David Thomas of Pere Ubu interviewed about “20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo”
By Bob Gourley | Published on November 19, 2017
Pere Ubu’s career spans over 40 years, and the highly influential band continues to surprise and challenge the listener. Their new album, “20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo” was recorded with a larger than normal lineup and features three guitarists. Prior to embarking on the current ‘MonkeyNet Tour,’ Pere Ubu founder and lead singer David Thomas discussed the new release and other topics.
There’s quite a large lineup on “20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo.” What was the reason for that?
David Thomas: “It’s been my intention for a while to have a big band. Alfred Hitchcock used to say that the problem with making films is the actors; the actors spoil it all. That always struck me, and I began to think, ‘You know, the problem with making music is the musicians. They always ruin it; they spoil the songs.’ And the reason musicians spoil the song is because of a certain level of natural human functioning. You kind of want to get on with everybody, so the guitarist will have an idea and the bass player is naturally going to want to cooperate with the guitarist’s ideas and the drummer goes along . But I kind of don’t like that, as that endangers the integrity of the song and the story. You shouldn’t be sitting there as a writer trying to influence the way a story goes.
“One of the smartest things anybody ever told me was that you have to take yourself out of it, you have to remove yourself from the process. The story has to have integrity of its own. If it has a bad ending, or ends up saying something that you’re not comfortable with, you’ve got to let it do that because that’s where it’s going. So, the idea of getting more musicians and working with them the way I do, on this album in particular, is that nobody gets their own way and I don’t get my own way. I try to not allow one musician’s idea about a song determine the song and determine the story. My job is to weave all of these disparate elements together and allow the story to happen the way it wants to happen.”
How did the album line-up come together?
David Thomas: “The core of the band is pretty much the way it’s been since 1994. Christophe Hahn from the Swans is the newest member. Christophe is someone we’ve known for quite a while. Whenever we showed up in whatever town he was in, he’d come backstage and drink our beer and hang out. I’d sent him some of the demos and works in progress from this album, and he said, ‘I have to be on this record, I’d do anything, I’ll play anything you want me to do, I don’t care how small of a part it is, I really want to be on this record.’ So I sent him a couple of things and he sent some things back, so in the end, he ended up on the record, on everything.
“There was a clarinet player I saw in a local jazz band at a pub one night, and he was head and shoulders above these other guys in the band. Dixieland is his passion, which doesn’t actually on the surface sound like a much, but there was something about him that made me say, ‘Hey, let’s jam together,’ and it went on from there. And then one of the new guys, Gary, was recruited into Rocket from the Tombs and he was destined to play in Pere Ubu. We’ve got three guitar players and each of them has a very specific talent. I try to blend them all together into one Frankenstein.”
What can we expect from this tour?
David Thomas: “It’s going to be a Peru Ubu tour, so it’s going to be some of the new album, and it’s going to be some of the mid-period albums, and it’s going to be some of the early albums, and it’s all going to be held together with some bits and pieces of story and monologue. I discovered a long time ago that really the most important thing for an audience is the sensation that they’re experiencing something that nobody else is going to see, that this evening is unique and the whole thing could fall apart at any point. The audience loves the sensation that the whole thing is just going to collapse in a catastrophe at any moment. We have various things that we do to convince them that it that’s going to happen. We have to keep changing, because they get used to the previous trick. Audiences basically have a simple motivation, they want something unique that no one else will experience. So, that’s what we set out to do.”
With such a large Pere Ubu back catalog, is it a challenge at all determining what to play live?
David Thomas: “No, it’s really simple with the older material. We make a selection of the songs that are easy to learn. It’s not rocket science. You want to spend most of your time rehearsing the new stuff, that you’re not quite sure how you’re going to play. There are six people in the touring band, and there’s nine people who recorded it. So you’ve got to figure it out; the organ can’t be here because that person is doing that, blah blah blah. When it comes to the older material, we say, ‘Oh we know that song, let’s do that.’”
Chaos Control started off in Machintosh Hypercard format, as self-contained downloadable issues. I remember that around the time you did a Pere Ubu Hypercard project. Could you talk about that?
David Thomas: “I love Hypercard. It’s a real crime they dropped it.”
(Mac users who would like to attempt viewing this old black and white “The Story of Pere Ubu” interactive presentation can download it here and go here for a guide to getting it to run on a current Mac.)
What drew you to Hypercard, and what were your goals using it?
David Thomas: “I loved the whole link possibility. A lot of stuff in Pere Ubu is very tangential and very linked to lots of other stuff. I tend to link things together when I talk, and so to me it was the perfect program for that sort of work. It was astonishingly easy. I can’t remember the name of the guy who wrote it, but he was one of the mega stars of Apple software. I was really bummed out that they dropped it; it was totally pointless to drop it. I can’t remember the timeline, but it was certainly the idea of the web.
“It’s the thing that attracted me to the internet in the early days, this ability to link one thing with another thing. That’s the essence of knowledge and of progress and of art and all those big concepts. I regret the day they left the compact Mac. I collect SEs and SE30s. I’ve got 4 SE30s, 2 or 3 SEs and 2 or 3 classics. I love those machines, and if I could only find a damn ethernet card I would go back to them for everyday work. They’re faster. I don’t know if you’ve compared them, but they start instantaneously, they work on no Ram and they do everything I need. Plus, they’re black and white. I’m going through a bitter period with the Mac, so I’m rabbiting on a bit about them.”
Having been an early user of the online world, what are your thoughts on how it has evolved, particularly as tool for musicians?
David Thomas: “I thought the internet in a lot of ways was perfect, for a lot of reasons. A lot of stuff shouldn’t be attached to it [music], like for instance the issue of lyrics. We never print lyrics [in the packaging], because that is establishing that there is a difference between lyrics and music. That rock music is just naïve poetry bolted on to primitive rhythms is bullshit. With the internet, you could provide all this other information, all the information that people wanted to know, but they had to look for it, which is how we handled lyrics for 20 years. We’re not going to print them, but if you want to put the effort in, you send us a self-addressed stamped envelope, we’ll mimeograph off a set of the lyrics and send it to you. The tour we’re going out on, we’ve called the ‘Monkeynet’ tour.
“The motto of the Monkeynet tour is that an infinite number of monkeys clicking on an infinite number of buttons will get you nothing more than an infinite number of bananas. I wouldn’t trust a single damn thing that I see on the internet, but that’s not my fault. I’ve always held that the solution to a problem is always simple. If it’s not simple, then it’s not a solution. The solution to the problem is that you ban color and you don’t allow teenage girls to post photos. If you want to solve the problem, you have to have the courage to solve the problem. And the solution is dead simple. But that’s ok. It’s one of those things I say that gets me the reputation that I’ve got. If you tell me another solution to the problem that will work just a well, I’ll buy into it. The internet is a great idea, but like lots of great ideas, what the hell happened?”
What about digital audio distribution?
“As far as digital audio, it’s a lot like CD audio. In the early days of CD audio, before they developed it sufficiently, it was pretty bad because the technology was still growing. In the early days of the mp3, it was pretty bad. I’ve worked very hard on the mathematics and the technology of the regions above human hearing, which is where a lot of these things are solved and moved forward. I’m pretty convinced now that digital audio, if it hasn’t quite gotten there yet, can achieve transparency. To a lot of my friends, this is heretical, but after putting so much work into it, I think it’s within reach.
“Everybody forgets that technology, if you allow it, will move forward. Yeah, it might be bad now, and it’s NOT bad now, just to be clear, but you can get it better. You just get guys out there working on it and they’ll get it better if you support it. Artists have to understand the technology involved, they have to take responsibility, and they have to insist that the best technology is used. I doubt there are many artist or musicians who have spent the time to come to grips with it, at least on a basic level.”
It used to be that people had to seek out new and interesting music, going to the right record stores, whereas now it’s so easy to get stuff online. What are your thoughts on this shift?
David Thomas: “Well, I like difficulty. I’m all for difficulty. I remember, still to this day, my first trip to a record store back in the early 70s. There was the ‘high priest,’ the record clerk, up on the podium and you’d approach him with trepidation with your purchase in hand, fearful that he’d not think you’re cool. I remember looking through the albums that I’d never heard of, but you’d look at the cover art and look at the liner notes and you’d look at the whole thing. There’s the matter of putting the effort into discovery, which I think is an important part of the process. That’s gone, things change. I’m not sitting here bemoaning the past. Things change, and I don’t like easiness. That’s about all I know. Nothing good comes from ease. I’m not a luddite; I move. Things like color I hate.”
With services like Spotify giving instant access to much of your catalog, are you ever surprised by what people are listening to? Do you pay attention to it?
David Thomas: “I don’t, but my manager does, and she tells me. Am I surprised? No. It’s not like we set thinking to ourselves, ‘What can we record that nobody is going to like?’ Astonishingly enough, we don’t think that way. So, it’s gratifying. ‘The Art of Walking’ is considered to be possibly our strangest record, but it’s one of the best-selling records we did. Even at the time, it was kind of shocking that it sold so well. People never cease to surprise me.”See all interviews →