A Chat With David Thomas
Chaos has always been a source of inspiration for Pere Ubu, the Cleveland-based band David Thomas has fronted for over two decades. So, perhaps it's only appropriate that I accidentally called him 12 hours early, mistaking an 8:30 p.m. time slot for 8:30 a.m. When I offer to call back later, Thomas merely asks for a minute to pour coffee. Pere Ubu's latest platter, Pennsylvania (Tim/Kerr), recalls the Sturm und Drang sound of their early years, mixing blithe acoustic songs with menacing, bottom-heavy workouts, all overlaid with Thomas' characteristic warble. Thomas won't be specific about the origins of the album's title -- "look at a map," he says, presumably referring to Cleveland's proximity to the Keystone State. But Pere Ubu's music has always invoked a sense of place, from the ravaged industrial flats of Dub Housing (1978) to "the diner out in Western Pennsylvania" that is the starting point for the new album. Caffeinated or not, Thomas, 45, is a rambling, energetic presence, and, for someone who makes a habit of referring to journalists as "Media Priests of the Big Lie," surprisingly congenial. He spoke from a friend's home in Myelin, OH, "the birthplace of Thomas Alva Edison."Sam Adams: Geography and a sense of place have always been underlying themes of Pere Ubu's lyrics, but those concerns have really come to the fore on the last two albums. Why?David Thomas: It took us 20 years, but we decided it's no good being subtle. The emphasis on geography might be more obvious just because it's a phase that I'm going through being the lyric writer, and it tends to get plastered on everybody else.SA: In addition to becoming less subtle, it seems that the tone on the last few albums has become almost elegiac. DT: [laughs] That's a word I've never heard applied to Pere Ubu before. Certainly there's a sense of things disappearing left and right, being taken away. This is a fairly universal feeling these days, and we've always tended to encode the things that we thought within music, within sound. If you write songs that aren't "baby, baby," you want to encode something that's meaningful.That sense of displacement or disenfranchisement seems to be something we inherit these days without even thinking about it. You hear 14-year-olds talking about "selling out" without having any idea what that means.Culture happens in secret these days. That's not necessarily the way it always was, but we're facing a world that's controlled by the media. The media controls reality, the Media Priests of the Big Lie own all the words, and words and culture are weapons to be used against the ordinary man. So because of that, culture can only exist in secret. Just as there are certain subatomic particles that can only exist for moments in the heart of a cyclotron, and the very act of observing these particles changes their nature. This notion of selling out is dependent on the illusion that we do this for something other thanÉ this is our job. We make money this way. We don't find that there's any sort of dichotomy there. Creativity occurs in secret, and civilians -- which is what you are, since you're not a musician -- civilians only ever see the cold ashes. All the intense stuff happens out of sight. SA: So when you put out a CD, is "cold ashes" what people listen to? DT: It depends on your method of production. You may notice that our stuff's kinda sloppy, and always has been. [Our music] doesn't have the production values of a pop hit. But we don't want it to sound that way. The issue is obviously -- well not obviously, but I will tell you a Masonic secret -- there are tricks of production, in which you try to create something that you tinker with as little as possible, you allow the unintentional, the uncontrollable, the spontaneous, to intrude on your art. The value of these elements is that they introduce reality. Artists, only being human beings, need the uncontrollable to intrude on their art, on their work, or it becomes just narcissistic and self-absorbed, inward-looking.SA: You recently enshrined Pere Ubu's history with a box set (Datapanik in the Year Zero [DGC]). Did listening to that old music change the way you approached Pere Ubu in the future?DT: No, not really. The only thing that's affected me recently, as far as production, is that I've come to realize -- and I'm now utterly convinced and won't work any other way -- that a recording studio is about defining space, not about eq and reverb and little digital devices. Being in charge of the production [on the last two albums], I've worked towards shaping space rather than shaping sound. You may notice there's a connection with geography there, too. You have to credit us with being consistent.SA: In an answer to one of the questions on your Website [www.projex.demon.co.uk], you insist that Pere Ubu is and has always been a "mainstream band." What does that mean? DT: For a long time, we tried to beat the game. We invented this term called "avant-garage," which didn't really mean anything, but sort of sounded like it might. But that was just playing into [journalists'] hands. You end up in the same ghetto; they keep using words like "experimental" and "absurd" and "underground." We are not experimental. We know what we're doing; we don't need to experiment. Then I realized that I was betraying history, because when you look at the history of music, it's very clear that Pere Ubu and groups like us were the mainstream in the early '70s. We're mainstream, and somebody like the Rolling Stones, who are 50 years old and still acting like adolescents -- that's weird, that's underground, that's experimental. The Spice Girls are highly avant-garde. They're so far out that I can't grasp the thing. Only John Coltrane and people like that could understand the Spice Girls. I am just a simple slob playing mainstream stadium rock music.