Interview: WORM speak to David Thomas of Pere Ubu 2018

It’s been over 40 years since Pere Ubu burst onto the music scene. Still revered for their debut record The Modern Dance and the follow up Dub Housing (both 1978), this cussed, indefatigable band have created a formidable body of work over the years; one that still questions the zeitgeist with that spiky otherness which defines them.

WORM, no stranger to eccentricity, felt an appropriate setting for a Pere Ubu gig. And the crowd dutifully rocked along on a balmy June night as David Thomas, sporting a black Fedora and using his cane as a magic conductor’s staff, led the charge over a backdrop of a primal rhythm section, some sizzling guitar arpeggios and the doleful drones of theremin and clarinette. On this form they are a band that remains as riveting and compelling as ever.

WORM’s Max Welford grabbed a brief chat with Thomas shortly before the gig where they discussed their latest album, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, the unique components of a song, the absurdity of experimental music and uniformity of contemporary pop music and the “senselessness of meaninglessness” [sic]. Now read on…

WORM: How are you feeling?

DT: Good… More or less. I’m doing my job, that’s what I do. So I don’t feel one way or the other, I’m just here to do my show [chuckles].

WORM: What were your inspirations in part of the creation process of 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo?

DT: Everything… Every new project is related to the flow of every other project that has gone before it, that’s not much of an answer but I’m always working on methods of producing a record, writing a record that all changes from time to time, from record to record.

WORM: Given the sporadic (yet cohesive nature) of 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, was there a way in which the individual songs were meant to blend into each other?

DT: The last few records I’ve been getting rid of musicians while adding more musicians… Alfred Hitchcock said that the problem with making films was the actors because they ruin everything. And it’s the same problem with making music as musicians – they ruin it all. So, for a number of years I’ve been studying the problem of how to incorporate musicians in a project that has very specific and thematic and aesthetic goals. The present problem I’m working on is simply that musicians see things or songs in terms of parts and musical parts, but that’s not what a song is. Many musicians don’t understand what a song is and I’m not talking about a Tin Pan Alley approach, but what the esoteric meaning of a song is.

…A song is a unique slice of space and time which has its own rules, its own gods, its own wife, its own laws, physical and metaphysical laws so that requires… [Pauses] Ach, it doesn’t require it, but there is a certain way of doing it which is using a lot of parts and there’s a way of doing it, in which each musician operates as more of a composer, composing special moments. Musicians tend to believe that things should be strung together and that they should relate to each other in certain ways, but I don’t think that’s necessary. But it requires a lot of discipline to work in another way and it requires a certain amount of training, discipline and understanding the song. And letting the song rule.

WORM: Considering the nature and aesthetic of an album like 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, especially with tracks like Red Blue Eyes; I Can Still See; was there a specifically experimental manner in which you approached or composed elements of the album?

DT: Well, we don’t experiment. I know what I’m doing, I never need to pour this liquid into that liquid and see what happens, I know what happens. It’s not a question about experimenting, it’s a question about going out and doing it, it’s a question of pouring this into that and there is something that’s going to happen, and we know at least vaguely what’s going to happen.

Experimental artists often just arbitrarily put things together with no sense or plan and then call it music… It is just an excuse for random people to say what they are doing is music or call themselves musicians. If you’re just doing random things for the sake of doing random things and hoping to come to an end product, then you missed the point. But at the same time, if you’re specifically trying to be something experimental or you are attempting to being avant-garde, then…What should I say? You got it wrong.

WORM: On Plan for Frag 9, one of the most challenging and eclectic tracks on the new album, what did you have in mind when conceiving the structure?

DT: Well, it took forever to put that one together. It was days and days of work. I always encourage the synthesizer player to contribute something… firstly, because he doesn’t work in a digital way, it’s all analogue, so you play it and it’s gone, you know? So he just recorded it… A couple hours of him playing, you know? So I just troll though a couple hours of it, picked up some things and tried to string them together and put it to a time reference at some point and the one that was the dominant piece was Fragment 9. So it wasn’t much of a plan. The only plan was to make something of itself.

…So this is one of the talents I have; I’ll just sit there day after day, if necessary, and shift things and tweak things. Select this, edit that out. That sort of thing. That’s all. You should never ask the explanation of these songs. It was just a lot of trolling through it and imagining how this piece could go with that piece and what you could do with it and listening to it and figuring out what it’s about and try to build something up from that.   

WORM: What do you think of music nowadays?

DT: You can’t tell one singer from another, they all sound exactly the same.

…Ah, you always get old people saying things like that but it’s true. All the singers sound alike, you got these baby-voiced gangsters. Why is all of mainstream rap music is done with a baby voice? I don’t understand the concept. I can figure out how it’s traced, but I can’t understand how anyone with any self-respect is going to sing in a baby voice. I can identify all the patches and all the sequencers… “this is this block brand pack”, “this is patch number 73”, “this model synthesizer”, but I can’t identify a single singer. So, the other problem you have now is that you have very freakish or grotesque, or extreme sounds that have no relation to the meaning of the song. You know, some of it is very clever and I sit there and go: “oh, that is very clever”, but it doesn’t mean anything.

WORM: It seems the search for meaning is less prevalent in contemporary music than it used to be. Do you think this might be because we are in a “post-postmodern time”, affecting the way people make sense of the world and express it in their art?

DT: That’s bullshit, anything you put a “post” onto is bullshit. You know, how about post-bullshit? I mean, this is just an excuse for artists to make something appear as legit. [sic] It’s an excuse to create a space to make music in reaction to something, and convincing other people that this is a real thing… It’s also like irony or something, you know? It’s an excuse to not mean anything, it’s an excuse to say something and then go: “oh I didn’t really mean it, I was being ironic”. Fuck you. Can I curse on this? ‘Bleep’ you!

(WORM thanks Mr Thomas for his time!)

(Photograph courtesy of Jeroen van der Beek

Interview by Max Welford.