James Fleming talks to Pere Ubu’s leading man, the legendary David Thomas, for Hifi Pig.

Part 1: The Weird…

‘Because we’re weird!’

David Thomas just hit the proverbial nail on the head. Pere Ubu are weird.

Not merely strange or just some bizarre curio, Pere Ubu have been consistently, thrillingly weird since 1975. But as Louis Theroux said ‘the weirdest thing about weird people is how normal they are.’

In 1975, nothing could have been more normal than rock n’ roll, and Pere Ubu have always identified themselves first and foremost as a rock n’ roll band. Their unique take on rock music was as natural a progression for them as a growth spurt.

It’s more than a point, it’s the root of Pere Ubu. So why do so many people miss this crucial factor?

‘Because we’re weird!’ says Thomas.

‘When we’re talking about “people,” I have a feeling we’re talking about critics and music writers.

‘They’re supposed to be polar opposites, the experimental or avant-garde i.e “difficult,” and garage rock. Which is, well you know what garage rock is…

‘I think they’re remarkably similar in fact. I think that they’re brothers in arms. They’re both sort of a folk music. Or they’re certainly related musics. I think that has something to do with it…’

Thomas draws parallels between Silver Apples, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Velvet Underground and Brian Wilson. These connections are not ones the average Joe would draw, but appear to come perfectly naturally to him.

When it’s pointed out that a song like Psychotic Reaction by The Count Five, with its sped-up, feedback-drenched bridge section, is a very experimental piece in the context of the supposedly straightforward genre of garage rock, Thomas agrees.

‘That was the glory of garage rock! Here people were getting access to these tools of production, making records themselves, and there wasn’t any reason not to do that sort of stuff. Y’know it was like “oh look what we can do”! It was an exciting frontier.

‘And when a technological frontier opens up, you get all sorts of people going “hey look what we can do! Look what I found out”! It’s the reason why I’ve always preferred B-movies, things like Carnival of Souls and all those sorts of movies, to Hollywood productions.

‘I would rather watch a cheesy cardboard rocket with a flare coming out of the back as its exhaust than the latest Star Wars sorta mega-perfection-technological-animatronic… and all that sort of stuff.

‘I find that the folk root of that sort of work, where you get one guy with a whacked-out idea, like the guy who made Carnival of Souls only ever made one movie! He had this one idea and he just went ahead and did it. And there was no committee saying “You can’t do that!” Or “there’s nobody doing continuity on the set” and that sort of stuff.

‘I love that folk nature of all the various forms there are. Of movies, of rock music, of jazz, of blues, of Harry Partch, of John Cage.

‘John Cage isn’t difficult, he’s just a whacko! I did this thing with Philip Glass. Philip Glass playing boogie-woogie piano, with Van Dyke Parks and David Johansen and Steve Earle and a bunch of people, in a band in UCLA. And y’know, Philip Glass isn’t difficult! He’s just another guy out there going “hey look what I can do!”’

That touch of weirdness, that “look what I can do!” is something that is missing from much of the 21st century’s music. Especially in rock n’ roll music. Which is supposed to be boundary-pushing and revolutionary.

‘It’s truly ironic,’ Thomas says ‘that in these days where you can go out and buy equipment to work at home far superior to anything that Brian Wilson ever had to hand. Your personal computer is more powerful than all the computers that sent man to the moon.

‘What’s happened – if you really want me to start sounding like an old fuddy-duddy – the real beast in this is digital synthesisation. You can never get anything out of a digital synthesiser other than what’s already there. It’s programmed.

‘It’s repeatable. An analogue synthesiser… even variations in humidity would throw the thing off and you could never get a sound again. In other words, you can leave your analogue synthesiser sitting there overnight with the same setting and patches, turn it on the next morning, and it wouldn’t sound the same!

‘So there was this total amount of uncertainty involved in it. Now… the problem is it’s swung to the other way.’

Thomas explains that with the perfection of digital synthesisation ‘The prime ingredient in all of this – humanity – is lost. Because humanity is unreproduceable.

‘Humanity is an analogue synthesiser. You turn it on the next day, you wake up the next morning, and you feel totally different about something. That there’s uncertainty in your life.

‘The human experience is one of uncertainty and contradiction and confusion and doubt. As well as hope, and fear.’

Here, another surprising parallel is drawn by Thomas, between basketball and rock n’ roll.

‘The complaint about basketball is it’s a sport of freaks. You’ve got to be seven foot whatever and on and on and on. That’s sort of the problem with pop music now. It’s an art of freakdom. To a degree.’

Thomas goes so far as to claim that Lady Gaga and her ilk are ‘the avant-garde! They’re the ones out there doing bizarre stuff with bizarre sounds and bizarre intentions. They’re the ones who are strange, not me.

‘You think I’m strange? Hey, go to one of their concerts! That stuff’s really weird!’

 

Part 2: …And The Wonderful…

Synaesthesia: noun

a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualisation of a certain colour.

Thomas is synaesthetic. He perceives sound as geometrical shapes, hence Pere Ubu’s motto ‘All sound is created equal and endowed with an inalienable right to not have its waveform brutalised’.

To Thomas, ‘one note is the same as another,’ and he says ‘melody and harmony are really irritations that get in the way.’

What really matters to Thomas is the meaning. ‘There’s no such thing as a good sound or a bad sound. Sound is a representation of meaning,’ he says. Ken Hamman, one of the first recording engineers that Pere Ubu worked with, left an indelible mark on the young band as they were recording their second single when he said ‘Look, it’s in the groove. Nothing matters but whether it has meaning and poetry and passion.’

Each of those key ingredients is present in a Pere Ubu song. While Thomas stresses that Pere Ubu is an idea, rather than a definition, what matters most to him is conveying the meaning behind a song.

And every ingredient of a song – guitar, bass, drums, synths and vocals – is carefully constructed to try and get that meaning across. Thomas also makes it very clear that the meaning behind a song is not open to interpretation by the listener.

‘Hell no! I determine what the song is about! We determine the song. The listeners should be trying to figure out what the Hell the song is about!

Why is this happening? Why is there this sound? Why is the synthesiser seeming to contradict what the singer is saying? Why is the synthesiser kind of mocking the singer? Why is this going on, why is that going on? It’s all there.’

It’s all there for those who care to look deep enough. Underneath what appears to many critics as an impenetrable layer of avant-garde-isms and highfalutin artistic tendencies is a tremendous rock n’ roll band. And this is not any ordinary rock n’ roll band making ordinary rock n’ roll music.

Pere Ubu are that rare breed of band who have something to say. They are even rarer still in that they say it well and in a truly original fashion. It’s this originality that confuses the critics and music journalists of this world.

The pure aesthetics of the sound steal the spotlight away from the meaning and purpose behind the songs. The aforementioned isms and tendencies are fascinating no doubt, but they are but the symptoms, not the sickness.

It is up to the listening audience to decipher, not interpret, these symptoms. David Thomas knows what’s going on. It’s Pere Ubu’s fanatics that need to catch up.

“Humanity is an analogue synthesiser,” as Thomas said above. Humanity is push-and-pull, conflict, uncertainty, hope, joy and, in Thomas’ own words, “on and on and on.” Pere Ubu’s quest is to put humanity to music. To put what it means to be homo sapien to a rock n’ roll backbeat.

Which is why Pere Ubu’s music is so strikingly original yet comes so naturally to them. Being human is a different experience for each and every one of us. So when you put a set of individuals as unique as the members of Pere Ubu into a room, you’re going to get some very interesting, relevant music. A document of the wondrous weirdness that is humanity.

Pere Ubu stand as that document. A living, breathing, singing document of humanity’s bizarro nature. Where high and low cultures merge. Where technology meets nature. Where human meets humanity.

James Fleming

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