Ars longa, spectatores fugaces
“Art is forever, the audience comes and goes.”
Stagnant predictability is a malady that all too many who inhabit this spinning sphere of iron and nickel appear to be afflicted with. Fearful of change and afraid of what is just out of eyesight over the horizon, they are content with what is known to them in an almost monochromatic sort of way.
The term “stagnant predictability” is not a moniker that one would thrust upon David Thomas and his ever-evolving journey throughout the universe. No, he’s just getting on with life the best way he knows how. Weaving the music of Pere Ubu with his unique style of observational storytelling, the result fits the pieces of life’s mosaic moments together into a discernable roadmap.
“Oh yeah, we tell stories,” he said via Skype from England. “That’s ultimately what we do. And those stories are often picked up by observation. It’s people just getting on with their lives in the world we live in.
“We’re not a political band, and we don’t have political opinions as a band. We deal with how people deal with the society, with the troubles, the struggle of just getting on with their lives in an often pretty crappy world.”
Forty-two years since its inception, Pere Ubu continues to stretch the boundaries of art beyond which many are comfortable with. They are embarking on The MonkeyNet Tour in support of their new album, “20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo.” The album carries an aggressive sonic intensity that proves that the band can only move in one direction… forward. They play The Basement in Columbus on November 16.
The album plays well as a companion piece to their “Carnival Of Souls” (2015) and Rocket From The Tombs “Black” albums (2015). When one layer is peeled back, two more are exposed. As the album progresses, one begins to question their capacity to take it all in.
“Yes, it’s a continuation of Carnival Of Souls,” he acknowledges. “You know, I have to admit that I’d been thinking about the ‘Black’ record. In a way, it thematically continues from the ‘Black’ record. There’s three guitar players now, so that’s a big break with the Ubu tradition of one guitar player.”
Thomas has always been willing to push beyond what is acceptable in search of what lies just over the horizon. In doing so, his music has evolved and become more cerebral with each passing mile of the journey.
The twelve tracks on the album are sonically disparate, and yet cohesive thematically. As one journeys from song to song, the mosaic begins to coalesce.
“The key song, and there’s usually a key song on a Pere Ubu album,” Thomas continued, “contains the key to the riddle of the album. You call it a mosaic, I call it a riddle. Pere Ubu stories and albums need to be figured out to a certain degree, as they have many layers on them. I set the theme with Toe To Toe, and the other songs reflect on that theme.
“A long time ago, somebody asked me if we did conceptual albums. I said no, we do a conceptual career. But, Pere Ubu albums are often thematically linked in a pointless sort of way. Or as you put it, a mosaic sort of way. Each song is a piece of a bigger picture.”
Playing 21 shows in 31 days, he’s added Kristof Hahn (Swans) on steel guitar to make the touring edition of Pere Ubu a six-piece lineup. Hahn joins Thomas (vocals), Gary Siperko (guitar), Robert Wheeler (analog synths, Theremin), Michele Temple (bass guitar, backing vocals) and Steve Mehlman (drums, percussion, backing vocals). Siperko and Mehlman also played on the limited Rocket From The Tombs tour in Spring 2017
By recording the album with nine band members, could this be Thomas beginning to actualize what could come to be known as the Pere Ubu Orchestra?
“Well, I’m a few members closer,” he said with a chuckle. “The real problem will be the economics of the whole thing. We can’t tour with nine members, although we’re touring with an extra person this time, Kristof Hahn from the Swans. So, it’s up to six people.”
As Thomas began to expound upon the differences between the studio product of the album and the live experience of performing the songs, I found myself listening with rapt attention to the cadence and urgency of his answers.
“A studio band and a band in concert are not particularly related,” he said. “It’s almost a coincidental relationship. The studio product, the album, is meant to be listened to for years. Hopefully, you can pick up different layers at different times. I know the albums better than anybody of the one’s that I produced, and I still hear new things that I’d never imagine were there.
“But, the live experience is visceral, it’s immediate, it’s there and it’s gone. And there’s the entertainment value element, as well. We’re playing mostly clubs, or rock concert halls, so it’s not really a contemplative environment, you know? So, we do tend to be much more visceral live. We are a rock band, and we remember that when we get on stage. It’s all guns blazing and let’s leave the audience satisfied.”
Labelled over the last forty-two years as a proto-punk band, or an art-rock band, the attempts to pigeonhole Pere Ubu into a nice and neat little corner of the music world does a disservice not only to the band, but also to the music fans that think for themselves. “We are a rock band.” Thomas nailed the essence of Pere Ubu into five words that carry much weight.
Thomas, and the band, know that what matters is putting on a good rock show. Labels are for the narrow-minded among the populace, espousing a lack of ingenuity. Free your mind and your ass will follow…
“No matter what my pronouncements about audiences are,” he said, “we came up working in funky bars in the Flats in Cleveland. You had to do a show, you know? People paid money and it was a part of their lives. They were investing part of their lives in that evening. On that level, you owed them. You didn’t owe them to do what they want, but you owed them to give them the best experience that you could manage.”
Getting on with their lives is the purity of Pere Ubu at its finest. This, that, or something else might provide a temporary obstacle to reaching the horizon, but it’s up to the individual to keep on the path moving forward.
The satisfaction comes from piecing together the mosaic into a discernable roadmap. David Thomas and Pere Ubu are doing just that, every single day.
“Yeah, I take satisfaction in that,” he concluded. “You know, that sort of stubborn, bad attitude approach to things. That was set in stone a long time ago, and I haven’t varied it. This is Pere Ubu, dammit, and it operates the way it operates.
“We don’t need to change, because change would only ruin what we do.”
An infinite number of monkeys clicking on an infinite number of links will yield nothing but an infinite number of bananas. ~ David Thomas
Pere Ubu – Prison Of The Senses