Interview with vocalist David Thomas | By Janelle Jones
Pere Ubu may have been around for 40-plus years, but that doesn’t mean they—namely vocalist David Thomas, the long-running band’s sole constant figure—don’t still approach each new record in a different, fresh way. Take, for instance, their latest fearless avant-garage art-punk effort, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, out Sept. 29 via Cherry Red Records and MVD.
The frontman explains his approach thusly, “This particular album, I worked on a method called the Dark Room. It’s the idea [of], you put a bunch of people in a dark room and have them feel just a portion of an animal or an object and try to describe what the animal or object is.” He notes that his fellow musicians are “all very talented people [and] cooperate with my crazy ideas. Nobody knew what a particular song was supposed to be or how it was going. They’d hear a piece of it and write their piece […] with very limited knowledge.” The musicians worked on their material alone, and “in the end, I get these various interpretations of the song that are often conflicting, and I sew it all together so it becomes a whole that incorporates each person’s different [view],” the frontman explains. “This is a method I use to achieve separation.”
Once Thomas had the music, he studied it and wrote lyrics. “I study what it’s saying, what emotions […] it’s conveying,” he says, adding that he tends to come up with a key line that represents the mood of the music and what he wants to say, then works backward from that. “The one thing I’ve learned over the years is to not overthink things, to understand what I want to achieve and then let my brain just go and achieve it,” he notes. “I tend to work quickly and then edit.”
A few other things have remained similar throughout Thomas’ songwriting career. “Everything I’ve always done with Pere Ubu is to try to achieve a certain realism,” he says. “Pere Ubu is all about capturing, communicating human nature.” Another characteristic found in Pere Ubu’s vast body of work is the art of making albums comprised of stories. “Each song is a story, and the stories are all usually tied together,” he relates, explaining that they “create an allover uber story.” These narratives are not straightforward, but rather, puzzles. “They don’t go in straight lines, but human beings don’t go in straight lines,” Thomas muses. “The human condition is about doubt and confusion and hope and fear and uncertainty. So, that seems to be what Pere Ubu songs are like.”
“When you throw doubt into the whole thing, that’s a real David Thomasism,” he adds. It’s the idea of “‘What really is going on here?’”
Though the band’s albums are comprised of many stories, Thomas says there’s always one “key” song that acts as a clue for what each album is about. In the case of 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, he divulges that it’s the song “Toe to Toe,” but won’t go much further. “Why do I sit here and go through all the baloney and crap of making music if I could just explain it in a couple of minutes?” he asserts. “It’s up to the listener—if they want, I don’t care—to figure it out. It’s hard enough forcing your thoughts on strangers by way of some sort of creative effort, so I like to at least make it difficult to some degree, just to justify my existence.”
The frontman elaborates, “I really don’t like expressing my thoughts to people, because who the hell am I? I’m no smarter than anybody else, and who am I to inflict my own opinions and thoughts on other people? I’m afraid I’m not one of those people who thinks musicians or creative people should spout out about every damn thing in the world.”
Pere Ubu will be touring on the record, though not all nine musicians featured on the album will accompany them. “It’d be wonderful if I could afford to take nine people out,” Thomas laments. “Ultimately, my ambition is to take something like 15 people out, but we’re some way off from that.” The first dates are in the U.S. in November, followed by a to-be-determined European tour.