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Interview: Pere Ubu’s David Thomas Talks About the Band’s New Record, Meeting Brian Wilson and the Language of Music

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Early in its career, Cleveland avant-garage band Pere Ubu got some advice that sealed its fate. It came after the release of their influential debut "The Modern Dance" in 1978, which captivated listeners from New York to London with an original blend of garage rock, wiry punk dance and artfully filtered noise.

The advice came from a former manager who would go on to make it big by discovering Metallica. He told the musicians that they could follow the same formula for two more records and become huge. The band wasn't sure that would be interesting, to which the manager replied: "Just make good records and someone will put them out."

That sounded better to lead singer David Thomas.

For the past 40 years, Pere Ubu has stuck to the plan. Although never a commercial success, the group still makes complex, layered albums that can be mysterious, thrilling and occasionally bewildering. The band also scores films live, which it did last time it was in Richmond in April 2005 performing the soundtrack to "X: the Man With X-Ray Eyes" at the Byrd Theatre during the James River Film Festival.

Thomas, who resides in the United Kingdom, is considered an elder statesman of art rock with one of the most unique yowls to emerge from the canon. Writer Greil Marcus came close when he described it as the voice of a man muttering in a crowd. "You think he's talking to himself until you realize he's talking to you."

"I used to be a legend, now I'm a myth," Thomas tells me by phone during his recent visit to Cleveland. "Being a legend ain't nothin' anymore."

Over the years, Thomas branched out with numerous side projects, including performing with Richard and Linda Thompson and Van Dyke Parks, but he always kept the Ubu collective. This year the band released its 16th album, "20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo" and will be joined by Swans guitarist Kristof Hahn on this tour.

Style spoke with the singer, who has a reputation for being curmudgeonly with journalists, although he came across as perfectly friendly and professional — and punctual. He was embarrassed that he called four minutes late.

Style Weekly: Pere Ubu emerged from a tiny Cleveland scene in the early '70s that was isolated. Do you think it still takes a kind of isolation from popular culture for something interesting to grow?

Thomas: Well, I don't think you can have isolation anymore. In the '70s, instead of rivers and mountains and oceans separating people, you had broadcast throw of radio and TV stations. Cleveland was located in the state of CKLW out of Detroit, or WIXY 1260 out of Cleveland or WJW TV — a very specific geographical location isolated from everybody else by simple broadcast frequencies. That doesn't exist anymore. Everything is internet, global, immediate sort of homogenization.

It was valuable, and I think it's essential but the pendulum never swings back. It's gone. We've got a different set of problems now.

Like intellectual property being usurped by big tech monopolies? It sure seems tougher for bands to make a living.

Yep. I mean, Disney, for example, is appropriating old literature or whatever and claiming it as their own. Hell yeah, they're going to take everything.

I wouldn't want to be starting out now. I wouldn't want to be deeply involved in it. But I've been around so long they can't get rid of me at this point. I'm lucky I got grounded decades ago when there was something to be grounded in. … Good luck to everybody! But there's always a solution. It's just whether you have the courage and stamina to see the solution out. You don't have a solution to any problem unless it's simple. Deception, the lie, the wrong course of action is complex and complicated.

It's up to the creator to maintain the integrity. That may mean you're not going to make any money. Or have to figure out how to make money in a different way. I think one of the things [for musicians] that's a good sign is the return of vinyl. I don't like vinyl, I find it noisy and troublesome. But it's a physical object. That's a clue to people wanting to find a way of making a living creating something: Stick to the physical object, the limited object, what cannot be turned into something digital.

I had just finished watching "Twin Peaks: the Return" on the day I got your new album in the mail. It struck me that Lynch's vision is similar to your band's career arc in that it seems more about the approach to the journey.

Yeah. People always ask me: Is it a conceptual album? I say, "We don't do conceptual albums — we do a conceptual career." Sure, I imagine there are certain similarities. It's all about a method with us. Each album is set off with a different method of doing the record and sometimes they're distinctively different. … I think Pere Ubu is very much a sort of roots band, as much as any blues performer. I imagine there's a similarity [to Lynch] in terms of choosing the method and sticking to the work.

I don't know if I'm a fan of his, but I even liked "Dune," which nobody likes. It's interesting work. But I'm not the sort of person who is a fan of something. If it's got quality, I enjoy it.

Were there any specific ideas you wanted to explore on this album?

There are always two different ideas going into a record: How you're going to do it and what you're going to do. We tell stories and they tend to be related or it's one story spread across 12 songs. This time I came up with an idea of the Dark Room. In this illustration, it's usually an elephant in a black room.

People come in and touch or feel part of the elephant, like the trunk, and have to describe what they're in the room with. One person feels the trunk, another an ear or tail, and they have a different idea of what it is. I'm sort of in the middle, and I'm the only one who knows what the object in the room is. The guitar player thinks it's this, bass player thinks it's that, the drummer doesn't care as long as he can play loud.

I put the pieces together so that out of the various ideas, some of which are in conflict, some of which are irrelevant to each other, some of which are conceptual noise — I weave those parts together like a conductor.

Pere Ubu albums are like riddles or puzzles. You listen to a song and you have to ask yourself: Why is this noise here? Why is this structure weird here? Why is this happening? There's not a sound that's accidental, it's all meticulously constructed. Whether it makes sense is another question. But I'm convinced if you put the effort in, you can figure out what the hell it's about.

Do you still want to destroy digital metronomic time?

I mean, yeah. I have endless goals. It's just a question of how to achieve them. A lot of it has to do with training a band. You work with people long enough and put them in different circumstances and say: "Do this." After a while, they trust you, and you can achieve magnificent things from understanding how each other is hearing time. It's not easy to do. I have a really unjust reputation — like a Mark E. Smith-Fall type – for a rotation of musicians, which is just not true. Most of the band has been together for 20 years, not necessarily in the same band, not always in Pere Ubu.

Really, it has to do with establishing a common language, and time is the language of music.

What did you say when Van Dyke Parks introduced you to Brian Wilson?

I just said, "It's an honor to meet you, sir." What are you going to say to Brian Wilson? I had no idea Van Dyke was going to do that. I was gob-smacked. He introduced me to Brian Wilson as "the other American musical genius." But really, what is there to say? My ex-wife is a massive Jonathan Richman fan. I'm jealous of him. So she wanted me to take her back to meet him at some show in Cleveland. I took her back, and there's nothing really [to say]. It's a pointless thing.

Is there any new musical form that communicates the human experience in a way that excites you anymore?

I think the problem is that words have been divorced from sound. In the globalization of pop music you have to get rid of the English language because that limits it to English-speaking people. This started 20, 30 years ago. … You have this globalization of popular culture and you get rid of anything that's distinctive.

I read somewhere that many modern pop hits are made by the same two or three producers, using a mathematical formula.

Well, there's no problem with formula. One of the greatest TV shows of all-time, "The Honeymooners," was pure formula. You can watch that endlessly. And I love the "Rocky" movies, cry every time.

Formula is not the problem, the problem is the wrong formula.

It has to be a formula that connects to the human soul, the heart, the human condition — as opposed to just a cynical piece of crap. S

Pere Ubu performs with Minibeast (Peter Prescott of Mission of Burma) with a special appearance by DJ Good Show Steve at Strange Matter on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 9 p.m. $20.

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