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Pere Ubu - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 24 / 9 / 2009

Pere Ubu - Interview


Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas speaks to Mark Rowland about the problems he and his band faced making their latest album ‘Long Live Pere Ubu’, which is a musical adaption of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist drama, ‘Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi’

It’s taken over thirty years, but David Thomas has finally made an album he’s completely happy with. The trouble is that it’s taken him two years of stress and toil to make it, with Thomas fretting over every single aspect of the recording,while his band mates (Keith Moline, Michele Temple, Robert Wheeler and Steve Mehlman) had to master incredibly difficult music and vocal parts. The new album is part of a project that has been closely connected to the band since its inception, largely because it gave it its name. Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play 'Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi', which was released in 1896 and caused a riot with its opening line ("merdre"). Jarry wrote the play when he was 23. It brought him instant fame; the play was like nothing else that had been put on at the time. He became completely immersed in his work, speaking in the exaggerated, ridiculous style of his principle character, Pere Ubu. The play itself is a parody of Shakespearian tragedy, particularly 'MacBeth', 'Hamlet' and 'Richard III'. It’s from this play that Pere Ubu has created their latest album, 'Long Live Pere Ubu'. It is a little more than just an album – it’s a punk rock opera, a radio play, a podcast, a theatrical rock show, an animated work – and it’s completely taken over Thomas’ life. On the new album/play, Thomas plays the central character of Pere Ubu, an unsympathetic character; greedy, selfish, fat and cruel. His wife, Mere Ubu, is not much better. She is played by Sarah Jane Morris; a singer in her own right who has worked with the Communards, the Happy End and the Republic. The rest of the band perform additional roles in the play. It makes for an intentionally overblown and ambitious project, simultaneously referencing the excess of prog rock and the visceral energy of punk. David Thomas spoke about the painstaking process of putting the work together - from the writing of the music to recording the album - a few weeks before the live performance of their Ubu Roi adaptation at the ICA. PB: Your current project is incredibly ambitious. Apart from the obvious connections, what drew you to the project? DT: It started in July 2007 at some party at the Royal Festival Hall in London. I can’t remember what it was for. It was probably the Beach Boys or something, Brian Wilson. So why did I decide to do it? Well, obviously, it’s the sort of thing I’ve been asked about for years and years and years, and I decided that I had a hook into it finally; I had a reason to do it. The first thing when somebody asks is to think why the hell should I? It’s not like other people haven’t done it, just because the band’s named after it, it’s been done by tons of more intelligent Ubu-phillic people. I had this idea that is actually on two fronts, three fronts. One, is that there’s always been a theme in my music and my production in how to connect the songs, how to deal with the silence between songs. It’s not such a problem on a record, though it is a problem. It’s like here’s a song and here’s another song, and you know, why? Live, it’s even more significant just because there are those silences and those awkward moments, and if you give me half a chance, I oftentimes will just sort of babble, and sometimes that babbling is intelligent and productive, esoteric and aesthetic, and others I’ll be thinking, "Well what do I say now?" It all goes back to the very beginnings of Ubu, when Allen (Ravenstine, original synth player) had his EML, and he had to patch this thing endlessly, which Robert (Wheeler) doesn’t, Robert has a different system. Allen had to patch this thing and you’re standing there for three minutes between songs and that’s pretty hairy – three minutes of nothingness on stage is pretty significant. So how to deal with the silences between songs; that was the first thing, and the Ubu thing would be a way of experimenting with that. Number two, to me Ubu has always been about social do-gooderism, or any kind of do-gooderism – Ubu always seemed to me to represent the face of the do-gooder, every do-gooder monster that you could suggest. Regardless of whoever you personally like, it’s more than likely that person is Pere Ubu – every talking head on TV is Pere Ubu. He represents the survival of the unfit and it came to me that the stock in trade of the unfit is panaphysics, which is most succinctly been described as the science of imaginary solutions. So I became interested in that angle. The third angle is that for years, for a decade at least, I’ve been working on a production method that I recently discerned to call 'Junkophonics'. Over time, I’ve been replacing microphones with junkophones, which are speakers that have been torn out of broken down machines or something, wooden boxes, metal horns and tubes, doors and window panes, any surfaces that lends itself to the process and my engineers developed the electronics and the circuits to make use of these things as microphones. A microphone and a speaker are the same thing, essentially, you have to a teeny little bit of fiddling and you can turn either one into the other and the reason why I became interested in this pursuit is not just to be contrary, I felt that I needed more control over the spatial characteristics of sound, but at the same time I absolutely refuse to use EQ. I absolutely refuse to use reverb units, or any equipment of that nature, except really when it’s just a minor part and it’s just too much trouble. I wanted the spatial control because I wanted the sound to be not just a supplemental narrative voice, but to actually carry the narrative to a massive degree so that the acoustics and the quality of the acoustic sound and the nature and the spatiality of the acoustic sound, would be sufficiently controlled so that the words and the singing and all sorts of narrative voices are almost subservient – they never will be, but I was seeking that. This thing expanded and I though this was something that I wanted to pursue. So those are the three reasons. Taking on a major project like this would allow me to – force me to – face those three different things I’ve been working on. PB: Keith Moline described the process of making the album as involving a series of old, modified mac computers. Is that part of junkophonics? DT: That wasn’t part of the junkophonics, that was the junko-mindgame or something, I don’t know. I need to things to um…….to work to, and so I set up a system that would just generate thing that were, not necessarily at random. The programming was a bit of a nightmare. I don’t want to go into it. It really was there just to give me something and then I would work out these hideous drum machine patterns to the bleeping and the pulsing and then my poor drummer Steve Mehlman had to interpret these things, which were really… the first three to four songs, are the ones where I was working on drum machines, and they don’t make any damn sense at all – if you sit there and try to analyse them musically it’s insanity. It’s not because it’s particularly clever or anything. It’s just because I had no interest in these things like a measure should have a certain number of beats in it, or be consistent from one measure to the next to the next, or have a certain logical progression. There isn’t any of that. If you can sit down and analyse what’s going on there, if you can possibly get through it, well, it’s pretty nuts. Steve worked really very hard to figure it all out and translate it for the rest of the band. He was sort of my John French in this endeavour. There’s another one. ‘Ubu Overture’ is one of Keith’s things, and that again is one of these – and I should never have let English prog fans into the band – but he had worked out this thing and the whole pattern of that song doesn’t complete for 15 minutes. I said, "You’re not going to have 15, I’m not doing 15 minutes" and he said, "Okay, people are going to be able to tell it’s not complete if we don’t do 15." I said,"Nobody’s going to tell me anything. Let’s do three minutes. That’s fine. You’ll have to live with the disappointment." There’s a lot of that sort of garbage in there. Well, not garbage… things. PB: This project has been a long time coming. Where did you start in developing it? Was it with the show? DT: It started with the album; it started with the songs. I went through the book, and I didn’t really have much if a plan as to deal with everything else. I thought, "Okay, I’m going to go through the book, I’m going to pick the places that I think would make good songs and would basically cover the territory." That was done and the band began to work on that, and then I decided that I wanted the pieces to be connected with dialogue, so I worked on the dialogue, and it kind of grew from there, then the Quays (Influential American-born, but London-based brothers and animators-Ed)got involved, and other people got involved, and on and on and on. I eventually thought, "Okay, I’ll turn it into a radio play as well" because we were talking to the Quays about turning it into an animated film, which we’re still looking for the money for, and I knew they worked best with sound as their storyboard, that they work to. They create what they do to a pre-existing soundtrack. So I thought, "I’ll turn it into a radio play; that can act as a sonic storyboard and it might be useful for something else." So now it’s two years later. PB: Why has it taken so long for the album to come out, since its initial inception? DT: The album was only finished in the January of this year. It took a long time because, I was really determined, as I said, concentrating on the sound itself as the narrative, creating a theatre in the mind, sort of thing. There’s not a moment on that record - that damned record - that I haven’t spent months on, going through every variant; "One dB up. No, no, one dB down. No, no." So that all took a really long time. Then I would leave it for three months so I’d forget everything I was trying to do and come back to it; that all takes time. I was really determined that I was going to be happy, it was going to do what I wanted it to do, to the best of my abilities and I have achieved that. I know everyone’s going to hate it, because it’s the first album I’ve ever done that I really, really like; that I’m really satisfied with. That’s a bad sign. PB: I thought it was pretty good. DT: It’s a brilliant piece of work, and some of it was so astonishing what happened, like 'The Story So Far', which is a song between me and Sarah. That thing took a month and a half of work just to put the vocal tracks together. The vocals had to hit a certain timing that I’d worked out and neither of us could necessarily record it, because it’s seven minutes long, for goodness sake, and you can’t remember this sort of stuff, so I would do the vocal tracking, and I got the rhythm finally done by going through and syllable by syllable, bridge over troubled water, assembling both of our parts, and then we had to go in and sing them to the best of our ability, to the way the rhythm was supposed to be, and of course we couldn’t do that, so then I had to go back in and again, syllable by syllable put the thing together. This is no criticism of Sarah, like it’s no criticism of me, but I had this rhythm that it had to be and neither of us could do it in real world conditions. It was all monstrous, totally monstrous. It nearly made me want to do a punk record after it, which I’m convinced this is. I think it’s a punk record. There’s also some 70s prog roots in there or something like that, and what I was really interested in is rewriting history in a way, as if punk had come from prog rock, or something. To me, it’s really probably the first punk record that’s been recorded since 1979. I’d be willing to argue the point – I’d probably lose at some point, or give up, not being interested, but yeah, I’d make an argument that it’s truly a punk record. PB: Despite the complicated nature of the project, most of the songs are quite immediate – was that intentional? DT: That’s sort of the deal. I talk of the mess, the inscrutability of some of the songs, but what I really worked hard on in the production stage and what the musicians worked hard on in the recording stage is to make it not seem difficult. It’s totally weird actually, internally, but trying to make it seem organic and of a whole, not like going through the "Oh look how clever this is" routine. I think we achieved that. PB: With all these different vocal arrangements and complex rhythms, it must be hard material to translate live… DT: Hell, yeah (laughs), but really, it’s not that hard live, because everybody in Pere Ubu is quite a good musician and they’ve got it down more or less. The problem with it is in many ways that there’s almost no room for improvising, which is usually a significant part of a live show, just taking off somewhere. This you can’t do that with, because there’s three beats in this measure then there’s two and a half, but you skip the first semi-quaver of the next measure, and, with that sort of stuff, you’ve just got to learn it and do it. The musicians are very good at that stuff. They’re far better at that stuff that I’d ever imagined. I’ve learnt that over the years. This is a very long-lived version of Pere Ubu, if you discount Keith. I’ve worked with Keith much longer than I’ve worked with any of the others. It’s a very stable group. We have a very good rhythm section. PB: How did the rest of the band take to their vocal roles? Did they find it hard to get their parts right? DT: It took a little time, and it took a bit more time in the editing, bridge over troubled water, sort of thing. Most people got it pretty well. Steve is the star of the show; he picks up his voices very quickly. Steve knows all of my vocal lines, he knows how I sing them. In fact he knows how I sang it yesterday, how I sang it three weeks ago. That’s why I’m always turning to him during shows and saying, "How does this go? Where do I come in?" That sort of stuff. Actually that part wasn’t too bad, there was a couple of things that people just couldn’t get, because again I had this idea of how exactly it was supposed to be timed, and so I’d be saying, "No, you’re spending far too much time on that syllable." But they all got it. It wasn’t too brutal. I was far more brutal on myself than I was on any of those guys. PB: How was the music recorded – was it recorded live? DT: Nope! Almost none of it was recorded all at the same time. I went in and did the drums, I think Michelle did a number of her bass parts by mail. Keith came over at one point. Actually, 'The Story So Far' was recorded at rehearsals. I always record the rehearsals with a little multi-track laptop unit, and that was live, the first time it was ever done. And that was it, that was what it was supposed to be, because I heard this other thing going across it. But everything else, there was hardly anybody in the room at the same time. Sarah did her vocals at my flat in Hove, and I did most of my vocals here. The tracks where I’m doing my (makes a gruff sound) voice, I did at Soma, because I needed four mics at once and I needed to use some of the junkophones for that too. So it was pretty spread out. PB: That must have made the project that bit harder to put together. DT: It takes a while. PB: Was it harder to write and record the vocals compared to the music? DT: It was pretty much the same. Very unusually for me, uniquely for me, all of the vocals were written along with the music, or at least most of them were. The vocals actually, I was doing demo tracks from the moment I had the basic drum machine and I did some things on synthesizers, not whee! Whee! Synthesizers, but more organ-sounding sort of things. They were all planned out at almost the same time. Usually I don’t do that. I can’t stand working that way, but because I was working on translating a play into a series of songs, you sort of had to do it. It helped. If I have a piece of dialogue that I want to turn into a song, I need some idea of what it’s going to sound like, so that’s how it worked. I did all of this work largely on my own, uniquely, at first, not because I thought I’m going to do this, I had to, because you had to come up with one song, then move along a few pages, and develop a song from it. PB: Where does the podcast fit into the project? DT: The podcast is exactly the live show – or at least whatever that version was. The theatrical show has had three performances and there’s seven completely different scripts, and if we do another one there will be eight at least, but as of April this year, the status of the script is in the podcast. It’s changed since then, but nothing dramatically. PB: Why did you decide to give it away for free? DT: Well, geez, you know, believe me, I’ve been around the block a few times on this thing. First of all, only the first half is free – you have to pay to hear how it ends. The second half, we’re going to digitally distribute it. There’s also been some talk of putting it on some sort of DVD thing with the animations, but then again, I’m back to the problem of how to connect these things – you just have these bunch of songs on an album, except there’s animations on the album, so…in the meantime, this is what it is. I don’t think this is the last of it. I think at some point I’d like to work out something with the animation, but I have to solve that other issue of how to do the dialogue, or have something that’s not just stones in a line, or a bunch of pearls on a string. It’s a mess, what the hell. PB: You’re performing the whole thing live at the ICA in a few weeks. What can people expect from the show? DT: That would be more of what we call the radio play. It will have all the songs, but it’ll be somewhere between the theatrical and just a concert. It’ll actually probably be more like what the whole thing started out as, which is some way to deal with the silence between songs. To tell you the truth, I haven’t really started editing the script for that yet, cause I’m not up to doing the eighth version of the script in two years. I’ll deal with that another week. Everybody knows their lines, they just don’t have to do some of them. It’ll be fine. PB: I heard something about choreography being part of the show. What do you mean by that? Dance moves? DT: Yeah, that’s what we’ve got; we’ve got dance moves. They’re not very good dance moves, it’s sort of like the difference between Britney Spears and Pere Ubu musically is what Britney Spears is to Pere Ubu choreography-wise. It’s a mess, and it’s sort of amateur – it’s not amareutish. It’s just this person does this dance at this point, or three people do this dance, and a lot of times it’s just minimal and stupid. Everything during this whole process, and I mean literally everything, I’ve said to myself, "Would Jarry do it this way, or that way?" However I believe that Jarry, from what I’ve known over the years, would do it as, and how he would do it, and how he would solve the problem, from the way the sound is, to the way this is, to the way that is, is how I’ve tried to do it. I said what would Jarry do in my position, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s a mess, but the point is how are you going to do 'Ubu Roi' in the year 2009? It doesn’t have the same resonance. You’re not going to get people all a flutter because you say shit in a cute way, or because it’s so critical of sacred cows. So how do you do it? Well, strangely enough, the answer coincides with our production methods, which is generally you try to scare the damn audience. You want an audience that believes that the whole thing could fall apart at any point and that I could get upset about something totally trivial and pull the band off the stage. Which we’ve done from time to time – I’ve taken the band off the stage and said, "We’ll be back in 15 minutes," and the audience are going, "Shit, what just happened?" We’ve done the play with similar ideas – people are worried that we won’t get through it, because there’s lot of stuff, that either we’ve set up so it’s bound to go wrong, or if it’s going too well, I’ll try to screw something up, to see what happens if I move to this line or I yell at somebody and tell them not to do that part, or something. But how are you going to do 'Ubu Roi' differently? What are you supposed to do? One of the reasons I never wanted to do it is because it’s nostalgic, it’s like every school kid should know the play, should know Alfred Jarry. Of course they don’t, but that’s not my fault. To do it know, it’s like 20s surrealism, or 20s absurdism or Dadaism, or all that sort of stuff. You have to know this stuff- it has to be part of your vocabulary, part of your upbringing, part of your world view, or aesthetic view, but to do it just like Duchamp did or something, just to regurgitate that stuff. It’s nostalgia. It’s like saying that music died with Doo-wop, or any stage along the way. Why do Doo-wop? They did it far better in the 50s. Why do 60s garage/psychedelia? They did it much better in the 60s, and on and on and on. PB: Who came up with the choreography? DT: Everybody does it. I tell them, "I want some movement here, do something." There was a couple of things that I was more forceful about, and I said do it this way, but generally they do it their own way; I tell them what’s needed and I come up with it. I’m not sure how much of it is going to survive. I need to have a look at the stage at the ICA. One of the problems of course is that you need the space to do it, so in a week or so, I’ll go and have a look at the stage and work out what we’ll be able to do. You’ll be able to recognize it because it looks stupid (laughs). It’s supposed to look stupid. PB: It’s kind of Dada-esque performance art or something? DT: It’s absurdly ambitious for a rock band to do all this stuff, and to do it themselves, without any help and without anybody advising you on anything. It’s very Ubu. We’ve just done it. Nobody else could do it. That Blur guy’s done things, but he had half of California working with him on it, and more money than I could imagine in five years of my life. This is Ubu; it’s just putting a show on in the garage. PB : How did Sarah Jane Morris get involved in the project? DT: Strangely enough, at that same party(at the Royal Festival Hall), Sarah came up to me and said, "Hi, my names blah blah, and I’ve always wanted to sing with you, so keep it in mind, and maybe we can do something." Originally I was going to do all the parts myself, I recorded all the parts myself, I did her parts in a different voice. About six months into the project, I was thinking to myself, and she just popped into my head, and I thought that she’d really be able to do it. I hate recording vocals, I really detest it, so I thought, "Gee, I could get her to do it and I wouldn’t have to." I sent her the demos of the songs, and she loved it, and I met her and talked about it and I was fairly convinced that she would be great, and she was. PB: Her voice certainly compliments your own. DT: She was right; we should have recorded something. We could have been the Sonny and Cher of the damn 90s if we’d have figured this out earlier (Laughs). PB: Would you work with her again? DT: I hope so. Hopefully she’s not too scarred by the whole experience. It would be nice to do something normal with her. It’ll probably happen. PB: What are your plans for the live show? Is the ICA a one off, or are you planning to tour it? DT: We’re doing a European tour immediately following that. We’re arranging for an American theatrical thing – it’s not going to be in a theatre, but a nice place in New York. We’re starting to think about America and we’re always looking for some small nation to bankroll the damn thing, because the whole theatrical thing is quite expensive to do. Hopefully this’ll all come together in time. The art world bemuses me intensely, I can’t stand it; I find it distressing, and really creepy – no offense with any art world people. We do have problems dealing with that, because everyone we work with is rock, and it’s like, you know,"Where do we sell this damn thing?" (Laughs). I’ve always avoided art, even though we were absurdly arty and all that sort of crap, but I don’t like the world. I like the marketplace; I like people paying their hard earned money to see you and thinking that it’s worth 15 bucks or 20 bucks, or whatever over inflated price it’s going for. I wouldn’t pay 20 bucks to see anybody, much less Pere Ubu. Much less the Eagles, what are they going for, what £70? £100? For a ticket? Are you insane? It’s absurd. PB: With all the aspects of your show, with the choreography and everything… DT: Don’t get carried away with the choreography angle, you’ll be disappointed. It ain’t Britney Spears. I’d like it to be what’s-her-name – that cute little Australian girl, with all the masks and the na, na, na – Kylie Minogue. That’s it. PB: Anyway, with everything going on in the show, it’s not like you’re charging £100… DT: To perform a mess. That’s another good thing – it’s cheap, and if it’s a mess, you know, what the hell! I shouldn’t keep talking about what a mess it is, but it’s supposed to be a mess, damnit! Anyway, whatever. Who cares? PB: What’s the next step for the project? It seems like it will be a major project for you over the next year or so. DT: The problem is that it’s taken over my life for the last two years, and I’m not sure how much more I can stand of it. You know, the character of Pere Ubu took over and destroyed Alfred Jarry, and I sometimes feel his slimy tentacles on my flesh as well – I’m beginning to worry about it. I can see why everything happened with Jarry, I really can – I understand it very well. PB: What else would you like to do with it? DT: A film would be great. The script we worked out for the film is just wonderful, with the Quay brothers doing it. It would be astonishing, but we’re only about a quarter of the way through the finance and it seems to be stuck there at this point. But I don’t; have the time to deal with any of that nonsense, nor the patience nor the self-promotion – yacking at people. The person who’s dealing with it is sort of stuck, so we’ll see. The next real problem is what do I do next, which is probably to make some stupid… Generally I work in opposites, so whatever I’ve done, I head in the opposite direction for the next thing, but when I say something is stupid. I don’t mean that it’s stupid. It’s just the way I deal with things. Okay, I’ll make a damn pop record of something. I don’t think it’s a damn pop record. It’s just how I talk. I don’t think it’s some precious commodity; it’s just another damn record by another failure group, and on and on and on. If you think any other way, you’re going to turn into Bono. I’m not saving the world, I’m telling the world it’s past saving. I’m telling the world you’ve let these do-gooder monsters loose, and it’s too late now, honey. PBP: Thank you.

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