We’ve interviewed dozens of artists here on The Agit Reader, some more than once, and there’s no one that we have spoken to more frequently than Pere Ubu’s David Thomas. While we no doubt have a soft spot for fellow Ohioans, this fact is more a reflection of Thomas’ unwavering ability to create music that is always challenging and enthralling, not only with Pere Ubu, but predecessors Rocket from the Tombs. (It also helps that he’s never short on words or shy with his opinions.)
For the uninitiated, Pere Ubu formed in Cleveland in 1975 out of the ashes of Rocket from the Tombs, who also spawned the Dead Boys. RFTT was around for just over a year, only played a handful of shows and never saw the inside of a recording studio, but it was enough to secure a spot in the pantheon of punk lore. Ubu, on the other hand, took off quickly, securing a major label deal just a few years later after releasing a series of seminal singles that outlined the shape of post-punk to come before punk’s first wave even crested. In the 45 years since their formation, Pere Ubu has continuously pushed the boundaries of whatever direction their muse has taken them. Most recently, that came in the form of last year’s The Long Goodbye, an electronically fueled concept record of sorts that even the most ardent of fans might have a hard time wrapping their heads around.
This past month, however, Pere Ubu delivered something more recognizable: a live album. Released by Cherry Red, the album captures the band on its Coed Jail Tour in 2017, where they played those initial singles and songs from the five albums they made before going on hiatus in 1982. The bulk of the album was recorded at a festival in Jarocin, Poland, where difficulties with the sound crew got Thomas’ ire up. This resulted in the town’s mayor telling the festival to appease the singer (and the album being called By Order of Mayor Pawlicki), not to mention a fiery performance of some of the band’s greatest work.
I got Thomas on the line once more to see how he was coping with the pandemic lockdown and check in on Pere Ubu’s status.
How have you been dealing with the pandemic and the lockdown?
David Thomas: Well, I’ve been locked down. I have a couple severe health issues so I’m in a special category of ultra lockdown. But I’ve been keeping busy.
In what ways has this affected Pere Ubu?
DT: We were going to do some more touring this year and it’s knocked that on the head. We have rescheduled some things for September, but we’ll see if that happens. It’s very doubtful we’ll go out this year at all.
Getting to the album, when you set out on the Coed Jail Tour, did you intend to capture it on a live album?
DT: No. Our soundman records everything on a multi-track system. He has a very compact system; our mixing desk is something that fits in his backpack. It’s very efficient and modern. So he records everything, and he’ll often mix the shows that he thinks are really good and send them to my manager. She was very excited by this one and kept pressing for us to put it out as an album. Cherry Red was interested so it went on from there.
Apparently there was a latency problem caused by the festival trying to record the show, but it seems like the situation kind of escalated. Can you fill in some details?
DT: The point is I was doing my soundcheck and I noticed this latency problem, which was very disturbing to me. I know that latency is usually caused by something so I was immediately suspicious. It was either some equipment that I’ve run across before—some cheap Chinese crap that sounds German—or the other thing that causes latency, which is recording, and they’re not supposed to do that. They kept saying that there was no latency that a human being could hear. But I told them that I could hear latency. My manager told them, “Listen, this is David Thomas. If he says he can hear latency, it’s because he can hear latency.” It was very obvious to me. When I was singing, I could feel air going over my vocal chords and out of my mouth. Usually at that point you hear sound, but I was hearing a delay. It doesn’t matter if others could hear it or not—I could hear it.
On the recording, it seems like something happened after “Dub Housing.”
DT: Yeah, I blew the mic out in the middle of “Dub Housing.” There were a lot of things going wrong. There’s a line where I sing “Talk!” very forcefully and it broke the mic. There was a lot of confusion, and Michelle was trying to move her mic over to me while still playing bass. People were dashing around onstage, but I just went to the front of the stage and kept singing without a mic.
There’s a rule in Pere Ubu: if something breaks, fix it and catch up. We’re not going to stop. The show goes on.
Do those sorts of things just roll off your back?
DT: I may be concerned, but I keep going. We had a guitar player at one point who expected if he broke a string for the whole thing to stop. He would be panicking and knocking things over, and someone would have to tell him, “Hey, David’s not going to stop. The show is going on. If you can’t play, we’ll go on without you. Fix it and get back into the stream of things.” That happens.
You did an interview with one of my writers. I think you were talking about the band’s formative years, but you said that every performance needs to be a major statement. Do you still take that approach?
DT: It’s not as much of a statement because we’re not doing only two or three shows per year. If the most you can expect to do in a year is two to three shows, then yeah, every show is important. Shows are important, but they’re probably not as important as they were in those days. I’ve done hundreds of shows—I can’t even count them up. Failure in a show is distressing, but no, it’s not that huge. Still, it doesn’t lessen the feelings of doing a bad show.
Initially, you said that initially you intended to put the “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” single out then get a job or something. What kept you going all these years?
DT: What’s kept me going is the quality of the music was very exciting. Then it built step-by-step. We did a show to promote the single, which was New Year’s Eve 1975. It went good so then we did another single, and it built that way. The first single was supposed to be “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” with “Final Solution,” but then “Heart of Darkness” developed from a jam while rehearsing so we used that instead. I wanted to make sure “Final Solution” came out so we wrote “Cloud 149” and put that out. It just went from stage to stage.
I saw the Coed Jail tour in New York and then The Long Goodbye show at Bush Hall here in London. Did you feel like The Long Goodbye needed to be undiluted by other material?
DT: The old material is all still part of who I am and what I do, but I wanted to have a break from it. And The Long Goodbye is a unified performance piece, and it’s enjoyable to do as a unified story. For instance, we did a film underscore for Carnival of Souls some years ago. There’s no point in putting a couple of songs in the middle of that idea. As you’re playing to a film, you stick to the project. That’s in a way what The Long Goodbye is. I mean, there’s no film—well, actually there is! Kristy put together videos to play throughout the thing. But some of the early shows, like London, we had some technical difficulties and couldn’t play them. But that’s not the point. Doing the album is like doing the underscore to the Carnival of Souls film. You just want it undiluted. It’s not a bunch of hit songs or something.
Although you’ve said it was your attempt at pop radio…
DT: Well, how pop radio fits into The Long Goodbye idea. What I heard on the radio was Philip Marlowe as played by Elliot Gould having a cup of coffee in the morning with the radio on. You’d have to know the film really well to get the point. That’s the problem with my work: it get so specific sometimes that it’s a little self-defeating. But I’m used to defeating myself so I keep doing it.
You’ve said before that you want to make the perfect album and thus far you haven’t done it, although New Picnic Time is the closest you’ve come…
DT: The Long Goodbye is pretty damn close to being a perfect album in my point of view. It’s very tempting to stop, it really is. Part of the idea of the album was that, for various circumstances, it could very well be my last album. I mean, I died twice in the last three years. I have critical health issues, which at the moment are in pretty good shape. But I do have to face that I’m nearing the end. I’m 65 years old, so I’m getting up there. You might have noticed that musicians tend to die early. I’m very much aware of that, and I am doing a lot behind the scenes to make sure that the Pere Ubu package is organized and ready to pass on if I have to.
Yeah, I read that you were grooming someone to take your place.
DT: Yeah, that failed so I’ve given up that idea. Although, I’m always on the lookout for someone.
But you did make a point of saying that The Long Goodbye was not the last Pere Ubu album, just the end of a chapter. Has the next chapter begun to take shape?
DT: No, but I haven’t tried to make it take shape. There is actually a project in the works that I need to commit to that may be the basis for a new album. But I’ve been very busy with other things, and I haven’t been able to think about it. This past week I started putting my synthesizers back together in the studio, and it’s beginning to percolate underneath.