Here's the true definition of punk rock: doing what you want to regardless of the consequences. Singer David Thomas has pretty much being doing that every since exploding out of the Cleveland art-rock scene in the late'70s. Catch one of the most original-and enduring-acts in the history of pop music at the Rickshaw on Thursday (November 30).
(***Update--Pere Ubu released a statement on its Facebook page that the Vancouver show has been cancelled. Doctors have advised Thomas not to travel for the immediate future).
STUPID IS AS STUPID DOES. Believe it or not, most musicians don’t particularly enjoy doing interviews, partly because they are often subjected to ill-prepared idiots prone to asking such questions as: “Do you have any funny tour stories?”; “How did you get your band name?”; and “If you could be any animal, what animal would be”. Never one to suffer fools gladly, Pere Ubu’s notoriously clever singer David Thomas has taken above-and-beyond steps to make sure that interviewers actually put in some legwork before getting on the phone with him. Writers are sent a lengthy list of questions to avoid, including, but not limited to: “What elements of art influence your music & lyrics?”; “What is your favorite Pere Ubu record and why? And conversely, what is your least favorite and why?”; and “What is your favorite [FILL IN THE BLANK]?” Perhaps proving that he’s not as cranky as folks make him out to be, Ubu thoughtfully provides answers all these idiotic questions in the FAQ writers receive. The only thing missing from don’t-ask-questions like the following (presented here in full) is the withering silence:
Why did you name the band Pere Ubu?
Alfred Jarry staged ‘Ubu Roi’ in Paris in 1896. The principal character is a fellow named Père Ubu. You need three things in a band name: (1) It shouldn’t mean anything but it should seem to mean something, i.e. bestow Mystery; (2) It needs to look good and sound good; and (3) It should have three syllables. I was intrigued by Jarry’s production ideas which seemed designed to engage the audience’s imagination in the theatrical process. Also the Ubu character was monstrous. The singer is the mediator, the funhouse lens through which the audience receives the narrative voice of the band. He should be monstrous.
monster n. & a. ... 2. imaginary animal compounded of incongruous elements. --The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1985. For a more detailed explanation follow this link.
READY FOR BATTLE. After four decades in the business, during which he’s never progressed beyond a cult curiousity, Thomas could be forgiven for phoning it in. Fuck that shit. Word is that shows on the band’s current tour, for this year’s 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo, have been nothing short of devastating. A mid-November show in London had the Guardian raving: “Thomas and the band’s tireless urge to confound rock conventions remain thrilling constants. Here, in the first three songs alone, they rollercoast from berserk rockabilly to demented synthesiser music to free jazz to a clarinet swamped with sub bass.” On November 24 New York’s shutter16.com argued “Even after forty years Pere Ubu still hasn’t fit into any kind of mold or run out of ideas.” While Pere Ubu is famous for having zero use for the rules of pop music, don’t let that get you thinking the band hits the road unprepared. Last year Thomas told Pittsburgh City Paper that the group is more than ready when the tour van rolls out of the driveway: “We rehearse for anything from 10 to 18 hours each day for a few days before every tour, we load up the van, check the itinerary, try to get a few hours sleep. It’s work and there is no relaxation. We take the job seriously and no-one lets the team down. There is no relaxation until the tour ends and all the band agree that the brutality of touring is offset by everyone knowing what they should be doing, or anticipating what needs to be done for every eventuality. Everyone has a tour role aside from playing an instrument.”
YOU GOTTA HAVE FAITH. Google “David Thomas + Jehovah’s Witness” and you’ll get hits here and there about the singer’s faith. (ie. an excerpt from Dean Wareham’s bio Black Postcards: A Memior where the Galaxie 500 founder recounts a show with “Pere Ubu was fantastic that night. David Thomas (Jehovah’s Witness, the greatest Jehovah’s Witness in the history of punk rock) sang about being underwater, swimming with the fish and talking to them, and we were right there with him"). Legendary critic Robert Christgau talks about Thomas’ embracing of the religion a review of 1980’s The Art of Walking, and mentions of Thomas and JW are scattered all over various message boards. Finding an interview where Thomas goes on record is, however, like searching for a needles in an endless haystack, possibly beause, really, it's none of your fucking business.
TAKE A SEAT In recent years, there’s been speculation about the health of David Thomas, much of this fuelled by what’s been a fairly dramatic weight loss. The singer has had zero interest in commenting, which of course has got the common rabble even more curious, especially since he now prefers sitting in a chair to standing when performing. He has, however, addressed the fact that he’s now not going to make anyone forget Bono, Mick Jagger, or GG Allin as a showman. Explaining his chair performances, he told the Guardian “My legs don’t work any more. To sing the way I want to sing, you have to get right in there and I noticed I was spending a lot of mental energy worrying about falling over into the drums....I move as much as I can in the chair. Remember, there’s all this other stuff going on. Imagine trying to sing for 40 years with synthesiser noise in some weird non-explainable key going on constantly. People say I have weird tuning. I’m actually tuned absolutely right with what’s going on.”