The History Of Pere Ubu

If every band had a website as complete as Ubu's, there'd be no need for external reference (ie wikipedia), no need for databases (ie allmusicguide), no need for periodicals libraries, etc. When you first realized the necessity of such a website (and the possibilites the world wide web brought) did you at all anticipate the Internet would become such a giant dump of information overload?
Information overload? We were referring to that in 1977 with the Datapanik In The Year Zero campaign, which described just such a state. It's a shame much of the documentation of our thinking then is gone. I did a quick search of the website and found few references to it. Two ideas were fundamental to the early stage conceptualization that shaped my approach to the band: the 'projex' methodology and 'datapanik.' All of this preceded the internet documentation you have been referring to. Some day I will have to set down in more detail these ideas since they are so critical to how I see Pere Ubu. There was an underground publication, typewritten and mimeographed as I remember, that described how to work in terms of 'projex.' My memory of the ideas in it are hazy, mainly because I adopted some of them as my own so quickly and so thoroughly. In 1977 John Thompson and I were intrigued by the notion of Too Much Information. We felt that information had become a sedative. That a state of data overload was being purposefully induced so that all information serves as a drug, a junkie culture becomes inevitable, dataflow can be the only social imperative, and that discrimination, judgement, or any other hinderance to dataflow, must become anathema. That deprived of their info-sedative people become restless and unhappy. Info-sedative is painless and requires nothing of the user. It's designed to bury Meaning within a flood of anodyne and charming data-chaff.

After all these years your music keeps surprising us, what's the secret?
Why should I tell you? We started off with one idea in 1975 and we haven't changed that idea in forty years. Over the years we've applied different methodologies in pursuit of that idea. Once we become comfortable with a particular methodology we change the method. Never the idea.

What are your impressions of cleveland when you return -- is this town that time has passed? is it the embodiment of some dadaist art work -- that exists without function?
Cleveland has been a ghost town for decades now. When I visit I only see the buildings and places that no longer exist in the real world. I go for a beer in bars that aren't there. I drive down streets that are on no maps. I drop in on friends who are dead, dying, or gone. But that's the nature of things. Change happens. I had a vision at an early age. The vision was too strong. I was too young. The vision burned itself into my senses so that my eyes will not work properly now.

Cleveland has the rock hall for various reasons. it is regularly pointed out by music historians that the mid-70s was a heyday for cleveland, musically. and yet the scene consisted of, what, 50 or so people. does this small number speak to the overhyping of that era or does it show that unique things happen in small numbers?
The quality and significance can't be over-hyped. But that doesn't have anything to do with the numbers. And you sell us short there. There were a hundred of us.

Some have drawn a distinction in the cleveland music scene back then -- between "rock" and "art" bands. does time blur this divide?
You gloss over the most significant characteristic of the original cle wave which consisted essentially of just 3 bands: RFTT/Ubu/Friction, Mirrors/Styrene and Electric Eels, and various spinoffs. The fact is that these bands did NOT make a distinction between rock and art. Even a hardcore guy like Cheetah was very open to different approaches. He may or may not have disdained the "art" description at the time but he was very capable of working that end as effortlessly as the mondo-rock. Second wave bands split along those "rocK" and "art" lines, it may be true, but the originals were unique in that no such distinction was made or considered.

You refer to the band that recorded The Late Show as the "Lost Band." In the release notes to the Fontana re-issues there's a reference to the "Lost Album." What's the connection?
There's no connection other than both were projex that never achieved maturity or reached fruition.
The 'Lost Album' was the project we set out on following Cloudland. We recorded some demos as 'Cloudland' was coming out. These ended up as b-sides for releases from Worlds In Collision. The one that most clearly points to where I thought the 'Lost Album' should go is probably 'Invisible Man.' In my mind it was to be the Pere Ubu 'blues' album. I had the idea that Van Dyke Parks would produce it. Gil Norton was the favored producer from the record company's point of view and we agreed. The project morphed. Elements survived in various forms, for example the song 'Worlds In Collision.' Then, we set out on Story Of My Life. Again I was determined to do the 'blues' album. The working title was 'Ages In Chaos.' Because of personnel changes that were forced on us I felt the platform was not steady enough and again the album morphed. Greil Marcus correctly identified it as a 'roots' album but it wasn't what I had hoped for in my own work and in my own mind. Still I was obsessed with the 'blues' album project. The working title to Raygun Suitcase was 'Songs From the LostLP.' 'Memphis,' 'Beach Boys' and 'Ray Gun Suitcase' were elements I had retrieved from the 'blues' album. Still we didn't get there as the album morphed again. I gave up, for the time being, but elements persisted in the following albums up to and including Why I Hate Women, which amost got there.
The Lost Band, Pere Ubu v.7.0, was the group that actually toured 'Story Of My Life' and began to record 'Raygun Suitcase.' Eric Drew Feldman was unable to record 'Story Of My Life' because of his work with The Pixies so the synthesizer slot was filled by other members of the band. Following the session we considered various alternatives. I had been working with Garo Yellin from The Ordinaires in my solo projex. He seemed an obvious fit and would be able to move the band into another direction which we all found exciting. It worked pretty well, as evidenced by The Late Show but Garo had obligations to The Ordinaires and he had to be replaced. That's when Robert Wheeler came in.

Most of the music coming out of Cleveland from the 70's & 80's seemed to have an angst-ridden and edgy tone to it - do you think this was this a social or political thing or something else all together?
Mostly it seemed to me to be a reaction to ordinariness. Nobody was political at all. Name a band that had a political agenda. Name a band with a social agenda. We were generally appalled by the counter-culture, and uninterested in social and political movements.

Rocket From the Tombs had just broken up - when setting out to form Pere Ubu, how strong were your ideas of the direction you wanted to go in?
Fairly strong but as always with me I think in terms of methodology and the 'style' follows. (Though I wouldn't have expressed it that way back then.) Sound follows production method. I was aware of a strong nucleus of musicians around who seemed to me, with my limited experience, to be unique-ish. I thought these guys could be harnessed and whatever happened would be unique and worth doing. Besides, what else was I going to do?

How did you go about recruiting the other members of the band?
I had strong ideas about how to organize my new band. The first thing I did was to ask the Rocket From The Tombs soundman, Tim Wright, to learn an instrument and I would build the band around him. Peter Laughner heard of the new band and asked to join. I had mixed feelings because of the Rocket experience but Peter was a good friend. He knew some people living at The Plaza (3206 Prospect Av) and suggested some of them. Tom Herman was a steel worker who lived nearby and jammed at a house with a drummer from the Plaza. That was Scott Krauss. Allen Ravenstine was the co-owner / janitor at The Plaza and he had been assembling odd sound boxes for a few years and did some electronics shows in arty places.

What part did Tin Huey play in the early days?
David replies: They were a band from Akron. I have a very strong memory that goes like this. The first time I went to Allen Ravenstine's apartment at The Plaza - it may have been the first time I met him so it was probably 1974 or maybe early 1975 - somebody played a studio tape of recordings Tin Huey had been making. I remember thinking, "Damn, this is good! This is the mark, the standard, we're going to have to beat." In those years they sometimes played the Viking Saloon. I knew the owner - he was a flat mate - and I sometimes worked as the doorman/bouncer. I was there alot. Tin Huey on stage was startling. The bass player, Mark Price, wore white hot paints and played a Fender bass guitar, the body of which he had ground down to a minimal muted blob. You couldn't take your eyes off him. And that was a feat considering that Ralph Carney was in the band and if you've ever been on stage with Ralph you know it's next-to-impossible to keep him from up-staging you and all he has to do is just stand there!

What do you think of the subsequent near-deification of Peter Laughner in the rock and fan press? What are your memories of him now? What do you think he would have done had he lived? You ever read Lester Bangs's tribute to him? What did you think of that?
I have nothing to say to outsiders about Peter. Do what you want. Believe what you want. Use him for any agenda you have in mind. Leave me out of it. I hate the nonsense these people talk. All it accomplishes is the death of another Peter Laughner in another town. Peter's life is no longer his own. It is a fabrication assembled by persons who never knew Peter, who pursue the Cult of Personality for self-justifying purposes.

Your RFTT bandmate Peter Laughner left the band before you recorded the Modern Dance - why did he end up leaving? Was there any one event that led to his departure?
Drugs and alcohol in massive quantities. The brandshing of handguns. Tim Wright and I were pretty fed up with the situation and part of the situation was that it was obvious he was a dead man walking and we didn't want to be part of the process so we had one of those meetings that ends up being you-go-your-way-and-we'll-go-ours. He was the first to suggest it. We were all relieved. He was not fired. It never got to that. Tim and I brought up our concerns. It didn't get far. Peter's response was to say that a parting of the ways was called for.

You kind of alternated between Scott Krauss and Anton Fier on drums during a certain time period. Was there any particular reason why one or the other didn't just stay as the permanent drummer?
No, Scott was the drummer but he would quit sometimes and during one of those times, just before the release of 'The Modern Dance,' Anton was asked to join the band. He rehearsed for a week or two but then Scott made it known that he wanted back in. Anton graciously stepped aside. That's the reason we thank him on the 'Datapanik In The Year Zero' EP. He later joined and recorded 'Song Of The Bailing Man' when Scott quit again.

Prior to your debut album coming out, I imagine you were still playing around Cleveland a bit. How did the scene in the later part of the seventies differ from the way things were when Rocket first started playing?
Not much except there were alot of poppy / arty sorts of new-comers who mostly never measured up to the originals. Easter Monkeys were good. A couple others.

Did you feel like Ubu was a part of the punk and new wave scenes that were happening in the latter half of the seventies, or do you feel more affinity with the progressive/experimental/avant garde type rock bands of the earlier part of the decade?
We were never part of anything but a Cle scene.

I think a lot of people are under the impression that you actively dislike Cleveland now. Is that true, or is it just simply (as you told me in our other interview) that everything you knew about the town is gone and you're more or less indifferent to the city now?
I don't care about Cleveland now. Indifferent is a good word.

Looking back on the historical tapes now, how do you feel about them?
I'm not sure what you mean. Am I nostalgic about them? No. Am I embarrassed or shy about them? No. Do they reveal anything to me? No. I suppose one of the problems has always been that this phase of our history has never been made public. We started out dedicated to hard, groove rock. Midwestern garage rock. We remain dedicated to hard, groove rock. Midwestern garage rock. This is the foundation but like many foundations maybe it rests unnoticed. You have to remember the Prime Directive: Never repeat yourself. At all costs, and beyond any reason or logic, keep moving. So we made this music in 1974-5. It's hard, groove rock played with passion and unwavering dedication. Isn't that what you're supposed to do? And once you've proved that you HAVE the Right Stuff you move forward or you slip backwards. Only the dead remain secure.

Rocket From The Tombs almost seem now like some kind of early testing ground for the new punk rock/avant rock. Their impact seems to be more in the way that they infected other groups - Pere Ubu, Dead Boys etc - was there something so intense and charged about that grouping that meant it would always be an unstable entity? Does the fact that its legacy is so fractured bother you?
RFTT was always doomed. Everything from Cleveland was doomed. RFTT is totally inconsequential and irrelevant. Pere Ubu is totally inconsequential and irrelevant. That is the power of Cleveland. Embrace, my brothers, the utter futility of ambition and desire. Your only reward is a genuine shot at being the best. The caveat is that no one but your brothers will ever know it. That's the deal we agreed to.

Looking back at the lyrical pre-occupations and the casualties that resulted, that whole scene seems an intensely nihilistic/apocalyptic one - would you agree with this perception? What was it that fueled such nihilism? Or was it just an as-serous-as-your-life approach to art?
I don't know what drove it. Of course we were serious. What kind of question is that? It was a compact and isolated group of people. The rivalries were intense. The disdain for anything anodyne was immediate and severe. It was a hothouse environment. Lots of the people lived on the urban frontier. Allen, Peter and all the crew at the Plaza were real urban pioneers. It could get weird. And we were young. We had turned our backs on the hippies and we had rejected the safe course thru college. (Until just recently no Ubu member had ever graduated from college-- or even lasted more than a year! And we were smart kids and EVERYBODY went to college in those days.) So we were drawn to art and in the early 70s rock music was the only valid art form. Rock music was the cutting edge. If you were good you went into rock. If you were 2nd string, if you were not quite good enough, then maybe you wrote or painted or made films. Who cares?

How do Pere Ubu and Rocket relate? Are the Ubu seeds to be found in Rocket or would you say Ubu's project was distinctly different?
They relate because I went on to form Pere Ubu in order to complete the work started by Rocket From The Tombs. It was a continuum.

Do you see a direct line of descent from RFTT through to your current stuff?

Do you ever get sad and nostalgic for those "different times"? Could rock music ever be so free and full of possibilities again?
I am not nostalgic. Rock music remains the only music that is free and full of possibilities. All the endless variants of dance / ambiance are a dead end. Jazz suffers on without the human voice and rose as far as it could under that restriction many years ago. World Music is MOR background music for TV shows about women's problems. No, I am not nostalgic. I still walk the narrow road. Say, how's things in YOUR town?

Do you think of Crocus Behemoth as being a different person? How do you feel about that particular incarnation?
No. And there was no 'incarnation.' It was simply an alias to disguise the fact that I was writing inordinate amounts of the magazine. I happened to use it for certain kinds of writing that became popular among the readers so I kept it as a commercial or ego consideration. Also because it's an artifact of the year I spent in a White Panther commune it had fond personal memories for me but that's about it.

What were your first thoughts when you heard Allen Ravenstine's unique synth playing?
I don't remember. Clearly I thought it was cool / impressive / powerful / unique. Remember these were the days when people were starting to add analog synthesizers to rock music. I'm not sure anyone was doing it so extremely or integrating it to the degree we did but then again nobody said we shouldn't / couldn't. Seemed the obvious thing to do. It all seemed like the obvious thing to do.

How did you feel when Pere Ubu started writing songs together - did it feel like you were doing something original?
The intention was always to write songs. This had been a big bone of contention in Rocket From The Tombs. Peter was always wanting to do cover versions and I really hated doing them. I didn't see the point... and I was no good at it. The first Ubu song was 'Heart Of Darkness' which we jammed while learning 'Tokyo' and 'Solution' to do as the first Ubu single. We didn't sit there and say to ourselves, Gee, we're doing something original. As I said, it was all pretty obvious to us that this was what you were supposed to do. Not to be disingenuous: we did realize that we might just be the best band in the world. But every kid thinks his band was the best thing that's ever happened and we were, at the same time, aware of that. And besides it didn't matter - no one would ever hear us.

The critics say that british punk was very important for a social change, and a change in the way of thinking. Looking back, now do you agree with that idea, or would you say that the ideas changed the music?
British critics are trapped into making great claims for punk. Punk was and is reactionary. It rejects the craft nature of art. It is cowardly and weak. It fears all human experience that doesn't come prepackaged in licentious, cartoon characterizations.
Soon after we began working together it was clear to us that we were the right people in the right place at the right time. We possessed the Right Stuff. We had positioned ourselves at the living edge of rock as an art form. Our forebears had passed the torch onto us and watched us with expectation and hope.

How did people initially react to Pere Ubu when you started playing live?
To the established rock bands, the ones playing the rock clubs, we were amateurish. We looked plain. We were too incompetent, it seemed, to learn the conventions of the craft, or, worse, we were ignorant that such things might exist. Our method, according to one local "celeb," involved taking lots of drugs and banging around on our instruments in a stupor until it was time to stop. (Which was very insulting considering how much rehearsing we did and how tight we were.) Our supposed "peers" in the local rock scene considered us to be unworthy. We occupied an underground. But, worse, an underground in the life of a city that was itself considered to be nothing more than a backwater. Everything meaningful, cutting edge, avant garde, we were patiently informed, was to be found only in New York City. We were nothing but provincial rubes.
We quickly acquired a hardcore of about 150 local fans but considering that the entire 'underground' scene probably consisted of no more than 100-200 people there wasn't much room for growth. Nobody outside a very small, and very tightly defined group seemed to like what we did. Nobody outside this small world, it seemed, would ever know or hear of us. Choices can become simple: change your ideas or accept your fate. Knowing what we knew, feeling the tug of historical imperative, how could we back down? So, rejection, once chosen, is personalized, backs turn against outsiders and our world view constricts. Nobody likes what we do so we may as well do what we want. It is burned into our souls. We are free. Years later, and, ironically, as we neared the possibility of a previously unimagined commercial success the lesson was reinforced
In "England's Dreaming" Jon Savage writes that most of the original "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" singles were sold in England and not in the States. Is this true?
I have no clear memory on it. We pressed 3-4000 copies of that single over 2 years. I don't remember personally shipping many to England. We sold stocks to distributers and they must have done so in some numbers but I also remember selling lots to shops in New York City, Minneapolis, Chicago and other American towns. The numbers, in any case, were not significant enough to draw conclusions from. It may be Mr Savage has access to paperwork that confirms his view. It's also possible his evidence is anecdotal and his conclusion wishful.

When I hear a coupla cool tracks, 'Its-a-Happenin' by The Magic Mushrooms and stuff by Monks, I hear some kinda (however vague or strong) semblance of the Ubu-style. Were you ever into or rather what U.S. punk bands of the 60s were you inspired by?
David replies, "I was always into the American garage punk of the 60s. You have to remember we grew up listening to all that stuff on the radio. That was what was on the radio. All that stuff was hits. Strong influence on Pere Ubu along with Velvets, Stooges, Can and MC5. Our first engineer and father of our current engineer, Ken Hamann, was the engineer for songs like Nobody But Me, Time Won't Let Me, Green Tambourine, all the early Terry Knight stuff, Bloodrock, James Gang, etc."

What was the Viking Saloon?
A bar in Cleveland on Chester Avenue at approx E.22nd St, next to Cleveland State University - hence the name, Viking, and, lo, the agent of its eventual urban renewal. Booked interesting, often original bands. In the early 70s Mirrors, Electric Eels, Rocket From The Tombs, and Pere Ubu played there before it was torn down. Site of the legendary Extermination Nights. David was, for awhile, the doorman.

Some days ago I was casually reading a Lester Bang's article about Peter Laughner. Since then, I began listening to "Life Stinks" from "Modern Dance" in a different way. How do you remember those years (Rocket from the Tombs and first Pere Ubu Singles)? Is there something of that period that has remained unchanged? What? And what else changed?
I don't remember them until somebody asks me a question about them. I don't look back. I am not nostalgic. The question you ask is too unspecific to prompt any memories. Nothing of that period has changed. The past does not change. It's locked down and sealed tight. The way I approach music is precisely the same now as it was 30 years ago. I've not changed a single idea. The world changes. Pere Ubu does not.
Pere Ubu cannot be understood unless you start with the fundamentals. We are a Midwestern hard groove rock band in the tradition of the MC5 and Stooges. Tom Herman used to say the best guitar part is the one that requires you to move your fingers the least. If you can't make it work with one chord and the will to rock then you oughta find other work. Rocket From The Tombs was and still is a brutal rock experience. When it finished I was determined to find out where else it could go. I have said over the decades that Pere Ubu was founded on that principle, that the foundation of Pere Ubu, as far as I am concerned, is the ability to produce brutal groove rock. That's the base camp from which we launch expeditions. But because we have proved we can do it we don't have to keep proving it every subsequent album. The mission is/was to go forward from that point.

The romantic media myth machine made much over Peter Laughner's Ubu contributions after his death; Clinton Heylin's "From the Velvets to the Voidoids" even goes so far as to call "Modern Dance" Peter's album, "Dub Housing" Tom's album, all the rest, David's albums. (I forget who Heylin was quoting there, though.)
This is nonsense. The only Ubu album that I ever 'took over' is 'Raygun Suitcase,' the album hailed (wrongly) as a return to the "old values," and all I did was take on production responsibilities because things were fragmenting and somebody had to do something. Scott had announced he wanted to play organ instead of drums. Then he announced he didn't like the songs and didn't want to record the album. Nobody could see how we could do anything. I said, 'We will do it and I'll lead us through.' I took over production under those circumstances and recorded the album to a click track to leave the way open for Scott to come back. These interpretations are glib. They demean the other musicians. Peter's style was rooted in more familiar idioms. Tom Herman, however, was a more radical guitar player. But Tom Herman wore dozy looking clothes and was a steel worker. Peter wore black leather and shades and he went to New York City. Tim Wright was a more radical player but his style wasn't rooted in a familiar idiom. Mayo Thompson was a more radical conceptualist. But the issue isn't even radicalism versus the familiar. Pere Ubu is a mix. When we parted with Peter we stopped doing cover versions and abandoned the 60s idioms that he loved. Is that bad? Is it good? The answer is neither. It's true the albums changed. They were supposed to.
There's something else you need to account for. In the early days Musician X was learning his instrument and he was in the band. He would go home at night and practice at the same time he was taking lessons and working out parts with his teacher and the next day he would come to rehearsals and throw in the things he learned the night before in a desperate bid to stem the tide, to hold his ground, to keep his head above water. There's a different quality to the work when the children and young girls are turning out the tanks that drive straight off the assembly line down the road to the front just outside Moscow at such a ferocious rate of production that it's probably never been equalled. And probably more than any other singular event, that broke the Nazi war machine. There's a different quality to the work that can never be recaptured as the years go by and abilities grow and come to a mature fruition. The question is: Are you then supposed to imitate who you were for the rest of your life? Isn't that what everyone was criticizing the Rolling Stones for?

Hearpen HR101 : Is there is an edition with a "white label" instead of a black one? Is it with picture sleeve?
The original release, 1000 copies, had a red on white label. It also came with a fold out cardboard sleeve in black and white. Subsequent pressings were silver on black with the Hearpen logo. Some of these may have come with sleeves. Otherwise it was a basic white paper sleeve. Tim/Kerr Records released a box set of the vinyl 45s which duplicated the original sleeves but on glossy stock.

Not to be disrespectful to the departed . . . but I don't (and never have) been able to divine just where the (myth-inflated?) contributions reside. How important was Laughner really in shaping the early Ubu aesthetic?
The Cleveland aesthetic can be described very concisely: nobody likes what we do, nobody will ever like what we do - let's do what we want. Peter's fatal weakness was that he wanted to be accepted. He wanted to be liked. In this way he was out of step with the rest of us. Look at the songs he wrote and performed. Peter was immensely talented. But now you must account for the pastiches he did. Now you must account for the preponderance of cover material in his sets. You must deal with the whole picture not just the slice that appeals to you. You must deal with the whole person not just a processable icon that feeds your prejudices. Peter wanted to be from New York City and it killed him. Most people think being from New York City is the thing you should want. It reinforces what they want to believe. Peter in a terrible way got what he wanted. All it took was to die. I hate the nonsense these people talk. All it accomplishes is the death of another Peter Laughner in another town. Peter was important. He was immensely talented. But no more than Tim. Or Tom. Or Scott. Or Allen. Or me. And no less.

I'm not aware of any other small indie record companies that existed prior to Hearpen. Did you actually have a model for what you were doing, or are the singles Hearpen released as ground-breaking as they seem today - from both an artistic and a business standpoint?
Television actually beat us to the punch by a couple months with Little Johnny Jewel. The model for what we were doing was the Salvation Army used record bins. I wanted to make a record of what we had been working on from 1973 to 1975 and I figured somebody someday would find it in a used record bin (and at that point the only used record bins were at SA) and that would be our legacy. That was the extent of the plan.

What is the background vocalist saying on "The Modern Dance?"
Tom is singing, "Merdre, merdre."