Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Clip: David Thomas interview

Expand Messages
  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.suntimes.com/output/derogatis/wkp-news-live28.html New life in Tomb for punk icons November 28, 2003 BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC Rocket from
    Message 1 of 2 , Nov 30, 2003

      New life in 'Tomb' for punk icons

      November 28, 2003

      Rocket from the Tombs never released an album during its lifetime, and it
      lasted only a year and a half before disbanding in late 1975. But the group
      has come to be recognized as one of the first American punk bands, and
      during a memorable reunion tour last summer, it proved to be worthy of its
      venerated legend.

      Billing itself as "The World's Only Dumb-Metal Mind-Death Rock & Roll
      Band," the band was formed in Cleveland by singer David Thomas (who
      portrayed a character named Crocus Behemoth) and guitarist Peter Laughner
      (the two went on to co-found Pere Ubu), and it featured guitarist Cheetah
      Chrome (a k a Gene O'Connor, who later moved on to the Dead Boys).

      Laughner died as a result of drug and alcohol abuse in 1977, but the new
      version of Rocket reunites Thomas, Chrome and original bassist Craig Bell
      with current Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman and guitarist Richard Lloyd, best
      known for his work with Television. Their last show at the Abbey Pub was
      one of the best I've seen in the last 10 years, and they return to the
      venue for an encore performance Saturday night.

      I spoke to Thomas about the reunion and the future of the group before the
      start of the current tour.

      Q. We've talked many times, David, but I never thought I'd be interviewing
      you about Rocket from the Tombs coming back. I saw the first show at the
      Abbey Pub a few months ago, and it was amazing. What's behind this reunion?

      A. Well, I did a three-day festival of my music at UCLA in February called
      Disastrodome. We needed support for Pere Ubu, and we wanted something
      unusual, not just some band. Somebody came up with the idea of Rocket,
      because Gene and Craig and I had been talking during the process of putting
      that compilation CD together ["The Day the Earth Met Rocket from the
      Tombs"]. It seemed like a good idea, and we drafted in Richard Lloyd, who
      was the only real choice to fill in, and the show was fun; we had a great
      time. It was rough, but it was good, so we thought, "Oh well, let's do a

      We did a short thing in June, and it was just supposed to be Cleveland and
      New York, but then people heard about it and added things. That sort of
      grew, and there was a good reaction to it and the band was really good, so
      we were thinking, "This is really a good band." It just sort of grew from
      that. We weren't going to come back to Chicago, but Sean [Duffy] at the
      Abbey sort of insisted.

      Q. Are you looking at this as a band with a future?

      A. That's the next step. We keep on saying, "This isn't really a reunion
      yet." There's a point that's coming after this tour where we have to say,
      "Are we going to be a real band and write material and do all of that
      stuff?" It's not a band that's come together organically; it's almost like
      a boy band, where it's kind of been put together. We've been sort of
      dancing around each other and kind of eying each other and thinking, "How
      do we feel about this, and do we really want to do this?" If we survive
      this tour--it's pretty brutal--then we have to start to write. It's an open
      question, because who knows if we can write together.

      Q. So many of those songs were fueled by a particular attitude at a
      particular age -- it was teenage angst.

      A. We didn't have teenage angst. We might have been angry, and we might
      have been impatient, but we weren't really angsty. It's far too
      intellectual for what we were doing. We were angry.

      Q. Well, there's plenty to be angry about again today.

      A. I don't know. At that point we felt that there had to be a movement that
      was going somewhere. Things were kind of stodgy around where we were, and
      we heard all of this other stuff that was pretty exciting that was being
      done. Now is a period in pop culture that has never happened. Maybe it
      happened back in the '20s or '30s, where pop culture has remained stagnant
      for like 15 years. Youth fashion hasn't changed for at least a decade. If
      you play MTV in 1990 and you play it in 2003, they're wearing the same damn
      stupid clothes, and that has never happened in my life time. You'd have to
      go back to the early days before the evolution of pop culture to find
      something that's so static.

      Q. There's a notion forwarded by the Chicago literary magazine The Baffler
      that any form of genuine rebellion or youth culture is now instantly turned
      into a commodity, a marketing pose.

      A. That was the function of punk: to stop the evolution of rock music and
      shoehorn it into some sort of corporate, marketable, youth culture
      boutique. That's what punk was.

      Q. But you've always been a wonderful anachronism: You've been telling me
      for years that you still believe that rock is art, and you've been
      defiantly noncommercial in every guise you've ever taken on.

      A. Not out of choice, it's just that I'm not good enough! But I like doing
      it. [Laughs] There's always room in the margins to operate differently. The
      notion that you can't do that is self-serving. All you have to do is accept
      that you're not going to get rich and nobody's going to like what you do.
      There's plenty of margin to operate in, that's not changed. As far as being
      angry, I just don't like doing what everybody else does. I guess I'm kind
      of a rebel, though I love authority as well. I love structure; I don't like

      Q. I know, but there's such a different persona that comes over you when
      you perform with Rocket from the Tombs. You seem cranky and hostile and
      angry onstage--frightening in a way--though we all know how lovable you
      really are.

      A. That's the kind of material it is, so that's what you do. And if we
      continue with Rocket as a rock band in that way, then you would concentrate
      on that end of your thing. My other vehicles aren't really designed to
      handle anger; that's not the purpose of them. But I can do angry! I don't
      want to be sounding like some angry white man, but I'm a non-conformist,
      and there's plenty of room for non-conformists. Non-conformists tend to get
      angry at conformism.

      Q. Does it take a toll on you to become this character Crocus Behemoth
      every night?

      A. No. Rocket is the easiest thing since I did the West End in London. I
      don't sing all the songs! [Laughs] The songs are good, and we never did
      those versions. In Rocket originally, when I wrote "Sonic Reducer" with
      Gene, I had already decided to stop singing, so I never sang that song, and
      it's one of my great songs. The versions of "Final Solution" and "30
      Seconds Over Tokyo" are different from what Ubu does, and I only sang those
      songs like maybe eight times. I never got tired of that stuff because we
      never did it long enough. I don't see it as reclaiming anything; it's just
      part of what I do.

      Everything that I've done since then has been based on the fact that I was
      the singer in Rocket from the Tombs and that I proved to anybody who needed
      to be proved to that if I wanted to just do hard, unrepentant rock music
      that I could do it, that I have the right stuff. It's just confusing to
      people because only a few people in Cleveland ever knew that that was part
      of my foundation. I don't see it as reclaiming; I just see it as, "Here's a
      part of what I do." I don't see it as retro or going back to my youth; it's
      just, "This is who I am as well as 'Mirror Man' as well as anything else
      I've ever done."

      Q. You've always been anti-nostalgia. Not to be melodramatic about it, but
      is it weird to have the ghost of Peter Laughner hovering over this project?
      Many of those songs were his. Whenever I've interviewed you, you've always
      been reluctant to talk about Peter.

      A. I don't talk about Peter. Peter is far too complex an issue with the
      people who knew him and the tragic stupidity, the stupid tragedy of his
      death, the waste of everything, and everybody sitting around and having to
      endure a year of it before he actually died. And the mythologizing that
      goes on about it, that was the very thing that killed him -- the fact that
      he bought into that "burning the candle," Lou Reed/Velvet Underground
      mythology ... well, Lou Reed is alive, and Peter is dead. That's no
      criticism necessarily of Lou Reed; one doesn't want him dead. But it's a
      criticism of self-destruction and nihilism, and I don't want to glorify
      Peter for that. Even when I tell people that it was a total waste and a
      stupid thing, that turns into a glorification of it. So the only thing to
      do is to not talk about it, and lots of his friends don't talk about it.

      Q. This is why it's inspiring to see you guys onstage, looking relatively
      healthy, and kicking ass the way that you do. There's the thing to glorify:
      You can be a cranky old man and be just as angry and rock just as hard as a
      cranky young man.

      A. Yeah! Richard Lloyd is just an astonishing guitar player, as well as a
      cranky old man [laughs]. But Richard also plays on this cranky thing;
      there's a bit of a persona going on. He'll say on the bus, "Watch out, here
      comes Mr. Grumpy." He plays on that.
    • Carl Z.
      Noir, football, avant-garage....Thomas discusses it all. Music Preview: In its fourth decade, Pere Ubu
      Message 2 of 2 , Apr 6, 2007
        Noir, football, avant-garage....Thomas discusses it all.


        Music Preview: In its fourth decade, Pere Ubu retains its punk edge

        Thursday, April 05, 2007
        By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

        It's Monday morning and David Thomas can't get his "lousy computer"
        working, which has the imposing and enigmatic leader of Pere Ubu more
        cranky than usual.

        "Number one," he says, "whenever you call tech support, never do what
        they say. Just lie to them."

        Throughout our 20-minute phone interview, Thomas stops a few times to
        grumble and curse at the machinery. "You can tell I'm in a rare mood
        this morning," he says.

        Wit and surreal sense of humor, though, are perfectly intact.

        Thomas is about to launch a mini-tour in support of "Why I Hate
        Women," the band's 15th record, which he's described as "my idea of
        the novel Jim Thompson never wrote." Almost 30 years after the release
        of the Cleveland band's startling debut, "The Modern Dance," Pere Ubu,
        down to just the one original member, is still mining the territory of
        what Thomas once glibly called "avant-garage." It's a dark concoction
        of driving, dissonant rock, industrial static and expressionistic
        lyrics delivered in a vocal range from moan to spastic yelp.

        On the last trip to Pittsburgh, Pere Ubu was a perfect soundtrack to
        the sci-fi cult film "The Man With the X-Ray Eyes." This time, it's a
        more straight-up set, if you can call it that. The 53-year-old Thomas
        offers an amusing account of Pere Ubu's work in an interview that's
        full of sarcasm and good-natured crankiness.

        So, is there a focus to this tour?

        No. Just a rock band playing rock songs. The focus will probably be
        heavy on the new album. I haven't bothered to think about the set
        list. I'll probably do that about a half-hour before the show on
        Tuesday and will undoubtedly repeat it slavishly for the next week if
        it works well.

        Do you still feel a strong connection to the early stuff, or do you
        like to focus on more recent material?

        It all ... you have to concentrate on the recent things, because you
        have to sell the damn stupid album. I don't want to have sell the
        stupid album, I'm tired of selling the stupid albums, but I'll sell
        the stupid album. That's just the way it works. It's absurd to pretend
        it's anything else. As far as the early stuff, I had to sell the
        stupid album 20 years so I did the stuff 20 years ago, and 19 and 18
        and 17 and 16 years ago, sell the stupid albums.

        I'm as connected to the old stuff as I am to the new album. We don't
        really think about things too much before the show. We sit there and
        put together a list of songs we want to play and put them in
        alphabetical order and play them. For years we used to struggle like
        every idiot rock band in the world in trying to organize sets that had
        dynamics and got loud and soft and fast and slow and girly and boy-y
        and rocky and folkie, and then one day I had enough and said, 'Let's
        just do the thing in alphabetical order and see what happens,' and it
        was the best set order we ever came up with.

        Can you talk about the concept of how this record relates to Jim Thompson?

        I had wanted to work on a new concept for the record. We'd been doing
        a certain series of new things for years. I figured I'd mined that as
        far as I was interested in doing it. I wanted to write something that
        was dark and obsessive. We always harken back to noir roots. The first
        Pere Ubu single was liberally stolen from Raymond Chandler, and we
        always go back to that. But Raymond Chandler wasn't right for what I
        was doing. Too noble and romantic. If you're looking for something
        dark and noir, Jim Thompson comes to mind quickly. As a framework,
        when you write an album you put together a story that's behind the
        album, at least I do. Then the album and songs are not a narrative of
        the story -- I simply choose a psychological moment from the story and
        all of them are about that one moment in one way or another.

        Can you explain the title?

        The title is "Why I Hate Women." What needs explaining?

        I guess people would take that to mean it's your point of view.

        Did you ever read any Mickey Spillane books? If someone dies in that
        book, did Mickey Spillane kill that person? Was it autobiographical?

        I guess people think of books more as works of fiction.

        What do you think a record is? Do you actually believe that all of
        these heartfelt renderings of the soul are autobiographical or real?
        Or anything but fiction? I find that startling. Even if someone is
        writing an autobiography, do you actually think it's anything other
        than fiction? Do you think anyone is so aware of themself that they
        don't fictionalize their own lives? This is standard stuff. One of the
        reasons I decided to go with the title is I was really fed up with
        this mythology of rock music that this is all about me, or whoever the
        singer is. It's fiction. It's made up.

        The record has been described as 'inaccessible.' How does that word strike you?

        I strikes me inaccessibly. Why should we make it inaccessible. Where
        did that come from? Why should we write accessible albums? Does
        anybody? Do you think Britney Spears writes accessible albums? Britney
        Spears is the most avant-garde, experimentalist, inaccessible musician
        I am aware of. There may be one or two others, like Justin Timberlake
        is pretty out there.

        I don't know why I should write something that's accessible. Is
        William Faulkner accessible? It's really all in the eye of the
        beholder. We're a niche outfit. We provide a specialized product for
        discerning tastes. This is not hamburgers, it's ... yes, it is
        hamburgers, it's expensive hamburgers. Nobody sits there and says --
        except for Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake -- "I'm going to write
        an inaccessible album." William Faulkner never said, "I'm going to
        write an inaccessible novel." You try to create truth, though it's
        fiction -- that standard craft conundrum.

        You've said that you don't try to "re-capture" anything, which is
        interesting because that's what many artists of your age are doing,
        trying to capture early intensity. Is that something you want to

        Intensity is not something you try to recapture. You either have it or
        you don't. Intensity comes in all shapes and flavors and forms.
        There's not one kind of intensity, one brand -- "Intensity brand." I
        can't do that. If we were able to do that sort of stuff, we would have
        become very successful pop musicians many decades ago. We, at the
        time, said we're incapable of it, and we patently proved we are
        incapable of trying to recapture something. Things like intensity or
        poetic vision, you either have it or you don't. If you set out to
        capture intensity, you ain't ever going to get it.

        At what point did you see the avant-garde possibilities of rock?

        From the first time I heard any kind of rock record. It was obvious to
        me from the beginning, as soon as I started listening. The first album
        I ever bought was "Uncle Meat" by Frank Zappa, and the next day I
        bought "Trout Mask Replica."

        Was being in Cleveland and having that distance from the centers of
        punk liberating?

        I was isolated and we had no particular ambition or hope of ever
        playing outside of town -- except maybe Akron or Kent, Ohio. Because
        there was no particular hope of doing anything, we just simply wrote
        and played music the way we wanted to do it. No point in trying to set
        some sound that would be commercial, that would be enjoyable,
        whatever. We just played for ourselves and our friends.

        "Avant-garage" is a joke, and yet it does seem to be a valid description.

        Yeah, it's a valid description. It doesn't mean anything. Obviously,
        it's making fun of avant-garde and it points to our garage-rock roots.
        Pere Ubu was very '60s garage-rock oriented. Other than that, writers
        want labels, and the only label I've ever applied to us was
        "mainstream rock band." Avant-garage is cute and it implies certain
        meanings and attitudes, so it's useful, but it doesn't mean anything.
        That's why I chose Pere Ubu as a name. It doesn't mean anything.

        You live in England, where it seems like pop bands are supposed to be
        disposable. You obviously have a different notion of music, having
        played with Pere Ubu for 30 years. Do you pay any attention to that
        flavor-of-the-week culture?

        Nope. Not a bit. I don't tune in. I don't pay attention. I don't watch
        much TV. I only listen to Talk Sport Radio and Radio 5. And that's it.
        I hardly go to shows unless it's an obscure little show my friends are

        Are you a Browns fan?

        Well, of course.

        Do you ever get into it with people in Pittsburgh?

        Oh yeah, but people from Pittsburgh are idiots. Nothing personal.
        Pittsburgh's a lovely town. I hate it. I really like it, but I'm from
        Cleveland and I despise you and all your generations. And there's
        nothing else to say about it. It's not personal. It's an obligation.

        Now, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in your hometown. Do you pay
        any attention to it?

        I wish it were in Pittsburgh. No, I mean I have some friends that work
        there. But no. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems like a bad idea.
        They don't have a Hall of Fame for writers or painters, do they? Why
        should they have one for rock musicians -- unless they think that rock
        music is some tacky pastime of disaffected youth who want to be
        placated with shiny toys.

        Pere Ubu

        Where: Club Cafe, South Side.
        When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
        Tickets: $15-$17; 412-323-1919.
      Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.