Few bands that have been around for forty years gain the kind of creative steam that Pere Ubu have in their later efforts. Since 2006’s kinda just OK Why I Hate Women, the band have been creatively all over the map, producing three excellent, ambitious, and highly diverse albums: Lady From Shanghai, an electronics-heavy experimental double LP; Carnival of Souls, a moody, smouldering work punctuated by Keith Moliné guitar interludes; and the forthcoming 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, an aggressive art-rock album that features a band lineup expanded to an astonishing 9 members. For this album, Ubu/Rocket From the Tombs touring guitarist Gary Siperko and Swans guitarist Kristof Hahn have joined Moliné, mononymic synthesist Gagarin, clarinetist Darryl Boon, and the band’s longtime core quartet of Michelle Temple (bass), Steven Mehlman (drums), Robert Wheeler (electronics), and singer, conceptualist, and lone remaining founding member David Thomas.
There’s a temptation, after the wide detours of the band’s last two albums, to call 20 Years a back-to-basics move, but that temptation is undercut by the sheer number of personnel involved—nothing about this is particularly “basic.” Many of the ideas here do recall classic Ubu, but like time, Pere Ubu can not move backwards. In particular, the music’s intensity is ramped up significantly over that of some of the band’s prior landmark albums—half of 20 Years’ 12 songs conclude their business in under 2 1/2 minutes. The exceptionally hard-hitting Mehlman is utilized to his full potential, and I suspect a good deal of the album’s headstrong rock could be attributable to contributions from Siperko, who comes to the Ubu/Rocket camp from a gonzo roots rock band called The Whiskey Daredevils. The album opens with “Monkey Bizness”—a stream of which we’re premiering below, so I’ll spare you any needless description of cultural produce you can easily audit for yourself—and segues into “Funk 49,” which, apart from boasting a pretty chunky riff, bears no resemblance whatsoever to its namesake James Gang song. Other worthies include “Toe to Toe” and “Red Eye Blues,” but the album isn’t one-dimensionally hard-nosed, and it ends with three longer slow-burners, including “I Can Still See,” a lovely and disconsolate song which chiefly showcases clarinet and electronics.
David Thomas graciously took some time out of his life to talk to us about the album and the band’s creative trajectory.
DANGEROUS MINDS: So last month I traveled from Cleveland to Texas see Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu at Beerland. It was my birthday weekend and when I found out those shows were happening, it struck me as a good way to mark the occasion. I didn’t know at the time that a new album was on the way—Steven informed me at the merch table that Saturday night, I think. But your set seemed really heavy on older material, did you play any of the new work that night?
DAVID THOMAS: No, well, that was specifically booked as a “Coed Jail” show, that’s the set we’ve done to mark the box sets. We thought we were finished doing that, but the Austin guy wanted it so we said “what the hell.” That was supposed to be the absolute last “Coed Jail” show, period, but this Polish festival booked us and they were begging us to do it, and so hopefully THAT will be the absolute last one, period. You know, we have a price, we can be bought. [laughs] We’ll do the old material if you really beg us, or if there’s a good reason to, and Poland seemed like a reasonable request. And we’re not ready to do the new material live.
DM: Ha, right. That kind of gets to the next thing I was curious about—the new album’s lineup sports nine members. I don’t recall ever seeing more than five in concert, and I’ve been seeing you guys since probably 1988. I wasn’t given any session details, are there any songs with all nine current Ubus?
THOMAS: Oh yeah, most of the album has all nine people on it. I think there’s one or two tracks where one of them isn’t on it, or something, but no—yeah, it’s a bad move because frankly we can’t take nine members out on the road. But it’s been my ambition for quite a while to move to the “Pere Ubu Orchestra,” where I hope to have 15 people. 15 is just a number, you know, I thought “YES! 15!” It’s a bad move in terms of how that’s a lot of people to put on the road, but we’re still working on what can be done about it. There’s a very specific reason for it and a very specific way of working that I wanted to move to. But for all intents and purposes everybody is on everything—I don’t want to say the one track that the one person isn’t on, because I’m not sure that person knows. It’s irrelevant anyway.
DM: How did that big expansion affect your recording methodology compared to let’s say the last couple albums? It’s been a good long time since all of Ubu even lived on the same continent, but with three guitarists, two synth players, a clarinet, a standard rock rhythm section, and so on, I’m curious what that process was like.
THOMAS: Well, it wasn’t all that different from recent years. A lot of the time people, for instance, Kristof from Swans has been a friend of the band for quite a number of years, and somebody played him some tracks, it might have been me, I don’t know, and he said “Look, I really want to be on this, no matter how small my part, whatever you want me to do.” So we’d set up a methodology where we recorded everything at 96k 24-bit, and I’d send him files. He’d record his part beginning at 00:00, and send it back to me to integrate and work with it. And that’s how a lot of the album is recorded. The rhythm section recorded at SUMA, but not at the same time, because I like the bass to be the absolute last thing I record, literally the day before mixing, for various reasons. And some of the Londoners would come down to my studio in Brighton and lay out some basic things, but a lot of it was people tracking at home and sending me their parts. Someone went to Robert’s farm and recorded him for a few days. And then I edit. Brutally. That’s part of the process, I wanted to create something that was much more like a mosaic—as has been the case for a number of years now, there’s not a moment on the record that isn’t chosen. There’s not a sound that’s accidental, that’s there because I let it go by, or that’s there just because it’s there. Everything is very tightly edited and often two or three different instruments will be part of a sound that sounds like it’s one instrument. Or it sounds like an instrument that’s not the instrument it actually is. That’s the nature of what we’re doing. We’d been working with a “Chinese Whispers” methodology, then I decided that everybody was too comfortable with that, so I’m doing a “Dark Room” method now, where nobody knows anything except me. Like the metaphor of getting people in a dark room with an unknown object and they have to touch part of the object to determine what it is. Nobody knows anything except me, and I know it all! As it should be!
DM: So the final shape of the album is on you?
THOMAS: Well, I make the decisions but the final shape is up to everybody. Everybody is plugging away at what they think it is, and those 9 different thoughts shape what the album is. I make choices, but I can’t change somebody’s idea. It’s there, they’ve recorded it and sent it to me. What I choose is how it fits in. At times one person is trying to move the song off in one direction, and another’s trying to move it off in another direction. I study their directions and make a decision. Both of them get their say, I just decide at which point in the song each one gets their say. They get their way at a particular point in the song where it goes their way for, I don’t know, a verse, a half a verse. So I’m not determining it, I’m conducting it.
DM: How do the songs originate? I should back up a little—I feel like the last three albums have felt SO different from one another, and I don’t remember any other three consecutive Ubu albums feeling so drastically different. So I’m wondering—is there any point at the beginning where it’s just drummer and guitarist or whatever in a room hashing out ideas? What’s the actual seed of the Ubu song?
THOMAS: I put out a call, saying it’s time for a new album, send me ideas. And that’s where it starts. I get a bunch of ideas and I go through them. I have an overall feel or, eh, “concept,” to put a fancy word on it, for the album, and I accumulate all the ideas and I say, well, this one works with where I want to go. This one, eh, maybe next time. That’s pretty much the way it’s always been. From the very beginning people would come in with an idea and start playing it, “jamming” it as it were, and I would choose what fit with what I wanted to write. It’s just a bit more modern now. More internet-driven. As far as the albums being so different, they’re supposed to be. Throughout the ‘90s, those three albums, I was working on a cycle so they were related to each other. There was a cycle that was going on in the Fontana years, so they, again, are related to each other. I sort of decided that wasn’t the kind of cycle I was working on anymore, so those albums are unrelated, sue me!
DM: I realize it can be folly to be literal about Ubu titles, but “Funk 49” didn’t really recall the James Gang song by the same title for me. I have a quote here from you, describing 20 Years as “The James Gang teaming up with Tangerine Dream.” Is there a straightforward connection the listener should be finding?
THOMAS: When have you ever heard anything from me being straightforward?
DM: [laughs] Fair enough!
THOMAS: I actually sent that track to Jimmy Fox from the James Gang. I was a little nervous about using the title. I’ve never been nervous about stealing titles before, but I thought it’d be respectful to send it to him, and he was utterly over the moon about it and he said “Yeah! I can see the connection!” Whether anybody else can, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing ever straightforward with Ubu, so what the hell. My thought process on it was that, you know, what I was getting from the James Gang’s “Funk 49” was a particular thing, and then I move that on 20, 30 years, and yeah, you’re not going to recognize it. We’re not going to copy the drum break! [laughs] Any number of bands will give you that.
DM: I like what a rock album this is. There are some more low key songs towards the end, and there’s “The Healer,” but mostly there are all these passages that recall old school Ubu stuff but with the intensity ratcheted way up so it doesn’t feel like a regression, and it felt pretty immediate to me, and easy to connect with right away.
THOMAS: That’s good, I wanted to do a rock album. I had to fight various people in the band who wanted to extend the songs, and I said “NOPE! This is a minute-fifty long! That part you put on the end of it that goes for another two minutes, great part, but it’s deleted.” I was pretty determined that it was going to be tight and it was going to be rock, but with depth to it, and all sorts of stuff going on all the time. I think everybody did a really good job on it. Kristof is wonderful on it, so’s Darryl, the clarinet player. Michelle’s bass playing, especially when you understand that she’s the last thing that comes in, is masterful. Gary is great, he sits well with Keith, who’s coming from an entirely different world, and I’m very pleased with that, because I’d been working toward a two-guitar lineup for about two years now, and I’m glad I got there with it, and now it’s three guitar! I’m happy! I’m sure at some point I’ll go “Dammit…”
DM: Not very long ago, I spoke at some length with [founding Ubu synthesist] Allen Ravenstine, and I asked him about what electronic composers he was listening to while he developed the sound that became his signature in Ubu. He said there were none, which actually turned out to be a really satisfying answer, and I’d like to put something similar to you. What do you currently listen to for enjoyment, and is there anything, old or contemporary, that’s still inspiring ideas for Pere Ubu?
THOMAS: For Ubu? I don’t know. By the time it goes through the process with Ubu it’s gone through the mill and it doesn’t matter what I listen to, it’s pretty tangential. As far as this question of what inspires me, to this day, all I want in life is to be Roy Orbison. That ain’t ever gonna happen! When I listen for pleasure I tend to listen to one album endlessly for three weeks and then not at all. For the last week I’ve been listening to Jonathan Richman’s Jonathan Sings!. Is that ever going to appear anywhere in Ubu? NO! When we made one of the previous albums, I think it was Lady From Shanghai, I was listening to Van der Graaf Generator—Peter Hammill is an acquaintance, and he sent me, I think twenty Van der Graaf Generator CDs. [laughs] I never counted them, but I started to go through ‘em, but does it mean anything? I don’t know. There’s things I like, sure. You get to be an old man and there’s stuff you know you like. I’ve listened to Suicide’s first record endlessly a few times, does that mean it’s influenced Pere Ubu? No. The only thing I want is to be Roy Orbison.
DM: You’ve said that Pere Ubu was an idea, and that the idea of Pere Ubu hasn’t changed in 40 years. And I’ve seen, in more than one printed interview, over a looooong span of time actually, you referring to the duck principle, if it waddles and quacks it’s a duck so you don’t call it something other than a duck. But Pere Ubu HAS changed, rather significantly. You being the lone original member, you have the longest perspective on this—apart from simple matters of personnel, what important things have changed about Pere Ubu?
THOMAS: Only personnel. Nothing else. Like I say, the idea is the same. The method for each album tends to be a different method. I finish one album and I start thinking “Well, where do I want to go next?” I’ll try to figure out what I didn’t accomplish that I wanted to accomplish, and figure out a way of accomplishing what I didn’t accomplish. And if I sit there and I feel like I did everything I wanted to do, I have to think of another way of doing things, or I’ll start thinking “Well, I quit!” So it really depends on where I’m at in the flow of things. I still really want to accomplish the Pere Ubu Orchestra idea, that intrigues me. And this album was a bit of a step towards that because obviously there’s 9 members. So that gives you rich pickings, because they’re all extremely talented, and they all have definite ideas, and I WANT THAT. I want to accumulate more and more and make the end product bigger and bigger in terms of what it’s capable of doing, in terms of this quilt-like process that I’m currently fascinated by. So at some point I’ll start thinking about a new record. Some people have already started sending me material, and I’ll start to see how those ideas coalesce with the method I want to adopt. But as far as anything else about Ubu changing? I don’t know. You point out the last three albums are so different. When you hear this one, it’s gonna be very different again. I like to fix things. James Gang never DID meet Tangerine Dream, and I want to fix that. In my ultimate universe that I like to construct, they DO meet! It’s up to me to think about what would have happened then, and 30 years down the line from that. Pere Ubu, if you don’t know the history of pop music, you’re gonna be floundering at times with Pere Ubu. Pere Ubu draws from that history.
DM: That reminds me of Mark Mothersbaugh’s remark, or I think it was him, about how he liked The Beatles and he also liked Throbbing Gristle, but for different reasons, so he wished there’d been a Throbbing Beatles.
THOMAS: Well, yeah. That’s the whole thing. You begin to think about two things that should have been put together but never were, so you think to yourself, “Well, I’ll do it.”
DM: So, a thing I was going to do if the interview went badly was to make recourse to Alfred Jarry and propose a Pataphysical interview, where I’d invite you, if you felt like my questions were crap, to find an imaginary solution and simply answer whatever question you felt like answering irrespective of what I asked. Is there an answer you’d care to proffer to anything I haven’t asked yet?
THOMAS: Yeah, OK! No! That’s a whole lot like work! Don’t you think? It’s not been a bad interview, and I’m not really willing to put in that kind of work! I do that kind of thing normally, just in the course of putting Pere Ubu albums together, I don’t see why I should do it just because your questions aren’t up to par—and I’m not suggesting they weren’t, but you’re the damn writer! [laughs] I’ve done my job, I did the album, if you want Pataphysics—do you think Alfred Jarry would ask somebody’s permission to make up an interview?
DM: [laughs] He would not, no!
THOMAS: No, he would just do it! I had to interview Don Van Vliet 30 or so years ago, they brought me in to do this because everybody else was scared to interview Beefheart, but I said “Sure!” The station changed format the next week so I don’t even know if it aired. Maybe the cosmos just said “This can’t happen,” I don’t know. Beefheart did a standard Beefheart Pataphysical interview. He talked about squirrels the whole time. Well, OK, if you want to talk about squirrels I’ll talk about squirrels, but I gotta tell you, a Pataphysical interview about squirrels ain’t that interesting. At the time, sure, I was talking to Beefheart and he’s talking about squirrels, hey, this is cool, man! But a couple hours later you go “What the hell was that?” I guess it’s a story you can tell people, squirrels, fine. So I’ll turn it around, if anything I said doesn’t live up to what you need, make it up, what do I care?
In the event that anybody reading this has a recording of the Captain Beefheart interview Thomas mentioned in his last answer, PLEASE OH PLEASE OH PLEASE get a hold of me via this blog.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Terminal Drive’: Pere Ubu’s Allen Ravenstine’s legendary long lost electronic composition FOUND
Whining Maggots: Members of the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu covering Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and the Beatles!