Interview with David Thomas, Pere Ubu

Pere Ubu

Throughout your history as a band you’ve evolved your sound and have begun to create music in less conventional ways, like with the underscoring of films. Does changing your approach to creating music make for more interesting results?

Nearly every album starts with a change or variation of methodology. A different, sometimes unique, set of parameters is set up – a specific set of rules for the project, which is usually dictated by Meaning. Any time we finish an album, it’s apparent to me where the next album can go. This can be dictated by ideas that have come up but weren’t thoroughly explored, or by new paths that become obvious, or by the realization that we have completed a cycle of ideas and it’s time to start a new cycle. Any number of things. Pere Ubu is not a static pop statement. It’s been said that we are ‘restless.’ I think that’s a good description. I don’t like looking around and seeing the same stuff I saw last year. That doesn’t make sense to me. The band is based on ideas not on style or a pop front. I have, myself, gone through at least three major stages in vocal approach where I have ditched what I’d been doing and set off in a different direction. Once you know how to do something, why keep doing it?

Your first two albums “The Modern Dance” and “Dub Housing” are considered some of the best albums of the 1970s and of the post punk era. Are you proud of the groups earlier work, and does it still feature in your sets today?

I don’t look back. Am I proud of those albums any more than any other work? No. Everything I’ve done has been a failure. I will keep working until I get it right, or die trying. A sense of my own shortcomings motivates my work. In the live shows we have always tried to cover a wide range of our history – I’m not sure what we will be doing in the November set yet. We have a list of possibilities and we are in the process of whittling that down. And it’s likely that, as we start to rehearse, some previously unconsidered piece will suggest itself. Also, most of the shows we will be doing will consist of 2 sets. The first, shorter set will be like the ‘Visions of the Moon’ tour we did last November and will consist of more improvised pieces, or more free-ranging ideas where we take an historical Ubu song and deconstruct it, or improvise something new out of older pieces, or make something up out of whole cloth, or… The second, longer set will be the usual ‘professional’ presentation. I’m looking forward to it.

Is it correct that the songs on “Carnival of Souls” changed and evolved as you played them on tour? Do you think they could develop further from the recorded versions as you play them on this British tour?

Yes, over the course of the ‘Visions of the Moon’ tour in the UK, Ireland, Italy and Croatia last November we set out with a group of ideas and evolved them from night to night. Our soundman records us every night for his own reasons and listening to the tapes of the entire tour was revealing. Basically, we could have ‘stopped’ at any point and gone with the version of any song established. The songs will continue to evolve, as they always do, but not as radically as they did during that tour. I miss that excitement which is why we are going out this time with the introductory set that I describe above.

We’ve recently booked Sarah Jane Morris to play Band on the Wall, who’s collaborated with you before. Is collaboration important for Pere Ubu and did Sarah Jane Morris help you form music you otherwise wouldn’t have come up with?

I love Sarah Jane. Please say hello for me. Sarah Jane IS Mere Ubu. I think she has been the only person Pere Ubu, as a band, has ever collaborated with, actually. We did a thing with Wayne Kramer but not on the same level. In my solo work, I have collaborated with a wide range of people: Richard Thompson, the Henry Cow people, Todd Rundgren, David Johansson, Van Dyke Parks, Sun Ra Arkestra, actors John Goodman & George Wendt, Firesign Theater, Frank Black, Linda Thompson, Peter Hammill, many others.

You’ve spoken about your liking for combining acoustic and synthetic sounds before, and creating interesting textures as a result of this. Are there any albums you feel have done this brilliantly before, or any composers that inspired you and the group to experiment with creating new textures?

We don’t really get ‘inspired’ by other people. We are well versed in the history and evolution of ideas in rock music and proto-rock forms. We hear what is being done in regards ‘new’ ideas. I study how and why others do things. I like to watch other people work. How others solve the problems we all face. I am driven by competition. I want to be better than anyone else. If I’m performing with other people, my only motivation is to ‘cut’ them. They may be friends and people I personally like, but if I’m on stage singing with Nick Cave, or Shane McGowan, for example, I’m going to do anything I can to ‘outclass’ them. To walk away top dog, alpha male. Those are the rules. That’s the gig. It’s not personal. It’s fundamental, like the young Charlie Parker getting on stage with Lester Young in some funky jazz club in Kansas City. Lester set out to whip the pup and he did. But Parker came back stronger and better. There is no shame in failure or coming out second best. The shame lies in being content to stay that way. I got on stage with the Sun Ra Arkestra – imagine the pressure – but I was intent on standing my ground – on being alpha male with the SUN RA ARKESTRA!!!! – and afterwards they say to me, ‘You’re a real bluesman, aren’t you?’ That is what it’s about. Those are the moments you take to your grave.

Pere Ubu – Road To Utah from fire records on Vimeo.


Pere Ubu

15 November / 19:30 / More Info / Buy Tickets

The Pere Ubu project was supposed to be an end, not a beginning. Assembled in August 1975 to be the Crosby Stills Nash & Young of the Cleveland music underground, the plan was to record one, maybe two singles and exist no more. Within months, however, those first self-produced records were being snapped up in London, Paris, Manchester, New York and Minneapolis. Pere Ubu was changing the face of rock music. Over the next 39 years they defined the art of cult; refined the voice of the outsider; and inspired the likes of Joy Division, Pixies, Husker Du, Henry Rollins, REM, Sisters of Mercy, Thomas Dolby, Bauhaus, Julian Cope and countless others. 

Frontman David Thomas’s absurdist approach to lyricism and experimentation is at the heart of the band’s long career. Their sound is utterly unique – from Thomas’s demented vocal delivery to an all-round self-destructive melodic dissonance and wild rhythm section. 

The next Pere Ubu album, Carnival of Souls, is scheduled for release in September and we can’t wait!

‘It is obvious that (the history of) Pere Ubu should not be thought of in terms of a linear development – reducing its entire operation and presence to an exclusive concern for ‘working and succeeding in’ rock and roll. Unfortunately, most criticism – of Pere Ubu, of many other folks – assumes that words have one meaning, that desires point in a single direction, that ideas are logical; it ignores the fact that the world of language, noise and desire is one of lack, insecurity, interruption, struggle, blundering, disguises, ploys, embarrassed grins
.’ NME 

‘Ubu are generally regarded as the missing link between the Velvets and punk. From the beginning they obviously understood the nuts and bolts of popular music, and then loosened them.‘ Mojo

Take a look at the Beginner’s Guide to Pere Ubu on Louder Than War