An Interview with Pere Ubu's David Thomas

Peru Ubu's Robert Wheeler, Steve Mehlman, David Thomas, Michele Temple and Gary Siperko (l to r) (Photo: K Boon)
Pere Ubu are one of the most iconoclastic groups out there. Ubu's new album, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo (iTunes), is just as frenetic and vital as their early work in the late 70s when they blew minds with "30 Seconds over Tokyo" (iTunes) and "Non-Alignment Pact" (iTunes).

We had a chance to talk with David Thomas about Ubu's recent release, their past, and the future in advance of their Bay Area visit next week! Pere Ubu will play at the Independent next Monday night (tix here) and again in San Jose at the Ritz on Tuesday (tix here).

SFBayAreaConcerts: Go baby go! Right from the start, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo (iTunes) explodes with a frantic spasm. How does "Monkey Bizness" set the tone for the rest of the album?

David Thomas: It’s not definitive of the album but it’s a good start. The tracks all tell a different side of the story and it has the lyric ‘brown shoes don’t make it,’ - some got the Zappa reference, some didn’t. He’s also quoted saying “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to a library.” I say, there’s probably some room for both in there.

There was a lot of talk about which track should go out first and it’s not really something I give a lot of thought to so ‘first on the album, first track aired' seemed as good as principle as any to me. Plus it’s a great song…

SFBAC: Pere Ubu is a band that has been constantly shifting, constantly defying expectations. What is Pere Ubu to you at this exact moment in time?

David Thomas: It is what it is and what its always been. It doesn’t stop. The faces we have in the band now have, in the main, been around for decades. Some like Kristof Hahn and Gary Siperko are ’new’ but the reality is they fit right in; bringing something unique and some other way of hearing to the songs without changing who we are. That’s never going to change about Pere Ubu - there may be more of a problem if they ever need a new vocalist but I’m sure they’ll deal with it.

SFBAC: "Toe to Toe" feels like a defining moment in 20 Years—this urgent, buzzing song. All these opposing forces coming to the forefront. All of this is made more anxious with that amazing guitar riff and the swirling layers of distortion that pop right as "The Healer" starts. Are these tracks connected at all? Can you tell us a bit more about the writing process behind recording both songs?

David Thomas: All in the band submit ideas independently, the ideas get fielded out to the other band members and if something catches the hook, I write the lyrics and we keep it growing, each of them work on it independently, until it reaches the point where it can go to the recording studio and I can bring it together. "Toe to Toe" IS the defining moment of the album and it probably is the defining song of my career - or any average Jo’s career who knows what it’s like to keep your finger on the button every day of your working life before returning home to ’normality.’ Home’s not the normality, the job and all besides is ALL the normality, and it is brutal.

SFBAC: While, like many people, "Waiting for Mary" (Amazon) was my first experience with Pere Ubu, it was Dub Housing (iTunes) that really hooked me in. The eerie paranoia seems to resonate today in everyday life. Do you see your back catalog as something living, or does it represent for you a specific slice of a certain period of time?

David Thomas: The reissues allowed us to revisit all the back catalog and make them into the albums we want them to be NOW. It was never our intention with the reissues to just repress and go. That’s not the way we do things. That’s not to discredit the album as they were THEN, it’s just that they were THAT moment in time, not THIS moment in time. The reissues were as exciting to us as new material. Robert Wheeler (synth and theremin) contacted our manager and said ‘I don’t remember this part being on here before? It’s great!’ - even the band members were able to hear ’new’ albums.

SFBAC: Do you see Missile Silo as a jumping off point for future work, or are you considering another twist for the next Pere Ubu release?

David Thomas: Right now it’s all about taking those songs out live. They become something else on stage. We don’t sing the album parrot fashion because what would be the point? Go to the record store if you want to hear the album. We had nine musicians on this recording and I can only tour with five because logistically, it just doesn’t work any other way. So, we 6 need to present those songs THIS way. We are reaching levels with these songs beyond our expectation. It’s worked. We hope to do at least one gig where all nine musicians are playing and that will be the tester - throw them all in the live loop and see what happens.

SFBAC: During your last tour you played at Slim's--this time around you're at The Independent. Do you look for anything in particular when it comes to choosing a location for your shows?

David Thomas: Not down to me but to our booking agent. We have played a lot of different venues this time around and it’s brought a different audience in from time to time.

SFBAC: Well, we can't wait for your show next week at the Indy and best of luck on the rest of this tour! Thanks again for your time!

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