Musicians Are Cowards: An Interview with Pere Ubu's David Thomas
Rock savant David Thomas, of art "punk" acts Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs, weasels his way out of logical contradictions surrounding the early days, consumer culture, and the state of music today.
David Thomas hates the word "punk": "Either everything I've done is punk or nothing is."
To this founder and vocalist of acclaimed Ohio art-punk act, Pere Ubu, "punk" meant "cliché pablum designed to sell merchandise to gullible rubes in confused and decaying cultures." But even musicologists who've built entire careers on punk scholarship should not despair at this account. It's too damn clever.
In the colloquial sense of the word, David Thomas is a punk through and through. He spews political banter but denies Pere Ubu was a political band. He revels in irony yet claims he doesn't "do" irony. He rejects that the band is experimental -- "We know what we're doing" -- but has made use of numerous techniques that couldn't be described any other way. He dismisses the title of archivist but collects every single press tidbit, release document, and "theoretical rambling" about Pere Ubu he can get his hands on. It actually becomes hard to dispute Thomas' self-granted title of "genius" as long as you envision a sly little smirk on his face.
In August, Fire Records released the first in a series of Pere Ubu box sets, called Elitism for the People 1975-1978, remastered from the original two-track tapes. This one, complete with minimalist packaging, catalogues Ubu's earliest and most celebrated material -- The Modern Dance and Dub Housing LPs (both 1978), a collection of singles, and a live set from Max's Kansas City (1977). These records show Pere Ubu just out of the starting gate fresh and wild: the culmination of David Thomas' unrefined yelps and wails, Allen Ravenstine synths and tapes, Tom Herman's sparse, sputtering guitar, Tony Maimone's bass and percussion, Scott Krauss' rickety percussion, and more.
It all comes together as an unwieldy beast that grooves with surprising ease. (I'm sure David Thomas will hate this description.) Recently, I spoke with the man himself to discuss the early days, his (a)political musings, Cleveland, New York, his still-active, pre-Ubu group Rocket from the Tombs, consumer culture, and why I'm to blame for the state of music today. Pere Ubu is alive and kicking, albeit in a different form. In July, they completed a tour across Europe.
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Your box set Elitism for the People has a message on the cover that reads, "Pere Ubu is fond of consumerism. We sell soul like it's Popeil Veg-O-Matic. Pere Ubu is about used car salesmen and late night TV sales pitches"--
What's your question?
My question is, did you ever own a Popeil Veg-O-Matic?
[laughs] Not that I'm aware of. It's not something that's gonna stick with me through time.
To expound on that point, are you trying to point out the irony of selling this box set? Because artists have to sell things, right?
I don't do irony. I stay well away from irony. Anything I say, I believe, which has often caused people confusion. I was just thinking in terms of what would go on the cover, and I thought to myself, "I don't want another design." It's just what it is. Fire is going to put the whole catalog out in boxes. I really want the music to stand on its own. In previous box releases, we put lots of liner notes in and crap. I don't want to sound pretentious, but it's sort of posterity building.
In the end, I want it to speak for itself. I'm pleased the way the boxes are going because it really points out our career path. After Dub Housing, there was a really important conversation that we had in the control room. Our manager came to hear the record as we had mixed it, and he was a very powerful man (still is). His new group at the time was called Def Leppard, and he brought them to our gigs to demonstrate how a band does a sound check. He then went on to have a bunch of heavy metal bands until he discovered Metallica! And he's still their manager. So he's kind of a big guy. And he came to the studio, and he said, "Look, record two more records like this, and you'll be big stars." And Allen [Ravenstine] sat there and said, "Well what if we don't want to? And more important, what if we can't?" And Cliff [Burnstein] said, "As long as you make good music, somebody will put it out." And we were all sitting there thinking, "Wow, that sounds pretty good!"
So by the time we finished Dub Housing, we could do Pere Ubu pretty damned easy. We could do it in our sleep. And I know that sounds kinda bad -- we certainly would never do it in our sleep -- but we knew how to do it. There was really a sense in the band that we were now gonna go somewhere else, and that was the next three albums: New Picnic Time, Art of Walking, and Bailing Man. New Picnic Time really is a masterpiece, whether people know it or not. And I always felt bad about it, cause all the critics were going on about how we had lost our way and we were wandering off into weirdo land, and I'm listening to it, and if I had to base my own reputation off just one album, that would be it. Cause what it's doing, even to me, is terrifying. It really does take structure and rip its face off and peel it back, so for a moment, you can see something that's pretty damn terrifying. I was just laying in bed last night thinking, "We were as close to the flame as that band got." [Pausing] But anyway, I don't know what the question was. Oh yeah. So it's not about design; it's the music. I do tend to answer things in a long way at times.
No, I expected that. I'm glad. So I know you're pretty modest guy, but could you try to explain--
Oh, I'm a genius though. I'm very modest, but I'm a genius. Go ahead.
Can you explain why this rerelease of your early material is especially significant?
I don't know if it has any significance at all. We've always tried to use the best technology we could get our hands on, and over time, that technology evolves. So I'm particularly pleased with this because I really do think we captured the analog world of the time. And the engineer who did the master of it was just going on and on, saying, "Wow, this is an analog world. This is really what it was like then." So I don't know if it has significance. It's another damn record. But I'm pleased that we've really nailed getting that sound transferred to the digital world.
What was Pere Ubu trying to say during this period about corporatism and consumer culture that's relevant today?
Well we've never been terribly corporate. My feeling has always been about the same, and it's a totally irrational feeling. To me, the corporations are just like the Medicis back in the Renaissance. They're there to give us money so we can do art. I am not one of these people that derides the suits and the business. The record companies are really easy to understand. They're in the business of selling records! And if you don't sell records, they don't want you. How hard is any of that to understand? I also know that the overwhelming majority of people that I've met in huge record companies have a love and a passion for music. They just gotta sell records. So I don't blame them for the state of things. Everyone says the suits and the corporations have ruined the music business. No. It's the musicians who've done it. The musicians are cowards. I would say the majority of musicians are cowards. If Sting had been brought up in '30s Germany, he probably would have been a Nazi! Musicians go along to get along. Their job is to seek approval. Their job is to be loved by the masses. So that's not a healthy person.
I briefly want to mention the Rocket from the Tombs. You've been back together for a while--
We've always back together. Everybody's going on about another reunion. Either a) we're always reuniting, or b) we've never gone away. But anyway, there's a [new] record called Black Record. It's pretty good, I think. It'll be coming out November 13th, and we'll be hitting the road and doing that sort of thing.
You once said about Rocket from the Tombs, "It seems to me, as I remember it, that what we were angry about was ordinariness. The mainstream rock bands who played in all the clubs were so ordinary and unambitious, were satisfied with so little when there so much that could be done [...] That doesn't seem too punk to me." How do you feel about the term "punk"? Like, what's the most punk thing you've done?
But wouldn't you argue that so were the bands we think of as quintessential punk, like The Clash and the Sex Pistols and those kinds of guys?
I don't mean that every band that's considered punk I don't respect. Johnny Lydon has all the respect in the world he can get from me. Yeah, the Sex Pistols were a decent rock band! The Clash ... eh, they were a decent rock band. I'm not a big Clash guy.
My point is that all of the early quote-unquote punk bands in America, like Television or Blondie or Talking Heads, they were all gonna happen anyway. They all had roots before punk happened, and nothing changed for them, y'know? And this is hard for people to understand, but if you remember back to the Sex Pistols tour of America, there was all this kerfuffle about how they had these joke bands opening for them, these sort of goofball, Tubes sort of bands. And all the English are going, "Ahh, they don't understand," but no, that's how we perceived punk at the time: that it was a goofball, Tubes sort of band, or "Weird Al" Yankovic sort of thing. And the thing that English people don't understand is that all this stuff we'd seen before in that garage band thing of the '60s: ? and the Mysterians, Music Machine, all that stuff. If you're gonna call something punk, that stuff was punk, certainly as easily as the '70s punk UK thing. We'd seen all that! So oh, big deal.
How would you characterize what people call the dawn of punk, whatever happened around '75, '76?
Well, what was happening in America was that there was a third generation of rock youth coming up. We totally had nothing but disdain for the hippies and the counterculture. These people were just, like, General Motors or something. It was all a farce. When I was young man, rock was very clearly a straight line from the beginnings, "Heartbreak Hotel", which opened up the whole world to the narrative of rock music, through Brian Wilson and Silver Apples and obviously the Velvets, all that usual stuff. It was all a straight line of growing maturity and moving towards what I would call a literate rock era where it wasn't "baby, baby." You were using the potentialities of the form to create a new kind of, for want of a better word, serious literature.
I mean, look at Television for goodness sake, The Residents, and all this other stuff that was going on. And then it all went wrong. [laughs] And I remember very clearly at that time, having the picture, before punk happened, that these bands all around were moving in the same direction. And it was all wiped out by punk. It was all killed because, all of a sudden, the corporations and people who didn't have a strong discipline in their mind, had something cheap and colorful and gaudy that they could copy. They would just copy this thing. It was a fashion, like One Direction. There is no difference between One Direction and punk, y'know? You know who Simon Cowell is. There wouldn't have been a Simon Cowell without Johnny Rotten. And again, I make the distinction between Johnny Rotten and John Lydon. Simon Cowell is simply the Johnny Rotten for this century. That's my feeling.
I think more and more, people are recognizing the influence of the more avant-garde side of punk. But what school of thought informed your ideas about this new kind of music, back in the '70s?
Well you have to remember the situation I've been describing. At that point, in the early '70s, there was this clear historical imperative going on, and part of that was the introduction of concrete sound, analog synthesizers, all these bands I'd mentioned. When I was a kid, ten years old, I was listening to Harry Partch because that's what record my father had. He was an old beatnik. And all this stuff was coming together, it was clear noise was to be introduced a significant, narrative voice in rock music. We were just sitting there looking at that, and we were aware of our place in the stream of things.
In Cleveland in those days, the record store was huge. Everybody in Pere Ubu and everybody in the scene in Cleveland those days worked in record stores. And if your record store didn't have the latest Tangerine Dream or the latest Neu! album or the 48th Kevin Ayers bootleg, then you just couldn't show your face in town. If anything was happening in the world, we knew about it because of the record stores. There was this very clear historical imperative, and we just thought, "Well, we're part of this. We're not the '60s. This is what's here, and we're gonna move with it."
So do you think there's a distinction then between the Midwest punk scene, or whatever you want to call it--
You keep using this word--
Sorry! It's just the catchall term. You know what I mean, though: the bands you associate with this school of music coming from the Midwest compared with your Ramones, say.
Well the essential ingredient was that we were pretty much in isolation in Cleveland. You have to remember that back in the '60s, everything was regional. Radio stations still had regional hits that weren't hits 300 miles east or west, y'know? And that period was just ending, and in Cleveland, everybody thinks and thought Cleveland was just a joke, and there was no hope for us. We understood that in Cleveland, number one, nobody liked what we were doing. All of the rock bands who were playing the rock clubs thought we just got stoned and got on stage and played whatever. They had total disrespect for us, whereas in fact we rehearsed more than they did, I'm sure. So we understood on a fundamental level that nobody would ever like what we did, we would never be able to get a show anywhere, so we may as well just do what we wanna do. We would just be what we are, cause there's no hope, and that was a very powerful motivator.
Plus, the scene at the time was very competitive. There was two or three other bands, The Mirrors and The Electric Eels and a couple others, and the competition was vicious. You might be able to play two, three, four times a year. Every one of those shows then becomes incredibly important, and you're going up against your rivals, and you better not screw up. So all of that contributed. We were far more rehearsed than any band in New York. When we went to New York, we saw the bands play and thought, "Geez, these guys don't practice at all." [Laughs].
I was actually going to ask about that. [In reference to the 1977 show at Max's Kansas City], you described New York as your "nemesis city" and said you went in there showed people how to do it.
Well that was my attitude, yeah.
So what do you mean?
I want to talk about the content of Pere Ubu music from this period. I want to say that the early albums -- you may not like this, but I'll just say it -- have this Cold War paranoia to them.
Do you disagree?
Yeah! I mean, there may be paranoia, but I don't know. Maybe if you're referring to "Chinese Radiation".
It's funny you mentioned that 'cause if this interview went well, I was going to tell you that's my favorite Pere Ubu song and ask what the meaning was.
The point of that song -- it was just incredibly ironic because Cleveland at that time had the largest Maoist population of anywhere in the world except China. And whenever they would do nuclear test blasts over China, the radiation would go across the North Pole, and the first place it would come to Earth was ... Cleveland, Ohio! So the irony of this prompted that song. But Pere Ubu is not political. Not at all. [...] And because Suma had recorded Grand Funk Railroad for most of their career, we got the applause track from Grand Funk Railroad, live at Shea Stadium. [laughs] I want to thank them for that.
So I've read that you used a number of found sounds.
Allen was always doing found sounds.
Could you name a few of them?
The bridges in Modern Dance are the most significant, which he recorded at the West Side Market. What else? Oh, "Sentimental Journey" has a recording of this pachinko machine. Allen had a cassette tape recorder, and he just plugged it in. It was by no means sophisticated. And "On the Surface", there's a recording that Jim Jones did -- he was the soundman on our first European tour -- of a Dutch radio station.
You said Pere Ubu wasn't political, but that comes as a surprise to me. Could you expound on that a little bit?
Well, I don't trust bands that are political. Politics and music don't really mix. I don't trust musicians. As I said before, musicians are cowards, and they'll say anything to be approved. So when Sting goes on about the rainforest, I don't want to hear it. I'm not interested. Why should I believe you? I'm not saying he's wrong, but why should I believe you? There's too much emphasis placed on rock musicians as some sort of example to society or arbiters of the righteous way. We're musicians! We're not socially responsible. We're not role models for anything! I revel in the fact that I don't have to be responsible for anything! I'm a damned musician, so ...
Also none of ever agreed on the same things. [laughs] So the best policy in that place is just no. Also, the radio. There's always been a rule in Pere Ubu that you can't have the radio on in the bus because none of us like the same things, so the easiest thing to do then is just not have it at all, rather than somebody shouting, "Turn that crap off!"
So Pere Ubu has been performing more or less consistently for 40 years, but you've been the only consistent member, and your sound's changed a lot. What makes the collection of works by Pere Ubu works by Pere Ubu instead of by David Thomas-plus-collaborators?
Because, number one, Pere Ubu is a continuum. Pere Ubu was an idea. That idea hasn't changed in 40 years. Why don't I call it something else? Well, because it isn't something else. We had that four year hiatus, and the reason we started working again as Pere Ubu is that I had a solo band that had Allen in it, Tony [Maimone], Jim Jones, couple other people. We were touring Europe, and people kept saying, "You sound just like Pere Ubu," and we sat there and thought. It's called the duck principle: looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's a duck! And it would be cowardly for us not to take on the mantle of being Pere Ubu, and so we decided, "Well yeah, this is Pere Ubu."
Your first few albums tend to be the ones fans are most familiar with. Can you give a quick guide for someone who's looking to get into Pere Ubu material from after the hiatus [1982-1985]?
I think Ray Gun Suitcase is a good place. It's not necessarily stronger than any of the others, but it links one period to another very effectively.
I'm not an archivist at all. I don't save anything. The website started out as a way to provide more information to people who wanted it. My attitude on lyrics since the very beginning was that they have no place on a rock album. Rock music is not poetry bolted onto naïve folk idioms. It's a new form all of its own, and the relation of the words to the music is an entirely different paradigm. But we always said, "If you write to us and give us a self-addressed, stamped envelope, we'll send you the words." Because it seemed to me that if people wanted the words, then they had a right to the words. But that doesn't mean we have to stick 'em on the album. So if you want more information, you can put in the effort and find it. That was always the policy with us. So when the internet came along, that fit right in with that notion. So it's just there in case you want more: if you want factual information or if you want ramblings on some theoretical thing from me, then there it is. If you don't wanna know about, then, y'know, fine. We're not forcing you.
The consumer is king. We used to love used car commercials and late night Popeil infomercials. We all worked in record stores! We used to love, and to this day, taking the money and handing over the record. That's why we still sell our own merchandise from the stage most often. I wanna take the money, and I wanna hand over the record. We love that stuff.
Outside of Pere Ubu, you've collaborated with wide a variety of musicians in rock and avant-garde circles. What was one of the most formative collaborations for you?
My favorites have been with Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson, and I really enjoyed working with Van Dyke Parks on a couple of live things. In fact, the two memories I call to mind in those dark hours of the soul at 3:00am are a) Linda Thompson sitting at a piano at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and she said to me, "I wish I could sing like you do." Which I'm sure had nothing to do with the quality of my voice, but she thinks I'm fearless. The next one was at the same place. Van Dyke parks introduced me to Brian Wilson saying, "I'd like you to meet the other American genius."
Whoa, high praise!
Yeah! [laughs] I enjoyed working with them, and almost everybody I've worked with. The problem is, I don't know anybody. So it kinda limits who I can work with. But Richard Thomas was really special.
So your voice ... a lot of great things have been said about your voice--
And a lot of bad things.
Yeah, I was gonna' ask, any particular quotes--
No. Remember, I've gone through three major vocal revisions over the course of time, and I know how hard it is to listen to David Thomas. I also know that if you actually follow what I'm doing, it's pretty damned amazing. [Aristocratically] I will admit myself. The problem is being able to follow it, and that's just life. It's worth the effort, I'll tell you. I ought to know. I sit there and listen to it and go, "Wow, that's really good." But I know it's difficult. Tough. Life's tough!
Did you have formal vocal training in the early days?
No. You kidding me? [laughs] No, I had a theoretical position which was that a) singing should be a reflection of the actual way that human consciousness works. There should be an interface between the voice and the mind. And b) everything in the rock narrative point of view comes from "Heartbreak Hotel." And the first thing you have to answer about that song is, "Who is that song about?" That song is not about the Elvis Presley character. The song is about the bellhop who's watching all of these broken men come into the hotel. So it's that sort of third-person, removed narrative, that God's eye narrative that really is the foundation of all rock lyrics. And the third thing ...
Oh, I really wanted to follow up with what Brian Wilson was doing about creating a form of white soul. Specifically in the first two, three, four years, I absolutely refused to any of that blues sort of bending of the voice, and I had this notion that every syllable had to be equal weight. It's kind of hard to understand because I actually didn't do that, but in a way I did. So I wasn't gonna take anything from the blues. Now, I'm a huge fan of the blues, but I felt that it was a form of imperialism to take from other cultures.
I've heard you have a problem with people who take too much control over their acoustic environment, and you've resorted to using speakers in place of microphones as recording devices. What's your problem with digital audio trickery?
Oh, I don't have any problems with audio trickery. I tend to not use it because it's trickery, because it's cheap and easy. And I like to do things the difficult way. But there was a period, particularly in Ray Gun Suitcase, where we almost used no microphones on that album at all. We were using speakers. And that has to do with the fact that I don't like equalization. One of my foundational principles is that all sound is created equal, y'know? I don't see why you should torture the waveform of a particular sound to suit your own ends. I like to use speakers because the speaker would only capture a very narrow frequency band. We'd use three or four speakers on any particular recording, and each one would pick up a different part of the frequency band. So if I wanted the sound to be a certain way, instead of equalizing, I would just choose that band more. I mean, I know it's silly. Sound waves are not human beings or animals or anything. You don't actually torture them by adding more treble, but there's just something that seemed wrong about the idea.
I want to return for a minute to your stance on consumerism and capitalism--
You must be some political guy. Where you from, Seattle? Are you from Seattle?
No, I'm from Atlanta, actually.
Oh, that's good! Excellent. My mother's family is old Georgian, so I spent a lot of time down there.
Very cool. So maybe I'll take this in a different direction. You seem to believe in this duality of pop culture and the avant-garde. You describe Justin Timberlake as making "weird experimental music" and Britney Spears as "constantly coming up with something new and innovative." What can learn from mass-produced, pop?
Look, one of the things people find the most difficult -- it really is the bane of our existence in Pere Ubu -- is we actually like crappy pop music, if it's done well, and noise, in equal measures. We like them both. Why do we have to decide which one we do? We're not experimental. We know what we're doing. And everybody says the structures are all weird. They're not weird! I know the structures, I know them [in exasperation]! I know it's A-B-A-B-A-double C-repeat out. There's nothing inherently good about an even number as opposed to an odd number, just as there's nothing particularly significant about a year that ends in "0" and one that doesn't. They're all numbers! Nobody ever said you have to have eight beats a measure. You can have 7½ beats a measure. So we would go, "Well, it sounds better if you go out after 7½." It's not being experimental or avant-garde. It's just, it sounds better that way. [laughs] So I don't have any problems with the avant-garde, I don't have any problems with pop music: if it's done with poetry, passion, and vision. If those things are lacking in either of them, then I'm not interested particularly.
So, how would you respond if someone asked about the "state of music today"?
[Cackling] They always ask me about the state of music today.
Well, what do you say?
I'll say what I said earlier. The state of music today is due to the cowardice of the musicians. They're the only ones ... And I have to admit, people such as yourself who have set themselves up as arbiters because you're music journalists and possibly music critics. So okay, "It's all crap." Whose fault is it? Is it my fault? Nuh-uh. It's your fault. You, personally, are responsible.
Yes, you! You set yourself up this way. We already talked about how the people in record companies are there to sell records. It's not their fault. So the fault lies with you and with other musicians, and the people that buy. In America you have maybe The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal, something like that, and you've got The National Inquirer, or something even trashier, People magazine. You make the choice what you buy. So it's not my fault. I've never gone out and bought a crap record since I bought In the Year 2525 by Zager & Evans. But I still like that record. I've never bought a crappy record. But of course everybody says that.
So you're basically saying the state of music is not good because of consumer interests.
Number one, the state of music isn't that different than in the past. 95% of it's crap. It might be a little more shallow crap because of digital technology, but it's crap nonetheless. I'm not one of these people that despairs about the state of youth today, 'cause it was pretty bad back in the '70s. It's pop music. What are you gonna do?
Well, you're blaming me for of all this, but here I am talking to you, promoting you, so it's not all bad.
Yeah, well ... [laughs] still not my fault.