Pere Ubu’s David Thomas — Still steering clear of ‘Satisfied City’
David Thomas has a story to tell, but the Pere Ubu founder will warn you ahead of time that he does not “want to do a Disney story.”
Fair enough, Mr. Thomas. Fire away.
“A long time ago, we inherited this rock vehicle — chrome-plated, a magnificent engine — and we said let’s get this thing out on the highway and see what it can do. Let’s open it up. So we open it up out in Pennsylvania and after a while there’s a road sign that comes up, saying, ‘Satisfied City — Exit one mile.’ And we think to ourselves, ‘That would be a good destination; there’s nothing wrong with Satisfied City. You can live a good life there and everything will be okay.’ But then you see the road disappearing over the hill and the wilderness, and you just gotta know what’s over the road.
“So you pass ‘Satisfied City’ by and after a while you come to another one, the same thing happens, and eventually you drive out on the beach somewhere out in California and the once magnificent vehicle is just a jalopy with the doors hanging off and the muffler dragging, and the engine steaming. You get out of the car and the door falls off and you walk to the edge of the immovable Pacific object and you just hope the end comes before you can think about all those satisfied cities that you passed by.”
He chuckles, having just described his life’s journey in music.
“It’s not particularly a noble pursuit,” he said. “It’s probably not. But in the end I gotta know, and whatever it takes, I’m gonna find out.”
At 64, Thomas is as vibrant as ever, and his music continues to follow suit. The latest Pere Ubu album, 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo, hit the streets in September, and the band’s tour will be in Brooklyn for a Sunday gig at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. In other words, it’s business as usual, and that goes for everything from the release of a new record to going on the road to support it.
“I never did get particularly excited about the release of a new record,” he deadpans. “The last time I get excited about a record is the last day in the studio, the last day of the mix, because in the end that’s the last day it’s gonna sound right. From then on, it’s somebody’s record player in a definitely unacoustically pleasing living room or that sort of thing. I suppose there’s a slight thrill of unpacking the first copy, but that’s always tainted by ‘Did everything print right?’”
He laughs, but when I point out that he’s taking all the romance of this, he quickly corrects me.
“The romance is all in it,” Thomas said. “It’s not on the surface, it’s in the mystery of it, and that doesn’t change. But I don’t have much time to dwell on what I’ve already done.”
Maybe that’s why he’s still going at it with all guns blazing on several projects, but while you would assume that doing so would require some masterful juggling, when it comes to what song goes where, Thomas has a simple philosophy.
“I operate on the principle of the bus stop — whatever bus comes along next, I get on it,” he said. “There’s a certain advantage to only writing about one thing, one megastory that’s spread out over decades, and that’s that almost anything fits in with the story. As I go into an album, I come up with a method first of how I’m going to approach it. That usually relates to the ideas that I’m interested in working with in terms of the stories. And then picking the material just becomes a matter of what seems to fit with the method of production and with the ideas. It’s a process that’s not particularly scientific or anything. I start the flow and go with the flow.”
It’s not haphazard, though. In fact, when it comes to his songs, he does have one strict rule that he won’t stray from.
“The smartest thing anybody ever told me was to take yourself out of the song or whatever you’re doing,” Thomas said. “Remove yourself. The story’s got to tell itself and it’s no good you determining that you want the story to turn out a certain way — to have a happy ending, a good ending, a bad ending, or whatever. The song deserves more respect than that.”
Thomas still respects the craft, the song and the music. But just when things seem to be going smoothly, don’t be surprised if he shakes things up again.
“I’m not a real comfortable sort of person, as most people in the band I’ve ever worked with will tell you,” he said. “When I feel things in the band getting too comfortable, somebody came up with the expression, ‘I throw the curveball of discomfort at the batter.’ And I do that to myself. I’m not easy on myself.”
Of course, he doesn’t begrudge anybody coming up with a formula and sticking to it or taking a more conventional road once they reach a certain point. But that’s not David Thomas. And at this point, it’s safe to say that he’s never going to change. And we thank him for that.
“There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable and satisfied,” he said. “That, to me, is a healthier attitude than driving until you can drive no more. Musicians are not particularly healthy types. Sportsmen aren’t particularly healthy types and there’s a real connection between sportsmen and musicians and the notion of delivering the goods in the moment. They talk about the really great sportsmen where time seems to slow down for them, and that’s not made up. When I’m on and I’m in the moment, time goes real slow. I’m singing a line and it seems like it’s been around five minutes and I realize that I’m only three syllables into the first word. I don’t know if that’s a better way of life than being comfortable and satisfied. It doesn’t matter because that’s not who I am, and there’s no point changing it.”
Pere Ubu plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Sunday, November 12. For tickets, click here
For more information on Pere Ubu, click here