Thursday, September 3rd, 2020
Pere Ubu’s David Thomas on “By Order of Mayor Pawlicki”
Datapanik In the Year 2020
Sep 03, 2020
By Mark Moody
The list of artists in the music business for 40 plus years that still push themselves to create their best work is undoubtedly a short one. Many may plug along, but Pere Ubu’s David Thomas plugs in daily and pursues quality. Founded in 1975 in Cleveland, Pere Ubu took up from the ashes of earlier band Rocket From The Tombs and moved forward. Thomas has been the one constant in a string of thirty studio albums released under some iteration of the band’s name or his own. Pere Ubu’s music defies standard classifications and Thomas likes it that way.
Starting with the freewheeling and still fresh sounding classic, The Modern Dance, up through last year’s career capstone, The Long Goodbye, Thomas has never sat still. As he reveals below, there will never be an end to Pere Ubu and no album is ever finished. Plagued with a myriad of health issues and close calls over the past decade, Thomas shows no sign of slowing things down. A global pandemic has only served to shift his focus to remastering past albums and creating new content for fans. Thomas has recently launched Datapanik TV on the group’s Patreon page (www.patreon.com/pereubu) and periodically issues new episodes of the UbuDub podcast which premiered in conjunction with The Long Goodbye. Not to mention, that the group’s website (www.ubuprojex.com) is the most painstakingly comprehensive guide to any band you will find. The site includes links to their online shop (Ubutique) and high quality downloads of their extensive catalog—many remastered this year.
Recently Pere Ubu released their eighth live album, By Order of Mayor Pawlicki, which was recorded in Jarocin, Poland, in 2017. A blistering set covering songs from their first five albums, Thomas’ and the band’s energy seem teleported in from 1982. Under the Radar caught up with Thomas from his flat in England and covered topics ranging from the new album, The Long Goodbye, and what he’s been doing in lockdown (spoiler alert: a lot more than the rest of us).
Mark Moody (Under the Radar): So why don’t we start with By Order of Mayor Pawlicki, and why another live album at this point in the band’s history?
David Thomas (Pere Ubu): Why? I don’t know. Nobody ever asks me why another album. I mean we had the tape. The tape sounded great. My manager [Kiersty Boon] said we ought to put this out, and it kind of went from there. I mean, frankly, it wasn’t my idea. She thought the concert was great. And it made sense to do something in the interim between The Long Goodbye and whatever’s next because it takes a long time to cycle through these things sometimes, and it just seemed like a good idea.
Right. Well, the sound quality of it is phenomenal, and there’s a lot of energy.
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, she said that was the point, that she was very enthusiastic about the tapes, so it went from there, basically. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer.
No, that sounds like a good answer to me. So this one was recorded differently somehow than the prior live albums?
No. It was recorded by our soundman. Our soundman has a unit that he carries around. The entire PA these days is in a backpack and part of the system is that he records every show, so we’ve got endless numbers of shows.
You can’t really tell from the quality of the recording, but it sounds like there were a lot of things going haywire during the show?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, everything. [Laughs] I blew my mic in the middle of “Dub Housing.” I hit a note and the mic just died. Just blew the mic and so we finished that and the next two or three songs, there was no mic and people were scrambling around and dashing on stage and saying, “Don’t yell at me. Don’t yell at me.” And I said, “I’m not going to yell at you. Get another mic out here.” And people in the band were, “Oh!” I said, “We keep going. We keep going. We don’t stop.” So I went to the front of the stage and just sang for a while without a mic and people were trying to drag their mics over and… [Laughs] it was a little bit too confused on stage for my taste. I would have thought they would do better under the circumstances because people have broken strings before on stage and say, “We don’t stop. Keep going.” Some of the members of the band panicked a little bit more than really was called for. And the concert that we were using to replace two songs [the tracks “Codex” and “My Dark Ages” were subbed in from an earlier show], Steve’s drums busted and there were no drums for a while and whatever. This stuff happens. I don’t see why everybody makes a big deal out of it. If you can’t play without drums or you can’t play without the guitar, what the hell’s the point of being in a band?
Right. So I think one of my favorites on there was “Fabulous Sequel.” Just kind of ferocious drum playing and Michele [Temple]’s bass is jumping all over the place and then your vocals are next-level there. Do you push the band, or do they push you or what’s that dynamic like?
Well, the dynamic is just simply we’re on stage and play the show. [Laughs] It’s always good and helpful when things are going well, when you’re thinking to yourself, boy, I hope we can keep this together. Usually, that’s the only thought that you have during the show. I mean, you know pretty much within the first 10, 20 seconds of a show, how it’s going to go. You know if it’s special, and when it’s special, basically all you can do is just hope that you personally don’t screw it up and that everybody stays on point. But no, there’s no talk between us. Everybody knows what’s going on. So if you make a big deal out of it, in the superstitious world of musicians, that’s one of the sure ways you’re going to screw the show up. If you go, “Oh, it’s really going well,” you’re dead meat then. And you’re going to get the blame for everything because of the “why-don’t-you-just-shut-up” sort of thing. You were asking about encouragement. No, nobody says anything.
Okay, so the energy is there that day, or it’s not or?
Well, yeah, it’s always the set of circumstances around a situation and there’s no particular rules to it. We really don’t do bad shows anymore. I mean, they’re all at a pretty good level. Every so often something really special comes along.
So I know things are challenging right now with the whole pandemic situation, but do you see the group getting back out on the road? I don’t know if things have eased up in the U.K. and Europe. They’re certainly still a mess here in the U.S.
I don’t know. In our estimation, there’s no point to even thinking about it until next year. I have a feeling things will be different just because people on the lower end of the spectrum are going to have to think a little bit more broadly about things. I think that this will only serve to consolidate power in the upper echelons of things and drive the lower end of the market or whatever you want to call it into disappearing.
We’ve been concentrating on live streaming. We started something called DPK, Datapanik TV, which we’re about to do our third or fourth show on Sunday. I mean, the drive-in concert thing has started up here. And I think that may continue. I think that people on the lower end of the echelon need to look at live streaming shows and take it from there. I mean, it’s still all very early into the process here.
So when you’re talking about the lower echelon, you’re talking about who in particular?
Music artists at our level. People like us.
Okay. That seems strange to put Pere Ubu in that category, but I understand.
Well, we’re not into predicting the future. What we need to do is take care of our situation. And our situation is that I have kidney failure. My kidneys are dead, I’m essentially a dead man walking if I catch something. I can’t catch corona [COVID-19]. That’s the end. So I have to be very careful. And we’re constantly working out things and keeping an eye on the process. And so we started up this Patreon thing that for a donation of $5 a month, you get access to music and to chat on the live stream, and there’s music and videos and on and on and on.
And I’m sitting on thousands of hours of tape. I’ve recorded 30 albums. I just remixed Surf’s Up!, the Pale Boys record. Really brilliant remix if I do say so myself. I’ve had a career. I mean, if you think about it, 30 damn studio albums. I don’t know if The Rolling Stones have 30 albums [they don’t]. So there’s a lot of this stuff around, and I have enough to keep me busy for a little bit of time here while we work on the new album. And while we see how the situation in the world pans out.
Right. Okay. On the last show, you talked about trying to do a live band performance or something to that effect.
Yeah. We’re gearing up for that for Sunday [July 5, 2020]. I have mixed feelings about it. When this whole thing started, the pandemic thing, lots of people were into strumming the guitar in front of a laptop camera. That did not appeal to me. I need to smell the audience. I need to feel a little bit something more than a stupid camera. I really, really don’t like that stuff. In the usual Ubu fashion, we’re trying to work our way around it so that we can achieve something that’s similar to it but under conditions that work for me. The best thing I’ve seen so far was the Mael brothers from Sparks. And I can’t remember their names ever, but there’s the one who’s the singer [Russell Mael]. The cute one who’s a singer. And he was just reciting his lyrics in front of a camera and it was really very effective. I’ve always liked those guys. I only met them once. But I like to keep an eye on them.
That’s good. So I was fortunate to get to review The Long Goodbye as well. You just made reference to working on a new album. I know The Long Goodbye wasn’t meant to be the end. But certainly a lot of things were tied up there. So where do you go from here?
Well, that’s always the most difficult question because I don’t know where. At a point, an idea will come to me. At the moment, we’re just doing exploratory sort of stuff. And at some point, the idea will come to me and I’ll go from there. I’m working about 20 hours a day at this point on all sorts of things. So for the last two months, I’ve done nothing but work and something will come of it. We’ll see. And that’s about as far as I ever know.
So you have access there to what you need to create?
Yeah. I have a little studio in my flat and I’ve been recording in it and mixing in it for years and years now. And when Paul died [long time Pere Ubu engineer Paul Hamann], I really had to step that up, and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve spent a lot of work and effort into my engineering with what pitiful engineering skills I have. And the last number of years of Paul’s life, whenever we would get together, I would really pay attention to watching him and learning from him. So some of it rubbed off.
So is this the first time you’ve remastered albums then?
No. Surf’s Up! is the most successful one I’ve done so far. I’ve done it for a number of years working away at it. When there’s a new album like a studio album, I use a real mastering engineer, but for live things I kind of like doing it myself. I kind of experimented with the live things because frankly, the quality of live versus studio is fairly big gulf. And it’s pretty hard to mess up a live recording. So I’ve been studying it, and I’ve been acquiring the software and the hardware, slowly but surely, because it’s all expensive stuff. And I think I’ve made a big breakthrough. We’ll see.
Okay. Good. So back on The Long Goodbye. You talked about how the album’s ideas just come to you between recordings. Did you ever have an intent to kind of pull things together the way you did there, or did that idea just come to you as well?
No, I never planned for it or thought about it, but the circumstances arrived and it was on my mind. Because I’ve died twice already. I’ve been dead twice (Thomas has had several serious tour ending health episodes). And I thought, “Well, I can’t just disappear here.” And I have all this sort of floating around unfinished, though nothing in Pere Ubu really finishes. There’s never an end to an album. An album is just a moment in time, and then it’s recorded and put out. And I don’t consider it to be finished at that point. I anticipate that it’ll keep on being worked on. So I’ve got 30 albums I’m working on when I have the time. And I’m intent on the website. I’ve been doing a lot of coding on the website, slowly, but surely, to build that up to an encyclopedia of Pere Ubu. So the legacy angle, as it were, was naturally on my mind. I never particularly saw it as a final album, but I thought, “Well, at least I’ve done it. If things work out badly, at least I’ve got my farewell album and good.” So now that I’ve done my farewell album, I can keep going.
Right. So no further pressure in that regard. I guess, to go back to the prior album, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo. The last song there, when I heard that the first time, “Cold Sweat,” compared to The Long Goodbye’s “Lovely Day,” which is much more optimistic?
Well, yeah. I mean, Montana Missile Silo was a particular story. The last song on my albums tend to be a significant song. I mean, ever since the first album, the last song says something about what’s going to happen next.
So it seems to me, on The Long Goodbye, I know obviously you’re in everything that you do, but feels like more of your personal narrative came through there.
Well, yeah I mean the entirety of Pere Ubu and my solo career, whatever you want to call it, I don’t write personal songs ever. I mean, I tell stories, but clearly there are elements in the storytelling of my person in them. So the stories I chose to tell on The Long Goodbye were as close to my personal nature as I’d gotten. The same with Surf’s Up!. I just noticed as I was finishing it that it’s an incredibly personal album. It’s very revealing about a number of things. And there’s really a close link between it and The Long Goodbye. Many decades ago I put up a sign in the Suma [Hamann’s studio] control room: “Self Expression Is Evil.” And it stayed there for decades until some sniveling piece of blah, blah, blah, stole it. I like a lot of singer/songwriters personally. And I like their music. And I appreciate the [personal] music. But I’m not into that stuff. I’m a storyteller. And clearly, the stories you choose to tell tend to be ones that are connected to your person. That’s sort of the way the reality of the situation is but they’re not personal. But The Long Goodbye was pretty close. And Surf’s Up! is pretty close. And Monster Walks the Winter Lake, up until recently that was the most personal album I’d ever done.
Got you. Okay.
Some critic recently said, “There isn’t any difference between all of Thomas’ solo albums. May as well be considered to be Pere Ubu albums with different people.” [Laughs]. I don’t [know] if I’m going to come out and say that officially. But it was an interesting thought that hadn’t occurred to me. And I sat there and I read that. And I thought, “They are Pere Ubu albums with different people.” I always work the same way. I don’t set out to work differently if it’s a solo record or it’s an Ubu record. I do the same things, work the same ways. It’s just different people.
Right. Just real quickly back on The Long Goodbye. The two songs together to me, “Fortunate Son” and then “The Road Ahead” is just an amazing span of music there. And in “Fortunate Son” you say, “I was thinking about America and I started to cry.” I don’t know if you keep tabs on what’s going on over here today. I don’t know if there was some story behind that line. Today things seem measurably worse than they could have been then.
I’m an old man now and I’ve been through any number of immeasurably worse periods in my life, as it were. Things go through bad periods and hey, you survive. I’m not a particularly political person. Over here in England we call it party politics, one side versus the other side. I really have no patience for that. I’m not interested in it. But the one thing I know is that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So as far as I’m concerned, politics goes that far. I’m not interested beyond that. So I think whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or whatever, lighten up. Hey, so what? So somebody doesn’t agree with you. I don’t care. Nobody has to agree with me. I’ve lived my entire life where most people don’t agree with me. That’s okay. You don’t agree with me? Fine. All right.
Right. Well I think what you referred to there about equality, at least there seems to be some movement on that front to the positive.
Well, good. I like America. I’m an American. I feel American. I’ve never had any alienation from America. Things go through different cycles, but they’re just cycles. All right, fine. That has nothing to do with what I feel.
Right. I understand. Okay David, is there anything else you would like to cover or pass along?
The thing that I’m most interested in is developing Datapanik TV. For a long time I’ve been saying that it’s going to go back to the way it was in the ’50s, where there were the record companies and lots of that stuff was some record company guy with a box of records in the trunk of his car driving from town to town getting radio stations vibed up and all that. And I felt for a long time that some element of that is going to return.
Yeah. So now, I guess with the advent of all the music streaming services and things like that, bands are being forced to get on the road, sell albums, sell merchandise in person to get by.
Yeah. Well, no, you’ve got to pay attention, and there’s no rules. There’s no one way of doing something. You have to figure this stuff out, and a lot of people aren’t suited to do that for one reason or another. And that’s what you have to do. You’ve got to keep your eyes on things and solve the problems yourself. That’s the message of everything is just figure it out and come up with solutions. Don’t sit there and bitch about record companies or bitch about this or that or the other. There’s no point to any of that. We weren’t bitching about anything in Cleveland in 1974. We saw the situation, and we thought, “Well, what can we do?” So you began to come up with things.
So now this pandemic has just forced people to try and get more creative about that?
Well, yeah, I think so. I mean, obviously, they have to because lots of stuff has shut down. So you can’t just sit in front of a damn camera strumming your guitar. That ain’t going to fly. So you’ve got to figure out how to keep an audience and maintain an audience when the audience is not allowed to be an audience. So that’s a fascinating problem.