Clip: David Thomas interview
New life in 'Tomb' for punk icons
November 28, 2003
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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
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
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
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.
- 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
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
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.
Where: Club Cafe, South Side.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $15-$17; 412-323-1919.