Secret Culturalist Dave Thomas
Pere Ubu/Rocket From the Tombs frontman tag teams ATX
By Michael Toland,
9:00AM, Thu. May 18, 2017
This weekend, Pere Ubu and Rocket From the Tombs cram into Beerland for local imprint Super Secret Records’ Austin Jukebox series. Dubbed the Coed Jail tour, the pairing of Cleveland rock legends marks the return of Rocket after an incendiary Emo’s show in 2003, and the first time Ubu’s graced a Lone Star stage in two decades.
We spoke to Ubu/Rocket leader David Thomas from his London home via a patchy Skype connection.
Austin Chronicle: It’s been over 20 years since Pere Ubu last played Texas. What took you so long to come back?
David Thomas: The problem with Texas is that it’s in the middle of the country. And we tend to, for practical reasons, play just the East and West Coasts, and maybe a little bit South on the east side of the country. That’s the problem with Texas and Minneapolis: It’s just a long way from there to the next place.
AC: You haven’t done a back-to-back Rocket and Ubu stand since 2003. Are there any big challenges doing two different shows with two different bands?
DT: I wouldn’t want to do it too much. Too many songs, too much stuff to remember. But in rare times, in rare events, it’s OK.
AC: Pere Ubu has never been a nostalgia act. Rather, it’s always been a forward-thinking band. Do you mind doing shows that focus on the past?
DT: No. I mean, I wouldn’t make a career out of it. We don’t sit there and do these things faithfully and try to duplicate everything that we did. We’re able to play them pretty much the way they were meant to be played, just because Pere Ubu songs are essentially very simple.
And it’s enjoyable!
A lot of the modern members haven’t had a chance to play the old stuff, and they like doing it. I like doing it. They’re not old songs to me. They’re part of a continuous path. It’s not something we’re gonna do forever, unless you’ve got $30,000 you wanna throw around.
AC: You touched on this already, but you have new musicians in the band all the time, and you mentioned that since they didn’t play on the old stuff originally, they love playing it, which helps keep it fresh. And you still like the old songs anyway.
DT: Believe me, I’m the one that’s played “Final Solution” for 40 years. It can get a bit rough after a while. But it’s like, “Cool, all right,” y’know? You’re not having to sit there while the bass player or the drummer is playing the same damn thing you’ve heard for 20 years. It’s different, so that’s exciting.
AC: I’ve read that you said music should have a regionalism to it. You’ve got members from England and the United States –
DT: And Germany.
AC: What regionalism is Pere Ubu?
DT: Well, it’s actually kind of a good question. Since the early Eighties, I’ve lived in a ghost town. Cleveland itself became a ghost town at that point. Everywhere is a ghost town, in ways. The good thing about a ghost town being your home is that a ghost town goes wherever you go [chuckles]. It’s with you always.
I know that may sound sort of glib, but that’s pretty much how it is. I’m buying a loaf of bread from a grocery store that no longer exists, but I’m used to that sort of thing. The city I grew up in doesn’t exist. That’s not unique to me. Many people, when I explain the nature of ghost towns, find a resonance there. “Yeah, I live in a ghost town, too.” That’s the answer.
Even as a platonic ideal, it’s perfect. It’s like the lost Smile album by Brian Wilson. I was really disappointed when they tried to re-record it. The album was perfect because it didn’t exist except in your imagination. I had all the bootlegs, and the beauty of it was that, because the songs only exist in multiple takes and things, I can assemble those things in my head, and it’s there in a perfect state.
That was the brilliance of Brian Wilson. Whether he meant it to be that way or not isn’t the issue. It’s never been equaled and probably never will be, because of the nature of things, but it was perfect because it didn’t exist. It’s the same with a ghost town. It’s perfect.
AC: I visited your ghost town a few years ago. I was very surprised that at 5pm everything just … shut down.
DT: A ghost town, yeah! [laughs]
AC: It was really strange.
DT: No, that’s the way it was back then. We all lived downtown, and everybody would disappear. It was us, a bunch of young kids, we owned the town. It was like salvage or something. It’s like when you run across a derelict ship – you can claim it. So that had a lot to do with the deep sense of identity we had, because it was ours. Nobody else wanted it. They’d thrown it away.
AC: You’ve been very influential, but literally nobody sounds like Pere Ubu.
DT: This is one of those canards or urban myths or something. Everyone says we’ve been very influential, but I don’t hear us in anybody. I’m honored that various high-class/high-visibility people have said that we were very influential, but I don’t know. I guess if I wanted to flatter myself, I’d say it’s the same way Captain Beefheart was influential. He was just so different, and he didn’t make any bones about it. He just went his own way.
So maybe that’s how we’re influential. I don’t know. I don’t care. I don’t sit here and go, “I’m influential.” I sit here and go, “I gotta clean the dishes.”
The pertinent issue is I don’t have an interesting life. I do one thing, and that’s make music. And none of that is ever seen. Even going out on stage, that’s already too late. I’ve already done it. No two of my shows are the same, but everything creative is going on inside my head, and I have a straight face that’s looking at you. Everything interesting is hidden. Culture is always hidden. It always happens in secret.
AC: That’s a great notion.
DT: I got a million of ’em.