There's been a nasty rumor going around the last, oh, 35 years or so, that David Thomas, founder of the pioneering art-punk band Pere Ubu, is an asshole. Like his early inspiration, Lou Reed, the singer-songwriter-conceptualist has developed a reputation for being, in more polite terms, a "hard interview," the kind of artist who regards conversations with the press as degrading interactions with a lower species.
At age 60, Thomas would like to set the record straight. He's not an asshole. He just has a low threshold for stupidity.
"I'm not a fuzzy pop wannabe," he says over the phone from his home in Brighton, England, where a cold has given his already nasally voice an extra-phlegmy sheen. "I don't frankly care much about the business, and I can't sit here and pretend to enthuse about the usual crap that idiot wannabes enthuse about. I'm not cannon fodder. My main inspiration for interviews was Khrushchev at the United Nations in 1960 banging on the table with his shoe and screaming, 'We will bury you!'"
The truth about Thomas is that he's always been too smart to suffer the rest of the world gladly. If that makes him a bit prickly, it's also what's made Pere Ubu such a durable institution. He started the band in 1975 in Cleveland, hitching ideas drawn from surrealist theater and avant-garde art to the chug of garage rock and basically creating post-punk when punk itself was still in the prototype stage. Early albums like The Modern Dance, Dub Housing and New Picnic Time contort song structures with an intensity that swings from riveting to absurd to downright frightening, hinging on Thomas' jowly, helium-infused squeal. Fortified by an unwavering set of internal guidelines, the group has continued through the years with a rotating lineup, unmoved by shifts in the culture at large. Thomas is fond of saying Pere Ubu is less a band than an idea, one that exists independently from whomever happens to be making the music at the time. Think of it as a comic-strip thought balloon that detached from his head and has been expanding, all on its own, for the past four decades.
Thomas has no problem acknowledging his high-mindedness. "I'm an intellectual. I'm pretentious," he says. "I like things that have meaning." It's no surprise, then, that Thomas would find dance music—a form that, by its nature, eschews cerebralism in favor of sheer physical release—objectionable. And so, with this year's Lady From Shanghai, Thomas reached out from Pere Ubu's creative bubble, to help bring the culture at large up to his level and "fix" dance music. "Dance music is fundamentally anti-intellectual," he says. "There's a reason pop music is the way it is these days. It's basically a form of cowardice."
Implementing what he's termed the "Chinese Whispers method," Thomas sought to fuse the diametric poles of composition and improvisation by isolating the individual members of the band during the recording, manipulating them like actors in a play where the director is making up the script on the fly. The result is some truly mutant disco: On the pulsating opener "Thanks," Thomas turns the chorus of the Anita Ward classic "Ring My Bell" into "go to hell"; "Mandy" brings Barry Manilow and the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" together on a "crazy jukebox" playing inside an unsettling Lynchian nightmare. Throughout, eerie synths and discordant guitars creep under stiff, mechanical grooves. The effect is to make the notion of getting "lost in the beat" seem like a form of damnation.
It's all in good fun, though. There's a reason Pere Ubu has rarely made a dull album: In everything Thomas does—whether "fixing" a genre in his image or metaphorically banging his shoe on a table during interviews—there's a sense of mischievousness that cuts through his pretensions. He doesn't take much joy in the act of making music, he says. His pleasure is derived from the rush of sheer audacity.
"I like to dodge the bullet," Thomas says. "I like doing things that are impossible to do. I like to do things I haven't done before, and I don't see much point in doing what I can do already. There's a certain amount of excitement to that for other people. That's why people stick around: 'What's David going to do now?ââ
SEE IT: Pere Ubu plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Toyboat Toyboat Toyboat, on Thursday, Dec. 12. 9 pm. $15 advance, $17 day of show. 21+.