A still from Orson Welles’ 1946 film, Lady from Shanghai
An Interview with Pere Ubu’s David Thomas
In 1974, musician, composer, writer, actor, director (etc.), David Thomas co-founded the seminal Cleveland-based punk band Rocket from the Tombs. The group disbanded after only a year, but left behind a handful of underground standbys like “Sonic Reducer,” “Final Solution,” and “Heart of Darkness.” Thomas went on to found the singular avant-garage band Pere Ubu, whose first album, The Modern Dance, was released in 1978. Still beyond simple categorization to this day, Pere Ubu placed a greater emphasis on improvisation and experimentation than your standard punk outfit, combined with an expanded and varied palette of instruments and Thomas’ trademark nasal moan, murmur and yelp. Over the next four decades, along with releasing nearly twenty Pere Ubu albums, Thomas undertook countless side and solo projects (most recently David Thomas and Two Pale Boys), worked in theater, wrote some books, and gave some lectures.
From the beginning, Thomas’ work has been marked by its use of myriad cultural references, everything from Brian Wilson and hardboiled pulp novelist Jim Thompson to Carl Stalling and Thomas Pynchon. Beyond the musical and literary references, the movie references—specifically to B films—are inescapable. Pere Ubu has performed live underscores for screenings of Roger Corman’s X: The Man With the X-Ray eyes, Jack Arnold’s science fiction classic It Came From outer Space, and Herk Harvey’s 1961 no-budget horror masterpiece Carnival of Souls. He’s even described his assorted projects in cinematic terms, Ubu as a Hollywood blockbuster in cinemaScope and his solo work as indie art house films. I interviewed Thomas about the movies via email shortly after he returned from the latest Pere Ubu tour.
THE BELIEVER: The references that have made their way into your work since Rocket From the Tombs seem to reflect a distinct affinity for low-budget genre pictures.
DAVID THOMAS: It’s true I have an affinity for B movies—those sort of movies can approach a folk art status because they are often one guy’s unique vision untrammeled by corporate interference and such things as continuity or a cohesive narrative. (Reading Raymond Chandler too much at a young age set that in stone.) I’m not really a film enthusiast in the way many are.
BLVR: Still, over the past forty-plus years, a woefully incomplete list of films cited directly or obliquely in your work includes Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Panic in Year Zero, Apocalypse Now, When Worlds Collide, Blue Velvet, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Pere Ubu’s 2013 album took its title from Orson Welles 1946 noir film Lady From Shanghai, and your 2014 album Carnival of Souls, having evolved out of your underscore, works as a kind of Symbolist opera inspired by the film.
You say you’re not a film enthusiast, so the obvious question then becomes, how do so many film references keep cropping up in your work?
DT: We are a folk band, or, if you prefer, a pop band. Both forms are based on tradition, in different ways, and building on a shared cultural language, on what has gone before. There are countless references to pop music in our work, numerous rewrites or fixes to earlier pop songs or forms. It’s an extension of the “flying saucer disc” craze of the 60s, bands responding to what other bands have recorded.
The films that I most like are B-movies. The amateurish enthusiasm and naive intention, as well as lack of budget, of the B-movie encourages a kind of communal abstraction that approaches folk culture, and the frequent lack of a coherent agenda leaves lots of wiggle room for whatever personalized context or agenda an audience or band chooses to overlay.
As a kid watching Friday night monster movies, I understood that these things were not really about man-eating giant crab monsters or a woman who doesn’t know she is dead, etc., but I was not able to voice it. I had no desire to voice it, but I understood there were other ideas involved. These secret, hidden, and forbidden ideas were exciting to me by the nature of their obliqueness. Culture happens in secret, beneath the vision of the social elites. It is thereby preserved and passed on in sometimes vulgar language. One of the ways to build complex narratives in the context of a pop song is to build on not only the vocabulary and lexicon that you’ve stablished yourself in earlier work, but by also referencing what others have done.
Finally, I am an American—rock music and, to an extent, films are uniquely American. All I know is being an American. I like to see what others do with the same ideas I work with but they are foreigners and I can never really “get it.” I find multiculturalism to be simply another more invidious form of imperialism. Study who you are. It’s a futile journey but it’s all you can ever hope to know.
BLVR: To date, you’ve written and performed live underscores for three movies. While this has usually been done for silent films in the past, you were among the first to compose new scores for more contemporary pictures. From a compositional standpoint, how do you approach writing music for a film that already has a soundtrack?
DT: First and foremost, we try not to get in the way! Then we try to enhance or fix or extend the vision and poetry of what is, or should be, there. Lower budget films are a whole lot easier to work with—there are fewer scene changes. It Came From Outer Space being a relatively big budget Hollywood film is the hardest to work with. X is easier. Carnival of Souls is easier yet, and filled with great character actors, particularly the land lady, who I have real affection for. Strangely, the one person I don’t have affection for is Mary. I have always wondered if that was intentional.
BLVR: So what was it specifically about, say, X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes and It Came from Outer Space that attracted you?
DT: Well, I like them but there are also very powerful ideas in both those films that captivated me. In It Came From Outer Space, the remnants of Bradbury’s poetry and particularly the notion of the alien traveling the telephone wires.
In X, the final non-scene in which, I’m sure at one point, included the now-eyeless Ray Milland screaming, “I can still see!” Evidently, Steven Spielberg has said there was supposed to be such a scene. With all due respect to Mr. Spielberg, I knew that as a kid when I first saw it.
[Author’s note: While touring with the film in 2005, Thomas made a point of shouting out the famously unused final line himself as the film came to a close.]
Ray Milland in X
BLVR: Are there any directors or actors you hold in particular esteem?
DT: Orson Welles has had the greatest impact on my “career.” The BBC Panorama interview I had on VHS tape for years and watched often until the VHS machine packed it in.
BLVR: The connection seems obvious. Like you, Welles was a brilliant outsider, a multi-talented maverick and innovator, an artist with a singular style and vision, and so one who was forced to work independently to get that vision out there unmolested by corporate studio idiocy—though that came with pitfalls of its own. Apart from those very broad strokes, could you describe in a bit more detail how Welles has influenced your work and you personally?
DT: I found his ideas inspiring in one way or another. He also seemed to have a firm grasp on “just getting on with it.” I like his narrative angles. Lady From Shanghai is really all about that shot where the camera is looking down on the “target practice” guy with the sea raging below, as well as Welles’ walk/dialogue away from the Hall Of Mirrors and his stumbling through the revolving tube—the body shape he adopts. I’m a big fan of Macbeth and Touch Of Evil—well, all of them. I love the stills and story that remain from the first cut of Magnificent Ambersons—it’s like Brian Wilson’s lost ‘Smile’ album—perfect because it can only exist in the imagination where everything is purer and clearer. And I am inspired by his spirit in the face of everything he faced. I understand him. I should have played him in that biopic!
BLVR: Also like Welles, you’ve done a bit of theater work, writing and directing the 1998 improvisational opera Mirror Man and Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi, you’re 2008 musical adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Absurdist play. Do you have any interest in moving into film yourself?
DT: I suspect I would like certain aspects of film making but detest the restrictions of the medium. I like to change things too much, to fix things, and film is not really suited to that. I’m also a firm believer in the Alfred Hitchcock dictum that the thing wrong with filmmaking is the actors. I thrive on chaos, again not a real good trait when you’ve got crews standing there on the clock. Throw me into a disaster and I will excel. Throw me into a well-ordered environment and I will do my best to turn it into chaos out of nothing more than willfulness. Also the other big problem with a film is that it starts, something happens (even if it’s nothing) and it ends. The notion of an ending irritates me. Big flaw. I like messes. One huge mess in which to interweave meaning and revelation. Sort of like Real Life.
Jim Knipfel is the author of Quitting the Nairobi Trio, Noogie’s Time to Shine, and These Children Who Come at You With Knives, among several others. His most recent novel, Residue, was released by Red Hen Press in 2015, and his weekly column, “Slackjaw,” has appeared in one publication or another since 1987.