David Thomas Interviewed by Guy Peters, Gonzo Circus
The current seven piece line-up of the band is, if I'm correct, the largest one in the history of Pere Ubu. Which impact has this on the writing/recording process?
So far there's not been any discrnable impact.
Mr. Boon is added as the newest member - how did he join the band? Did you have a certain extra sound/instrument in mind and subsequently you found him, or did it go the other way around (first you met him, then you realised the potential contribution he might add)?
The latter. We did some playing together in some pub groups in Brighton, jazz bands. The other players were rigid and constrained by the absurdly strict rules of free jazz and 'mprovisation'. Darryl had a an open mind. I also liked the way he was grounded in music of the big band and Dixieland eras, particularly Dixieland. He could immediately see the connection between that and what Pere Ubu and I were doing. I tried some things with him on the 'Lady From Shanghai' album and those tured out well enough that I added him to the mix for 'Carnival of Souls.'
The songs were tried out as a 'work-in-progress' by a 'shock troop' version of the band in 2013. That 5-piece line-up did not contain Robert Wheeler & Michele Temple. It must have been very different for hem, joining the band afterwards, after it had moved through so many stages and versions of these songs. Can you elaborate a bit on that process?
I wanted to work on a number of things. I had always thought that Mehlman would be a good improvisor but he hated improvisation. So I was going to force him to deal with it and find his own way in. As I suspected, he was good at it. Hand in hand with that, I wanted to sever the partnership between drums and bass. It's a phoney arrangement and highly constrictive. Drummers and bass players are ingrained with a nonsensical idea that they have to be tight together and that they have to play together and 'play in time.' There's no such thing as time, and the drums and bass certainly have nothing to do with time in any case. Rhythm section creates a significant delay in any immediate changes I want the band to go through. All changes have to be first interpreted by the rhythm section before being transmitted to the rest of the band. That latency is very irritating. Pere Ubu has a powerful and inventive rhythm section. So I decided it was time to mess with it. Why do something you know how to do? When the proper lessons have been learned, we will go back to it. Probably. Burn every bridge at your back. Pere Ubu is not an 'improvisational' group in the traditional sense. We absorb improvisation into the compositional process and I have been reticent to incorporate it into the concert format mainly because I have boundaries of doing a 'professional' concert sppearance. Even so, often the moment before we walk on stage I will give the band a set of rules for the night or I will tell someone to go out and play solo for a couple minutes or do something/anything that will create discomfort in the band or unsettle certainties.
A large part of the shaping of the songs was improvised. Is there also a link between Pere Ubu and the free improvisation scene or its strategies?
None at all. There's a fundamental difference – we make songs when we improvise. A song has three things. You got three things, you've got a song. The audience should never know when you're improvising. I discuss the spacetime construct of song improvisation in some book I've written. Basically, the singer dictates the spacetime and the song dictates what each musician should do to contribute to that spacetime construct.
Carnival Souls is the second part of a new cycle. Were these parts fixed in advance? Can you tell anything about the next part(s)?
I work long term. I have a goal, a place I want the band to get to. The nature of the goal shifts as I approach it. Any number of factors come into play – practical, theoretical, and inspirational. I work with methodologies to achieve the goal. I set up a way of working that I think will get us there. Sometimes the method achieves something useful, sometimes it needs to be adjusted. Pere Ubu is now a band that can do anything but I look to expand the context of 'anything.' My life is running out. My body has begun the process of shutting down. It's time to put the foot to the floor and go faster. Work harder. Take more risks. Throw things out and get on with the headlong plunge into the unknown. I am a free man in a world descended into Dark Ages. I will not waste my freedom. I have nothing to prove but to myself. I am free.
The songs on Carnival Of Souls seem to be fixed in a carefully considered, cohesive order. Will the album be played lived as a cycle? And will there be visuals as well?
I assigned Keith the task of putting together a running order of the songs. He seemed happy with it. I haven't listened to it since I finished the mixes. We won't play it as a cycle and there are no visuals.
The website also contains the lyrics to the songs, plus also French translations. Why are there French translations (as opposed to Spanish, for instance)?
The nation of France is our conscience.
You once wrote 'everything I have done has been a failure'. Is that because you still need to make your best work, or because you believe capturing the full potential will never actually happen?
I don't know. I only see the mistakes. I only see how far short we fall of what could have been.
The vinyl and cd versions are quite different. While I understand the motivation behind the alternative vinyl versions, don't you think that you ended up with two quite different albums as well. Why not limit yourselves to the cd format, if you're not a fan of vinyl?
Vinyl is important to the record company for commercial reasons. The restrictions of vinyl, therefore, have to be catered for. If people want to buy vinyl, that's an option they can have. As well, vinyl can be cut with a higher sample rate than cds, so I m content with that.
You have always claimed you don't look back. Yet there's also the sense that Pere Ubu seems to exist in a kind of singular vacuum, a unique universe, in the sense that you rarely hear contemporary influences (musical, production-wise, etc). Is that because you keep influences out on purpose, or because you don't keep up with contemporary evolutions at all (in rock, avant-garde, electronica, classical,...)?
I am aware of what is going on. We follow our own course. The world changes, Pere Ubu doesn't. It can be said we've only ever had one idea but that idea was so good that we've never had to change it or find alternatives.
Originally, being from Cleveland and the US, made its mark on the sound and music of Pere Ubu. I have the impressions the UK doesn't seep into the music that easily. Would you agree?
I'm not English.
It has been a while since I heard anything about your solo projects. Are you currently working on/thinking about anything?