Big daddy of the avant-garde

A quarter of a century ago, in the decaying heart of industrial America, David Thomas founded Pere Ubu, one of the oddest bands in rock. Nick Hasted tracks him down in his 'last resort' on England's south coast
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The Independent Culture

David Thomas, a vast 47-year-old Clevelander, sits in the shadows of a storm-lashed pub in Hove, the place where he's finally washed up, and starts to think back to where it all began. A London concert next week will mark 25 years since his group Pere Ubu released their debut single, "Heart of Darkness"/"30 Seconds Over Tokyo", ominous, off-kilter recordings, fair notice of what was to come. Their sonic innovations - the progressive inversion of bass and guitar functions, using synths as instruments in their own right, an awareness of dub reggae's rhythms and echo-chamber ambience - were quickly adapted by post-punk British bands including Joy Division, The Pop Group and The Human League following a 1978 UK tour. Americans from Henry Rollins to Willard Grant Conspiracy have also paid tribute to their example.

David Thomas, a vast 47-year-old Clevelander, sits in the shadows of a storm-lashed pub in Hove, the place where he's finally washed up, and starts to think back to where it all began. A London concert next week will mark 25 years since his group Pere Ubu released their debut single, "Heart of Darkness"/"30 Seconds Over Tokyo", ominous, off-kilter recordings, fair notice of what was to come. Their sonic innovations - the progressive inversion of bass and guitar functions, using synths as instruments in their own right, an awareness of dub reggae's rhythms and echo-chamber ambience - were quickly adapted by post-punk British bands including Joy Division, The Pop Group and The Human League following a 1978 UK tour. Americans from Henry Rollins to Willard Grant Conspiracy have also paid tribute to their example.

But it's the band's stubborn consistency in pursuing their idea of the way the world is - and could be - over a quarter-century that marks them as perhaps the last and most important punks left standing. It's a vision of post-industrial ruins, the American landscape's haunted crannies, and a refusal of the mass media that has if anything refined with the years. Though their line-up continues to mutate, Thomas remains at the core. When he starts to speak, for a long time his eyes stay shut. He's imagining Seventies Cleveland, Ohio, the time and place of Pere Ubu's birth. And he's recalling the even earlier, odder figure who fired them up: a local TV horror host.

"It was 1964, we were kids, and his name was Goladi," Thomas says. "He would show monster movies, dress up in a fright wig, wear sunglasses with one lens in and an obviously fake beard. He blew up things on air, and was really a punk, to everybody and everything. One of the things that influenced the way things happened in Cleveland later was his total humiliation of news anchors and the media, at a time when they were revered. He showed us the tension between how we were told things were, and reality. So when we got a little older, and started exploring the town we lived in, we looked behind the curtains, like the Wizard of Oz, and knew something else was there."

As they grew up in the suburbs, intelligent children of middle-class parents, the way forward for Thomas and his friends seemed clear - but, despite the Vietnam draft's looming threat, no Pere Ubu member graduated until 1997. Instead, they fled into Cleveland's dying industrial heart, an almost abandoned zone of stray, flame-belching steel mills. They termed themselves Urban Pioneers, reclaiming and romanticising their new, ruined home.

"It was a despised place, and that attracted us to it," he remembers. "We were a closed group of people, and we formed what you might call a community. At night, the city was deserted. We owned it, because no one else wanted it. We understood the things around us were passing, but we had great affection for them. And we became very attuned to the concrete sound of our environment. Around steel mills, the air shifts in tone, it buzzes and phases. It's one of the reasons we were attracted to synths. When we messed around with sounds, we wanted to hear that oscillation."

When a prototype of Pere Ubu, Rockets from the Tomb, formed in 1973, this terrain had hatched a number of other bands with variants of their then unknown influences - The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart - a secret pre-punk flowering. One of the best, 15-60-75, will share the bill with Pere Ubu next week. It was a private scene, and popular success inconceivable: "Part of the aesthetic was, we're doing this and no one will know." It was also touched with nihilism, as was the Rockets from the Tomb member whose removal in 1975 turned them into Pere Ubu: doomed Peter Laughner.

"The band parted company because he was dying," Thomas says. "He was killing himself with drugs and we weren't going to be party to it any more. He died a year later, almost to the day. It was a terrible experience. It made those of us who stayed in Pere Ubu aware that we have a responsibility not to romanticise self-destruction. Everybody else wants to make him a romantic figure. Well, fine." His voice turns icy, considering the romanticisers his friend followed. "Lou Reed's still alive, isn't he? Peter's dead."

"Heart of Darkness"/"30 Seconds Over Tokyo", as the grim titles suggest, was a Rockets remnant. Pere Ubu's debut album The Modern Dance (1978) announced an odder alienation. But for Thomas, the hopes he'd had at the start, to be part of an evolution of rock into mature art, which he felt certain was imminent, had already been dashed.

"By 1978, we understood it was a lost cause. It was clear, as soon as punk took shape, that it was the enemy. As a movement it was reactionary, and absurd, because it was so retro. We thought, 'Why do they have to go back, when we're so clearly on the edge of something better and new?' It was perplexing to us. The tour here was exciting, because we played in front of a lot of people who thought we were good. But everything around us seemed bush league. Punk was a corporate scam."

For the next four years, Pere Ubu struggled on against the tide, but the strain inexorably told. As the band tried to change styles with each album, working in an industry that felt increasingly hostile, personality clashes flared. A 1982 tour ground through mid-winter cold and two members' mutual loathing. When it was over, Pere Ubu seemed to quietly dissolve. Equally imperceptibly, it came together to record three late-Eighties LPs. Personnel changes since have been ongoing, with Thomas the obstinate, immovable constant. How did he feel when he wasn't in the band?

"You're assuming the band is something separate. I always felt I was in it, even when it didn't seem to exist. We never did anything as strident as reform. This comes from the fundamental nature of the group that outsiders can't quite get their heads around, which is that it's a folk thing. If we came from some village in Madagascar, there wouldn't be this problem. Almost everyone who has been in Ubu is from the same small group of people. Everything evolves from the perception of sound we developed in Cleveland in 1975. That place is gone now, it's a ghost town in our heads. But we are still obsessed by that landscape and time."

The band's best recent songs define this sense of cultural loss, implicit ever since they entered Cleveland's ruins - like "Perfume", from the 1998 album Pennsylvania, in which Thomas seeks refuge in the mirage-like diner of a slothful, sand-blown small-town. "I meant to write down the name," he pleads, as he's forced to leave.

"We all live in ghost towns now," Thomas tells me. "Culturally, we're all leaving things we love behind. One reason I live in Brighton is that you reach the ocean, and you can't go any farther, it's a town of last resort. I'm comfortable here, at the water's edge. I'm glad to have somewhere to stop."

Pere Ubu play the Royal Festival Hall, London, on Wednesday (020-7960 4242)

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