Interview with Pere Ubu: The band was doomed from the beginning. But that’s all right. By Ryan

Dec 13, 2006


            With the exception of The Fall, Pere Ubu is the most prolific—and possibly best—band of the last thirty years. Like The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, the one constant in Pere Ubu is front man David Thomas.
            Pere Ubu was formed from the ashes of proto-punk group Rocket From The Tombs. Rocket was fucked up; the members were neglected kids from an industrial wasteland (Cleveland), hopped up on White Light/White Heat by the Velvets, and this motley crew of characters—from the erudite David Thomas and Peter Laughner to the silly Cheetah Chrome and (brief member) Stiv Bators—certainly sounded like its makeup. Burning up in less than two years, Thomas and Laughner formed Pere Ubu with the intentions of releasing a couple of singles, playing a few shows, and calling it a day (anarchism and situationism abounds, although I’m not sure if David Thomas “thought in those terms”). Um, they didn’t. Laughner—still one of the most underrated proto-punkers in rock’s useless history books—ended up getting the boot from Ubu in late ’76 (he died of alcohol-induced pancreatitis the following year). David Thomas (along with guitarist Tom Herman, keyboardist Allen Ravenstine, drummer Scott Kraus, bassist Tony Maimone) continued on, releasing one of the best albums of the late ‘70s (Dub Housing). Thomas spent much of the ‘80s oscillating between a solo career and Pere Ubu. (And while a poor Pere Ubu album doesn’t exist, I’d recommend picking up Cloudland first from Ubu’s ‘80s work.) The ‘90s were much like the ‘80s: Ubu was disbanded then reformed. Solid albums continued. In approximately 2003, Rocket From The Tombs reformed (with Television’s Richard Lloyd taking over for Laughner); an official release of Rockets mid ‘70s demos was put out that year, demonstrating just how good the band was (particularly Laughner—the autobiographical “Amphetamine” is a lost classic). In 2006 the band released Why I Hate Women. Like my step mom’s homemade cooking, it’s fairly sublime.

Ryan: Before you did Rocket From The Tombs, you were primarily recognized as a rock journalist. I know you had a deep love of rock music. What galvanized you into starting that?
David: Well, I didn’t come to it from a deep love of rock music. I had dropped out of college. And I knew these guys that were working at an Entertainment Weekly sort of thing—you know, theatre, music, and arts stuff. So I got a job doing art layout. And those were in the days of the wax tables. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember wax tables. They used to do these things where they’d print off the columns of copies and you’d cut them up, put wax on the back, and assemble the pages on a light table. And so during all this process I would end up—and it’s terribly fiddly: you’ve got razorblades and if you change anything you’ve got to cut up little pieces of words and move them with wax on the back. And so I would be reading this stuff as I was laying it out and it was all really badly written. So I would start correcting it. And this just irritated the hell out of everybody. So they said, “Well, why don’t we make you the copy editor, you know, since you seem to be the most literate person here and you can spell.” So I did that. But then I started rewriting the copy massively. The thing would totally be rewritten. They said, “Well, why don’t we all save ourselves some time and aggravation? Why don’t you start writing this stuff yourself?” And so I thought, “Oh, okay.”
            They gave me albums to review and I started getting into it. And that’s how I got into music in the end. Over two or three years I developed some strong opinions about music and eventually I got to the point where I was saying to myself: “Well, if I’m so smart, I ought to just do this myself, y’know?” And there we go. And here I am.
Ryan: You were hanging out with Hells Angels. They brought you the more sordid rock music. It was kind of like Lester Bangs. (Lester Bangs—revered rock critic, died in ‘82—hung out at a neighborhood Hells Angels pad in his late teens, sometime in the mid ‘60s. There, the dorky, slightly pudgy record collector/critic formed something of a friendship with the biker gang over a shared affinity for Rolling Stones and Stax records. It didn’t last long. After observing an Angels gang rape—something that haunted him for life—Bangs disassociated himself with the group.)

David: I can’t remember that. I’m not sure I was hanging out with them. I was the doorman at one point at a bar, and I always had to deal with the Hells Angels. We had a policy of no colors or something. And it happened to be a particular place where bikers came a lot, for some reason. It was a music bar. I can’t remember. It was a long time ago.
Ryan: During that period (early/mid ‘70s) you developed a critical ear for music. What really galvanized that? Just being involved in that writing process?
David: Well, no. I had lived for a while in a sort of White Panther/Weatherman-ish commune when I dropped out (of college); because I had some girlfriend who was one of them. And I remember distinctly that we only listened to three albums, mostly. And the three albums were the original Smile album (Beach Boys), Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, and Kick Out the Jams (MC5). The first records I ever bought were Uncle Meat (Frank Zappa) and Captain Beefheart. I bought Uncle Meat and then I bought Hot Rats (Frank Zappa) and I heard the singer on it and I thought, “This guy’s good.” And so I went out and in a week and bought everything Beefheart had done up to that point. So I had some musical appreciation before I started writing, but it was really of a very particular kind. I listened to Beefheart a lot; I though he was great. I didn’t know it was supposed to be weird or anything. And the same thing at the White Panther—it wasn’t really a White Panther house; it was sort of a Cleveland derivative—I just remember the records not being pigeonholed. The Beach Boys were considered as hip as the MC5. I still wasn’t deeply into music. It was just that I liked that stuff. And I didn’t know it was supposed to be anything other than the way normal stuff was supposed to be.
Ryan: And did you feel a connection with the MC5, seeing as they were working class youths from a fleeting industrial city like Cleveland?
David: I didn’t perceive it as a working class thing. It was just really cool rock music. It was very exciting.
Ryan: Getting Rocket From The Tombs together, it seemed like that really solidified when Peter Laughner joined the fold.
David: Well, he was the best musician that I had worked with. I remember running into him at a sort of folk club. And he knew who I was because I was sort of known at that time (through Thomas’ writing). And he came up to me. He had heard that I had this sort of band with other people at the newspaper; that it wasn’t a serious band—I don’t mean that it was comical, it just wasn’t a serious band—but he wanted to play with me. So it developed from there.  Once he got into the band, it was clear that there was this big difference of quality and ability, within him and everyone else. And the band began to change. People began to leave or be kind of pushed out. And it transformed itself into what is considered the classic version of Rocket, which really only lasted about six or seven months.
Ryan: And you were familiar with Cinderella Backstreet (Laughner’s previous band)?
David: I had seen them. Yeah.
Ryan: You and Peter saw Television really early on…
David: Not me. Peter.
Ryan: Oh, just Peter.
David: I didn’t see them until they came to Cleveland.
Ryan: Oh, okay.
David: I think. I can’t remember. I don’t think I saw them till then.
Ryan: As an outsider looking in, there seemed to be camaraderie there, like you were two bands on the periphery: too erudite for your own commercial good. I remember Tom Verlaine said that he had a deep respect for you in an interview from ’79, that you were the only band or individuals doing anything interesting at that time.
David: Yeah, I didn’t really know those guys. Peter was really buddies with them. And I didn’t really like anything from New York. I just didn’t like New York or their scene. I was really into doing our own thing. And Peter had sort of—not a slavish, but too much of a puppy dog sort of added enthusiasm—for it. And that kind of put me off. So I never wanted to go to New York. Peter was the one who said, “Oh, come on. Let’s go to New York. Let’s play New York.” And I would go, “Ah…” So he was much more into it than I was. He was the one that brought Television to Cleveland; or at least strong armed the promoter to bringing them in; nagged him more like it.

Ryan: Listening to the bootlegs and the recently released album, it seems like you were such anomalies out there. You and the Electric Eels. What was it like opening up for Iron Butterfly?
David: I don’t even remember. It was just opening for somebody. The only reason we got a lot of those things was just because I was known. We were good, but we got the foot in the door because I was sort of a minor local celebrity sort of thing. But all the musicians back then—all the mainstream, Cleveland musicians—we may have been taking a lot of drugs, but we certainly rehearsed really hard. The demo—the WMMS tape that’s most of The Day the Earth Met—was recorded after we had only been together about a month. It’s messy, but that’s the band that had been together for four weeks in that form. We moved real quickly. We rehearsed five days a week. And we worked hard. And it all burned out very quickly.
Ryan: Speaking of burning out very quickly, you formed Pere Ubu with Peter after Rocket From The Tombs ended. I wanted to ask you about getting your own label together. You’ve been living primarily off of music since ’75, right?
David: Yep.
Ryan: So how did you fund Hearpen, your record label?
David: I borrowed money. I had a friend that said, “Oh! I’ll give you some money to do it.” That was the only way. It wasn’t that expensive: $1,000.
Ryan: I can’t even afford that now!
David: And it was more money back then.
Ryan: Yeah, yeah. It seemed like recording and putting something out back then was a much more arduous process.
David: When we recorded those days, it was really very few overdubs. We would go in and spend maybe three or four or five hours in an evening and that was all we could afford, all we could do. We would do two songs and put it out.
Ryan: For years I thought “30 Seconds over Tokyo” was about the firebombing of Tokyo, but it was about the Doolittle Raid. (The Doolittle Raid was the first U.S. bombing of Japan in WW II. This preliminary strike—using 500-pound bombs—occurred in April 1942. A rash of fire bombings—employed throughout Japan occurred in 1945. Approximately half of Tokyo—a largely wooden city—was destroyed by inferno.) Was that a vivid memory from reading as a child?
David: I’m not sure. Around that time there was a big hit, at least in Cleveland, by a band named Bloodrock called “DOA,” which is this epic eight-minute song about an airplane crash: “We were flying low and hit something in the air/and the sirens, etc.” It was a very dramatic narrative. I really loved that song—it’s really not a great song—but it’s definitely a one-off sort of strong statement. I was really fascinated by that—by doing something dramatic and expressive. It comes really more from that. It used to be that every little kid would read Thirty Seconds over Tokyo from the school library. Somehow there was a connection there.
Ryan: Peter was gone from the band and then he died. And then you went to record your first full-length record. Did you tack on “Life Stinks” as kind of a nod to your pal who died?
David: No. I don’t think so. It was just a song we were doing and it was a great song. We didn’t particularly think in those sorts of terms. It was part of the set.
Ryan: Speaking of that—it’s widely recognized that Peter’s death had a profound effect on Lester Bangs. What was that to you? Did it symbolize the end of a mindset?
David: No. It was a long, drawn-out process that was very tiresome and painful. That’s why Tim (Wright, early Pere Ubu bassist) and I in ’76 had the meeting with Peter and had the parting of the ways. It was clear to us that he was on a self-destructive path. And his doctors had just said, “If you keep doing this, you’ll be dead in a year.” And we didn’t see any way that he would not keep doing it. And we didn’t want to be part of the process. It was really becoming unbearable to work with him and put up with the nonsense. We just didn’t want to be the enabler to do this stuff. So we had a meeting with him. It was one of those meetings: “Maybe it’s time you go your way and we’ll go ours. No hard feelings, blah, blah, blah sort of thing.” That was the way it was. We were friends and everything. But Peter was heading off somewhere that no one really wanted to accompany him to. Because it wasn’t going to lead anywhere. It was pointless and we didn’t want to be part of it.
Ryan: Getting on Mercury with the first record—can you tell me how Blank Records came about?
David: Well, I got a call one day from Cliff Bernstein who was the head of A&R at Mercury. And he said that he had found our first two singles in a record shop in Chicago and really loved them and the music. And he said that he just wanted to call to say that. He said, “I’d love to sign you, but Mercury is not the label for you and you shouldn’t do it. But I’m here to help. And if you ever want to talk to someone about something, give me a call.”
So about two days later, somebody from Chrysalis called and said, “We’d like to sign you.” And I called Cliff back and said, “Blah, blah, blah.”
And he said, “Oh, well, wait a minute. Don’t do anything for a week. I’ll get back to you.”
And in that week he worked out a deal to have Blank Records. Initially, I guess, it was kind of our label. And he signed a few other people to it. But it was sort of a means to do that kind of music on Mercury at that time. I think, in the end, it didn’t pan out for him. He was frustrated by it all. By that point he had become our manager and he moved us over to Chrysalis.
Ryan: Speaking of which, I’m looking at the insert for Dub Housing right now and it’s so funny because they have the typical hyperbole: “We’ve got music for your ears.” And your album’s lined with pictures of Mary O’Hara and Rory Gallagher. What was your relationship like with them?
David: Fine. Our relationship with record companies has always been fine. The only difference between a large label and an indie label is the large label has more money. There isn’t particularly any generic difference. Labels are full of people who are sort of cynical industrialists. And they usually have a large minority of people who have a passion for music. And those sorts of people, often times, really love us. And they sign us. And that’s been our history with labels: there’s somebody there that loves our music and wants to put it out. I don’t have any horror stories. And I understand, totally, the business. I like the marketplace. I prefer the marketplace. I like selling records myself. I like sitting there on the stage, after the show, selling the merchandise. I really enjoy it most nights. Some nights I’m tired. And when they let us go—because we’ve lost them too much money—I understand it. It’s like: “Yeah! I never would have signed us. That’s fine.” And record companies have never tried to get us to do anything. I wish sometimes they would have. We probably might have done better in our careers. They’re usually scared of us. It’s been a relationship where we’ve generally done everything we’ve wanted to do without any kind of hindrance at all. It’s generally the boss that’s signed us and nobody there has any clue about what to do with us, so they leave us alone.
Ryan: Speaking of those three records you cut (with the ’78 to late ’79 lineup), I really like Dub Housing.
David: I think Dub Housing is the masterpiece of that period.
Ryan: I’d have to agree with you. I think it was a culmination of things. You were solidifying what you wanted to do on the first one and on New Picnic Time the cracks started to show. But Dub Housing really seemed to come together for you guys. Do you remember that being a really vibrant, creative time?
David: Well, it was a very busy time. We had effectively three albums come out in one year: The Modern Dance, Dub Housing, and Datapanik in the Year Zero. We did an initial tour of Europe in the spring, and then did a very long tour in the fall. In between there was an American tour and recording Dub Housing over the summer. We were constantly doing something at that point. I think in the end, in the winter of ’79, we started Picnic Time. I think Picnic Time is a great album. It’s just very weird. It was meant to be very jungle-like. I think there were a lot of problems with generating material that quickly. Plus, we had this idea that we didn’t want to do Dub Housing again, and we weren’t necessarily sure where that was going to go. So we tried to do something that was extremely dense. It’s got problems, that record, but it’s not a bad record at all. There are a lot of people that it’s their favorite record of that period. So it can’t be all hideousness.
Ryan: I like that song “One Less Worry.”
David: Yeah.
Ryan: Which is like you dictating, “No, I want that over there!” I always picture an art gallery when I listen to that song.
David: Well, yeah. That has to do with memories.
Ryan: But speaking of that, Dub Housing—you were talking about listening to record companies earlier—I can’t remember if they were from Chrysalis—that if you came out with two or three albums like that, you’d get a hit.
David: That was our manager. That was when he was listening to Dub Housing. He said, “Oh, this is great. If you do this a couple more times, you’ll be stars. And Allen said, “What if I don’t know how to do it again?” And he said, “Well, as long as you make good records, somebody will put them out.”
Ryan: Yeah. That’s always been your MO.
David: Well, yeah. The issue was whether we were constitutionally capable of doing something twice in a row that was the same. And we weren’t. And we knew it. Or certainly Allen knew it. It was a very palpable fear of repetition at that time. We were determined not to repeat ourselves. That was a very strong feeling then.
Ryan: Talking about the break from Ubu, you cut a couple records with Richard Thompson which I like, specifically Variations on a Theme. How did you meet him?
David: Geoff Travis is the head of Rough Trade. We had gone to Rough Trade for Art of Walking. And Travis said, “Do you want to make a solo record?” And I said, “Yeah, sure. I guess.” And he said, “Well, if you could choose anybody in the world to play with, who would it be?” In the ‘70s, the big guitar hero in Cleveland was Richard Thompson. And so I said, “Oh! Richard Thompson.” And so he said, “Okay!” And he arranged a meeting. I went over to their house. Linda (Thompson, Richard’s then-wife. The two recorded as a duo, releasing several critically acclaimed albums throughout the ‘70s/early ‘80s) was there, making tea or something. And I talked to Richard. Richard said, “Well, I don’t know what you want me to do, but, yeah, I’ll do it.” So we got together. And I was also a big Young Marble Giants fan, so that’s where Phil Moxham (bassist) comes from. It was just various people—John Greaves—that I was into working with.

Ryan: Getting back with Pere Ubu, you recorded Cloudland and had a minor brush with commercial success with “Waiting for Mary.”
David: Very minor.
Ryan: Yeah. And it seemed like you received some flak for the production on that.
David: Well, we didn’t produce it.
Ryan: No, I mean…
David: No, we were really into it. I think Cloudland is a really strong album.
Ryan: Yeah, I agree.
David: I wish they’d put it out again. Steven Hague, who was a big time producer at that point—he had done all of the New Order, Pet Shop Boys, and tons of other people; he had endless hits—was a big fan, going back to the ‘70s. And he really wanted to work with us. Incredibly expensive. But the record company was up for sending us into a digital studio, which, again, in those days, was incredibly expensive. And we had this opportunity to work with a top producer. And we thought, “Yeah. What the hell? It sounds like fun. We’ve never done it before. Never had access to any of that sort of stuff.” We always recorded our records very, very quickly. We never spent more than a week on a record from beginning to end.
Ryan: Damn.
David: It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot from that. I loved what Steven Hague was doing. And I learned a lot from watching him work in terms of his patience and the concentration he put into things. So then after that it was Gil Norton, which was a hideous experience. It sort of convinced me I wasn’t going to work with a producer anymore; although we ended up working with one more (Al Clay), who was the engineer for Gil Norton, for Story of My Life. That was okay. Along that time, I was just getting the feeling that I’d rather make my own mistakes. The Hague thing had been really brilliant. It was a lot of fun, and it brought out a lot of things. But I was never comfortable not working at Suma (studio where Pere Ubu has cut the vast majority of their records). And the Gil Norton thing, which was a really fraught experience. We just had endless troubles getting the vocals. He would try to get something out of the vocals that I wasn’t capable of doing. I was constantly on edge. Towards the end, we went off and recorded four or five songs to be B sides on our own, just by ourselves. And we came back and Gil said, “The singing is so much better on this, so much freer. Why can’t you do that with me?” And I didn’t say anything, because I was fuming at that point. Then, at the last day of the session as everything was mixed and done and we were just finishing it up, he said to me—which was a nice thing to say in his terms, but it infuriated me—“Well, I never should have tried to tell you what to do because I don’t understand what you do.” And it’s like, “Gee, thanks.” Eights weeks of utter hell. Doing take after take after take. I took it graciously, and I like Gil personally, but we just didn’t get along.
Ryan: Yeah—weren’t copasetic. I like “Love, Love, Love” off of Cloudland, which has writing credits going back to the Peter Laughner days.
David: It was originally a song called “I Can’t Believe It.”
Ryan: That was sitting on the shelves for quite some time. How did that come about in the recording of Cloudland?
David: It actually appears on—you can hear the original version on The Shape of Things, which is a live recording from ’76. But, um, I had always liked the song. Somewhere along the line I had heard it again and realized that we had never done anything with it. And I just liked it. I thought it was a really good tune. And I didn’t want it to get lost, as it were.
Ryan: Something that struck me, through reading some of your writings, are your ideas on foreign rock bands, particularly British ones. A bit like they’re faking culture.
David: Well, rock music is the American folk music. These ideas came about sixteen years ago. I went out to Siberia to see what was going on. I went to Tuva, which is between Siberia and China, where all the throat singing is. And I went to various other places in Siberia as well as Western Russia. There was a critic at the time, like the underground voice of rock music—I think he’s in some high-culture position now—but his name was Artemy Troitsky, and he said to me: “The most ordinary garage band from Omaha plays rock music with more authenticity than the best that Europe can put up. And the reason is rock music is in the blood.” And that really struck me as true. It’s the same reason why if you’re going to listen to a reggae band, the best ones you’re going to listen to are from Jamaica—not from Lincoln, Nebraska. And there’s a reason for that. Reggae is very easy to play—it’s not like it’s difficult. And it can be imitated very easily.
Ryan: I like Public Image Limited’s Metal Box record. (Public Image Limited’s Metal Box is probably the best album of the early ‘80s. Only Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbet and LiLiput’s Rough Trade albums rival it. I consider it a dub album.)
David: Well, yeah. The point is that there are great British rock bands. There are always exceptions to things. But, really, the best bands from England or Germany or France or wherever are the bands that are distinctly from their country. I mean, Can and Faust could only come from Germany.
Ryan: Yeah.
David: They reflect the culture of their society. And they’re not rock bands. They played electric music with electric instruments. But that path comes from Edison, and it has nothing to do with rock. There are certain things they’ve learned from it—how to approach sound—but that’s sort of universal information. So that was always my attitude about that stuff. But it’s not even my original thought. It’s from a Russian who had been observing this stuff from a really far distance. And he’s the one that brought it to my attention.
Ryan: Talking about that, you wrote that article for Spin. But the priggish confines of the magazine shelved it, right?
David: Yeah, they said, “Oh, this is too smart for our audience.” And that’s a direct quote. And I was thinking, “Geez.” So I said, “How do you want me to make it more stupid?” And we sort of explored that for a little while, but that didn’t go anywhere. And they just decided it was too intellectual.
Ryan: I got an advanced copy of your new CD, Why I Hate Women. In the press release, it states you being influenced by Jim Thompson and film noir, and I see that through the Raymond Chandler-like exploration of the underbelly of things. And I know you consider irony a copout. When did you come up with the idea for the title?
David: Every album I do starts out with a back story. And that back story has greater or lesser detail depending on what I’m thinking about. And in that back story I choose a psychological moment of the story or a psychological moment of the episode. And then I try to write the album around that one moment. The album is not about the back story and sometimes the back story never shows up in the lyrics, but it comes through the conglomeration of a bunch of songs: me trying to create that one moment. And I decided that I wanted to make a direction change from what we call the “travelogue series of Pere Ubu records.” I kind of wanted to so something dark and obsessive that came from that sort of thing. And I was sort of thinking about Jim Thompson. I always wanted to do something that derived from that feeling—that sense of things. So I got done with it; the working title of the album had been Electricity, but that moved very quickly. And I needed to think of a title. So it came to me, and the title is Why I Hate Women. I had been thinking of a title that would be sort of like a Jim Thomson title. And that came to me. I wasn’t necessarily happy with it—even though it was a great title—but it was going to cause, you know…
Ryan: An uproar.
David: Well, there hasn’t been an uproar. The only people who mention it are men. I’ve done interviews with women and they never mention it.
Ryan: I think it’s a great title for an album.
David: Yeah, I knew it was a great title. But I knew we were going to have to be very careful about things. It took a while for Johnny (Thompson) and I to come up with the right artwork. We went through lots of different pictures of women, particularly his wife, who’s on the cover. And that took a long time because I didn’t want anybody to have any easy out: here it was. And there’s nothing easy about it. So we got done with all of that. And Johnny said, “Well, you know the last thing that we haven’t covered is people are just going to think we’re being ironic here.” And that’s where that the slogan comes from: “This is an irony free recording” (found in CD booklet). And then after we put that on, Johnny said: “Well, people are going to think that’s ironic!” So then we though of putting “No, really, we mean it!” But there’s only so far you can go.
Ryan: A couple years ago you put out for the first official Rocket From The Tombs release. Who had those tapes for so long? Where were they at?
David: Well, it was very hard to track them down. I don’t want to say who I got them from, because that was part of the deal.
Ryan: Well, you uncovered them.
David: Yeah, we made a deal. And gave them a little money. And we now have that. And the Piccadilly show was from somebody else. And along with that deal he had the very first Rocket show which was on December 31, 1974.
Ryan: Jesus Christ, David!
David: It ain’t that good. It’s okay.
Ryan: That is so long ago!
David: Yeah, well.
Ryan: It’s amazing because if you put it into the context of 1974, the shit you were doing was so abrasively good.
David: Yeah, we were very brutal. It was pretty unrelenting stuff. And I’m not sure if anyone was doing it quite that unrelenting and that obsessively at that time. But it was very warring. The band was doomed from the beginning. But that’s all right.