"Long Live Père Ubu"

What did you see in Jarry's play that finally convinced you to take it on?
Do-Gooderism has become a holy cow. It is all-pervasive, all-intrusive, all-corrupting, no matter the political, cultural, social, even scientific context. Jarry's Père Ubu is the dark lord of this faith. His is the soul of every do-gooder monster that you can suggest. Regardless of whoever or whatever it is that you personally choose to lionize, it's more than likely that such a person or organization is Père Ubu. Every talking head that you see and admire on the tv is Père Ubu. He epitomizes the Survival of the UNfit, and the stock-in-trade of the UNfit is Pataphysics, Jarry's "science of imaginary solutions." It has been suggested that I reference the phenomenon of "political correctness." I reject this suggestion because it infers a narrow party political parochialism. Do-Gooderism is catholic.
"There was a fellow on Facebook who seemed to get bent out of shape by my 'condemnation' of the do-gooder. For any others likely to be so offended, please note this simple dictionary definition of the term: 'a well-meaning but unrealistic or interfering philanthropist or reformer.'"
David Thomas

Talk us through the evolution of the project.
"Long Live Père Ubu!" is the album of songs that was the genesis of the entire mess. It was to be a great leap forward in our pursuit of hypernaturalistic recording techniques by which we replace microphones in the studio with wooden boxes, junked radio speakers, metal horns, and electrically charged window panes. Using "junk-o-phonics" the acoustic quality of the sound itself was to become the narrative.
One early goal was to approach the space between songs in a new way, using connective dialog and ambient noise as bridges, while remaining true to Jarry's anti-theatrical methods. This led directly to the notion of a live "radio play" that would unify the concert set. The motivation was not so much a "concept" performance but a way to manage the "silence" between songs so that the spoken word is manipulated with a jazz sensibility.
At first I planned to sing all the cast characters myself. With the encouragement of Glenn Max, musical director of London's Southbank Centre, the project evolved into a theatrical production. I was determined that the band itself should not only play the music but also take on all cast roles, all production duties and design/perform all the choreography. Serendipitous meetings modified the plan.
An on-going effort to turn the theatrical production into a film, directed by The Brothers Quay, prompted me to assemble an audio storyboard. At the same time the script was revised and improved into Version 2 of "Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi" and was incorporated into a recording known as The Radio Play, which includes all dialog, songs, and ambient sound, and achieves the original vision for the project.

When I told a couple of friends that Pere Ubu was releasing an album dedicated to Ubu Roi, the unanimous response was: "It's about time!" Was it about time?
I've been asked many times over the decades whether I wanted to do something of this sort. My answer has always been, No. I could see no hook into it. I was not interested in doing something just because I could. I was definitely not interested in nostalgia. Two years ago I was asked again by Glenn Max, musical director of London's Southbank Centre. I felt that any further refusal could be seen by myself as cowardice. His parting words to me were, "Bring me the head of Ubu Roi."
So the first issue became, What am I going to bring to the play that's worth the effort? That was relatively simple. The reason I took the name for my band in 1975 was that I saw a connection between Jarry's anti-naturalistic production methods and the role of abstract sound in rock music. That's where I started. Then I read thru the play again after 30 years and noted that really much of it was disposable or nostalgia-inducing. I condensed the story to the parts I thought were interesting and were compliant to what I wanted to accomplish. In a few scenes I expounded on where Jarry was heading and took minor liberties. In at least one case Jarry made an especially prescient point that I expanded. And I concentrated on Mère and Père Ubu. Then I began to work on the music. I was determined that the sound - whether it be musical, audio, dialog, human voice, recording studio acoustic, etc - should be approached and accomplished strictly in line with Jarry's theatrical ideas. I was determined that the play's story be relayed through the narrative qualities of sound itself as much as possible. All sound, every moment, has been carefully crafted for theatrical impact. The whole project has taken 2 solid years to complete - the album, the theatrical production and the radio play. All decisions were only made after first determining what would be most compliant with Jarry's wishes or method.

"Long Live Père Ubu!" and the radio-drama "Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi," is probably your most theatrical work ever. What were the difficulties in the creative process?
The main "difficulty" was simply committing to a process that was alien and new. First, there was the methodology for this particular project. This is described in the UK press release. As bizarre as the story seems, I suggest that it is only slightly exaggerated. The next difficulty was assembling the disparate pieces parts, bringing them into a cohesive and integrated whole that could be fixed into a demanding acoustical frame. Finally, a certain amount of will power was required to stay an uncomfortable course. There are two distinguishing features of Pere Ubu albums through the decades. One is that we depend on personal charm as a counterweight to the band's noire tendencies and the other is that there is always a point of redemption. In this project, there is no personal charm and there is no redemption. As well the process itself was very methodical and detailed. As I noted, there is not one moment in its entirety, and various facets, that is not carefully crafted. This is not our usual method. We make room in all our other work and methodologies for chance, accident and circumstance. Not so with this. In LLPU there is no chance or accident. There is no serendipity. There is only cold calculation involving the mathematics and geometry of sound and expression, the point of which is to tell a certain kind of story according to the designs of a Frenchman who's been dead for more than a hundred years.

How did you met Sarah Jane Morris? How did you decide that she would be perfect for the role of Mère Ubu?
I met her at a party - the same party at which I also agreed to do Ubu Roi. She came up to me and said she'd always wanted to sing with me. At first I was determined to do the Ubu Roi project doing all the voices myself. Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that Sarah was the only female singer I knew who could do the part. So I asked her.

"Long Live Père Ubu!" has a hard and abrasive sound, perfectly Pere Ubu-like, but there are particular melodies and some spoken moments that recall the Musical (or Rock Opera) tradition. Do you agree? Do you like any Musical or rock-opera?
As you may know, I, along with the two pale boys, did a season in London's West End in Shockheaded Peter. I thought the experience was interesting but what I didn't like was the need for a consistent, "professional" performance. Without risk-taking there can be no transcendent moments of timelessness in performance. I don't really have any great affection for theater or rock opera. Seems generally too average a medium for my tastes. I grew up listening to radio plays and developed a passion for them because they were dependent on engaging the imagination of the listener by the use of abstract or concrete sound. Clearly I have some history in musical theater with Mirror Man and some other things. I like theater when it is dependent on sound and anti-naturalistic performance. It's useful medium to tell a Big Story because, in general, audiences are not used to more innovative ways of telling the story through album or concert mediums, in other words by mediums that are serialized or corpuscular. And theater allows for big ensemble live performance with all the risk taking that that involves. I like the use of theater in a way that makes the audience truly fearful that the whole thing is hanging on a thread and can plunge into chaos at any moment. That, however, is generally not considered by theater people, or anybody else, to be "professional." Well, it isn't. But that's not what you hire Pere Ubu for. You hire Pere Ubu because you want to be scared out of your professional wits. Because you want to experience something that no one else can deliver - the thrill of the truly dangerous moment and its power to reveal.

Considering the similarties of the play and the band: Does Pere Ubu go full circle with LLPU in some significant way?
I don't do circles. I do straight lines. In the context of the history of Pere Ubu this may seem an odd thing to say. The shortest point between two points, however, is a straight line. Don't look at the history of Pere Ubu as a whole to understand this. Look at it from the perspective of one album to the next, a straight line. What's the point being made from "The Art Of Walking" in a straight line to "Song Of The Bailing Man"? I was taught in school that a circle can be perceived as a series of infinitely short straight lines. I never believed this and if I had continued my career path in Mathematics I would have set myself the task of disproving it. It is a convenience that may seem to work but that doesn't mean it's the truth. A circle means looking backwards instead of forwards. I despise the past. It means being obsessed by yourself. I despise the self in art. It means going Nowhere. I need Somewhere to go.

What effects or distortions did you use to get the sound on your voice?
None. The voice you hear is the voice I recorded. I don't use electronic effects at all during the recording process, well... nearly... as I'll note in a moment. To record my voice I used four microphones simultaneously according to the hypernaturalistic™ methodology, each attuned to a different frequency range. Sometimes all were used in the mix, sometimes just a couple. Père Ubu is supposed to have a voice that reflects his drunken viciousness. I experimented with different voices, settling on a throat-singing technique. For some songs this didn't seem to be appropriate. As well I felt there should be a narrative curve with the voice. For "The Story So Far" Sarah and I used the telephone mic that Paul Hamann built for me some years ago. You often see me use it live. It's a telephone. I had this idea, at one point, that the voice should sound as if it were recorded by a microphone in Ubu's vast and vile belly. Paul and I spent alot of time trying to get this idea to work, using two Altec passive filters, spring reverbs salvaged from ancient instruments, vocal side-chaining, and *some* electronic effects. If you listen closely some of this work can be heard in "Banquet Of The Butchers" but all in all I felt it was more distracting than effective.

The current (and longtime) Ubu line-up functions quite differently than that of the late 70s, still it is very clearly Pere Ubu. Has the mid-70s band been influential to the present one in any way?
I am immensely pleased with, and immensely proud of, the current lineup. It can do anything I ask of it. Each person is strong in their own talent and yet perceives themselves as a component. They trust me and are personally loyal to me and the band as a whole. They are open to anything I suggest at the same time as being unfearful of making their own suggestions. They can be left to get on with things. They all grew up listening to the "original" band and have a deep respect for the history and tradition of Pere Ubu. Except for the drummer, Mehlman, who's a punk kid who respects nothing. And for that, he is a valued voice. It is as close to a perfect mix of people as the "original" band was. Just different... and why would anyone want it to be the same? Or try to be the same?

How much in your lyrics is autobiographical, and how much is pure fiction?
None of it is autobiographical. I've written 2 semi-autobiographical songs in my life. One was called The Story of My Life. The other was called Bicycle. That's it.

Is the new Pere Ubu album a sort of concept (as the title suggests)? What was the idea when you began working at it?
Every album I approach starts with a back story - like a film in that way. That back story is filled with characters and scenes which come to me in greater or lessor detail. From that back story I choose a psychological moment that interests me. My work on the album then consists of "describing" that moment. Sometimes the back story or characters from it appear in the lyrics. Sometimes not. I choose musical ideas from the rest of the band that will suit in one way or the other the purposes of describing that moment. WIHW, as I have mentioned elsewhere, is my idea of the Jim Thompson novel he never wrote. (Jim Thompson was a 50s pulp fiction writer who specialized in very dark novels.)

Which one of Pere Ubu songs do you like most?
I have no favorites or I have so many that it is impossible to list them. There is no song I write that does not start out as a favorite. Otherwise why bother? I remember fondly the ones that work out well - that successfully accomplish the particular moment. The ones that don't I continue to rewrite and hone until I get it right.

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.

Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu, David Thomas, David Thomas and Two Pale Boys: what are the main differences or peculiar features in the art of these different monikers/projects?
Each band allows for unique perspectives. Pere Ubu is like a big budget Hollywood movie. Pale Boys is like one of those splodgy Fellini films or European art house movies dubbed into English. Each can achieve different perspectives unavailable to the other. One is not better than the other. They are simply different, and allow me to do different things.