Since forming in the mid-1970s out of the rubble of seminal Cleveland proto-punk band Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu has always been a band that has taken unconventional turns. Led by singer David Thomas, the band added analog synthesizers to its guitar-based rock music to create a sound that mirrored the industrial wasteland of the Cleveland of that era. Following a brief hiatus in the ’80s, Pere Ubu has continued to push musical boundaries with its recorded work, which has explored everything from somewhat traditional pop music to the outer reaches of experimental avant-garde sounds.
While the band doesn’t quite view it as returning to its roots, it is perhaps fitting that, nearly 35 years into its existence, it has revisited its origins with its latest record, “Long Live Père Ubu!” The album is based upon Ubu Roi, the 19th century absurdist play by pataphysician Alfred Jarry. It follows the rise and fall of title character Père Ubu, who becomes King of Poland. Taking the form of a sort of radio play, the record is literary and heady—even by Pere Ubu’s standards—resulting in a demanding, but ultimately rewarding listening experience.
I got in touch with Thomas at his home in England to discuss the new record and the current state of the band.
You’ve said that “Long Live Père Ubu!” is “the only punk record that’s been made in the last 30 years.” Do you have a definition for punk?
David Thomas: Well, it depends on which punk you’re asking me to define. If you’re asking me to define the mainstream view of punk, then it’s regressive and counterrevolutionary and stupid, you know, lowest common denominator. If you’re asking me to define what the “movement” meant at the time, it would be something that had to do with exploring new forms of creativity, of changing the boundaries of expression in the narrative voice. It had to do with moving rock music from the ’60s and early ’70s phase into a new phase that had to do with the use of sound as a narrative voice in its own right, which developed out of the introduction of synthesizers and music concrete and a lot of stuff that was going on in the ’60s, but then in the early ’70s began to be used by various people in new ways that had much more to do with its abstraction and its conceptualization.
And then I suppose in another way, what we’re talking about is something that, in the context of the times, was extraordinary in its desire to insult. If you look at where we’re living now, it’s in ways similar to what was going on in the mainstream in the late ’70s. Pop music hasn’t changed in 20 years. It used to be, when I was a child—not to have to go back and go, “Things were better when I was younger” or “Things were better in the past,” which I don’t believe—but at least in the past, pop fashion recycled every two to three years, completely. Whatever was fashionable two years, three years ago was totally overthrown. This wasn’t particularly admirable, because the transience of it all was irritating and superficial, but at least it moved. Nothing has moved in 20 years, particularly in black music, which used to be an engine of change and innovation. Black music is dead. It’s a corpse. It’s a rotting, stinking corpse.
In a lot of ways, 2009 is very analogous to 1975. It’s dead. I mean, who’s good in pop music anymore? I can’t think of anybody. It’s all anodyne, and everybody is afraid to say anything out of the ordinary. Unless it adheres to very strict, narrow, braindead, ideological doctrinal mainstream ideas, there’s nothing, nothing. Let me stress that again—nothing—that’s being said of meaning.
So do you think there’s a sense of apathy on the part of the artist?
DT: No, it’s fear. It’s cowardice. Nobody wants to insult anybody. Nobody wants to be seen as outside of a very narrow range of permitted points of view.
Culture and media have aligned themselves so that nothing is permitted. It’s Orwellian, it’s Newspeak. It’s all those things that are sort of cliches, but gee, they happened. The reasons for it would require a certain amount of time, and the analysis would require something beyond the point of a pop record. So those are reasons why I said that.
“Long Live Père Ubu!” is meant to be obnoxious, particularly the show version of it, what we call “Long Live Père Ubu—The Spectacle.” The theatrical thing, a show we’re doing in Europe, is really sort of unprecedented in rock music. All the various attempts in rock music to be theatrical are all pitifully inadequate compared to what we’ve done. The show—the play, as it were—is extremely obnoxious, and it’s meant to be, not just in a standard punk way. It’s very satirical and very bitter and biting.
I’ve seen it said that there’s no chance or accident in “Long Live Père Ubu!” Is this calculated approach to the project typical of the band, or was this a totally different approach than for previous records?
DT: No, no, it’s absolutely atypical. We always depend on chance, and we always leave room for that sort of thing to happen. But for this project, there’s a number of things that I wanted to accomplish. The project started before I determined that it was going to be Ubu Roi. I determined that for the next project, I wanted to use sound itself as a very specific narrative voice. I wanted to deal with this issue of the gaps between songs. They’ve always bugged the hell out of me. An album is 10, 12, whatever number of songs, and they all line up on a record, and there’s a little two second gap between each of them. This problem has been approached by various people in various ways over the years that I thought was to a greater or lesser degree a success, and I wanted to do something that attacked that issue again. Then it occurred to me that Ubu Roi would be an ideal vehicle for this, adapting a theatrical piece to a new way of approaching the music.
That required that, if you’re going to use sound that specifically, as if it were words, then you really had to just buckle down and not allow chance to be involved in any sense of the word. That’s one of the reasons why it was a very uncomfortable experience in a lot of ways, because we don’t work this way. I don’t work this way, but there’s no reason to keep doing something you’re comfortable with. At various points in your career, you have to do the thing that’s uncomfortable and you don’t want to do. That’s why it took two years. It was a brutal process of rejection, reworking, and on and on and on.
The album is one that has to be listened to as a whole to get the proper experience. Do you worry, in this present day of short attention spans and MP3 shuffling, that the effect of the album as a cohesive whole might get diluted?
DT: Really, the answer to the question is, once you determine you’re going to do a project in a certain way, it simply doesn’t matter what the rest of the world is doing. Forget it, screw ’em. Whatever the marketplace is, whatever the media is, if you’ve determined that it’s going to be constructed this way, then you just go ahead and do it. Pere Ubu has never particularly concerned itself about what everybody else is doing, what people are like, or how they go about their business in life.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that Pere Ubu records have always been quintessentially American albums. This album, at least on a literal level, takes place in Europe. Is this an American album, or is it something different?
DT: I don’t know. Clearly, Pere Ubu, which is a quintessentially American band, is named after a quintessentially French literary character. So, I can claim in my answer, if I was trying to be weaselly, something involving those issues. It’s an attack on do-gooderism. Do-gooderism is an international issue, and it’s something that’s American, but it’s French, and it’s German, and it’s English, and it’s whatever else it is. So, the answer to your question is, I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it, and, frankly, it’s too late now. It’s done. And even if it isn’t an American record in the great tradition of endless American records, that’s all one more reason to have done it. You can’t have a career that spans three decades and not break your own rules and not move outside your comfort zone. It’s irresponsible. Otherwise, you have a mini version of the problem with pop music within Pere Ubu. Well, we don’t do that. We’re ornery sons of bitches.
I’ve seen a press release circulating out there from Pere Ubu that says mankind has 50 days to prevent the sun from exploding and asking cash contributions be made to the character of Père Ubu. Should this be taken as a sign that the character is alive and well in the modern day?
DT: I don’t know. It’s just a piece of satire. Gordon Brown and everybody—everything is 50 days to prevent something from blowing up or falling apart. It was more a part of “Long Live Père Ubu—The Spectacle,” and I thought, “Oh, I’ll put out a press release,” because this is what Père Ubu, the character, would do. In fact, there’s a little bit of the original play that kind of hints at this, where Père Ubu talks about how he has plans to change the weather and things like that. It’s just what Père Ubu would do. He’d say, “I can fix it. Send me $500.” It’s very pataphysical.
Is there any music at the present time that you find to be particularly rewarding or enjoyable to listen to?
DT: Of course. This is why I hate the past, because it’s filled with failure, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not somebody that looks backward. I’m not somebody that says, “Oh, times were better.” I just simply don’t believe it, because 95 percent of music from the past is crap, and 95 percent of music from today is crap. It’s about the same percentage. I don’t really pay attention to anything popular, as it were, I’m just not interested. But there’s plenty of stuff that’s wonderful and fascinating. I’m not a curmudgeon about these things, I just don’t like pop. Radiohead and Coldplay and stuff like that drives me nuts. They play it at my local pub all the time, and I just want to scream.
How does living in England continue to affect the music and the workings of the band? Is this something you’ve settled into by now?
DT: Yeah, it sort of doesn’t matter because everybody’s spread all over anyway. Pere Ubu has never been a band that hangs out together. We’re not what you would call “buddies” or anything. We have deep respect and friendship and admiration for each other, but when the gig is done, we go our separate ways. So it doesn’t really effect things, other than slow things down slightly. But then we’re not into cranking out albums anymore, so it doesn’t matter.
Do you get back to Cleveland much, and do you have any thoughts on the current state of Cleveland and Ohio?
DT: I go back three, four times a year. I’m going back in a couple of weeks. This is a subject that’s fundamental to Pere Ubu albums for years now, which is the notion of a ghost town, living in a ghost town, and places that don’t exist, Erewhon, and on and on and on. The people of my generation and social group all sort of have this same feeling, that the place ceased to exist, that the universal vibration and Carnegie Bridge and the Aeronautical Shot Peening Company—all these monuments and landmarks of the Cleveland we loved and wrote so passionately about, the other side of the curtain of these things, all ceased to exist. They were “urban renewalized” and all that sort of stuff, but to us they still exist, and to us we still see them. That’s what I mean about living in a ghost town. What happens, and this began to happen in 1980, ’81, ’82, is that the real world and the town that you live in, the geography you live in, begin to diverge. They begin to separate. This is, I think, a very common feeling all over the world. It has to do with culture and the alienation of culture and what happens in a society where things become homogenized by the media and various mechanisms. It’s something that, wherever you go in the world, people feel the same thing. The world they live in in reality and the world of their spirit, as it were, or their home, no longer occupy the same space and the same time. This has to do maybe with multi-culturalism being forced on everybody. You can look at it any number of ways. Mainly, it’s just the alienation of culture.
I believe at one point, when asked about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, you said you’d trade it for a second baseman for the Indians. What would you trade it for now?
DT: A manager, an offensive line, a quarterback—I don’t know. I don’t mean to pick on the Hall of Fame. I’ve always found it sort of an alien concept. It’s part of this notion that rock music is somehow some passing fancy. I don’t understand why they don’t have a hall of fame for plumbers or something. There’s a tendency to look at rock & roll as some youth culture artifact stuck in a particular mindset that I disagree with. It’s no big deal.
Pere Ubu has always been on the forefront with new technologies. What are your thoughts on the current state of MP3 technology?
DT: Part of that concept of why we’re always fixing things is that the technology improves. And there’s a more fundamental idea that, to me, you never finish anything. When we were touring, I was constantly working on the play. However many versions of the theatrical piece that we’ve done, there are twice as many scripts that have been written. Nothing is ever finished. The albums are not a terminus, they’re just a snapshot of a journey. As far as the MP3 thing goes, to me it’s the same thing: the technology will improve. There’s long been the FLAC or lossless compression possibilities, which are fairly close. The problem with them is that you don’t want to waste your life telling people how to get them to work on iPods and things. But no, of course the technology will always improve. There’s no going back; the clock’s not going to swing back.
Am I happy with it? No. Was I happy with vinyl? No, I hated vinyl. If I have to choose between MP3 running at its maximum quality level and vinyl, I would take an MP3 any day. All those early records—I’ve tried to explain to people that we had these things mastered by the best in the business. And they would always come back, and we would always sit there and listen to them and go, “Aw, why did we put all that work in? It’s noisy, you can’t hear.” It’s totally a humiliating experience getting vinyl back to check after you’ve been in the studio. We started out at a time when the sound quality, in our opinion, wasn’t very good. And so, am I happy about it? No. Am I ever to be happy about it? No. So there’s sort of an even plane here.
Recent years have seen an increase of interest in bands like Mirrors and the Easter Monkeys, at least in underground rock circles. Why is the music of those bands, Pere Ubu and other Cleveland contemporaries from that time in the ’70s and early ’80s, particularly resonant right now?
DT: There’s a lot of reasons. Maybe, I suppose, because it was all very extraordinary stuff. People look back on it historically and wonder what the hell was going on here. I think the bands were extraordinary. They were uncompromising and had a particular narrative view. Mirrors was a fabulous band with a very weird point of view. All of the Cleveland bands had very unique narrative voices. It had to do with the notion of the singer as a host mediator of a bizarre experience. Plus, at the time, all these bands were coming from a place where there was no hope that anybody would ever hear us. So that’s a very liberating point of view because you have two choices: you can give up and make what you think is mainstream music, or you can say, “Well, the hell with it, if nobody’s going to like us and nobody’s going to hear us and we’re not going to find any places to play, we may as well do what we want to do.” Then it becomes this very fiercely competitive hothouse environment with the other bands, the few other people working with you in that geographical area. Every performance you do needs to be a major statement, which everybody else will criticize and will try to find fault with and will be envious of or be dismissive of, and that really leads to people concentrating and working very hard to build something that is unique.