Pere Ubu rose from the debris field left by Rocket From The Tombs, a Midwestern hard groove rock band in the tradition of MC5, The Stooges and Alice Cooper. David Thomas formed Pere Ubu to explore the possibilities of story-telling and narrative launched from such a platform. The idea can be put in the simplest terms - the best guitar part is the one that requires the least finger movement; if a song can't work with one chord and the will to rock, then the people involved ought to find other work.
I was going to create a band that Herman Melville or William Faulkner or Raymond Chandler would have wanted to be in. It wasn't going to happen right away. It was going to take years and years but that was my plan.
Pere Ubu is about Ideas. Musicians bring Ideas to a band. Personality Cult, personal dress, sunglasses and haircuts, personal hopes and dreams and fears are tiresomely irrelevant. This philosophy, of course, is vehemently opposed by the Live Fast And Die Young Attitude Police.
After I founded the band in 1975, I had in mind a new way of organizing things. Pere Ubu would be a series of distinct, unrelated and short-lived aggregations. It would not be a democracy. It would run according to rules and principles, like a republic. It would be a brotherhood of understanding, cooperation and, yes, trust.
As his band Rocket From The Tombs entered its terminal phase in the summer of 1975, Thomas decided the name of his next group would be 'Pere Ubu,' after the protagonist of Ubu Roi, a play by Frenchman Alfred Jarry. He asked the band's soundman, Tim Wright, to learn an instrument and he would build the new band around him. Tim bought a six string Dan Electro bass guitar and two months later was ready to go. They made plans. Tim was the most influential of band members from the formative period. In 1976 he moved to New York City and joined DNA.
Peter Laughner, one of RFTT's guitarists, asked to join. A steelworker, Tom Herman, and a record store clerk, Scott Krauss, lived at The Plaza, a downtown apartment house owned and 'janitored' by a fellow who played analog synthesizers, Allen Ravenstine.1 They had made names for themselves jamming in short-lived projects. The first single was recorded at a studio in the basement of a building downtown that housed Channel 3. Thomas found them in the phone book. The engineer, Bill Cavanaugh, told him about a group from Akron who had been in the previous week. They played garbage cans, he said. The name was Devo.
30 Seconds Over Tokyo b/w Heart of Darkness, released in 1975, was the first of four independent releases on Hearpen Records and, along with Television's Little Johnny Jewel, signaled the beginning of the New Wave. In the early to mid-70s, the musicians who formed Pere Ubu were part of a fertile rock scene that had also produced 15-60-75, The Mirrors, The Electric Eels, Rocket From The Tombs, Tin Huey, and Devo.
Within months, that first self-produced record, each with a sleeve glued together by Thomas, was being snapped up in London, Paris, Manchester, New York and Minneapolis. Pere Ubu was changing the face of rock music. Over the next four decades they defined the art of cult; refined the voice of the outsider; and inspired the likes of Joy Division, Pixies, Husker Du, Henry Rollins, REM, Sisters of Mercy, Thomas Dolby, Bauhaus, Julian Cope and countless others.The record was mastered at Cleveland Recording Company by Ken Hamann. For the second single Thomas arranged for it to be recorded at Cleveland Recording, where James Gang, Grand Funk Railroad, and others recorded. Thus began a decades long relationship.
"Ken Hamann was critical to the growth of Pere Ubu. I might go so far as to say that, without Ken, Pere Ubu wouldn't have amounted to anything near what it did."When Ken retired in 1979, his son Paul Hamann took over the engineering and co-production of Pere Ubu albums until his death in 2017. The studio was moved to a turn-of-the-century, abandoned golf house twenty miles east of Cleveland in 1979 and was renamed Suma.
Lastly, there is John 'Johnny Dromette' Thompson. From the beginning he was instrumental in the design, conceptualization and visual representation of Pere Ubu and the bands of Ubu Projex. He was the owner of influential record shop Hideo's Discodrome. He didn't live at The Plaza but he and David shared a house known as The Discohome.
Also deserving a mention is Jim Ellis who published a quarterly (-ish) magazine called CLE, which chronicled the local scene. Johnny Dromette contributed and took out unique ads.4
The attendant pointed out wax plugs in the ceiling. "Keep an eye on them. If they crack," he told us, "Stop playing and get out immediately."
Late in 1979 Tom Herman left and was replaced by Mayo Thompson, the guitarist from 60s Texas psychedelic-rock legends The Red Krayola. A challenging stew of inside-out song structures followed - The Art Of Walking (1980). It was Ubu's best-selling record from this period. Extensive American and European tours followed during which Birdies was recorded for Urgh! A Music War. In March 1981, Pere Ubu supported Gang Of Four on a tour of Britain. Also on the bill were Delta Five and Bush Tetras. Lots of late night card games got played and Ubu introduced 'Reality Dub' - an accurately simulated episode in the song Not Happy during which an on-stage breakdown was simulated. Allen, throwing his synth charts into the air and stormed off - the cue for a secretly signaled Motown vamp springing out of nowhere.
Scott Krauss left the band for the second time. Anton Fier (The Feelies, Peter Laughner's Friction, The Golden Palominos) replaced him, again, and recorded Song Of The Bailing Man (1982), produced by Adam Kidron. At the end of an American tour in December 1981, and after months of growing friction between two members of the group, the band ceased to exist as a functioning unit. Song Of The Bailing Man had yet to be mixed and would not be released until June 1982. There was no band to tour it.
I was a big fan of the Allman Brothers Band and southern rock. I was intrigued by the idea of a two drummer lineup for Pere Ubu.The release of the clattering Tenement Year followed in March 1988. The 36-date British and European The Avant Garage Returns Tour occupied March to May 1988. Supports included The Mekons and Kampec Dolores. The last two dates Ubu was playing in Athens. After the first show Ubu flew into London in the morning (via Warsaw), filmed The Roland The Rat tv show (BBC), and flew back into Athens in time to walk on stage directly from the airport. The person who played Roland The Rat was a big fan. The band mimed We Have The Technology, which had been chosen as the single from the album. The Tenement Year Tour of the US and Canada in September was a co-bill with John Cale.
Teamed with another Ubu fan, producer Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order, etc.), Ubu shifted gears for 1989's Cloudland (May 15 1989), a journey across the landscape of America as a metaphor. Tired of touring and the grind of it all, Ravenstine retired to take up a career as an airline pilot for Northwest Airlines. He was replaced by Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Snakefinger).7
The band was brought to London to film the Big World Cafe tv show, Channel Four, followed by a concert at the Mean Fiddler in London, March 16 1989, which was the premiere of the Cloudland material for press and record company. It was also Eric's premiere with the band and the last appearance of the two drummers lineup. Chris Cutler, unable to juggle all the demands of his many musical projects, left the group. The band continued the Cloudland tours as a five-piece.
Worlds In Collision (May 7 1991), produced by Gil Norton (The Pixies), was Stereo Review's Record of The Year. The Worlds In Collision Tour, 26-dates in America and Canada, occupied May to June 1991. It was followed by three Scandinavian outdoor festivals with Kool And The Gang and the Blues Brothers Band and then The Kindness Of Strangers Tour supported by Miracle Legion during which the band appeared on the Late Night With David Letterman. (Phonogram US refused to support the cost of doing it. The band appealed to its fans to donate towards the effort. Fans responded.)
The Pixies invited Pere Ubu to support them on a forty-date tour of America and Canada, October to December 1991, during which Feldman joined them on-stage as a sideman. He subsequently worked on Frank Black's solo projects. When Feldman was unable to record with Ubu because of those commitments the band decided to record what would be the last Fontana album, Story Of My Life (January 25 1993), as a four-piece.
In January 1994, again without a major label, the band recorded demos for a projected album, Songs From The Lost LP. Krauss quit the band, for the third time. Yellin, busy with his quartet in NYC, was replaced by Robert Wheeler, organic farmer, Ravenstine-protegé, and president of the Thomas Alva Edison Birthplace Foundation. Band members were overcome by doubts and uncertainty. Thomas announced that he was ready to become the producer for Pere Ubu and that was what he was going to do.
In August 1995 Jones retired from the road for health reasons. Herman rejoined the group for the Raygun Suitcase tours, and together with Jim Jones recorded Pennsylvania (April 21 1998), a highly acclaimed album nominated by one of America's preeminent rock critics, Greil Marcus, as the best of 1998.
In 2000 the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame promoted a special event, "55 Years of Pain," honoring Pere Ubu and the grand-daddies of the Cleveland scene, 15-60-75. The event was repeated at the Royal Festival Hall in London later in the year, and at the "Fall of The Magnetic Empire Festival," curated by Thomas and staged at New York City's Knitting Factory, during which Wayne Kramer of the MC5 joined the group as guitarist for a show.
The release of St Arkansas (May 20 2002) was celebrated by The Mighty Road Tour. A splinter group within the band, referred to as The Pere Ubu Film Group, premiered a live underscore to a rare 3-D screening of Ray Bradbury's "It Came From Outer Space" at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in October 2002. A highly successful 6-date tour of the underscore in the United Kingdom followed in November 2004. The group premiered its underscore to Roger Corman's "X, the Man With X-Ray Eyes" at 'Celebrate Brooklyn' (New York City) in 2004.
Keith Moliné, a founding member of David Thomas and two pale boys, had been drafted into the Film Group. Over time, he morphed into being the guitarist in Pere Ubu.
After a decade of perfecting a hypernaturalistic recording method (junk-o-phonics), Thomas produced Why I Hate Women (September 19 2006). It was recorded, for the most part, without the use of 'professional' microphones. Instead an array of 'junk-o-phones' designed by long-time engineer Paul Hamann were used. These included an array of speakers salvaged from broken devices, wooden boxes, metal horns, panes of glass, even doors, wired into specialized electronics.
The band's most ambitious project, which would culminate in the release of "Long Live Père Ubu!" (September 14 2009), began in July 2007. It was an adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, recorded, again, using junk-o-phonics in such a way that the acoustic quality of the sound itself becomes a narrative voice. A theatrical production, Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi, and a radio play of the theatrical production became part of the project. British singer Sarah Jane Morris joined the group for the project. Cult filmmakers, The Brothers Quay, created animations for the theatrical production. On April 24 and 25, 2008, "Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi" premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and was subsequently staged in its full theatrical state at the Animator Festival in Poznan, Poland, July 11 2009, and at the Festival Scènes d'Europe in Reims, France, on Dec. 16 2009. A concert version called "Long Live Père" toured in Europe and the USA.
Lady From Shanghai (January 7 2013) marked the fulfillment of a twenty year project working out the Chinese Whispers methodology. A book of the same name, written by David Thomas, accompanied the release. (It was his second book; the first was called The Book of Hieroglyphs.) In July of 2013, an underscore to the 60s cult film 'Carnival of Souls' was premiered at the East End Film Festival in London. Songs and musical pieces written for the underscore were developed over the course of a tour of the United Kingdom, Italy, Croatia and Ireland, in November 2013, undertaken by a 'shock troops' version of the band. Each night ideas were improvised from scratch. The album Carnival of Souls (September 8 2014) resulted. Clarinetist Darryl Boon had contributed to a couple songs on 'Lady From Shanghai.' Over the course of the making of 'Carnival of Souls' he was fully integrated into the group.
In 2014, Pere Ubu renounced its 'US citizenship' and applied for creative asylum in Leeds, England, after a cabal of the American Federation of Musicians and a clique of government clerks in a small town in Vermont determined that Pere Ubu was unworthy of being granted permission to perform in America.
In 2015, with the vinyl box set Elitism For The People, Fire Records began a re-release program that will eventually encompass the entire Pere Uu catalog. Architectre Of Language followed in 2016 and Drive, He Said in March 2017.
The Pere Ubu Film Group continued with live underscores to the 1962 cult classic Carnival Of Souls. Another subset of the band, The Pere Ubu Moon Unit, dedicated to improvised performances, made more appearances.
As the recording of 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo proceeded through the autumn of 2016, Kristof Hahn, from The Swans, became involved. For a number of years he had been a regular visitor to the Ubu dressing room. After hearing early recordings of the material, he wrote to David, "Gives me goosebumps. I would like to be involved in even a small way." He appears on all tracks playing steel guitar.
The Pere Ubu Moon Unit played some European festivals over the summer of 2016. Over the next two years, Ubu returned on several occasions to Europe. A return to the USA remains impossible under current American visa restrictions - several members of the band being British. Between 2016 and 2018, David Thomas died twice. The Long Goodbye was released in 2019.