More impressive, however, than their considerable influence has been that unlike other Seventies critical darlings (which have either ceased to exist or become nostalgia acts), Pere Ubu (and because of Ubu's constantly changing lineup, Thomas in particular) has continued to produce daring, challenging, and important music. Last year's Pennsylvania, which brought original members Jim Jones and Tom Herman back into the fold, reminded us why Thomas and the band are so notable: the skewed and always surprising arrangements; Thomas' edgy vocals and lyrical intelligence. For over two decades and counting, Thomas and Pere Ubu have been running pop music through the circuits of post-industrial America.
Thomas continues to out-avant the avant-guard in other ways as well. His Pere Ubu websites (Ubu Web and Ubu Projex) are models of how bands could use the Internet. Avoiding the hyperbole of record label sites and the minutiae of fan-run e-zines, Thomas has gathered all Ubu and Ubu related material (interviews, reviews, pictures, band lineups, tour dates, as well as Thomas' own commentary) in one place. The result is much more than simple marketing; it actually helps one understand and appreciate the music.
The same can be said for his See Dee+ efforts (a CD containing multimedia info that can also be played as a regular CD). Where others simply include video clips or photographs, Thomas's See Dee+'s are true multimedia experiences. To get a taste of what this is like, check out the "Story of Pere Ubu."
And David Thomas has accomplished this without ever having a hit album or single, by remaining virtually unknown outside of rock aficionados, and with an audience that by Thomas' own admission is necessarily small.
His newest solo album, Mirror Man [click here to read the review from June's issue], continues Thomas' explorations. A meditation on the influence of place and geography on identity, it was recorded last year at a live festival Thomas helped organize [click here for a description/history of Mirror Man in Thomas' own words) in England where he has lived for the past fifteen years.
David Thomas and I conducted the following interview last month via e-mail. Like his music, Thomas' answers can be clever, witty, intelligent, and difficult, but always rewarding.
David Thomas: I don't have to describe it and, more importantly, I don't get paid to describe it. Women and worm boys yak, men create. Mirror Man is rock music. I have ambitions for rock music. I don't see why all the rest of you are content with so little. Nevertheless, you seem to be. "Mirror Man is a novel written with a vocabulary of sound and a grammar that is geographical." That's a meaningless bit of shiny paper I came up that I can wave in people's eyes to keep them amused. It's made of air. It's empty yak.
What was the genesis of Mirror Man? How did Spoon River play into Mirror Man?
David: The South Bank Centre is a large arts complex in London. They asked me to put together a 4-day festival of anything I wanted. They encouraged me to be ambitious. For a while I had been moving towards performances that were very tightly integrated. Meadville is an example. The next step was to add more voices and more musicians and seek greater complexity and depth. The Spoon River Anthology was a book I'd never read--started often, never finished, being a bit melodramatic and overwrought. The idea of a series of testimonials, however, fascinated me.
How did you choose the musicians you wanted to work with? What did they each bring to the project that you were looking for?
David: I choose people I know or who I want to know...so it's like a dating agency that way. Keith and Andy are the core. Chris is one of the best at what he does--maybe the best--and a good friend. Jack is a world class harpist and inventive sax player and an old friend. Peter is somebody I wanted to know. I had no agenda other than to make something that felt like it should be able to do something. Clearly the musicians had to be the sort of men who can get things done. They were.
I know you've worked with Richard Thompson before. How did you get Linda Thompson to come out of retirement?
David: I asked her.
Much of Mirror Man has been recorded previously for other projects of yours. Was it any dissatisfaction with previous versions/contexts that had you re-do many songs?
David: I've never done any of these songs before. But maybe I see things differently. I am a folk musician. In folk music nothing is ever finished.
Specifically, what preparation was there among the musicians before going on stage? Rehearsals? Score?
David: See http://www.projex.demon.co.uk/mmfaq.htmll#prep
What did your conducting look like/what did it entail? In other words, what would an audience member have seen you do?
David: They would see me jerk up and down with the melodeon from time to time. They would have seen me give big nods with attendant body swoops. They would have seen the back of my head and the musicians looking at me like they were listening to me speaking. They would have seen me whisper into people's ears. They would have seen a series of slight hand gestures, smiles, frowns and headshakes.
As you've worked with at least one Captain Beefheart musician before, did Beefheart's album Mirror Man play into your Mirror Man at all?
You've said that Ubu projects are like big Hollywood productions and your solo works are like smaller art-house films. What separates Mirror Man from other solo projects?
David: The scale of the ambition.
Someone listening to the album doesn't hear the audience until the end of the CD...What was the audience reaction? How did they affect the performance?
David: It was a theatrical event in a theatrical space. In these situations audiences don't applaud until the end. Mostly they were very quiet and attentive. Spellbound, one critic said.
I really can't tell what is improvised and what is not (a credit to you and the musicians). Can you point out a couple of places that were improv?
David: I can and I could but I'm not going to.
With Mirror Man's theatrical/multimedia aspects, it would have seemed a good candidate to be a See Dee+. Was this a consideration? If so, why did you decide against it?
David: We didn't videotape anything because I refuse to allow it. So that cuts out those possibilities and the purpose of multimedia is to enhance a performance. The performance would have been diminished by the intrusion.
I've really enjoyed what you've written about Sinatra and Brian Wilson. What would you say you learned from them that you brought to the Mirror Man project?
Could you describe Act Two of Mirror Man? How is it different from Act One? Do you have plans to release it? Would it also be a live album?
David: Act 2 is more concerned with what happens when you stop. There won't be a release until such time as we have another performance. I've determined that it needs some reworking. I see some new things now that the piece has had some time to mature. Will it be live? Only.
As an artist concerned with music distribution, etc...What are your thoughts on MP3 and the WWW as a source of music? Have you thought about using it (putting songs on your website, etc.)?
David: See http://www.projex.demon.co.uk/netfaq.htmll
If I'm correct, you've made your living exclusively as a musician for about the last twenty years. Considering that by your own admission your audience is by definition small, how have you managed this? Any advice for other musicians?
David: My advice is to quit before you get ahead.
Any tour plans for the States, either solo or with Ubu?
David: Jackie Leven and I are planning to tour as a duo performing "Sketches from Mirror Man" in the fall.
What are you working on now?
David: A new Pale Boys record with Linda Thompson and a record with some Danish improvisers.