When Pere Ubu emerged from the wreckage of Rocket From The Tombs to infect the industrial heartlands of mid-1970s Ohio with their throbbing, squealing sonic architecture, few would have seriously considered their candidature for rock longevity a viable prospect. But David Thomas had other plans. He always does. “When we started, nobody liked us in Cleveland. We accepted that this was the natural order of things – that nobody would ever like us, much less HEAR us. So when that becomes your world-view then everything is very easy.” An A&R man’s worst nightmare (they stubbornly refused to be pigeonholed), the band have sculpted their own unique trajectory with singularly relentless conviction over these past forty years. Thomas, along with the latest incarnation of Pere Ubu (he is the only remaining original member), is making the final preparations for The North American Coed Jail! Tour, where the current line up – one of the band’s strongest ever – will perform classic material from their ‘historical era’ (1975-1982). While that prospect may be a mouthwatering one to long term fans, it is not something you might expect from him. Thomas has taken great care to ensure Pere Ubu remains a constantly evolving entity, always moving forward, so for him this seems an uncharacteristically retrospective move. But then, David Thomas is hardly likely to do the predictable thing. He thinks about music in pretty much the same way as he does life and art. The great French film-maker Jean Renoir once explained the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour by noting that “in life, everyone has his reasons”. Thomas concurs: “I am not a playful guy when it comes to work – there’s always a reason. Orson Welles was asked why he made Anthony Perkins act in a certain way as Josef K. The critic said ‘Kafka meant the character to be an innocent victim of the machinery.’ Welles responded, “No, he’s guilty – guilty as hell.”‘
Given his own very individual worldview, it is perhaps unsurprising that Pere Ubu is one of the most misunderstood bands in rock music. Steadfastly oblivious to even the remotest commercial instinct, yet paradoxically, possessors of a panoramic perspective of pop’s colourful history, they have outlasted almost all of their contemporaries: a particularly impressive achievement considering they didn’t fit in then and don’t now. “The arty people dismiss us because we’re too pop and we despise talk. The pop people because we are too arty and we talk too much.” Does the lack of commercial success bother him? “We’re still here. I am Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the UN, screaming ‘We will bury you’.” Sixteen albums down the line, two into their ‘Orange period’ and in robustly good health, he may have a cogent argument. As Thomas explains: “Pere Ubu is a continuum. I’ve often said we don’t do conceptual albums – we have a conceptual career. If you look at the body of my work it’s soon apparent that it is one novel-like endeavour with characters, stories and plots interweaving and reappearing over the decades.” Perhaps then, revisiting the work of another era makes logical sense.
Thomas likes to keep himself busy – for him, making music is not the assuaging of some inexorable creative impulse, but something more fundamental. The need to work. At the moment this means ‘fixing’ music. One of his most pressing recent concerns – as the output of Pere Ubu’s last two long players (‘The Lady From Shanghai’ & ‘Carnival Of Souls’) testifies – is his need to ‘fix’ dance music. “Part of that project is an effort to realign how meter and time are incorporated into music. How do you break up the mafia-like hegemony of bass and drums? But I need to stress that I do not react or counteract – I reinvent or realign as if the current world doesn’t exist and never did exist. I reimagine history. For example, what if English prog rock had been the true punk movement? What if Henry Cow had become the Sex Pistols?” Now there’s a thought…
Sometimes misconstrued as a punk band (not many punks nurture a fondness for The Allman Brothers for starters), that sense of hyper-alienation (‘data panic’) from technological society, the dissonant nonlinear song structures, not to mention Thomas’ curdled wails stretching over fizzing garage riffs – certainly at least invited the rather lazy comparison. But there was always substantially more to Pere Ubu, an expressionistic adventurousness far beyond the reach of the punk fraternity, which while leaving them at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, kept their integrity intact. As the band prepare to revisit and perform their late 1970s repertoire, how does Thomas now feel the music they produced over that period fits in the context of the ‘punk era?’ “I stood apart from it. We were dedicated to our own path. Sometimes two different roads converge – going through a mountain pass or along a river or what have you. The difference between the two roads seems negligible at that point. Twenty miles down the line they may diverge and head off in distinct directions.”
As 2016 will see the release of two retrospective box sets (the first, ‘Architecture Of Language’, was released in March, the second is scheduled for August) alongside the forthcoming tour, Thomas clearly has no plans to give up making music just yet. Songs like ‘Golden Surf II’ from ‘Carnival Of Souls’ contain the original vitality, the vital originality, that made the band such a thrilling proposition in the first place. One senses Thomas and Pere Ubu will be at it for some time to come yet. “I have a job that I do and I do it well. I’ll do it (a) as long as I make a living from it, and (b) as long as I do it well.” (JJ)
(This article was first published in the wonderful Shindig! magazine – click here: http://www.shindig-magazine.com/?p=1165)