A conversation with Pere Ubu | Pittsburgh City Paper

A conversation with Pere Ubu

Pere Ubu’s ‘Coed Jail! v.1.1’ tour comes to Club Cafe on July 1, with songs from the enigmatic Cleveland pop band’s early days (1975-82). CP sent some questions to singer David Thomas via email. Here’s that talk.

A conversation with Pere Ubu
Photo by Kathy Thompson
Pere Ubu
I was provided a lengthy FAQ to avoid asking questions you’ve already been asked. How often do you update this list?
Whenever it needs updating

Why do interviews at all if you’re so consistently frustrated by them?
I’m not frustrated by them in the main because, having been asked the same questions for decades, I decided the best thing to do would be to put up a guide to interviewing me so that everyone can do the best job possible.

If me answering the same questions for forty years is not going to be progressed in any way then I cheat the journalist, the journalist cheats the reader, the reader walks away with nothing but the same old facts that anyone Googling can find has been written a hundred times before. I don’t particularly care — that’s not my job — but let’s just make it all a little bit more interesting.

Have you ever enjoyed doing an interview? What was it like?
I enjoy most interviews. Especially with phone interviews or radio interviews, you find they’ve done their homework and you can have a really great analysis and expansion of things. The written interview is less conversational so you react rather than interact. But if the person putting the questions to you is coming from place of genuine interest, it can be beneficial to all.

Do you believe labels have any purpose in music (as in genres, not record labels)? They can be reductive and inconsistent and misleading, but I’d argue that most music fans are aware of that and that labels are simply placeholders, temporary reference points to describe music until it’s heard. So calling Pere Ubu punk or avant garage or pop isn’t a life sentence, just a starting point.
We’re not insulted by avant garage — we invented it! You knew that right? We have always insisted we are the mainstream. We are a pop band — I’ve never argued any different. But for the record, the garage graphic was adopted as a logo to go along with the descriptive ‘avant garage.’ A fan from New York City had sent the band a certificate, bestowing the honorific as an ‘award.' That was how things were then. Punk hadn’t been invented. Journalists were struggling to categorise what was happening at that time — we had journalists coming to see, travelling all the way from Europe, as part of the ‘New Wave’ they’d heard rumor of. ‘Avant garage’ appealed to the band because it conflated the two seemingly contradictory faces of the band — the appreciation of abstract noise and an affection for pop music, particularly of the '60s garage band aesthetic. It was a label that didn't mean anything but seemed like it might mean something. More importantly, it was a way to deflect the media’s obsessive pigeonholing of anything and everything. One of our t-shirts sums it up — And when they ask you what the Avant Garage means, you just stare at them in disbelief — a Johnny Dromette-ism.

Do you ever talk about music using genre-labels?
All music should be folk music. If it’s not true to the origins of your forbears then go be a used car salesman.

How do you spend your time on the last day before a tour? Preparation or relaxation?
We rehearse for anything from 10 to 18 hours each day for a few days before every tour, we load up the van, check the itinerary, try to get a few hours sleep. It’s work and there is no relaxation. We take the job seriously and no-one lets the team down. There is no relaxation until the tour ends and all the band agree that the brutality of touring is offset by everyone knowing what they should be doing, or anticipating what needs to be done for every eventuality. Everyone has a tour role aside from playing an instrument.

You close out the tour in Ohio. Are you received well there, or any differently than other locations? How does it feel to play there after 40 years as a band?
I don’t pay attention to my feelings. All gigs are equal. But Ohio is where we like to end the tours. We go home, get some sleep, get back to work. Pittsburgh is always a good place to come — we’d gigged there a few times throughout this era and it seemed like an essential stop.