Humor Me -
Rupert Loydell talks to David Thomas, singer of Pere Ubu

I hope these questions make some kind of sense. I always encourage the questioned to digress, tangent, tell stories etc as they see fit.

I never volunteer information.

How's life back in the avant garage? Why does Pere Ubu disappear for months, years at a time, and then turn up again?

We aren't disappearing. It must be you. We are amateurs. We don't like touring. We like the playing but not the driving. We don't like being in the newspaper. We don't have anything to say that anybody wants to hear. We don't care. I think that sums it up.

Why is this one another farewell album? Don't you get sick of farewell albums?

No. Obviously not. We are always quitting. That's why we've been around so long. It makes us feel good to quit. It makes us feel free. It makes us feel like we're getting somewhere. It solves our problems for us. Everybody should quit.

Ray Gun Suitcase, more than any other Pere Ubu album seems to draw on Ubu's past. That is there are tracks relating to almost all the kinds of music you've made in the past: collages, pop songs, 'difficult' rock, out rock, blah blah blah. Do you agree?

No. It's the standard mix.

Early on I became convinced that I finally knew how Ubu should be recorded in the studio. I went to the others and said I want to produce this record. To cut a long story short I finally figured out that to record us you need to get the physical space to feel right and the acoustic space to match it. We spent a lot of time adjusting the space and very little time playing. I think this accounts for it. That's all we wanted to do. Make a record that we felt was in us and that we hadn't been able to get out.

Although you've got belligerent with the lyrics again, and as I said above some of the music draws on your experimental side, it does seem that the Pere Ubu who've made records since 1988 have played more with pop music. Or did we simply catch up while you were gone?

This idea of Pop Music and Not-Pop Music is an alien concept to us. In too many interviews to mention I've said over and over that we never understood what the difference was supposed to be. Also over and over I've explained how we don't plan or think about what we do. We simply do it. We are strong/silent types. We are men not worm boys. We are the method. That's all we are. So when you put us in very expensive high tech studios and throw money at us you get one type of record. When you let me do it at home in Suma you get another type of record. it has nothing to do with anything else. This is the Mystery of The Avant Garage. Very hard for outsiders to understand. Very hard for us to understand. That's why it's taken us 20 years to figure it out.

Dare I ask what happened between Ubu and Chris Cutler (who we interviewed a couple of issues ago)? I still haven't got over the shock of seeing him barefoot, drumming for you on some tv show - it was a great moment in rock television. And I still really enjoy the psychedelic rock of Cloudland. People who compare it to Springsteen (a reference I've never understood) and stadium rock missed the point didn't they - there's such a demented edge, or subtext, to tracks like 'Breath'. That's on my list of great neglected songs, along with 'Waiting For Mary'.

Chris and Ubu simply ran out of hours in the day and days in the year. Chris does a dozen projects at once. In the end scheduling became a nightmare and unworkable. That's all really. We are friends.

Let's go back to the beginning. How did an obscure Cleveland band, in your own words 'involved with a scene of 50 or so people', suddenly become hip over here? I still remember those first reports, that whole kind of Akron, Ohio scene, somebody playing '30 SecondsÉ' to me. But it's still hard to see where you fitted in; to place The Modern Dance and Dub Housing (a personal favourite of mine) in relationship to the music around at those times. I mean Patti Smith and Television are great, but you don't seem to have much in common.

We don't. It was purely coincidence. Things were evolving in isolation in Cleveland. It was the isolation that created the unique character. We had nothing to lose. Nobody liked us and nobody ever would. Builds character that. The new wave thing happened coincidentally and we got noticed and swept along. I always thought we were a very traditional rock band. No, we are a very traditional rock band and always have been. It's not our fault that others have abandoned their roots and culture and traditions.

Monster Walks The Winter Lake and Blame The Messenger seem, at the risk of offending you or the rest of the band, like Pere Ubu albums in retrospect - perhaps a bit more wimsical, more humourous, but definitely in a continuing line between Song Of The Bailing Man and The Tenement Year. Is that fair? I mean you did draw on the musicians you'd previously worked with.

Seems fair to me but I do every record the same. Only chance & circumstances change the end product. I like working with people I know. To quote a dumb movie: 'I fear change'. I am returning to a Little Cleveland mentality. The artistic 'success' of RGS has only convinced me that my intuition was right. I only work with Clevelanders if I can help it.

How much are you the 'front'/'main' man of the band? There was mention in one interview I read that you were able to veto music because you could always say 'I can't possibly write lyrcis to that'! Is this true? Is it a strategy you revert to often?

In the end I choose the music I suppose because of what you mention. I don't exploit the situation and I am always happy to be proved wrong. I study a piece of music until I understand it inside and out. Then I write the words that are in it. This is like a sculptor studying a block of marble. If I can't see something or if what I see I don't like then there's no point to going on. This sometimes causes friction with other musicians. It is unavoidable, I'm afraid. I suppose if it gets to the point where I make more mistakes than I make correct decisions I'll know it. Then I really will quit.

Winter Comes Home was a very different album, linking up with some free jazzers, and those around the Henry Cow/Recommended type of thing; but you don't seem to have carried on that type of experiment. Will you, or would you like to?

No, it was really the end of a series of things I was doing live. I never felt that comfortable. I enjoyed the experiment and the challenge but in the end I need to be able to apply more physical power to a situation. At some point in the future I'm sure I'll begin to get nostalgic about it and apply myself there again and if somebody forceful takes me in hand I'll go along for the ride & the experience. It's something I did. I did it all right. I have no desire to re-do it. The 2 Pale Boys, my current solo band, has alot of improvising in it but can also apply power. I like that combo.

What influences you? Do you read a lot? Listen to a lot? Watch films, tv, whateverÉ and how does that all get filtered into the world of Ubu lyrics? You sometimes talk about subtexts for albums, references that can be decoded and spotted if we take the time to pay attention. Are these carefully worked out concepts, or do you find them afterwards, too? Who has influenced you as a singer, a lyricist?

I don't read fiction. i watch a little tv to relax. I don't usually like films unless they are grossly sentimental. My favorite films are all of the Rockys and Field Of Dreams. That gives you some idea. The subtexts/concepts are emotional strands, a weave of visions. They are worked out. Later I recognize more about them than I did at the time. Sometimes later I also say, What in the world was I thinking? Why did I do that?

What's a Cleveland boy doing still hanging out in London? What draws you to here?

My wife is English and is pursuing her career here. I can pursue my career anywhere.

Pere Ubu seems to have undergone the kind of thing that's happened to other bands - everyone paid you critical hommage when you started (ie in the late 70s), you sold some records, you disappeared, came back to initial critical interest, but a general malaise in the light of techno/dance musics, and now - hey presto! - you're suddenly hip again. Does it feel like that from the inside? Is the Geffen box set part of that reassessment and critical praise? Can you tell us about that and any other future projects?

From the inside we rarely see out. Scott was the guy who had the most grip on the outside world and he's on sabbatical so we're pretty much doomed as regards that stuff. Maybe T is more together but i doubt it. Oh, Michele kind of knows things but I can't always be sure that I understand her. This is because he's classically trained and also probably a different generation.

©Rupert Loydell / David Thomas

For more Pere Ubu, read Kevin Pearce's article.