By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
Lighting should be theatrical rather than rockist. We are interested in atmosphere, mood, drama, energy, subtlety, imagination -- not rock cliche."
So reads one of the dozens of protocols directed at light men, stagehands, producers, promoters, journalists, record labels and even would-be members of the band Pere Ubu. These commandments, listed on the group's Web site, show an almost monomaniacal obsession with concept and detail -- an obsession evident in just about anything Pere Ubu has ever put its name on.
"There is one thing that we are really unique and unmatched in," says Ubu founder and lead vocalist David Thomas. "Absolute focus."
Thomas is the hub around which Pere Ubu has revolved for the past 28 years. Formed in Cleveland in 1975, the group was initially led by Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner, both formerly of Rocket From the Tombs -- the now-legendary garage-rock outfit that begat the Kiss-meets-Iggy snarl of the Dead Boys. Pere Ubu, though, followed a more convoluted path. The group hammered out vision-blurring fits of rock and roll, then dosed them with a tonic of free jazz and musique concrète, like Eric Dolphy and Edgar Varese covering Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. "Midwestern groove rock" is how Thomas once soberly described it.
"Groove rock means you play one chord as long as you possibly can," he explains, "like the MC5 or the Stooges. If you've ever noticed, Pere Ubu songs aren't terribly complex. They're riffs. We're a riff rock band."
Ubu released two singles on its own label, Hearpen, by 1976: the stunning "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and the smoldering "Final Solution," a modest hit in the '80s for goth pinup Peter Murphy. Laughner left the group soon after; he died in 1977 of health problems arising from alcohol and drug addiction. The group recorded its debut album The Modern Dance later that year. Released in 1978, The Modern Dance is perennially cited as one of the most influential -- or just plain best -- rock albums ever made. Thomas, then under the nom de guerre Crocus Behemoth, cut an arresting figure on stage: big-boned, impeccably dressed, limbs jerking like a marionette's, and with a high, sharp caterwaul that spewed festoons of lurid free association.
"If we're visually striking, it's probably because we have striking characters, strong personalities. I would always wear a suit back then, and so did Mayo," Thomas says, referring to Mayo Thompson, one of Laughner's replacements and the founder of the decades-spanning experimental rock ensemble the Red Crayola. "We started wearing suits from the very early days. All the blues guys wore suits. We just figured that's what you do. At that point, I also think we were trying to consciously separate ourselves from everyone else."
As much as Thomas and company sought to stand apart, Murphy and his previous band, Bauhaus, were not the only new-wave group to be either influenced by or associated with Pere Ubu. Everyone from Adam and the Ants to Wire to the Fall stole a chunk of Ubu's sound, and the band toured England in the late '70s and early '80s with the likes of the Human League, the Soft Boys and Gang of Four. In 1981, a live clip of Pere Ubu appeared in the film Urgh! A Music War, a documentary of up-and-coming new-wave bands. Ubu's spastic, unsettling performance of its song "Birdies" is crammed jarringly in between tracks of Joan Jett strutting with affectation and Gary Numan driving through fog-machine clouds in a little silver car.
"We never particularly saw ourselves in the context of what anyone else was doing," Thomas says. "I don't know how much affinity I have for those people. There was a certain amount of freakishness that attached itself to the new wave or whatever it was, a bit of geekiness. Not geekiness, but...exhibitionism."
So where does Pere Ubu draw the line between exhibitionism and theatricality?
"Obviously, a band is a theatrical experience," replies Thomas, "but not in the same pure sense of theatricality as legitimate theater. What they both share is a strong sense of ritual. It's the same sense of ritual that folk music possesses. It isn't derived from the high-culture end of things."
"We are amateurs," he continues. "We're all self-taught. Lots of great folk musicians who, like us, are self-taught have put a lot of effort into what they do. Atonality and noise were not introduced into music out of incompetence. When atonality and other pure sound elements were being introduced, it was because the rock musicians of the day were trying to expand the vocabulary of what they were doing. It's a real mistake to think that any idiot can make atonal music; they can't. It really does take a certain amount of discipline to make atonal music interesting for more than twenty or thirty seconds."
Although Pere Ubu's work throughout the '80s and '90s, including sixteen studio albums plus numerous live discs and compilations, has ground down the group's toothier edges, Thomas still sticks to his experimental ethic. With a protean lineup that currently includes Robert Wheeler on synthesizer, Michele Temple on bass, Steven Mehlman on drums and Ubu founding member Tom Herman on guitar, Thomas has composed a conceptual framework for Ubu's shifting roster to operate within.
"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 haveto 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."