By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
"There's always some level of improvisation in songwriting. We have an in-built dislike of too much preparation, too much rehearsal, too much sorting things out. We like that level of chance, that level of conflict," says Thomas. "My ideas aren't really good enough to stand on their own. That's why I work with other people, so that my ideas are tested and changed. That's sort of the classic nature of a band. That's why the Velvet Underground was a hundred times better than Lou Reed ever was. That's why Captain Beefheart was better with the Magic Band than without."
Regardless, Thomas has managed to produce ten solo albums over the last twenty years, the first being 1981's Sound of the Sand, a collaboration with English folk-rock savant Richard Thompson. "A rock band gives you access to vast amounts of power and energy, whereas an improvisational trio means that you can be much more delicate and focused on detail," he says. "I have a whole range of perspectives that I like to view my essential work from. But the work remains the same, always. I just like to look at it from different angles."
Thomas's "different angles" refract well beyond rock music. In 1996 he delivered a lecture titled "The Geography of Sound in the Magnetic Age" at Gerrit Rietveld Akadamie in Amsterdam. Two years later he was commissioned by London's South Bank Centre to curate Disastodrome!, a four-day festival of theater and music that he eventually took on tour across the United Kingdom and to New York and Quebec. "They just gave me a bunch of money and said, 'Make something big.' I had been thinking in terms of improvisational opera for a while, with a great number of people involved in a vaguely theatrical setting," Thomas says. The result was Mirror Man, the centerpiece of the festival, a semi-improvised "rogue opera" starring Thomas himself and longtime friend Frank Black (Pere Ubu toured with the Pixies in 1990.) Ubu's present tour culminates in California with a full-scale production of Disastodrome! As an added attraction, Thomas is reuniting Rocket From the Tombs for its first performance in almost three decades.
"I'm not an excitable person," Thomas replies when asked about his feelings toward the highly-touted reunion. "It might be fun. It might be interesting. It'll be something to do."
There will, however, certainly be many people attending the festival who will be excited to behold the nearly mythic Rocket From the Tombs.
"Good," says Thomas dryly. "That's what I get paid for: exciting people."
Pere Ubu has hugged the periphery of the rock scene for decades now, always the critics' favorite, perpetually cited as vastly influential, but never quite breaking out of its avant-garde niche. "It's not something that I really think about. It's not something that I have to think about or, really, to be honest, that I even care about," Thomas says. "If I were a pop musician, a successful musician, I would care, because I'd have to sell records. I like to sell records, but I'm simply not good enough to sell records. It's not that we seek obscurity. It's just that anything you do to leave room or make room for some unknown audience is insane. That's why art and culture are in such a mess today. People are trying to imagine what someone might like or what they might not like. If some sixteen-year-old kid likes us, that's great. If he doesn't, that's great. As long as somebody pays me, I'll do it -- as long as I'm any good at it."
With projects like Mirror Man and Disastodrome!, though, it finally seems like Thomas and Pere Ubu are attaining some of the freedom necessary to explore all aspects of their aesthetic. Still, Thomas seems wary of the bright lights of the stage, even after years and years of being caught in them.
"I try to avoid as much visual information as possible. Visual information will only degrade the musical information," he says. "Sound and music exist on a much higher dimensional plane. Visual information is pretty cheap and tacky, with a lot of bright colors and stuff pasted on it. It's the stuff you buy at Woolworth's or something."
As for anyone aspiring to run the pyrotechnics at a Pere Ubu concert, Thomas advises, "Just put the lights on and leave them alone. When you blink lights, it's telling me that my personality isn't strong enough to carry the show, that I need artificial moves or crutches to make it interesting. I don't feel that. We've never tried to put on anything. What we have to say comes from within."