In the accepted pantheon of punk (or whatever you want to call it), figureheads in New York, London, and L.A. are revered as the innovators of this nefarious genre. But running concurrently and almost continuously alongside the fashionable faces of “underground” music, Pere Ubu has existed as a true alternative. Metabolized out of the remains of Rocket from the Tombs, this innovative group first made its mark in the mid-70s with a series of self-released singles that channeled punk gestalt and Krautrock rhythms through the sooted filter of Cleveland’s wastelands. As titles like “Heart of Darkness” and “Final Solution” suggest, the band shared some of the abnegation of the times, but rather continuing to recycle the formula (like so many of its peers), Pere Ubu was already beginning to deconstruct its sound by the time of its first album, 1978’s The Modern Dance. That restless spirit has continued to define the band for the past 40 years, as each subsequent record has differed from the last, some more dramatically than others.
To mark the band’s four decades of existence, Pere Ubu and Fire Records have begun a series of boxsets encapsulating the band’s output, starting with last year’s Elitism for the People 1975–1978. This set encapsulates the band’s first three years, including The Modern Dance and its successor, Dub Housing, as well as those early singles and a never before released live recording of a show at fabled New York club Max’s Kansas City in 1977. The second more recently released set, Architecture of Language 1979–1982, captures Pere Ubu at its most shape-shifting, both in terms of sound and its membership. Comprised of three albums—New Picnic Time, The Art of Walking, and Song of the Bailing Man—as well as a disc of extras, this box shows the band incorporating elements of free jazz, no wave dissonance, and their own new found idiosyncrasies.
This week, Pere Ubu embarks on a jaunt billed the Coed Jail Tour 1975–1982, playing songs from the two releases. I got in touch via email with David Thomas, Pere Ubu’s frontman and only constant member, to shed some light on the band’s past and present.
Why the Crocus Behemoth pseudonym when you started out and what caused you to drop it?
Before I started playing music I worked at a weekly tabloid called The Scene. I wrote lots of reviews and preview articles and had a column. At one point, I was writing much of the copy so I started using pseudonyms. Crocus Behemoth was one of them and the writing under that name became popular. People started calling me Crocus. When I started playing music, I used the name because it was known locally and because that’s what everyone called me. As Pere Ubu, surprisingly, began to have a wider audience, I didn’t see the point to carrying on with the name. I didn’t want to be bothered by the weirdness of it.
In revisiting these records, particularly those on Architecture of Language, has your opinion of them changed? Has revisiting them now revealed anything new to you?
It reinforced my regard for what we accomplished. We were moving at an unprecedented rate for a pop band. Consider the output from 1975 to 1982 and the movement. The albums after Dub Housing were considered by some to be “off the rails,” incomprehensible in the framework of a pop career. Over the years, the accumulation of, “Well, it’s not Modern Dance, is it?” caused me to doubt as well. I remember very clearly listening to the new digital transfer and mastering of New Picnic Time. “We were right,” I thought to myself. If I have one record from that period to hang my reputation on, it would be New Picnic Time.
I always find new things in Ubu recordings. It’s the universal vibration paradigm. Going by, you catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye at a space between buildings or trees where the gears of the universe are revealed for a moment and you realize that things are not what they appear to be. That is the Ubu method—the intrusive other—stories overlapping stories, narratives confounded, a seemingly insignificant detail that flips the world upside down and inside out.
You went through several reformations of the band during the period covered on the Architecture box set. What caused the instability and turnover?
There was and is no instability. This is one of those memes that catch on because it allows writers to not pay attention. People who join Pere Ubu are not the usual pop wannabes you find in many bands. So, ironically, they tend to be normal people who have lives and ambitions outside of just being in a band. This person or that person wanted to go in other musical directions. Allen (Allen Ravenstine, synthesizer player) wanted to be a pilot. Jim (Jim Jones, guitarist) died. “Instability,” I’d say, is a band where the singer and the guitarist, for example, despise each other’s very existence, but they stay together decade after decade so they can be in a band. Pere Ubu is one of the most stable bands there’s ever been. Most of the current line-up has been together more than 20 years, one way or the other. As the breadth of what we do has expanded, we’ve accumulated a broader base, a larger community, of musicians who are suitable for specialized roles. The Moon Unit, for example, is most often chosen from the people who are happier improvising, the Film Unit from those who are happier working under the specific conditions of soundtrack production, etc. Gagarin had been in the Two Pale Boys and then Ubu soundman since the ’90s. He is a formidable musician in his own right within the realm of ambient electronica. Why shouldn’t I call on him to work within Pere Ubu? Where’s the rule? I saw clarinetist Darryl Boon playing in a Dixieland band in my local pub. I knew he was Ubu material. Why shouldn’t I ask him if he wanted to work with us? Where is there any “instability” in any of that?
For a long time, you made a point of not playing the old material. What caused you to change your mind?
We’ve always played old material as part of whatever tour we do. A number of years ago we went out doing The Modern Dance in concert. The Coed Jail tour was an obvious thing to do to promote the release of the boxsets and in the grander scheme of things, keeps the band working together as we write and record the next album, Twenty Years in a Montana Missile Silo.
You posted on Facebook that the next box will be Raygun Suitcase through Saint Arkansas. Why are you skipping over the Fontana records? Do you want to people to forget those albums?
The Fontana albums are critical to understanding Pere Ubu’s work. We don’t own the copyright, Universal does. Fire Records has been trying to acquire the license for a boxset release, but there has been no progress (much less a response). If and when we get the license, we will proceed. In the meantime, the re-release schedule goes on.
Is doing these sets and boxing up the old records indicative of a desire to wrap up the past and put it aside once and for all?
Not really. With the exception of the four albums of the Fontana years, we own the copyright of everything we’ve ever done. That’s unheard of in the pop marketplace. One of the imperatives for Ubu Projex is to protect the catalog and to keep it in print. As technology has improved and our acquisition of the technology has progressed, we naturally want to insure that the catalog is presented in the highest fidelity possible, and most accurate to the original intentions of the productions. Where there is something that can be fixed, we fix it. You need to keep in mind that nearly every album we’ve ever done has had to be completed with severe time and budget restrictions. Sometimes those restrictions thwarted the intentions. That’s the sort of thing we fix.
Given the process of making these sets and the concern you’ve expressed in the past over the flaws in LP sound, you seem to place an emphasis on audio quality and fidelity. Others might say it’s not all that important given the noisy nature of a lot of what you do. What would you say to them and why do you place such an emphasis on the quality of the audio?
The assumption is that “noise” does not warrant high fidelity, that it is something unworthy of attention, something incidental, mere window dressing. I refer you to Ubu Rule #10: all sound is created equal and endowed with the inalienable right to not have its waveform brutalized. Over the decades, as I have acquired and mastered more tools of production, I’ve reached the point where I spend more time on the “noise” of records than any other aspect. There is not a beep or buzz that I have not scrutinized and chosen. The “noise” is as much a part of the music as any chord or musical overtone or rhythmic structure. Why the emphasis? Because music, and by extension, sound, is a language. A bigger vocabulary is better than a smaller vocabulary. Being able to find the precise word for something is important.
With Rocket from the Tombs being an active concern again, what differentiates Pere Ubu and Rocket for you (besides the personnel)? Do you have a different set of goals or parameters for each band?
I stand at the bus stop and wait until a bus comes along. I get on the first bus that comes along, and I ride it until it is time to get off. I didn’t look at the bus’ destination sign. I get confused about where I’m going to get off; it’s a part of town I’ve never been. I ask the driver, “Is this bus going past Webber Avenue?” and he says, “Yes.” I say, “Would you let me know when it’s time to get off?” He says, “Sure,” but I don’t trust him to remember so I am looking out the window constantly trying to figure out if my stop is coming up and when I should ring the bell to get off. I look at the other passengers to see if any of them look like they might be getting off at Webber Avenue, however that might make a person look. More often than not I get off too early and then I have to figure out what to do about that. Maybe I’ll walk, maybe I’ll wait for another bus. Maybe I’m lost. Why can’t I just go home? Why did I allow myself to leave home in the first place? I didn’t want to be here. Now what am I going to do?