly self-destructive space that night (though you were getting off on it, obviously, and it made for a memorable concert). Footage I’ve seen of recent Ubu shows suggests that you’re in a very different space these days – you look much healthier, and the cane seems to be gone… have you been making substantial lifestyle changes in recent years, that account for the difference, or do you have radically different personalities onstage depending on whether you’re performing with RFTT or Ubu?

My health and energy levels vary across a tour. Sometimes things are hard and the way I deal with it is to have a few drinks on stage. I rarely drink off stage these days. It’s purely to focus the mind or to un-focus the mind – whatever is required of the moment. If I’m belting them back on stage it’s because there’s very little time available to focus/unfocus and I’d damn well better get on with it.

I’m getting tired of answering questions…

Incidentally, have you seen (Canadian punk mockumentary) Hard Core Logo? It has a terrific, if fake, performance of “Sonic Reducer” at one point – and, ironically enough, was shot by Danny Nowak, punk vocalist turned cinematographer, whose former band the Spores, used to cover “Sonic Reducer” at the very venue where he shot that scene (the Town Pump, also now defunct).

Haven’t seen it.

I know other bands have covered Pere Ubu, and that early RFTT sets had plenty of covers. But I’m curious – has Pere Ubu ever done a cover? (I can’t think of any from the records, off the top of my head, but I’ve missed a couple of albums. Or maybe live…? By the way, do you have any favourite covers of Ubu songs, like, say, Mission of Burma‘s Heart of Darkness ?

We’ve done “Master of the Universe”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “Heroin”, “Pushin’ too Hard”, “Surfer Girl”.

Just curious if you have any thoughts about Lou Reed, given his recent passing, and/or the music of the Velvet Underground….? Did you ever see the VU live? RFTT used to cover “Foggy Notion,” but in those days, as far as I know, that was an unreleased, live-only, “bootleggy” song… how did you first encounter it?

Never saw the VU. All musicians of our scene were well acquainted with VU bootlegs in the early 70s. By the time Mott the Hoople ‘s cover of “Sweet Jane” came out the Cle bands had already beating it into the dirt with repetition to the point that it was naff to actually play it – like doing “Smoke on the Water” or something.

Pere Ubu circa 1978, "Bighair", courtesy
(Pere Ubu “Bighair” circa 1978, location and photographer unknown, courtesy

I gather Allen Ravenstine and Robert Wheeler have collaborated recently, and are featured in the I Dream of Wires documentary (excerpt here). I had always assumed that you were the driving force behind much of Ubu’s conception of sound, which explains the (what seem to me, anyhow) similarities between Ravenstine and Wheeler’s approach to things, but maybe I’m wrong on this…? How innovative an approach to sound did Ravenstine have when you first started working with him, and how much free reign did he have as to how his contributions to albums sounded? Did you direct Wheeler to play in a manner similar to Ravenstine’s…?

I was no more the driving force than anyone else. Ravenstine was his own man and had his own visions. Robert ‘grew up’ listening to Allen so that may account for the similarity as well as the fact they both played the same instrument.

Robert and Allen, provided by Robert Wheeler
Robert Wheeler and Allen Ravenstine, photo provided by Robert Wheeler

Note: Robert Wheeler, whom I corresponded with about other matters, adds: “Having heard Allen for years and playing the same instrument, the EML-101 synthesizer, makes for similar approach. I once heard David comment he thought Allen approached and played the synth more from an intellectual point of view. I was more passionate in my approach. I thought that was very fair.” Wheeler “used to see Ubu every week at the Pirates Cove for a number of years. Others applauded Tom’s gtr solos, I was transfixed to my seat listening to Allen.” Collaborations between Ravenstine and Wheeler will be available on the Ubu merch tables, in the form of two 12” 45’s and two CDs. And now back to the David Thomas interview:

Ubu in Berlin 2, photo Alexandre Horn, courtesy

Maybe a bit of a daft question, but – this indirectly relates to Ubu’s “Ice Cream Truck” and the “too much music in the land” lyric: I’m very curious: assuming you have a cellphone, what does your ringtone sound like? (I have always sort of wanted to get a ringtone based on On The Surface but have never bothered. It would make a great ringtone, though).

I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have a TV. I rarely answer my landline unless I know someone specific is calling.

What are your pastimes on the road? Do you take photos, read, catch up with friends, sightsee? Do you have any “road food” survival strategies? Are there any particular things you’re looking forward to doing this time out?

I have no pastimes on the road. I sit in the van staring straight ahead. I go to the venue and wait until I have to soundcheck. Afterwards I sit in the dressing room and wait for the show. People bring me food. I do the show. After the show I wait to go to the hotel. At the hotel I wait to go to bed. In the morning I wake up and go to the lobby to wait to get in the van. I don’t have a book or magazine or newspaper. I don’t watch TV. No radio or other music is allowed in the van. I don’t talk to anyone in the van. I wait and I sing.

Pere Ubu "Waiting", photo by Alexandre Horn, courtesy
Pere Ubu European lineup, “Waiting,” photo by Alexandre Horn, courtesy


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