Q&A With David Thomas, Pere Ubu’s Prime Mover

Pere UBU--SLASH_magazine-covers--september
David Thomas of Pere Ubu by Melanie Nissen from the cover of Slash volume two #8, September 1979

Stampone_Byline_AvatarBY DAVID R. STAMPONE Among the things that have remained consistent about Pere Ubu over the course of the seminal “avant garage” rock group’s 40+ years: making good music; being unpredictable; not sounding like anybody else. Nor do their records sound alike, starting with a brace of landmark art-punk albums released in 1978, The Modern Dance and Dub Housing. This applies through to the latest Pere Ubu album, 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo, released in September. David Thomas is the Cleveland band’s vocalist, chief songwriter and lone original member. His is a voice like no other, expressively warbling, sarcastically musing, sometimes howling, always telling tales that may or may not be about what they seem. Phawker recently brokered a phone chat with Thomas before Pere Ubu shoved off on their MonkeyNet Tour, which brings them to Johnny Brenda’s on Tuesday night. Informative highlights:

About the new album, 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo, and it’s rugged, often blues-based rockin’ sound (which Thomas has quipped is like “The James Gang teaming up with Tangerine Dream. Or something like that.”):

DAVID THOMAS: I had the idea that I would like this to be a more blue-collar Pere-Ubu-20-Years-Front-Coverrock record. I don’t know what blue-collar is anymore or if there is such a thing but that’s what I wanted: something that was very American and had that Midwestern thing to it. Not that I’ve ever not done Midwestern but I wanted it to. Every album is a different part of what Pere Ubu is, highlighted. And I wanted to break one of the oldest Pere Ubu rules, which is it’s a one-guitar band, so we have two guitarists; at one point we had three. [The touring lineup includes Thomas, guitarists Gary Siperko and Kristof Hahn, bassist Michele Temple, drummer Steve Mehlman and Robert Wheeler on analog synths and theremin.]

On the importance of not trying to recreate the albums live note-for-note: 

DAVID THOMAS:  An album is not a finished moment – it’s not the destination. It’s just a picture of a moment of a constantly moving stream. The long traditions of Pere Ubu in concert and Pere Ubu in studio are almost unrelated things. Studio production is something that is multi-layered. You should be able to discover new things over time – it’s meant to be contemplated to a degree. Even a Ted Nugent album is meant to be contemplated versus Ted Nugent live, which is just, beat you over the head. Pere Ubu [live] is visceral, it’s of the moment; you take chances and some of the chances work and some you screw up. That to me is the exciting part of live shows: it’s all happening right there as opposed to much of what you get live these days, which is ordinary and locked down and trying to reproduce the record exactly. What an audience wants is to see something that’s unique to their evening and will never be reproduced.

On effectively quoting Frank Zappa’s song title “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” (off The Mothers of Invention’s 1967 album Absolutely Free) in the new Ubu album’s lively 1st track, “Monkey Bizness”: 

DAVID THOMAS: It’s part of the formula of the song. If somebody said something in a song in the past that [works], I’ll use it. I will quote Zappa. [He] kind of encapsulated in that phrase a certain understanding of a certain attitude and a certain point of view. That’s how we create pop songs. You don’t reinvent the wheel every time. Zappa said it much better than I can. But I can put that in one of our songs at exactly the right place where I want people to think. So you get more data flowing down the line. Also, it’s really PU USA 2 Kiersty Boonalmost essential to be aware of the fact that Pere Ubu is very likely to be saying the opposite of what you think. That’s the case with Zappa and a lot of the best artists: there’s a certain question over exactly what they were saying. That’s a problem I have in my life: when I’m telling a joke, people think I’m being tragic, and when I’m writing something tragic, they think I’m being funny. I’m kind of used to that.

On writing songs and if he consciously fashions some for Pere Ubu and others for Rocket From The Tombs (Thomas’s other, even older group, which shares Ubu members drummer Steve Mehlman and guitarist Gary Siperko):  

DAVID THOMAS: No, not really – I just write and wherever the bus stops, if the bus is the Pere Ubu bus at the bus stop, I get on that; if it’s the Rocket bus, I get on that. There’s a certain delineation but it’s nothing that I can explain, it’s just a feeling I have about something. Like most musicians will tell you, some songs are like gifts that come along and are done in 10 minutes and then others you spend the week trying to figure it out. It happens in every way.

On having a song called “Funk 49” on the new album that indeed does have somewhat of a heartland boogie vibe recalling the James Gang’s 1970 hit “Funk #49”:  

DAVID THOMAS: Yeah, I never liked that pound sign. I always feel if it’s a good song title, if there’s a reason for it, I’ll use it. But I know Jimmy Fox [James Gang’s co-founder/ drummer], he’s a local guy from Cleveland and doesn’t live far from the studio [where Ubu recorded] and still has ties to the studio. So out of courtesy to him, I said, ‘Look you can’t copyright a song title’ – just establishing that with him right away – ‘but I really don’t want to call this that if you’re going to be upset about it.’ So I sent him the song and he said ‘Yeah I think I got it – I think I understand why you called it that.’ Whether he was being polite or not, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter: he loved the song and he said ‘Call it “Funk 49”’- so, it’s cool. They used the same engineer in the same studio we did and the James Gang drum head is on the wall. They were part of the Cleveland thing: if you grew up in Cleveland, you had to know the James Gang.