Pere Ubu's Dave Thomas Talks Being an Underground Legend and Why He Won't Call Himself Special
Following the re-release of his box-set 'Elitism for the People,' we get inside the brain of one of underground music's most significant voices.
Photo by Lex Van Rossen
Dave Thomas has a reputation for crankiness. I don’t know exactly why that is; I read his interviews and he seems fine, like an uncle who takes you to the bar but expects you to make your own friends. For a singer to get a reputation for crankiness, all one has to do is have opinions outside of “war is terrible” and “thanks for writing about us.” I don’t want my president or my lead singers to be my pals. I have friends and I don’t even care for them that much. The biz of show is supposed to be, on whatever level, entertaining. While I appreciate kindness and patience in my nurses and deli workers, it’s not a mandate for those whose product is three and a half minute slabs of self-loathing and/or transcendence. It’s fine if they are sweet as pie, but I don’t begrudge them the occasional puppy kick if they’re good at their job, and one could make the argument that jerkery of the non-tedious variety is part of the gig for those who’s only qualification is to be hard to turn away from. But, like I said, Dave Thomas seems fine. I don’t know that I’d want to be in a band with him but he hasn’t, as of this writing, asked.
If you don’t know who Dave Thomas is, he’s a lot of things. For the purposes of the promotional necessities of this interview, he’s the singer of art-punk necessities, Pere Ubu. They started in 1975 after the dissolution of Rocket from the Tombs (from which the Dead Boys also sprang). They combined existential terror, Chuck Berry guitars, and Musique Concrete keyboards to make some of the most bracing and original (and still extremely fun) rock and roll music of the 70s and 80s. Apart for the occasional break, Pere Ubu have persevered beyond any reasonable explanation for 40 years. Dave Thomas’s plaintive quaver has influenced a million wonderful female singers (Sleater-Kinney, Perfect Pussy just for starters) and a few terrible male singers (why ruin anyone’s day). He’s the Jacques Brel of Cleveland, which, if you’re unfamiliar, is the Paris of Ohio.
The email from Dave Thomas’s publicist said, as a not so casual aside, “Oh and please make sure to have read through his website before the interview as he likes to answer new questions.” Dave Thomas, as singer of Pere Ubu, Rocket from the Tombs, and his assorted solo work, has been answering interview questions for over 30 years. And this particular interview was pertaining to work he made at the beginning; the remastering and reissuing of the legendary first two Pere Ubu albums, Modern Dance and Dub Housing, along with all the early Hearpen singles and a 1977 live set from Max’s Kansas City, all under the name Elitism for the People (the name is taken from one of the only piece of writing on the band that Thomas can apparently tolerate). Operating within the set limitations, I tried to ask what I could. Even within the set limitations, Thomas answered what he felt like.
Noisey: There’s a long list of questions that you’ve been asked to death, and understandably don’t want to answer again, but we’re talking about a re-issue box set. How do we talk about the past and these recordings? How are you going to move these units without being reduced to bored tears?
Dave Thomas: “Moving the units” is not my problem. That’s why there are record companies. The imperative of Ubu Projex has always been to ensure to the best of our ability that our music is always available and available at the highest fidelity we can accomplish. Technology improves. Our grasp of the technology improves. We take advantage.
What was the process of remastering these albums like?
Paul Hamann at Suma digitally transferred the original quarter-inch two-track analog master mix tapes at the highest resolution available, 192khz / 24 bit. That’s more than four times the audio resolution of CD music. The vinyl was cut directly from those files on the best lathe Neumann manufactured. In the past two years I have immersed myself in the black arts of the realms beyond human hearing. With this information we accomplished the down-sampling necessary for cd production and audio download files. The result is probably the best fidelity that’s been commercially produced and as close as can be achieved to audio transparency between the various media.
One meat and potatoes question: Why put out the reissue on Fire Records rather than Hearpen?
Because the catalog is licensed to Fire.
The idea of “authenticity” as a moral quality seems really important to you. In you’re discussion of your own art, and rock and roll, it’s taken as a given that the “truth” is good and “the lie” is bad. I don’t necessarily disagree. But life is hard and pop is (occasionally) lovely. Is there any wiggle room in your philosophy?
To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, ‘the music business is a long dark tunnel filled with pimps, scoundrels, and thieves—there’s a downside as well.’ We do the best we can. It’s a screwy business and we’ve known that from the beginning.
One of the greatest things you’ve ever done was to prod Linda Thompson out of retirement. You two should do an album of duets. This is not a question but feel free to respond.
There was a brief attempt at a Linda Thompson/Two Pale Boys album but it never got under way properly. We’re about to start a new 2pbs project. Maybe I’ll give her a call.
Like Taylor Swift, Pere Ubu has a “we own all images taken of us, in perpetuity” photo policy. While I’m certainly not advocating photographers have a right to payment for your usage of their photos but, in a landscape where everybody in the arts is getting financially fucked on the regular, is any use without compensation justifiable? For the purposes of either edification or, if you like, deflection: What’s your take on streaming?
I don’t like photos. I don’t want to waste my time generating the limitless supply the industry requires. I know what I look like. I know what my mother looks like. I recognize her every time. What do I need a photo for? The government wants photos. Whatever the government wants I try to avoid. Good basic policy. I’m not in the business of being a pop star. I am a musician. The eye is a deceiver. It relies on the physical world and can be too easily fooled. It takes only 24 frames a second to deceive the eye into seeing real motion. It takes a minimum of 44,100 frames a second to deceive the ear. Sound is the authentic expression of human consciousness. The world is silent. Sound only happens inside the head of conscious beings. It is the by-product of consciousness. Why waste time with anything less?
Photo by Alexandre Horn
Like The Mekons, who mirror the “we shall persevere against the inanity of this degraded world, despite almost universal indifference, because we like rock music and can’t not do this” of Pere Ubu both in longevity and span of influence, you still seem to truly believe in rock and roll and the vast, wonderful continuum of America’s best art. Still? Why? This isn’t a sarcastic question though I wish I could phrase it less cutely. Seriously, why do you still love rock and roll?
Because it is the best tool we have to hand. It can achieve everything I want to do better than any other medium.
I was snide about your “influence” earlier which is bullshit as you really did make some of the best rock records ever, so let’s say you’re influential and since you’re a firm believer in the tradition of Rock and Roll music, who’s next? Who followed in your footsteps?
I have always avoided thinking of myself as "special." If I find myself falling into that trap I take action. Purge yourself even more regularly than you purge your audience. Refine yourself in the flame of the moment. I don’t follow music that closely. I don’t remember names and I don’t recommend. I am aware of where music technique, technology, and aesthetics are going. I can read history. I can interpret it and I do what I can to alter it if I feel the need. I stopped doing music journalism a long time ago. I stopped telling people what to listen to or what to do. Everyone is responsible for their own decisions.
Zachary Lipez, on the other hand, is very special. Follow him on Twitter.