How do you find yourself reacting to the five disks of the Box Set, now that you have almost two decades worth of perspective on the music they contain behind you?
Nice to hear the tracks without those clicks & pops I've gotten used to over the years. The material has been successful in withstanding the test of time. Ubu albums still move me in much the same way they did when first released.
Of which Ubu record that you played on are you the most proud? Of which the least?
I'm proud of them all. Each album marks a unique period of the band's evolution and interplay ability, as well as documenting various stages of our personal lives. I'd like to hear certain songs re-mixed but as far as my playing goes, I'm not unproud of any of my studio performances.
What makes an Ubu record an Ubu record, and a David Thomas record a David Thomas record - given that many of the same musicians (youself included) often play on both?
The approach and the intent, though the lines separating the two often blur. Take "Blame The Messenger" for example. I think Ubu is regarded as a rock band, number one. A poetic rock band but a rock band nonetheless. David's "solo" outings do not necessarily follow the rock approach, though rock elements are certainly used. The intent is more about achieving soundscapes that compliment the poetry without necessarily cowtowing to the confines of rock music. Hence the approach to David's stuff is a bit more open and free, though as I said before, the lines often blur.
Was your tour sabattical this past year a one-time event, or do you anticipate staying off the road pretty much permanently now?
Coming off the road after the "Story of My Life Tour" in '93, I became painfully aware of a gradual degenerative disk condition at the base of my spine. I was bed-ridden for nearly 6 months after the tour and spent the next few months walking with a cane while undergoing physical therapy. I've kept the condition at bay for two years now by following a daily regimen of stretches and being mindful when I lift things. Cold rainy days and the Cleveland Winters offer little reminders that the condition is still present, so I think my touring days are over (for the time being, anyway). The thought of spending weeks on end scrunched up in an Astrovan full of people & gear, is more than I can bear.
5. Have you ever pursued or been interested in pursuing a solo project of your own? If not . . . why not?
Actually I have pursued several solo projects but either the time or the finances weren't available to see them thru. Foreign Bodies (featured on the Ubu Rarities disc of DIYZ) was basically a solo project after the single was recorded. There's a full album-plus recorded in '81 but never released. I don't think it would hold much interest or relevance for anyone if released now. I've literally got days worth of newer recordings lying around in various states of completion. There are rock instrumentals, orchestral pieces recorded with my Korg workstation, acoustic guitar pieces & ballads, tape loops & manipulations, and some electronic stuff recorded with Scott Krauss. Trouble is, I go so far with a project, get side-tracked or get involved in a non-musical project and then return to the studio to begin something new. I'm constantly distracted by the business of making a living, it seems.
Could you provide your own synopsis on the bands you played with in Cleveland during the '70s and early '80s. (I've heard you on the "God Says Fuck You" Electric Eels comp and on the Eels and Mirrors cuts on the 5th disk of the DIYZ box . . . bracing stuff in all cases!)
Mirrors was a cool band to be in, back in '74. We covered songs by Syd Barrett, The Troggs, The Kinks, Pretty Things & The Velvets. Jamie had written loads of very good originals and he possessed a voice similar to Kevin Ayers'. We didn't play out much but it was a great learning experience for me.
The Electric Eels were absolute terror. Dave E.'s unconventional subject matter lyrics and vocal delivery, coupled with John Morton & Brian McMahon's assault weapon guitars were a frightening experience, akin (I imagine) to being at sea during a hurricane. My involvement with them was short. I was never actually a member of the band. I happened to be present (with my bass) at two rehearsals that got recorded. The Eels would sometimes book gigs and invite Tin Huey, Mirrors or Rocket From The Tombs to accompany. A couple of these shows were billed as "Extermination Nites". One memorable evening, Dave E. did a lawn mower solo during a blistering tune. He pulled the rope, starting the gas- powered Toro, and proceeded to run it across the stage, chewing up every instrument & mic cable in sight. Needless to say, that was the evening's finale.
The Styrenes were an offshoot of Mirrors. Lots of experimentation with sounds, elctronics & time signatures. Paul Marotta was a classically-trained pianist turned avant-gardist. Seems like we spent years in various basements & lofts, rehearsing but never playing out.
Unfulfilled, I left to hone my home recording skills, guitar playing and tape manipulations which became the groundwork for Foreign Bodies. Hours of tapes were recorded while I squeaked, buzzed & scraped myself to distraction. I was also dusting off my tape loop skills which I had originally learned while presiding over the language lab at my high school. At this time, I also began my professional association with Pere Ubu, hooking up with them as part of the road crew for the Modern Dance US & Euro tours.
Home & Garden was Scott & Tony's post Ubu breakup project. I co-produced one side of their ep, "How I Spent My Vacation". I subsequently began "jamming" with them and was asked to join the project (on guitar & keyboards) soon thereafter. This was a very free & fun project at the outset. How could it not be with THAT rhythm section! After local poet, Jeff Morrison, was enlisted as vocalist, an lp ("History & Geography") was recorded & released to little acclaim. Tony soon left to pursue other musical ideas but H&G continued on with the addition of Michele Temple on bass and Robert Wheeler on synth. The "Hideout" ep and a couple singles were recorded and released locally. "History & Geography" was released in Europe and we were playing out a bit, booking our own small tours. Becoming dissatisfied with the lack of response we were getting, I left the band to concentrate on my next project...
Easter Monkeys. The Monkeys were a complete 190 degree turn from H&G. Loud guitar pop/thrash propelled by the antics of lead singer, Chris Yarmock (former Kneecapper). Easter Monkeys owed much of their spirit to The Stooges & Blue Cheer. We played out quite often and got some good press, opening for The Stranglers, X, Gun Club and others. Our gigs were becoming "the place to be". Chaos ruled. Very often we were more trashed than the audience. An album "Splendor of Sorrow" was recorded in '81 as a follow up to our local college radio hit, "Cheap Heroin". The lp didn't see light of day til 1991 but we were amused to learn that poorly-recorded bootleg tapes had been circling the globe since '83. Easter Monkeys ran out of steam in '84. I was through with band stuff, tho' I did do guest writing & playing for David Thomas' "Variations on A Theme" lp and produced the Pagans "Pink" album.
Nearly two years of relative serenity had passed when David Thomas got in touch and asked if I'd like to be involved in his latest project, The Wooden Birds. I accepted the invitation.
What were you and your artistic cohorts actually trying to accomplish musically during that period?
Nothing more than blasting open an escape hatch to flee a culture we despised. The promise of late-60's free-form radio was in its final throes. Killed by corporate-mandated playlists and white powder-nostril'ed deejays who rested securely in the back pockets of shifty promo men. I don't believe that Mirrors, The Electric Eels or Rocket From The Tombs, for that matter, ever entertained ideas of making it big. We existed as a logical reaction to the blandness surrounding us, especially that of the popular music of the time. America was being Captain & Tennille'd, Jackson Browne'd and Silver Convention'd to death... and loving it! We admired experimental bands like Roxy Music and Germany's CAN. Our determination was to expand upon the rich areas pioneered by bands such as The Stooges, Velvet Underground, Capt. Beefheart, MC5 & Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd. Bands that NEVER got played on commercial radio. Music that aknowledged the presence of emotions other than those associated with teen love. Music of substance & mind. Music that existed for its own sake, on its own terms. As a scene, we had reverence for music history. We were hungry to know what preceded us, culturally. We read, we listened, we researched, we shared information, we appreciated the beauty of the bombed-out/defaulted city...our nocturnal playground. We respected and occasionally only tolerated each other as fellow misfits who shared in the common experience of being Clevelanders. We were akin to a secret society. Closely linked, yet aloof.
How does what you actually accomplished stack up to the vision?
Well, What DID we accomplish really? Mirrors had one single released. The Electric Eels never even made it into a studio to record! All those Eels tracks were gleaned from the 4 or 5 rehearsals that somehow got taped. If there is an accomplishment there I guess it would be that that stuff serves as a document to show later generations that something unique & interesting happened here in the 1970's. Something insular, yet powerful, whose reverberations were to be felt worldwide for years to come.
Are there any "Cleveland Lessons" that might be valuable to musicians struggling in similarly urban blight zones (Albany, NY, springs to mind . . . ahem).
Be stubborn. Be devoted to your craft. Give up while you're ahead!
Did you know you were part of something special at the time - or did it only seem to truly become special when the external kleig lights (such as they were) started turning Cleveland-ward?
Yes. I did think we were part of something special back then. However, I never dreamed anyone else would ever think so. We knew what we were doing was unique in many ways. It was also great fun.
What niche did Ubu fill in its early Cleveland days? What niche does Ubu fill now in its scattered-all-over-the-world days?
Early Ubu gigs were "the place to be". They were events where like-minded people gathered once a week to let off steam, exchange ideas, catch up on gossip, compare cool records & create scenes, all under the canopy of this wonderful noise. Relationships were formed at these gigs that continue to this day. Pere Ubu on record and onstage was exciting, unpredictable & musically beyond compromise back in the late 70's. I believe this is still the case, tho' we are a bit older now, the youthful angst has given sway to the angst of middle age (same bottle... slightly different message). Ubu still works incredibly hard at their craft and they still deliver the goods on their own terms, continually flying in the face of record company protocol.
Any thoughts on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame being located in Cleveland? Has anyone associated with that edifice/organization made any attempts to link Cleveland's 70's scene to the rationale for why the edifice deserves to be there? Any chance Ubu will ever make it in without tickets?
It had to be somewhere. Cleveland's fine. We have a rich history of Rock here. Many acts (going back to the 50's) got their big break here. Cleveland's always been a rock-supportive town. Pink Floyd, Bowie, Roxy Music, Alex Harvey, & many more got their first US raves here. I can think of several other deserving cities but so what! The Rock Hall & Museum is a device to bolster a sagging urban economy with tourist dollars. It's not about rock 'n roll. No one (I hope) would be foolish enough to think that the 70's Cleveland scene was instrumental in the decision to locate "the big napkin holder" here. To sequester rock'n roll in a museum is an admission of rock's demise and thoroughly opposes all that it stands/stood for. Any Hard Rock Cafe is just about as cool...plus, you can grab a beer there and some semi-decent grub. Several weeks ago I was approached by a perky curator from the museum. She wanted to know if I would help with a coming exhibit featuring Cleveland musicians/bands (Ubu in particular). I'm still not sure what's required of me. I told her I'd sleep on it. If the exhibit doesn't feature Screamin' Jay Hawkins, I'm walkin', pal. What's to display? Michael Stanley's mustache trimmer? Eric Carmen's empty cans of hairspray? Crocus Behemoth's raincoat? Sheeeesh! Rock under glass is fine, if that's your cup of tea. I prefer my rock to be alive & blowin' my speakers out.
What special thing(s) do you consider that Cleveland/Ubu have contributed to contemporary music/art?
Do you hear Cleveland/Ubu influences in today's popular/alternative music? Where? What?
I haven't listened to much popular/alternative/radio-ready/corporate-assembled music since 1984. I doubt I've missed anything.
Are there any labels out there that you feel actually prioritize artist's concerns somewhere near the same level they prioritize sales/A&R concerns?
I'd be hard pressed give you an informed answer on that. No major labels immediately come to mind. Certainly Tim Kerr Records, Recommended Records, Henry Rollins' label and a plethora of the so-called "indie" labels have the artist's concerns at the fore. My advice to any band is to go with an indie unless you're prepared to put up a great struggle with- or are willing to sell out your integrity to- a major label. Are you in it for riches & fame or do you want an outlet for your art & creativity? I must caution that you can be ripped-off by some independant labels too. Check out the company's reputation, read the contracts carefully and negotiate points that you don't like, before signing anything.