Pere Ubu’s David Thomas: ‘I expect rock music to be smart’ | Music
‘I’ve been dead twice,” grins Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, over Zoom from his flat in Hove. “Death is very overrated. It was like being asleep. Once I was brought back by the ambulance crew. My wife said ‘Those guys worked like demons on you.’ The other time I woke up in ICU with all this stuff attached to me and it turned out I’d died again. I woke up and the doctor said, “You’re David Thomas!’’ It turned out that he’d been at the same Pere Ubu show that Ian Rankin had seen in the 70s, and was a lifelong fan.”
Now 68, seated in front of his computer in a furry hoody, the drily-humoured Ohioan cuts a more subdued figure than the “enigmatic giant of a singer” Rankin has subsequently remembered shouting requests at during that gig at Edinburgh University in 1978. Thomas needs kidney dialysis three times a week, and when he gets up to answer the door he needs a walker. But while he may no longer bark out lyrics while careering about the stage, his spirit is indefatigable. “I’m not in the best of health, but my singing voice is better than it’s ever been,” he insists, cheerily. “I’m sort of glad that I can’t jump around any more because I don’t have to worry about falling into the drums. All my concentration goes into singing.”
Thomas has fronted the seminal and hugely influential “avant garage” post-punk forerunners since 1975. Rolling Stone magazine once declared that “modern rock’n’roll reached its peak in 1978 with Pere Ubu’s [debut album] The Modern Dance and has declined ever since”, which the singer took as a challenge. “I wasn’t going to stop making music in 1978 just because everybody said ‘they’ve ended rock’n’roll,’ he insists. “I had … er, I have other things to say.”
Although his health travails meant that 2019 album The Long Goodbye was taken as a farewell, the singer insists that after ceaseless reinvention he simply wanted to close the door on almost half a century of work “so I could start somewhere else”.
This month, Ubu return to the stage after over two years with one of their more intriguing evolutions: an adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, performed live in Canterbury. However, Thomas says people can expect a “rocking show”, albeit one which “isn’t afraid of literary shenanigans. When I started the band one of the criteria for me was that I wanted a band that William Faulkner or Raymond Chandler would have wanted to be in. I expect rock music to be smart.”
The son of a literary professor, Thomas has always brought a storytelling dazzle to rock’n’roll and sees Canterbury Tales – in which various medieval characters tell allegorical stories during a pilgrimage to the town – as the first road novel, the foundation of a tradition stretching from Kerouac’s On the Road to the storytelling in pop he misses in current music. “Canterbury Tales is like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles,” he enthuses. “This alien world, an entirely different civilisation, but it isn’t just about telling stories. It’s about looking at a much bigger picture of human life through a smaller prism. It’s very different, but in the same context as everything I’m familiar with.”
He isn’t about to try and cram all 24 stories and 17,000 lines of Canterbury Tales into a setlist, though. Instead, Ubu will present songs which embed “stories that somebody on that journey might have told at night”. New York Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman will contribute “interconnecting narratives” taking in everything from illustrations of Chaucer characters to an Iggy and the Stooges lyric (“Look out honey, cos I’m using technology”). Dutch electronica band Rats on Rafts will appear alongside his occasional other band David Thomas and Two Pale Boys. Thomas promises other, more mysterious unnamed special guests and “probably some chaos”.
The show is being partly based on Ubu’s Disastodromes in London in 1998 and 2003, which themselves followed a notorious initial series of events in their home town, Cleveland, Ohio in the 1970s. “One of the shows was in an old theatre overrun by drunks and winos,” the big man chuckles. “Big sparks were flying out of the electrical circuits in the walls and somebody set a sofa on fire in the lobby. The motto was ‘We call it a disaster, so nothing can go wrong.’”
Thomas’s more outre instincts were informed by the city’s infamous pre-punk scene, where a band such as electric eels would fight audiences and each other, and run a lawnmower across the stage. “Which sounds more hazardous than it was,” he chuckles. “The blades were raised off the floor.” His first band, Rocket from the Tombs (who he has reconstituted on various occasions since 2003) went “hell for leather”, never had a drummer last longer than three months and “were never going to stay together because there was so much intensity and ambition to be a unique, great rock band”.
Those urges and a need for constant reinvention have propelled Ubu through innumerable musical changes and 21 musicians, although Thomas rejects comparisons with the Fall, who similarly evolved around a sole constant member. “Mark E Smith went through musicians a lot quicker than I did,” he insists, pointing out that he’s never fired anyone and that bassist Michele Temple and synth player Robert Wheeler each played in Ubu for a quarter of a century. “If I called up 20 of the 21 tomorrow they’d come back. They love to work with me.”
The 21st, presumably, is original keyboardist Allen Ravenstine, who once described how the singer could be a “dark cloud in a room, a stifling presence” and talked of “brutal” creative sessions. “Well, Allen has a different view of things,” the frontman shrugs, “but I don’t tell anyone what I’m working on and nobody knows the lyrics until I sing them in the studio. That’s the way I am.”
This approach has kept them innovative, but Ubu have never had a hit. When they last played in Manchester, Thomas began the gig with a surreally hilarious monologue in which Madonna and Bon Jovi were reduced to playing third-rate rock clubs and Holiday Inns while Ubu had a global No 1 and “were playing stadiums on stadiums”. Would you have liked to have been more popular? “Who cares?” he shrugs, with a mischievous grin. “The only reason I would have liked to have been rich and famous is because I would have spent the money on even more outrageous projects.”
The closest they came to the mainstream was between 1988 and 1993 when they made four much-loved albums for Fontana, a major label, making their British TV debut on Roland Rat: the Series. “It’s a distinctive period of the group,” he grins. “The only thing I regret is that Dave Bates, the A&R man who signed us, wasn’t more intrusive. Dave was frightened to death of screwing with Pere Ubu. He was devoted to us and I can’t fault that.” He cackles. “I wish there’d been more oversight but we probably wouldn’t have paid attention anyway.”
Thirty years on, fronting Pere Ubu has now become a life-threatening business. As a vulnerable person, contracting Covid would be fatal, but the singer points out that the Canterbury backstage area will be masked and the whole band are vaccinated. He is “stunned” that so many musicians are anti-vaxxers and applauds Neil Young’s decision – subsequently followed by Joni Mitchell – to remove his music from Spotify in protest at Covid misinformation in Joe Rogan’s podcasts. “Things would be a whole lot better if there were 40 more Neil Youngs.”
Thomas had a productive lockdown. He’s remixed three albums for a forthcoming box set because “we never had enough money to go into the studio for anything other than a minimum but now I have my home studio I felt the need to fix things.” He hosts a livestreaming channel, DPK TV, has had a song on TV hit American Horror Story and the band website does a tidy trade in Ubu merch. He reveals that he’s actually made more money in the last two years than at any stage of his career, but that’s not what drives him.
“I’ve saved enough that I don’t have to work any more and I could easily coast to death at this point,” he admits. “This is not the easiest life in the world. But I want to keep pushing at it. If I were satisfied, I’d quit.”