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LAist Interview: David Thomas of Pere Ubu
The band Pere Ubu emerged from Cleveland, Ohio at the precise midpoint of the 1970s, as the members of proto-punk heavyweights Rocket From The Tombs went their separate ways before even making a record. Half of that band took the driving, relentless Stooge-like intensity with them and went on to start the Dead Boys. The two that would become Ubu, Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner (August 22, 1952 - June 22, 1977), instead chose to keep it weird, follow their most extreme instincts and make rock and roll that sounded like their own lives. The series of self-released 7-inch singles they produced in 1976 form a body of work that, still to this day, sounds utterly unlike anything you've heard. Often touted as influential, and periodically covered, those early songs have never been successfully ripped off. Their whole trip is so complete, and so absurd, it’s hard to imagine any other band could ever swallow it whole, let alone spit it back out.
Over the next five years, Ubu would release five of the most fearlessly odd and riotously enjoyable albums of the era, laying the ground for what would be called post-punk in advance of most actual punk. Following a five-year hiatus in the mid-1980s, the band returned to active duty and has been steadily mutating and shape-shifting ever since, including several lineups with Thomas as the only original member. Never popular in any sense of the term, they’ve nonetheless maintained a low level of interest for a really long time. As Thomas notes with pride on the band's website, “No other band can come close to our failure- to- longevity ratio.”
They could be difficult listening at times, even for their most ardent fans, but their most unhinged moments are made listenable by the joy and sense of discovery that are evident in every one of the records. And they've kept evolving. At Ubu’s last area appearance, at UCLA in early 2003, right after an unexpected and surprisingly righteous Rocket From The Tombs reunion, they played a powerful set of mostly new music that reminded everyone that, whatever the accomplishments of the past, they’re still moving forward without disgracing themselves.
Though Thomas has broadly labeled his would-be colleagues of the original punk movement as “reactionaries”, he’s also stated that the band’s latest album, Long Live Pere Ubu, is a “juvenile assault” and thus, the first true punk record to have been made since 1979. Not exactly MRR Scene Report material, the album is a rock opera based on "Ubu Roi", the Alfred Jarry play from 1896 that became a dada-era classic and whose lead character gave the band its name. Thomas is the voice of anti-hero Pere Ubu, who decides to take out King Wenceslas of Poland so he can wear the king's big sombrero (which is already funny, because what's the one thing you know about King Wenceslas? That he was the good King Wenceslas.) Sarah Jane Morris from the Communards sings the role of his plotting wife, Mere Ubu, while other band members make appearances throughout. There's also a radio play of the first half, featuring songs from the album, available as a free download from the band’s website, www.hearpen.com, which comes highly recommended. It’s a funny play, filled with burp and fart jokes in fine French tradition, and Ubu’s music fits the low, bawdy action perfectly. The dialogue is skillfully recorded cartoon-style, tight and fast with a great sense of comic timing.
Thomas spoke with LAist about the new album, the re-emergence of Rocket From The Tombs with brand new music, and other ponderous issues via email. We made sure to review the "War And Peace" re-write that they call their FAQ pagethoroughly, which immediately knocked our question list down to one and a half, but after considerable head-scratching, managed to obtain some (hopefully) new information, which seems only right for a band that’s still plumbing the creative depths, damn the consequences.
What was your first impression of Los Angeles upon visiting the city?
That was a long time ago. 1978? We stayed at the standard rock motel of the time. Can't remember the name but it was infamous and seedy. There was a pool. Tom Verlaine had his picture taken floating in it fully clothed. My impressions have always circled the same axis. One trip I think to myself, This place is great; I could move out here quite happily. The next trip I think to myself, I never want to come here again; I gotta get out of this place... NOW!
When did you first decide to write a piece of music involving Ubu Roi?
It was the summer of 2007. I was at a party for Brian Wilson or someone like that at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The musical director, Glenn Max, who I'd known since his Knitting Factory days, asked me to do an adaptation. My response had always been up to then,"No - I have nothing I want to do with the play and there's no reason to do something just because you can." However, I had been working on certain conceptual ideas for the next Ubu album and it dawned on me that an adaptation would, actually, be a perfect vehicle. Glenn's parting words to me were, "Bring me the head of Ubu Roi." At the same party Sarah Jane Morris came up to me and said she'd always wanted to sing with me. That stuck in my mind and some months later I sent her the demos and she fell in love with the songs and material. The only woman who had done something similar was Linda Thompson, who, as you might know, I then went on to also work with. I'm a sucker for women who come up to me and say things like, "I wish I could sing like you," as Linda did, or "I've always wanted to sing with you," as Sarah did.
Do you expect that "Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi" might enter the realm of theatrical repertoire and be performed by others in the future like, dare I make the comparison, The Who's Tommy or Zappa's Joe's Garage?
Doubt it. Many of the songs were constructed so that they make no "musical" sense. Musician friends who I gave advance copies to came back with responses along the lines of, What the hell is going on?!? One of the goals was to create songs dependent on organic time, totally ignoring "mathematical / logical" structure. There are lots of dropped beats, dropped measures, conflicting time patterns, non-logical structures. To learn the damn thing would be a nightmare. (The goal of organic time is to create musical structures that FEEL natural to the listener but are actually idiosyncratic to the singer and song.) As well, our adaptation calls for the band itself to do everything - play, sing character voices, act, dance, build the props, etc. Few bands have the chutzpah, or unique personnel, to do it.
Has the pursuit of your creativity become harder or easier with the passage of time?
Creativity has never been the problem. Getting paid has always been the problem. Long ago we decided to ignore the question of getting paid. Just do it. And if what you're doing has true value and content the money will take care of itself... at least to enough of a degree to keep on going. It's worked since 1975.
Do you still believe there's "too much music in the land"? You wrote that lyric during the vinyl era, when people still needed to go to considerable effort and expense to get their ideas pressed and printed. Has the proliferation of do-it-yourselfers on the internet polluted the landscape or levelled the playing field?
"Leveling the playing field" is a euphemism for lowering the level of expectations. I am an elitist. Music is a nearly masonic craft. Self- expression should be left to the professionals - we are uniquely trained and emotionally equipped to bear the bitter disappointment. Remember the motto we had posted at Suma for decades (until someone stole it off the wall): Self-expression is Evil.
What was it like having Wayne Kramer as your guitarist for one night? And are there recordings? It sounds explosive.
I learned everything I need to learn about rock music from Kick Out The Jams. It was a great thrill to me personally. And he's a nice guy. We recorded it but I don't know if anything will ever come of it.
During the Rocket From The Tombs resurgence a few years ago, was there any discussion about the possibility of the group writing new music?
Over the years we've written a number of new songs. We recorded three earlier this year and something will be coming out probably at the turn of the year.
The last time I saw you in LA, you mentioned that you always write your set lists in alphabetical order. I was curious, if you wrote a new song that turned out to be the obvious, perfect encore number, would you be tempted to title it "ZYZX" or something, just to preserve tradition?
That would be cheating. You can't cheat the system. Adopt the system or not - we don't always use it ourselves - but don't try to scam the order of the universe.
The Unknown Instructors' second album is perhaps the only time I've heard you "sit in", stepping into somebody else's group. What did you get out of that that might be different from your usual efforts?
I work quite often with other groups of musicians. Done many Hal Wilner things. There's nothing really different about it. I do what I do. Sorry, not much of an answer but the truth is often that way.