David Thomas has a reputation for being a difficult interview. The man doesn’t suffer fools—he’s as easygoing as steel wool and has the sense of humor of a dried-out omelet, but Pere Ubu’s new album Lady from Shanghai is so brilliant we had to talk to him about it. The band’s been kicking around since the mid-70’s and some critics are already suggesting this may be the best one yet. Through a series of nourish, zen-like koans, Thomas discusses Lady from Shanghai, life in Brighton, and Mumford & Sons. David Thomas doesn’t owe anything to anybody, and he knows it.
I think the new album’s fantastic, and I’m interested in the creative process surrounding the album. How did the group go about writing the songs? How much of the album was the result of pre-meditation and how much the result of serendipity?
This is best answered, I believe, by reading the excerpt chapter from Chinese Whispers that's available from our website: http://www.ubuprojex.net/lfs.html. You'll find a link there. If after reading you have followup questions feel free to address them to me. [interviewer’s note: the whole thing makes for a fascinating read and is well worth the time if you’re at all interested in Pere Ubu or unusual ways to create music—most of it involves methods of structured improvisation, musicians working in isolation from one another, and failure as something to actively pursue rather than escape]
I’m also curious about your personal artistic process in terms of Pere Ubu. Have your working methods evolved over time?
Yes, of course. The Chinese Whispers Method itself took 20 years to realize. Over the course of that time my approach in the studio was in constant evolution. As regards Ubu, it began with Raygun Suitcase during which I radically revised how the band was recorded as I replaced microphones in the studio with specially adapted audio speakers. An audio speaker and a microphone are nearly identical from a technical viewpoint. Only some slight adaptations are needed. The Way In is the Way Out. Each album subsequently was approached differently as the method was refined and defined. As important was moving/evolving/preparing the band as a unit.
Early Pere Ubu sounds like an amalgamation of all the best music stuff from the early 70’s (Beefheart/Eno/Dub/Krautrock etc.) chewed up and spit out into something new directed towards the future. To my ears, Lady from Shanghai seems to be doing something similar with contemporary music. Am I way off track? Do you listen to any contemporary music?
I don't suppose you're off-track. I don't listen to much music. I don't like music in the way that a fan likes music. I see it as a necessary evil. As for contemporary music, do I know who is hip and 'cutting edge'? No. Do I care? No. Am I aware of what is going on in contemporary music - the ideas that are flying around? Yes. Do I have any interest in what others are doing in music? No. I follow one course. It's a course that was determined 40 years ago and I have followed it unerringly and, more to the point, methodically. The narrow road. One of the least understood things about Pere Ubu is our relationship to pop music. We like pop music. We are, after being a rock band, definable as being a pop band. If you don't see this, you don't really see Pere Ubu.
Given the influence Cleveland had on Pere Ubu’s early music, I was wondering what role, if any, Brighton plays in your music these days?
None. Other than as an irritant.
You describe 'Lady from Shanghai' as ‘Dance Music Fixed’. It’s a great phrase, I’d like to know how you define dance music? Kylie MInogue? CCR? Frankie Knuckles?
I define it in much the same way you might define it, I'd guess. I don't feel the need to define it, and my definition of it would reveal nothing to you. Or me. And in any case, I'm not ready to define it. Maybe some time in the future if it becomes necessary to do so.
Love the song ‘The Road Trip of Bipasha Ahmed’. The only Bipasha Ahmed my research turned up was a psychology professor at the University of East London. Any relation? I keep imagining the song as a patient madly raving about their shrink. Care to elaborate?
It is the same person. I have no relationship with her other than as an interesting person I met. She is or was a DJ at Resonance FM. We had a series of conversations about American road trips. I told her I was going to put her in a song and I did. The title came first and then the story went off in a direction all of its own. Sometimes I put actual people in songs. Mandy, for example, is an actual person who is a drinking buddy at my local pub. Though her name is not Mandy. I should clarify here that when I do such a thing the song is in no way 'about' that person, or descriptive of that person.
I’ve always dug the ambiguity of your lyrics—the way they are very specific while the thing being described remains obscure. How much of this is deliberate on your part? And do you see ambiguity as somehow inherently stronger artistically than the directness of say, a John Lennon or a Sarah McLachlan?
It's deliberate. It probably started out for no other reason than that I didn't like using names in songs. There may seem to be songs about girls or women. Most of them are not about girls or women. I need to be a bit circumspect here. A musician shorn of mystery is little more than a used car salesman. As for it being "inherently stronger," I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on what you're trying to achieve.
I’ve read lots about your musical/tv/film influences over the years, but not so much about literary influences. Read any good books lately?
No. The days of reading good books are over. I don't have patience for the agendas of others. I can tell pretty much within a page or two what bill of goods an author is going to try to sell me. I know the game. I read non-fiction. For pleasure I read detective novels. I return to Raymond Chandler regularly every 5 or so years. I like Ian Rankin. And some others. Those writers, by the way, of course, are also selling a bill of goods but with a detective novel I don't care. I do find the passages that sell a usually liberal line annoying in their self-righteous do-gooderism but they can be passed over quickly and we can get back to the plot.
In an interview with Simon Reynolds, you once argued, ‘the most ordinary amateur garage band in America has more authenticity and fire and soul than the most adventurous band from England’. In the wake of the new Mumford & Sons album are you prepared to reconsider your opinion? Also, how do you feel about rock bands from Canada?
I don't know who Mumford & Sons is. I include Canada in with America. I know it's annoying to Canadians to hear that but too bad.
Lastly, I think that the song ‘Mandy’ is one of the greatest things ever made by humans. Any and all information regarding this song will be greatly appreciated.
It is a good song, if I do say so. The band was amused by the many Thomas-isms on it. I did a lot of the fundamental playing and the composition was entirely mine, though that is not to denigrate the contributions from everyone else. I am a little proud of it. I will quote from the section about it in Chinese Whispers:
I was trudging down Fourth Avenue with bags of groceries. Walking bores the life out of me. So much life lost. I count cracks in the sidewalk. I play complex mathematical games with my steps. As I neared the corner, and the turn home, I encouraged myself with the thought, ‘I’ve just about made it to the outskirts of the very suburbs of Forever. Not far now!’
‘Mandy’ was the starting point for the album and the starting point for the song was a sequence on a Boss DR-670 drum machine. I recorded organ, synthesizer parts and improvised a vocal. The escalating and overlapping angularities of the internal rhythms suggested a choreography that had to be internalized and thereby sequestered from the physical body. Stand still and force all motion inside. Internalize. Show nothing on the outside. Dance on the inside. It’s dance music for the Sixth Sense.
“We know well the five senses because they ‘face’ outwards, informing us of the Big World. The Sixth Sense is so fundamental, so inseparable from the life of any individual human being that it is taken for granted and overlooked. The physical body generates and sustains consciousness with great effort. Why wouldn’t the mind perceive itself as possessing a virtual body? Why wouldn’t it endow itself with a sense of its own weight and a sense of occupying its own kind of space? To be able to locate itself and negotiate in the space of the imagination, like the physical body orientates itself in the real world, is too practical a provision.” – The Book of Hieroglyphs, page 236.
The rigid formality of the song structure disguises a fundamentally organic spacetime. It is a veneer. Peel it away and there is an alien dimension to the logic, inscrutable but thoroughly integrated. The strangeness comes from a band trained to abandon all connections to musical (i.e. metronomic) time and disciplined enough to follow the voice, the narrator of Mayhem.
I played the demo for Steve.
“That’s a bunch of the drum patterns you used for ‘Texas Overture’,” he said.
“Yeah well, fix it,” I said.
I gave him the chart:
count in (4 beats)
6 x AB2
1 x AB4
4 x AB2
2 x C (2 x 8 count)
12 x A
1/2 C (4 count)
C (8 count)
4 x A
2 x C (2 x 8 count)
6 x A2B2
4 x C (4 x 8 count)
4 x A2B2
2 x C (2 x 8 count)
Steve rewrote the drum part and recorded it in one take.
Words by Scott Creney
'Lady From Shanghai' is out now.
Pere Ubu are set to play the following shows:
13 Brighton The Haunt
14 Colchester Arts Centre
15 Gateshead The Sage
16 York Fibbers
17 Glasgow Mono
18 Manchester Band On The Wall
19 Bristol Thekla
20 Nottingham Rescue Rooms
21 Bilston Robin 2
22 Liverpool Eric's
23 London Bush Hall
21-23 Camber Sands ATP Festival