Pere Ubu make a music that is a disorienting mix of midwestern groove rock, 'found' sound, analog synthesizers, falling-apart song structures and careening vocals. It is a mix that has mesmerized critics, musicians and fans for decades.
The Pere Ubu project was supposed to be an end, not a beginning. Assembled in August 1975 to be the Crosby Stills Nash & Young of the Cleveland music underground, the plan was to record one, maybe two singles and exist no more. Within months, however, those first self-produced records were being snapped up in London, Paris, Manchester, New York and Minneapolis. Pere Ubu was changing the face of rock music. Over the next four decades they defined the art of cult; refined the voice of the outsider; and inspired the likes of Joy Division, Pixies, Husker Du, Henry Rollins, REM, Sisters of Mercy, Thomas Dolby, Bauhaus, Julian Cope and countless others.
As his band Rocket From The Tombs entered its terminal phase in the summer of 1975, David Thomas decided the name of his next group would be 'Pere Ubu,' after the protagonist of Ubu Roi, a play by Frenchman Alfred Jarry. He asked the band's soundman, Tim Wright, to learn an instrument and join the new band. Tim bought a six string Dan Electro bass guitar. They made plans. Tim was the most influential of band members from the formative period. In 1976 he moved to New York City and joined DNA.
At a social gathering with Peter Laughner, one of RFTT's guitarists, David described his new band. Peter asked to join. A steelworker, Tom Herman, and a record store clerk, Scott Krauss, lived at The Plaza, a downtown apartment house owned and 'janitored' by a fellow who played analog synthesizers, Allen Ravenstine.1 They each had made names for themselves jamming in short-lived projects.
The single, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" b/w "Heart of Darkness," released in 1975, was the first of four independent releases on Hearpen Records and, along with Television's "Little Johnny Jewel," signaled the beginning of the New Wave. In the early to mid-70s, the musicians formed Pere Ubu were part of a fertile rock scene that had also produced 15-60-75, The Mirrors, The Electric Eels, Rocket From The Tombs, Tin Huey, and Devo.
"Ken Hamann was critical to the growth of Pere Ubu. I might go so far as to say that without Ken Pere Ubu wouldn't have amounted to anything near what it did."When Ken retired in 1979, his son Paul Hamann took over the engineering and production of Pere Ubu albums until his death in 2017. The studio was moved to a turn-of-the-century, abandoned golf house twenty miles east of Cleveland in 1979 and renamed Suma.
Four other individuals who partnered with the band in the early years deserve to be noted. Pat Ryan was soundman. He lived at The Plaza. Mik Mellen was the photographer whose work defined the band's visual identity for every early release. His photographs were often productions. For the cover photo of Song Of The Bailing Man, he crawled out onto the frozen lake with shards of mirror to capture the setting sun behind him as he focused on the buildings of downtown before him. He wouldn't take pictures of people. He stopped taking pictures in the early 80s. He didn't say why. He lived at The Plaza.Jean Kormos was the Ubu Girl. She appeared in the artwork for all releases through to New Picnic Time. She was the only human subject Mellen agreed to photograph. She lived at The Plaza. In the early 80s she moved to New York to open a clothing shop.3
Lastly, there is John 'Johnny Dromette' Thompson. From the beginning he has been instrumental in the design and visual representation of Pere Ubu and the bands of Ubu Projex. He was the owner of influential record shop Hideo's Discodrome. He didn't live at The Plaza but he and David shared a house known as The Discohome.
Also deserving a mention is Jim Ellis who published a quarterly (-ish) magazine called CLE, which chronicled the local scene. Johnny Dromette contributed and took out unique ads.4
The group's first album, The Modern Dance (1978) was a startling work that influenced an entire generation of bands. Three months later, Radar Records released an EP collection of the band's self-produced singles, Datapanik In The Year Zero.5 Dub Housing (1978), released later in the same year, was the masterpiece, "an incomparable work of American genius."
Pere Ubu toured Great Britain and Europe extensively in 1978, supported by the likes of The Pop Group, Nico, Human League, The Soft Boys and Red Crayola. The tour in November premiered with the secret Magical Mystery Pere Ubu Tour. The audience boarded buses near London's Marble Arch and were driven to Chiselhurst Caves in the southeast where Pere Ubu had setup in an improvised stage in the cave wall.
"The attendant pointed out wax plugs in the ceiling. If they cracked we were told to stop playing and get out immediately."
Late in 1979 Tom Herman left and was replaced by Mayo Thompson, the guitarist from 60s Texas psychedelic-rock legends The Red Krayola. The Art Of Walking (1980) followed, a challenging stew of inside-out song structures. Anton Fier (The Feelies, Peter Laughner's Friction, The Golden Palominos) replaced Scott Krauss in the middle of 1981 and recorded Song Of The Bailing Man (1982). At the end of an American tour in December 1981, and after months of growing friction between two members of the group, the band ceased to exist as a functioning unit.
In 1981, Thomas recorded the first of two albums with British folk-rock guitarist Richard Thompson. Three more solo albums featured members of the dormant Ubu. The last of these, 1987's Ubu-like Blame The Messenger (by David Thomas and wooden birds), led to the reanimation of the Pere Ubu projex. The line-up had been Thomas, Allen Ravenstine, Tony Maimone, Chris Cutler and Jim Jones. Jones was a stalwart on the Cleveland scene and a member of nearly every good band to come from it, at one time or another. Cutler, drummer in English prog-rock outfits Henry Cow and Art Bears, was an early advocate of Ubu and subsequently became a friend of the band.
During a European tour to promote the Wooden Birds album Blame The Messenger, Pere Ubu was reactivated after a band meeting in the lobby of a hotel in Ijmuiden, Holland.6 Later, at an appearance in Cleveland, Scott Krauss sat in with the Wooden Birds. The two drummers line-up sounded good. Krauss was asked to join as a second drummer.
I'm a big fan of the Allman Brothers Band and southern rock. I was intrigued by the idea of a two drummer lineup for Pere Ubu.The clattering Tenement Year, recorded for a British label (Fontana) headed by Ubu fanatic Dave Bates, followed in March 1988.
Teamed with another Ubu fan, producer Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order, etc.), Ubu shifted gears for 1989's Cloudland, an epic journey across the landscape of America. Tired of touring and the grind of it all, Ravenstine retired to take up a career as an airline pilot for Northwest Airlines. He was replaced by Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Snakefinger).7
The band was brought to London to film a TV appearance on Big World Cafe, Channel Four, in March 1989. A concert at the Mean Fiddler in London was the premiere of the Cloudland material for press and record company. It was Eric's premiere with the band and it was also the last appearance of the two drummers lineup that recorded The Tenement Year and toured it. Chris Cutler, unable to juggle all the demands of his many musical projects, left the group soon after. The band continued the Cloudland tours later in the year as a five-piece.
Worlds In Collision (1991), produced by Gil Norton (The Pixies), was Stereo Review's Record of The Year. The Pixies invited Pere Ubu to support them on an extensive tour of America in 1991. Feldman soon was asked to join The Pixies on-stage as a sideman and, subsequently, continued to work with them and on Frank Black's solo projects. When Feldman was unable to record with Ubu because of those commitments the band decided to record what would be the last Fontana album, Story Of My Life (1993), as a four-piece.
Garo Yellin, playing an electrified cello, and veteran of New York City's The Ordinaires and several of Thomas' solo projects, was recruited to fill the synthesizer slot. They Might Be Giants invited Ubu to support them on a tour of America in 1993. Subsequently, Maimone left to work in the They Might Be Giants band. He was replaced by Michele Temple who had previously replaced him in the Jones/Krauss 80s side project, Home & Garden.
In January 1994, again without a major label, the band recorded demos for a projected album, Songs From The Lost LP, intended to be a tribute to Smile. Krauss left... again. Yellin, busy with his quartet in NYC, was replaced by Robert Wheeler, organic farmer, Ravenstine-protegé, and president of the Thomas Alva Edison Birthplace Foundation. Band members were overcome by doubts and uncertainty. Thomas announced that he was ready to become the producer for Pere Ubu and that was what he was going to do. Raygun Suitcase (1995), awarded CD Review's Editors' Choice Award, was recorded to a click track in the hope that Krauss would change his mind. When he didn't, Scott Benedict, the drummer in Temple's group, The Vivians, came in over a weekend, the last weekend of production, and recorded all the drum parts in one of the most magnificent displays of studio-craft the band had ever experienced. The next week he retired to pursue landscape gardening. Steve Mehlman, Benedict's replacement in The Vivians, replaced him in Ubu.
In August 1995 Jones retired from the road for health reasons. Herman rejoined the group for the Raygun Suitcase tours, and together with Jim Jones recorded Pennsylvania (1998), a highly acclaimed album nominated by one of America's preeminent rock critics, Greil Marcus, as the best of 1998.
In 2000 the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame promoted a special event, "55 Years of Pain," honoring Pere Ubu and the grand-daddies of the Cleveland scene, 15-60-75. The event was repeated at the Royal Festival Hall in London later in the year, and at the "Fall of The Magnetic Empire Festival," curated by Thomas and staged at New York City's Knitting Factory, during which Wayne Kramer of the MC5 joined the group as guitarist for a show.
The release of St Arkansas (2006) was celebrated by The Mighty Road Tour. A splinter group within the band, referred to as The Pere Ubu Film Group, premiered a live underscore to a rare 3-D screening of Ray Bradbury's "It Came From Outer Space" at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in October 2002. A highly successful 6-date tour of the underscore in the United Kingdom followed in November 2004. The group premiered its underscore to Roger Corman's "X, the Man With X-Ray Eyes" at 'Celebrate Brooklyn' (New York City) in 2004.
Keith Molinè, a founding member of David Thomas and two pale boys, had been drafted into the Film Group. Over time, he morphed into being the guitarist in Pere Ubu.
After a decade of perfecting a hypernaturalistic recording method (junk-o-phonics), Thomas produced Why I Hate Women (2006). It was recorded, for the most part, without the use of 'professional' microphones. Instead an array of 'junk-o-phones' designed by long-time engineer Paul Hamann were used. These included an array of speakers salvaged from broken devices, wooden boxes, metal horns, panes of glass, even doors, wired into specialized electronics.
The band's most ambitious project, which would culminate in the release of "Long Live Père Ubu!" (2009), began in July 2007. It was an adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, recorded, again, using junk-o-phonics in such a way that the acoustic quality of the sound itself becomes a narrative voice. A theatrical production, Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi, and a radio play of the theatrical production became part of the project. British singer Sarah Jane Morris joined the group for the project. Cult filmmakers, The Brothers Quay, created animations for the theatrical production. On April 24 and 25, 2008, "Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi" premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and was subsequently staged in its full theatrical state at the Animator Festival in Poznan, Poland, July 11 2009, and at the Festival Scènes d'Europe in Reims, France, on Dec. 16 2009. A concert version called "Long Live Père" toured in Europe and the USA.
Lady From Shanghai (2013) marked the fulfillment of a twenty year project working out the Chinese Whispers methodology. A book of the same name, written by David Thomas, accompanied the release. (It was his second book; the first was called The Book of Hieroglyphs.) In July of 2013, an underscore to the 60s cult film 'Carnival of Souls' was premiered at the East End Film Festival in London. Songs and musical pieces written for the underscore were developed over the course of a tour of the United Kingdom, Italy, Croatia and Ireland, in November 2013, undertaken by a 'shock troops' version of the band. Each night ideas were improvised from scratch. The album Carnival of Souls (release date September 8 2014) resulted. Clarinetist Darryl Boon had contributed to a couple songs on 'Lady From Shanghai.' Over the course of the making of 'Carnival of Souls' he was fully integrated into the group.
In 2014, Pere Ubu renounced its 'US citizenship' and applied for creative asylum in Leeds, England, after a cabal of the American Federation of Musicians and a clique of government clerks in a small town in Vermont determined that Pere Ubu was unworthy of being granted permission to perform in America.
In 2015, with the vinyl box set Elitism For The People, Fire Records began a re-release program that will eventually encompass the entire Pere Uu catalog. Architectre Of Language followed in 2016 and Drive, He Said in March 2017.
The Pere Ubu Film Group continued with live underscores to the 1962 cult classic Carnival Of Souls. Another subset of the band, The Pere Ubu Moon Unit, dedicated to improvised performances, made more appearances.
As the recording of 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo proceeded through the autumn of 2016, Kristof Hahn, from The Swans, became involved. For a number of years he had been a regular visitor to the Ubu dressing room. After hearing early recordings of the material, he wrote to David, "Gives me goosebumps. I would like to be involved in even a small way." He appears on all tracks playing steel guitar.
In 2016, Pere Ubu signed to Cherry Red Records. The Pere Ubu Moon Unit played some European festivals over the summer. Over the next two years, Ubu returned on several occasions to Europe. A return to the USA remains impossible under current American visa restrictions - several members of the band being British. Between 2016 and 2018, David Thomas died twice. The Long Goodbye was released in 2019.