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INTERVIEW: Pere Ubu
****Contains spoilers**** Stuart Huggett , July 9th, 2013 07:44

When Pere Ubu's David Thomas talked to Stuart Huggett for our recent Quietus Interview, he told him about the live soundtrack to the film Carnival Of Souls that they'll be performing at Saturday's East End Live festival in London. Not published in the original feature, ahead of this weekend, read how Thomas first encountered Carnival Of Souls and why it's an ideal film for Pere Ubu to soundtrack

When did you first see Carnival Of Souls?

David Thomas: There was a TV monster movie host named Ghoulardi and every Friday night he would have films on. It was a time-filler. He bought in packages of these cheap B-movies. Then at the peak of his popularity there was a Saturday afternoon monster movie, so he just ran through tons of these things. I don’t even know if I saw Carnival of Souls back then. I imagine I must have, I saw all of that stuff. That’s what you did.

What did you like about them?

DB: The thing about the B-movie was that it appealed to kids and, you know, they were cheap. They weren’t Hollywood by committee. There was nobody on continuity. Like this, Carnival Of Souls, perfect example. One guy [director/producer Herk Harvey] had a vision and he made it, one movie. There was nobody checking up on it, and he had his own agenda which was loose enough, as was all the B-movie agendii, or whatever the plural is, that it was a blank canvas. It was a blank canvas for Ghoulardi, it was a blank canvas for his audience. There was always one good idea in those films. One of the perfect examples is The Time Travelers (Ib Melchior's 1964 film, famous for its sped-up ending). With this one good idea, it would spark your imagination, you could apply your own agenda to the thing, make up your own stories from it. There wasn’t this anodyne movie-by-committee stuff, and that was exciting for kids.

It’s interesting that Carnival of Souls’ director had a very successful career as a documentary producer but just made this one horror movie.

DB: Yeah, well what’s exciting about it, what makes it a good movie, is that it’s just his vision, warts and all. It’s by no means what you’d call a great movie. I have great affection for it. I think, the more I see it, the more I like it. Even as a kid it was obvious what the plot was, what was going to happen, and all that. But it didn’t matter.

You’ve previously scored it with Two Pale Boys. How do you work with the film’s existing sound design and Gene Moore's organ score?

DT: Well, what we do is, we incorporate it. I don’t know how legal it is, or care, but there’s no copyright on it, he [Harvey] lost his copyright, as you probably know. We use the organ, and we mute out stuff that’s not important. That guy had to do the organ score for the entire piece, probably had to do it live too, in one take, and it’s just a bit much. So there are two, maybe three, main organ parts and we leave those in; or we start with them and then take over; or we work them back. You know, we handle it in various ways. We’ve done several of these, we’ve done the 3D version of It Came From Outer Space, we’ve done X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes. They get progressively easier actually. It Came From Outer Space was really incredibly difficult to do because it was basically a Hollywood movie, even though it’s a sci-fi. There’s lots of scenes, and when you have a lot of scenes that means it’s difficult to keep the soundtrack going and keep it in sync. X: The Man… was a cheaper movie, it was easier to do and therefore more fun. And Carnival Of Souls is the easiest and most fun because it’s the cheapest of all and there’s very few scenes, so that gives you time to get going.

How has your score changed over successive performances?

DT: Oh, it’s always developed because we’re such improvisers. We get bored and can’t just do the same thing over and over, it gets tiresome. We plot out themes and modes and then all of that changes. Sometimes we get off on something that’s really good and just go with it, so it’s always different, for better or worse. Then again, the audience never knows. That’s the problem with plotting these things out too carefully, because then you sit there going, “Oh, we screwed that up” whereas nobody knows you screwed up. They just sit there going, “That’s great!” “Yeah, well Keith [Moliné, Pere Ubu guitarist] forgot the damn riff!” No, it’s a lot of fun to do, just ‘cos it’s very evocative.

What do you enjoy about viewing Carnival Of Souls?

DT: The landlady character [Frances Feist], she’s so berserk! The great weakness, in fact, is the lead woman [Candace Hilligoss]. She walks through it like a zombie, which of course she is, but even so.

There’s not much great acting in it.

DT: No, the landlady’s great! And the doctor [Stan Levitt] is funny.

The character I dislike most is that awful hunk of a love interest [Sidney Berger], all the crass lines he comes out with.

DT: Oh, no, no, no, he’s so good, I really like him! Because it’s just so overcooked.

He completely fails to be heroic.

DT: Well, I’m not sure he was meant to be terribly heroic. But he’s totally over-written. And I love the scene at the very end, the last thing with the doctor where they see... Well, you just see it coming a mile away. You’re thinking, “Oh, I can’t believe this! Come on, let’s get this over with!” But stuff like that is really endearing, it’s just so intriguing. You couldn’t get away with that anymore.

Are there other films from that era you’d like to try doing an underscore to?

DT: We like this one so much that I’m not sure. You can do the same damn thing over and over with a different film, but since we’ve done these three we’ve sort of mined that seam. I don’t really have any particular desire to do some serious film, quote unquote, just because you can’t be as free with it, there’s not as much leverage. Because we’re not trashing their work of art, we’re not saying, “Oh, this [soundtrack] deserves to be replaced.” We don’t make fun of the film, we don’t treat it lightly, but there’s plenty of room in it for expression. Whereas a Buñuel film or something, you can’t screw with it too much really, because there’s so much in it, there’s so much intent and there’s so much design.

Have you ever been interest in having your own theatrical productions filmed?

DT: Oh, they have been filmed. We were pursuing the notion of someday doing a Quay Brothers film, in fact we got fairly far along with it, but financing at that point was collapsing around the world. But we’ve always had a cinematic approach to sound from the very beginning, and theoretical or conceptual influences from people like Orson Welles or Hitchcock. I mean, the thing I learned from Hitchcock musically is, get rid of the damn musicians. Actors are the ones that screw up films, which was one of his big things, and that’s true with music. Musicians screw up things, so you want to get rid of them as quickly as possible, get them out of the studio. But films have always had a really fundamental problem as an art form, in that – and this may seem overly simplistic – a film starts, something happens, and it ends. You can’t get around that, there are fundamental problems there in terms of art.

So cinema doesn’t tempt you personally as a creative medium?

DT: It’s not what I’m good at, and I like to just do what I’m good at. Plus there’s this committee aspect of film making, from when we were making videos, that I find incredibly irritating. Film crews are always going: “Please! Thank you!” And the first time I was on set, I was like, “What are you people doing? What is all this, ‘Please? Thank You?’” In music it’s all “I’ll tear your fucking head off and shit down your neck if you do that again!” But the crews are all: “Thank you! Thank you!” Let’s take is as read that you’ve said ‘thank you’, OK? Can you just give me the damn... pipe or whatever.

Read the original interview here, head to Pere Ubu's website here and get hold of tickets for East End Live here

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