"Few music critics are as good at their jobs as I am at mine."
That's a quote from Pere Ubu vocalist David Thomas in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.
Suffice to say, I was a little bit nervous to interview the man, whose diet has notoriously included piss and vinegar. In the 1970s, Pere Ubu paved the way for experimental noisemakers like Television and Sonic Youth.
Me, I'm a psuedo-journalist-lazy, irresponsible, and full of piss and inexperience. I have little to no credibility commenting on this man, other than having "record store clerk" on the resume and an arm-tapping, rubberband sort of addiction to the sonic underworld.
I'm exactly the sort of critic that Thomas has left bleeding from the ego along his way to a long-lasting career.
By the time I was born, Pere Ubu had already recorded four albums of unmistakable genius: The Modern Dance (1978), Dub Housing (1979), New Picnic Time (1979) and The Art of Walking (1980).
The music was off-kilter weirdo-rock combining elements of garage, "found" sound, experimentalism and analog synthesizers. Thomas' voice was wild and unpredictable-a meandering warble more akin to an instrument on a Captain Beefheart album than a singing voice.
Much like predecessors Can, Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart, Ubu was pegged as being ahead of their time. This meant, of course, that they toiled in obscurity until a groundswell of critical praise spilled over into the outer edges of the mainstream consciousness.
"We were not ahead of our time," says Thomas from his home in England. "Other people were behind the times. We were jogging along at an easy pace-they, however, were slowing down and it only looked like we were running ahead."
Pere Ubu dubbed themselves "avant-garage." Rock critics-trying as usual to taxonomize the band in order to comprehend them-struggled with definitions and terms.
"First we were "industrial,' then we became "post-industrial,' and then we became "pre-industrial,'" says Thomas. "These phrases are nonsenses invented by lazy journalists and predatory record company suits."
Even worse, some lumped Pere Ubu in with the punk movement of the '70s, which Thomas finds insulting.
"Punk was an imperialistic grab at someone else's culture fueled by chicken-hawkers, multi-national corporations, foreigners and a guy who wanted to sell clothes," Thomas purports. "It provided a dumbed-down template aimed at the lowest-common denominator that sold The Big Lie that art was something anybody could do."
Thomas would know-his band lived not through it, but around it. Formed in Cleveland in 1975, Ubu has been together for more than 20 years. What they are working with now is legacy-hopefully enough music fans have pored through history to know the band's import. Most likely, however, this isn't the case. Aside from some limited MTV rotation for a video from 1989's Cloudland, Ubu has seen little commercial success.
"Yes, we are "destined' for obscurity," says Thomas. "In the end, we aren't good enough to be popular. Do we aspire for commercial success? Well, if we do we don't do it very well, do we? That's the point."
Yes, they do suck at it, and it's their own damn fault. Nearly every band that's achieved commercial success has made concessions to the suits that run the industry. Nearly every band has tempered or "streamlined" at least one album in order to lure in the unadventurous cows that graze on the withering prairie that is popular music. It's the proven path to becoming a star.
The boys of Pere Ubu, on the other hand, have refused to subject themselves to such compromises. It's the proven path to becoming an economically disadvantaged legend.
"We don't know how to self-promote," Thomas says. "We don't network or hang out. We can't be bothered to tour more than we want to. We have always refused to sleep on floors or not get paid or play endless shows."
Pere Ubu's latest album-last year's St. Arkansas-sees the band exploring bleaker, yet recognizable textures and sounds. Thomas feels "contented" with the recording. Apparently, we can expect more tours, albums and eviscerated rock critics.
"We pursue our own course," says Thomas. "We define, as we have always done, mainstream rock music."