Pere Ubu’s David Thomas: “I expect rock music to be smart” | Music
‘I‘ve been dead twice,” smiled David Thomas of Pere Ubu, on Zoom from his flat in Hove. “Death is very overrated. It was like sleeping. Once I was taken back by the ambulance team. My wife said, ‘These guys worked like hell on you.’ The other time I woke up in intensive care with all this stuff strapped to me and it turned out I was dead again. I woke up and the doctor said, “You’re David Thomas!”
Now 68, sitting at his computer in a furry hoodie, the dry-humored Ohioan cuts a more subdued figure than the “enigmatic giant of a singer” Rankin remembered by the aftermath shouting demands at that gig at Edinburgh University in 1978. Thomas needs kidney dialysis three times a week, and when he gets up to answer the door, he needs a walker. But even though he can no longer bark lyrics while making a career on stage, his spirit is tireless. “I’m not very healthy, but my voice is better than it’s ever been,” he happily insists. “I’m kind of glad I can’t jump around anymore because I don’t have to worry about falling into the drums anymore. All my concentration goes into singing.
Since 1975, Thomas has been at the helm of seminal and hugely influential avant-garage post-punk precursors. Rolling Stone magazine once said that “modern rock’n’roll reached its peak in 1978 with the [debut album] Modern dance has been on the decline ever since,” which the singer took as a challenge. “, he insists. “I had … uh, I have other things to say.
Although his health issues meant 2019 album The Long Goodbye was taken as a goodbye, the singer insists that after relentless reinvention he just wanted to close the door nearly half a year ago. century of work “so that I can start somewhere else”.
This month, Ubu returns to the stage after more than two years with one of their most intriguing developments: an adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, performed live in Canterbury. However, Thomas says people can expect a “rock show”, but one that “isn’t afraid of literary shenanigans”. When I started the band, one of the criteria for me was that I wanted a band that William Faulkner or Raymond Chandler would have wanted to be in. I expect rock music to be smart.
The son of a literature professor, Thomas has always brought a sliver of storytelling to rock ‘n’ roll and sees Canterbury Tales – in which various medieval characters tell allegorical stories while on a pilgrimage through the city – as the first road novel. , the foundation of a tradition ranging from On the Road by Kerouac to the pop storytelling that it lacks in current music. “Canterbury Tales is like Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles,” he enthuses. “This alien world, an entirely different civilization, but it’s not just about telling stories. It’s about looking at a much bigger picture of human life through a smaller prism. It’s very different, but in the same context as everything I know.
He’s not about to try and squeeze the 24 stories and 17,000 lines of Canterbury Tales into a setlist, though. Instead, Ubu will feature songs that incorporate “stories someone on that journey might have told at night.” New York Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman will contribute “interconnected stories” ranging from character illustrations by Chaucer to lyrics by Iggy and the Stooges (“Careful, honey, I’m using technology”). Dutch electronica band Rats on Rafts will perform alongside fellow occasional bands David Thomas and Two Pale Boys. Thomas promises other more mysterious and “probably chaos” anonymous special guests.
The show is partly based on Ubu’s Disastodromes in London in 1998 and 2003, which themselves followed an early series of notorious events in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio in the 1970s. “One of shows was in an old theater overrun with drunks and winos,” laughs the big man. “Large sparks were flying from electrical circuits in the walls and someone set fire to a sofa in the hall. The motto was “We call it a disaster, so nothing can go wrong”.
Thomas’ more outlandish instincts were influenced by the city’s infamous pre-punk scene, where a band such as the Electric Eels would fight the public and each other, and run a lawnmower over the scene. “Which sounds more dangerous than it was,” he laughs. “The blades have been lifted off the ground.” His first band, Rocket from the Tombs (which he has replenished on several occasions since 2003) went through “leather hell”, never had a drummer who lasted more than three months and “never went staying together as there was so much intensity and the ambition to be a single great rock band”.
These urges and a need for constant reinvention propelled Ubu through countless musical changes and 21 musicians, though Thomas dismisses comparisons to Fall, who also evolved around a single constant member. “Mark E Smith got through musicians much faster than me,” he insists, pointing out that he never fired anyone and that bassist Michele Temple and synthesizer Robert Wheeler each played Ubu for a quarter. century. “If I called 20 of the 21 tomorrow, they would come back. They love working with me.
21, presumably, is original keyboardist Allen Ravenstine, who once described how the singer could be a “dark cloud in a room, a smothering presence” and spoke of “brutal” creative sessions. “Well, Allen has a different take on things,” the frontman shrugs, “but I don’t tell anyone what I’m working on and no one knows the lyrics until I sing them in the studio. I am like this.”
This approach kept them innovative, but Ubu was never successful. The last time they played in Manchester, Thomas opened the gig with a surreal and hilarious monologue in which Madonna and Bon Jovi were reduced to playing third-rate rock clubs and Holiday Inns while Ubu had a world number 1 and “played stadiums upon stadiums”. Would you like to be more popular? “We do not care?” he shrugs his shoulders with a mischievous smile. “The only reason I wish I was rich and famous is because I would have spent the money on even more outrageous projects.”
They came closer to the mainstream between 1988 and 1993, when they made four highly acclaimed albums for major label Fontana, making their UK television debut on Roland Rat: the Series. “It’s a special period for the group,” he smiles. “The only thing I regret is that Dave Bates, the A&R man who signed us, wasn’t more intrusive. Dave was scared to death to fuck Pere Ubu. He was devoted to us and I don’t I can’t fault him. He cackles. “I wish there was more surveillance, but we probably wouldn’t have paid attention to it anyway.”
Thirty years later, facing Pere Ubu has become a life-threatening undertaking. As a vulnerable person, contracting the Covid would be fatal, but the singer specifies that the wings of Canterbury will be masked and that the whole group will be vaccinated. He’s ‘stunned’ that so many musicians are anti-vaxxers and applauds Neil Young’s decision – later followed by Joni Mitchell – to remove his music from Spotify in protest against Covid misinformation in Joe Rogan’s podcasts. “Things would be much better if there were 40 more Neil Youngs.”
Thomas had a productive lockdown. He remixed three albums for an upcoming box set because “we never had enough money to go into the studio for anything but a minimum but now that I have my home studio, I felt the need to ‘to fix things’. It hosts a live streaming channel, DPK TV, had a hit song on American Horror Story TV, and the band’s website does a neat trade in Ubu merch. He reveals that he’s actually made more money in the past two years than at any stage of his career, but that’s not what drives him.
“I’ve saved enough to not have to work anymore and I could easily die at this point,” he admits. “It’s not the easiest life in the world. But I want to keep pushing. If I was satisfied, I would quit.