Music Preview: In its fourth decade, Pere Ubu retains its punk edge

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It's Monday morning and David Thomas can't get his "lousy computer" working, which has the imposing and enigmatic leader of Pere Ubu more cranky than usual.

Pere Ubu -- Keith Moline, Michele Temple, Robert Wheeler, David Thomas, Steve Mehlman -- is touring in support of "Why I Hate Women."
Click photo for larger image.

Pere Ubu

Where: Club Cafe, South Side.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $15-$17; 412-323-1919.

"Number one," he says, "whenever you call tech support, never do what they say. Just lie to them."

Throughout our 20-minute phone interview, Thomas stops a few times to grumble and curse at the machinery. "You can tell I'm in a rare mood this morning," he says.

Wit and surreal sense of humor, though, are perfectly intact.

Thomas is about to launch a mini-tour in support of "Why I Hate Women," the band's 15th record, which he's described as "my idea of the novel Jim Thompson never wrote." Almost 30 years after the release of the Cleveland band's startling debut, "The Modern Dance," Pere Ubu, down to just the one original member, is still mining the territory of what Thomas once glibly called "avant-garage." It's a dark concoction of driving, dissonant rock, industrial static and expressionistic lyrics delivered in a vocal range from moan to spastic yelp.

On the last trip to Pittsburgh, Pere Ubu was a perfect soundtrack to the sci-fi cult film "The Man With the X-Ray Eyes." This time, it's a more straight-up set, if you can call it that. The 53-year-old Thomas offers an amusing account of Pere Ubu's work in an interview that's full of sarcasm and good-natured crankiness.

So, is there a focus to this tour?

No. Just a rock band playing rock songs. The focus will probably be heavy on the new album. I haven't bothered to think about the set list. I'll probably do that about a half-hour before the show on Tuesday and will undoubtedly repeat it slavishly for the next week if it works well.

Do you still feel a strong connection to the early stuff, or do you like to focus on more recent material?

It all ... you have to concentrate on the recent things, because you have to sell the damn stupid album. I don't want to have sell the stupid album, I'm tired of selling the stupid albums, but I'll sell the stupid album. That's just the way it works. It's absurd to pretend it's anything else. As far as the early stuff, I had to sell the stupid album 20 years so I did the stuff 20 years ago, and 19 and 18 and 17 and 16 years ago, sell the stupid albums.

I'm as connected to the old stuff as I am to the new album. We don't really think about things too much before the show. We sit there and put together a list of songs we want to play and put them in alphabetical order and play them. For years we used to struggle like every idiot rock band in the world in trying to organize sets that had dynamics and got loud and soft and fast and slow and girly and boy-y and rocky and folkie, and then one day I had enough and said, 'Let's just do the thing in alphabetical order and see what happens,' and it was the best set order we ever came up with.

Can you talk about the concept of how this record relates to Jim Thompson?

I had wanted to work on a new concept for the record. We'd been doing a certain series of new things for years. I figured I'd mined that as far as I was interested in doing it. I wanted to write something that was dark and obsessive. We always harken back to noir roots. The first Pere Ubu single was liberally stolen from Raymond Chandler, and we always go back to that. But Raymond Chandler wasn't right for what I was doing. Too noble and romantic. If you're looking for something dark and noir, Jim Thompson comes to mind quickly. As a framework, when you write an album you put together a story that's behind the album, at least I do. Then the album and songs are not a narrative of the story -- I simply choose a psychological moment from the story and all of them are about that one moment in one way or another.

Can you explain the title?

The title is "Why I Hate Women." What needs explaining?

I guess people would take that to mean it's your point of view.

Did you ever read any Mickey Spillane books? If someone dies in that book, did Mickey Spillane kill that person? Was it autobiographical?

I guess people think of books more as works of fiction.

What do you think a record is? Do you actually believe that all of these heartfelt renderings of the soul are autobiographical or real? Or anything but fiction? I find that startling. Even if someone is writing an autobiography, do you actually think it's anything other than fiction? Do you think anyone is so aware of themself that they don't fictionalize their own lives? This is standard stuff. One of the reasons I decided to go with the title is I was really fed up with this mythology of rock music that this is all about me, or whoever the singer is. It's fiction. It's made up.

The record has been described as 'inaccessible.' How does that word strike you?

I strikes me inaccessibly. Why should we make it inaccessible. Where did that come from? Why should we write accessible albums? Does anybody? Do you think Britney Spears writes accessible albums? Britney Spears is the most avant-garde, experimentalist, inaccessible musician I am aware of. There may be one or two others, like Justin Timberlake is pretty out there.

I don't know why I should write something that's accessible. Is William Faulkner accessible? It's really all in the eye of the beholder. We're a niche outfit. We provide a specialized product for discerning tastes. This is not hamburgers, it's ... yes, it is hamburgers, it's expensive hamburgers. Nobody sits there and says -- except for Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake -- "I'm going to write an inaccessible album." William Faulkner never said, "I'm going to write an inaccessible novel." You try to create truth, though it's fiction -- that standard craft conundrum.

You've said that you don't try to "re-capture" anything, which is interesting because that's what many artists of your age are doing, trying to capture early intensity. Is that something you want to re-capture?

Intensity is not something you try to recapture. You either have it or you don't. Intensity comes in all shapes and flavors and forms. There's not one kind of intensity, one brand -- "Intensity brand." I can't do that. If we were able to do that sort of stuff, we would have become very successful pop musicians many decades ago. We, at the time, said we're incapable of it, and we patently proved we are incapable of trying to recapture something. Things like intensity or poetic vision, you either have it or you don't. If you set out to capture intensity, you ain't ever going to get it.

At what point did you see the avant-garde possibilities of rock?

From the first time I heard any kind of rock record. It was obvious to me from the beginning, as soon as I started listening. The first album I ever bought was "Uncle Meat" by Frank Zappa, and the next day I bought "Trout Mask Replica."

Was being in Cleveland and having that distance from the centers of punk liberating?

I was isolated and we had no particular ambition or hope of ever playing outside of town -- except maybe Akron or Kent, Ohio. Because there was no particular hope of doing anything, we just simply wrote and played music the way we wanted to do it. No point in trying to set some sound that would be commercial, that would be enjoyable, whatever. We just played for ourselves and our friends.

"Avant-garage" is a joke, and yet it does seem to be a valid description.

Yeah, it's a valid description. It doesn't mean anything. Obviously, it's making fun of avant-garde and it points to our garage-rock roots. Pere Ubu was very '60s garage-rock oriented. Other than that, writers want labels, and the only label I've ever applied to us was "mainstream rock band." Avant-garage is cute and it implies certain meanings and attitudes, so it's useful, but it doesn't mean anything. That's why I chose Pere Ubu as a name. It doesn't mean anything.

You live in England, where it seems like pop bands are supposed to be disposable. You obviously have a different notion of music, having played with Pere Ubu for 30 years. Do you pay any attention to that flavor-of-the-week culture?

Nope. Not a bit. I don't tune in. I don't pay attention. I don't watch much TV. I only listen to Talk Sport Radio and Radio 5. And that's it. I hardly go to shows unless it's an obscure little show my friends are playing.

Are you a Browns fan?

Well, of course.

Do you ever get into it with people in Pittsburgh?

Oh yeah, but people from Pittsburgh are idiots. Nothing personal. Pittsburgh's a lovely town. I hate it. I really like it, but I'm from Cleveland and I despise you and all your generations. And there's nothing else to say about it. It's not personal. It's an obligation.

Now, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in your hometown. Do you pay any attention to it?

I wish it were in Pittsburgh. No, I mean I have some friends that work there. But no. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems like a bad idea. They don't have a Hall of Fame for writers or painters, do they? Why should they have one for rock musicians -- unless they think that rock music is some tacky pastime of disaffected youth who want to be placated with shiny toys.


Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.


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