Fri., Dec. 9, at the Echo. This interview by David Cotner." /> L.A. Record


December 7th, 2016 | Interviews

illustration by joe mcgarry

Pere Ubu—the noisy, contrary and confounding band founded in Cleveland in 1975—return to Los Angeles on an eight-date West Coast tour titled Coed Jail! 1975—1982, offering up the songs they played over three evenings at the Whisky A Go Go in 1979 and during the 1980 Urgh! A Music War summit at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It’s the first time they’ve played those songs since then, this time in anticipation of the Pere Ubu box sets reissue by Fire Records, Architecture of Language, 1979-1982 and Elitism for the People, 1975-1978. For this incarnation Pere Ubu is singer David Thomas, drummer Steven Mehlman, bassist Michele Temple, synth/theremin wielder Robert Wheeler and journeyman Ohio guitarist Gary Siperko. Thomas spoke recently, refreshingly and vehemently from London. They perform on Fri., Dec. 9, at the Echo. This interview by David Cotner.

Did you care about the election?
David Thomas (vocals): Yeah, I care.
Do you want to talk about it?
David Thomas: I don’t see why. Anybody asking any musician or celebrity or whatever about politics is an idiot—not that you’re an idiot, but I don’t want to talk about it. I think talking to musicians … musicians are scum. They’re cowards. They’re going to say whatever you want them to say—it’s the same with actors and all the other idiots. So, no—I’m not going to contribute to that nonsense.
Alfred Jarry now—or Alfred Jarry now more than ever?
David Thomas: I’ve never thought about it. Jarry has a certain relevance for all time, as long as there’s going to be crooks out there, and idiots, and stupid people. Now more than ever? No, I think it’s pretty much standard relevancy for the last 100-or-something years.
What was the appeal, originally?
David Thomas: Well, Jarry is basically writing for adolescents anyway—and so as an adolescent, I was actually attracted to someone who was writing for adolescents. I saw the relevance of what he was talking about as a kid, and I decided on the character [of Père Ubu] for really fairly simple reasons. It was a good name for the band because it looked good, sounded good … had three syllables, which was the most important thing. It sounded like it meant something, it had a relevance, and that relevance wasn’t pinned-down. I thought a band name should be evocative of something that couldn’t be pinned-down. I understood that what we were doing had a certain amount of shock value in terms of the marketplace as it was then—so I’m sure that contributed to it, to a certain degree. Mainly, it had three syllables—Rol-ling-Stones. Bob-Dy-lan. That it had something that couldn’t be pinned-down would mean nothing to most Americans.
The cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller tended to have three things grouped together in any given Nancy comic strip to make it funnier.
David Thomas: As long as you have three things in a piece of music, then you have a song. It tends to be a number that works out for a lot of musical things.
Most people see surrealism as a semi-serious discipline.
David Thomas: The whole point of surrealism was the humor. Clearly, surrealism is a tool that you should know about. Most Surrealists weren’t very good surrealists. They were distracted by the shock value of the instruments rather than its more serious usefulness. Surrealism is as basic as Skinnerism; it’s pretty much the same sort of thing. The Skinnerian behaviorialist notion that is behind the UFO phenomenon—if you confront a human being with an incongruous event, we are programmed to believe the next thing that happens in a series. It’s also fundamental to the Pere Ubu aesthetic. It’s the Pavlovian thing: human beings will make sense out of anything that you put in front of them—which is part of the Pere Ubu method where we throw in everything. There’s the ‘intrusive other,’ there’s all sorts of narrative lines going on, sometimes contradicting each other, sometimes working at cross-purposes, sometimes of no relevance to each other—all jammed in within three minutes. The bell rings, the dog salivates—but human beings make sense out of what they see. Pere Ubu make use of that. We’re Skinnerian. We have simple stories that reflect human experience, and depend on the human mechanism of making sense.
That interpretation by the audience—is that validation?
David Thomas: No! The audience has got nothing to do with it. The audience is utterly irrelevant to a performance. They can be brain-dead zombies for all I care, and for all the band cares. We don’t do things for the audience. The audience is lucky to be able to stand there and observe us creating; to observe us making sense out of nonsense. Sense out of nothingness, more specifically. So, no—the audience is not free to interpret. The audience doesn’t get to interpret. That’s the Skinnerian principle. They get what we’re saying—they’re not interpreting what we’re saying. They’re just getting it. But because music obviously that does not depend on words, it has nothing to do with words, or logic, or much to do with analysis, particularly. Music operates below the level of consciousness. Music operates with the hieroglyphic nature of consciousness itself. It bypasses words and thought, which also … never mind, that’s a whole other discussion. But, no! Don’t give a damn what the audience thinks. They’re not free to interpret. They’re free to stand there. They pay, and observe. People don’t like to hear that the audience is irrelevant—but we’re not out there tickling the ears of the audience. We’re not artists. We’re not anything. We’re just dumb musicians, and we do what dumb musicians do—which is create something out of nothing and to struggle with the process. The one thing an audience wants is that they want to feel that whatever they’re seeing, the experience is unique to them—that evening and that moment in time. We provide that. Two: that they like to be scared by the realization that everything they’re seeing could fall apart at any moment. It could become a total disaster—or it could achieve crystal moments of clarity that they don’t experience anywhere else. We provide that, and that’s basically it. It’s called life.
That’s only two things. I thought you had to have three. What’s the third thing?
David Thomas: I’m not paid to answer for number three. Number three is … you’re getting into the Masonic realms of these things.
If you’re creating something out of nothing, isn’t that a little more evolved that being just ‘dumb musicians’?
David Thomas: Musicians are scum.
But they’re scum that create something out of nothing—and that’s not nothing.
David Thomas: [pauses] Those are not contradictory thoughts.
Are you happier the way you’re treated over in Europe than you are over here?
David Thomas: I don’t think about that sort of stuff. That and $2 gets me a cup of coffee. I do what I do—and I do what I do whether people like it or they don’t like it. The audience is irrelevant. There’s this notion about culture (but) culture is created in secret by loner individuals. There is no such thing about culture unless you want to really define it in that culture is basically religion. I’m a loner. Everything that’s happened in the history of mankind that’s progressive has been created by loners. The cure for cancer will be discovered by some ridiculed loner in a basement somewhere. Everything happens in secret with individuals. Society is an illusion. Culture is an illusion.
Can you remember a moment when you first starting out that you realized that you were on to something? Was there a pivotal moment, artistically?
David Thomas: No. Pretty much from the beginning, I knew that we were on to something. That was the nature of the scene at the time. That was the nature of the people I was working with. As I said, loners do these things—and sometimes, one loner recognizers another. Birds of a feather. I think there were a lot of birds of a particular feather in Cleveland at that time, and we found each other. There were plenty of rock musicians in the mainstream who were doing whatever they do—and then there were a bunch of loners, geeks and people who didn’t fit. Those sorts of people tend to find each other. Those sort of organizations tend to be very volatile—because they’re a bunch of loners, and they’re going to do what they do. Period. I’ve done what I’ve done—period—for forty years. I do exactly what I want to do—and to hell with the consequences.