Target Practice: David Thomas Of Pere Ubu Interviewed

Thirty-five years on from The Modern Dance, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas talks to Stuart Huggett about new album Lady from Shanghai and how Ubu have always been a pop band

Formed in Cleveland, Ohio, Pere Ubu are one of America’s most idiosyncratic groups. Distinguished initially by David Thomas’ high pitched singing voice and Allen Ravenstine’s abstract synthesizer sounds, Ubu’s early singles (recorded ’75 to ’77) were post-punk before punk even hit. From 1978’s The Modern Dance, the group’s original run of albums found Thomas and a varying line-up of musicians experimenting with song forms, sounds and lyrics to dazzling and disorientating effect.

Pere Ubu were inactive during the mid 80s, while Thomas recorded a string of records for Rough Trade, but reformed in 1987, touring and releasing albums ever since. Thomas records with numerous other musicians, notably the Two Pale Boys, and fronts a revived version of his pre-Ubu group Rocket From The Tombs, while expanding his work into writing (The Book Of Hieroglyphs) and the theatre (Mirror Man, Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi).

My first meeting was David Thomas was back in 2011, for a slightly fractious interview at Brighton’s Duke Of York’s cinema, where he and Two Pale Boys performed their live underscore to 1962 horror movie Carnival Of Souls. Twelve months later, I met him again for a more relaxed chat over coffee in Hove. Despite a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, I found him to be a calm, polite figure; one who frequently became amused and animated while discussing topics that interested him, but quick to dismiss vaguely formulated or repetitive questions.

Pere Ubu’s Lady From Shanghai shares its title with Orson Welles’ 1947 film noir. How are they connected?

David Thomas: There’s no association other than the production methodology. The thing that affects me about Orson Welles’ films is the struggle he had to produce anything, the amount of betrayal that got heaped on him. I still cry, literally shed tears, when he talks about what happened to The Magnificent Ambersons. To me, The Lady From Shanghai is almost choreographed, it’s like a dance film, and that appealed to me. The whole story of the production, where he was standing trying to get his costumes (for a stage version of Around The World In Eighty Days) out of hock in Boston and saw this book (being read by a woman in the theatre box office) and said “Get this!” That whole thing has to do with what I call the Chinese Whispers method that I’ve been using a lot recently. There’s also the whole thing about mirrors in the movie that resonates with stuff that I’m doing. And that shot where the character goes, “Tarrrr-get practice”, with that high shot down from the cliffs, is a perspective I’ve made use of a lot.

Lady From Shanghai has a very dense, electronic sound.

DT: Yeah, this is an extremely synthesized album. I mean even Keith (Moliné) the guitar player, well he comes from that sort of realm, but his guitar sounds like a synthesizer. It’s something I wanted to do: I wanted to create very intricate layers and subvert ‘dance’. The place where it kicks in as to what exactly is happening, where you start to worry, “Gee, this isn’t really right”, is probably ‘Mandy’. It just sits there, it’s got a four on the floor kick drum throughout, but as it builds it becomes impossible to move without looking like a doofus. Your body wants to dance but the rhythms are forcing your body shapes into goofy things that you wouldn’t want to show on the dancefloor, so you have to internalise everything. This gets pretty insidious towards the end, where I’m really very pleased with the way it was constructed. That really is part of the process.

What was the reason for bringing out an accompanying book (Chinese Whispers: The Making Of Pere Ubu’s Lady From Shanghai)?

DT: Well it’s a long, ongoing process and the explanation for it is very convoluted but I’ll try to summarise it. How can I summarise this? Basically, the whole process of Lady From Shanghai has been as open as it can be. All along we posted demos on our download site, and I thought the finish of the project will be this missing manual. The whole process is exposed and open to the consumer, and this is the promise of the internet. One of the great failures, based on its original promise, is information technology and the internet. Instead of information, we have bells and whistles and stupid pictures of stupid rock/pop celebrities and stupid dancing around and stupid, stupid colour. I hate colour. Fortunately I’m losing my hearing , I’m losing my body and I hope soon to lose my sight so I won’t have to deal with colour any more. I look forward to it like I looked forward to losing my hair when I was younger.

Would you prefer people who are listening to Lady From Shanghai to have all this additional text?

DT: It’ll come out simultaneously, but it doesn’t come with it. You have to search for it and buy the damn thing, it’s a hundred pages of liner notes, basically. We faced this problem years ago. From the very beginning I was opposed to printing the lyrics, period. ‘Cos that’s not what they are, they’re not poetry, they’re not words, they’re a different form. Rock words was a new creation, it had nothing to do with coherence or logic or poetry or English language. It didn’t even matter if you heard the actual words. I tell in The Book Of Hieroglyphs about the first time I heard this Tammy Wynette song. I sat there and I was listening to it, and it’s a standard love song all the way through, and she gets to the chorus and she sings, “Stand by Earth man." This is not exaggerating: I was astounded at the sophistication of this. That these seemingly rude hillbillies that all the intelligentsia despised had gotten to post-modern while all the rest of us were wallowing in pre-industrial, and they’d turned this standard man/woman romance into a Fortean, prophetic, global spectacle. It was only years later, I remember cover versions coming out – ‘cos that’s what happens in country music– and they changed the chorus from “Stand by Earth man” to “Stand by your man”. I was so disappointed. I thought, poor Tammy Wynette. She’d done this brilliant thing and these slobs have ruined it for her. It really was well into the 80s before I discovered the song had always been ‘Stand by Your Man’. But if you listen to Tammy Wynette’s version she does sing “Stand by Earth man”. Next time you have an opportunity, see if I’m not right. But the answer to your question was that, if you wanted the words you would have to send away for them and we would send you them. For a brief period in the 80s, you know when CDs were out, we made the mistake of printing them, ‘cos I thought the booklets had to be filled up. So I was, ok, print the stupid lyrics. But we recognised the error of our ways. So, you don’t have to. is the most documented and dense website of any band anywhere in the world. If you want it, it’s there. If you don’t want it, which is fair enough, it’s not there. You don’t have to have it, it’s ok. I just am fascinated by the process of creativity and there are others like me who’d be interested to know all the nuts and bolts.

Pere Ubu’s relationship with pop standards is unusual, the way you re-use songtitles from other artists.

DT: There’s hundreds of examples, like ‘Mandy’. It’s intentional. When you hear ‘Mandy’ you’re supposed to think of the Barry Manilow song, and the next time you hear the Barry Manilow song you’re supposed to think of the Pere Ubu song. This all evolved from the ‘Fall Back’ principle, years ago when I was on Phonogram, in the big money period. You know there’s that expression, when the clocks change, ‘Spring forward, Fall back’? Well I was gonna do a worldwide hit, which would be ‘Spring Back, Fall Forward’, so that everybody on Top of the Pops would be speaking the opposite, which would totally ruin that global plan and the global population. So yes, we’re a pop band. We approach pop music as if it was blues music. Now in blues music, or most any folk music, lots of songs are interconnected. People just lift things from other guys and put it in their songs, it’s a communal experience. Well I steal things but I tell the person I’m stealing from, I’m honest about it. So Pere Ubu exists within the world of pop music. I was watching One Direction on the TV the other night for some reason, and I was really very struck with their choreography. I was really upset ‘cos I can see they’ve obviously got their choreography from the MC5. Some day I will find the guy who put that together for them and I’ll get the confession out of him, even if I have to beat him. This is what I was gonna do, you stole this! Well they didn’t steal it ‘cos I hadn’t done it yet, but they took it from the MC5. So we exist within the pop world and we react to what other pop is doing, we just don’t do it particularly well, that’s how I would put it.

When I was at school, the first time I saw you and became aware of Pere Ubu was on children’s pop TV, performing ‘We Have the Technology’ on the Roland Rat show.

DT: Oh yeah, that was fun. Roland the Rat was wonderful. The guy who did Roland was a fan of ours and he insisted that we be on the show, and everybody’s going “What?!” We were in Athens Saturday night, flew in Sunday morning, filmed that, then flew back to Athens to do the next show. That was insane. But that’s the only thing that I ever liked doing. You’d be shocked if you saw this stuff that was going on kids’ TV in America back then. You got away with murder, like Ghoulardi. He was a guy with a bad attitude and very anarchistic. Ghoulardi was doing a monologue and said, “Ghoulardi doesn’t like bridge. He likes poker. What you do in poker is you get a girl. And then you poke ‘er!” This is kids’ TV, you know? And he’d be blowing up stuff, people would send him in fireworks and home-made explosives – it was all live TV – and he had these plastic Rat Fink racing models and he’d blow this stuff up! On TV! And one day somebody sent him in a firework that was like this (indicates an enormous firework) and he was going to do it. You could hear people saying, “No! Don’t!” He lit it up, and it blew, the cameras went skew like this, people were running across, the curtains were on fire, people were stumbling across, completely stunned, it was totally anarchistic. But it was so liberating. They totally would never do anything like that these days. That was back when people were free, and were allowed to say things and have opinions and be rebellious. It was a unique time. It was the last days of freedom. Frankly nobody under the age of about 50, and who’s not an American, knows what it’s like to be genuinely free.

Do you feel that the freedom the media once had has been constricted?

DT: There was a great advantage back then. It used to be that isolation was caused by geography. Mountains and rivers and streams. Well, in the 60s, isolation was caused by reception limitation. So everything was regional. Radio playlists were regional and changed from city to city, so you could have a hit in Ohio that was totally unknown in Michigan. There was so much time to fill. It was a brave new technological frontier. So there’s very little oversight, no concern about health and safety or politically correct or whatever. Let’s just fill the time! That meant anybody could get on. What are you gonna do when you’ve got eight hours to fill? Now it’s all syndicated, all national, so there are no pockets of isolation. When you have pockets of isolation, interesting stuff happens. You get characters coming along, and they ferment, and it breeds and it creates. Now it’s just fear. I’m not sitting complaining about it, I’m just saying the facts. Those are different times. Everything’s different, and it’s worse. The metaphor of the pendulum swinging back: no, the pendulum only swings one way. Which is, it just gets shit.

In Chinese Whispers you discuss how “Structure was regulated and ironed out” of blues music by British musicians in the 60s. Do you think British musicians have had a detrimental effect on the course of rock music?

DT: Yeah, but that’s not their fault. It’s not your culture. It’s a standard thing of, you like to plunder other people’s cultures. And, fair enough, everybody does it, but there’s always been a disconnect. I discovered this in Siberia in 1990, just as the wall had come down, when I was I’d been sent out to look at the issue of isolation in music. One of the prime movers of the underground years in Russia, a fellow called Artemy Troitsky, said that the most ordinary garage band in Wichita, Kansas has far more authenticity than The Rolling Stones – not to pick on them – or any English band, because the music is in their blood. It comes natural to them. For the English and other people you’re looking through a veil of separation. Now that veil can be interesting, it might contort things in an interesting way, but nonetheless it’s a veil of separation. The geography is not in your blood. The roads do not go in a straight line for a hundred miles, you don’t have the big sky of Montana or the buttes of Utah or the Mississippi River. Now, you’ve got other stuff, that’s fine. I think the peak of English culture musically – and I hate to admit this in public – was prog rock of the 70s. All that stuff that people like Soft Machine, Henry Cow, Van Der Graff Generator and all those guys were working on was intrinsically English and, as usually happens with English culture, the English despise it and kill it. They’d done that to English folk music, like [Dorset folk singer] Walter Parton and all that stuff. They do it all the time. I don’t know why. It’s just interesting from an intellectual point of view. I don’t sit here and grumble about the damn British. I live here, I’m ok with it.

Lady From Shanghai is released by Fire Records. The Book of Hieroglyphs and Chinese Whispers: The Making of Pere Ubu’s Lady From Shanghai is available here

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