Perfect Sound Forever


AR live, photo form Ubu Projex

interview by Jason Gross
(October 2010)

When Pere Ubu appeared in 1975, punk barely existed in NY or the UK, much less in their native Cleveland. But there were a bunch of misfits and freaks who dared to make insane, unhinged music, including a certain building owner and tinkerer who took the unusual tact of not playing notes per se. Original Ubu member Allen Ravenstine didn't so much 'play' his homemade EML synthesizer as much as he coaxed bizarre noise out of it and placed these sounds in unlikely places within each of Ubu's songs. As such, his contribution was much like a great dub producer, adding in all kinds of strange sound effects to enhance and distort the music. Or maybe think of him as the aural equivalent of a horror film, inserting all kinds of unexpected and thrilling bits into songs.

Ravenstine stayed with the band until they had their long hiatus starting in 1982 and was there when they reformed in 1987 and remained for two more albums before leaving the band (and a musical career) for good. What was mostly known after that was that he became an airline pilot but othewise, he was mostly a mystery. Do a Net search on him and you won't find much about him beyond the fact that he was in Ubu, alongside some justified praise for his original technique.

After some detective work and much coaxing, Ravenstine (now a longtime NYC dweller) finally agreed to be debriefed about Ubu and his flying and literary career. Though he was apologetic several times for some lapsed memories, he was still cogent enough to provide enough recollections to fill this extensive article.

Enormous thanks to Chris Cutler for his help with this.

PSF: What kind of music were you listening to when you were growing up?

My mother was very interested in classical music. She had a piano that her mother had and that I have now, that nobody plays. She used to play Rachmaninoff on it and my dad was a jazz guy. He had one of the first Fisher Hi-Fi stereos in our neighborhood, in this great big wooden cabinet. He had Andre Previn records, when he was doing jazz, and Errol Garner, these percussion records and all kinds of stuff. I grew up listening to that kind of stuff. I knew who Errol Garner was when I was 13 years old. I like jazz a lot and I like classical music. The only thing I don't know much about and haven't listened to is country music and I don't really know much about rap. I think my interest came from my family and when I got involved in the whole rock and roll thing, all the guys in the band knew all that stuff (rock) and I didn't know any of it.

PSF: When you started buying records yourself, what were some of the first things that you got?

The first record I ever bought was Meet the Beatles. I brought it home and my mother said 'oh God, I hope that you're not going to start spending your money on that kind of stuff!' When they made that Sgt Pepper record and I heard what was going on in there and realized that they were telling stories and they were using music as scenery and it was a picture... I was just amazed. I thought that was just the most incredible idea. I had a lot of stuff that wasn't typical and I liked those guys when everybody else did. I didn't know who the Velvet Underground was when we (Ubu) was starting. I came to know what they were like.

One of the really sad experiences that I've had was when we did a tour later on in Europe and John Cale was the opening act. That was embarrassing. That was just wrong. I would hardly ever go out and watch the opening act but I watched him every single night and he was just amazing. I would be in the audience and people would standing there, literally going 'who is this guy? Why is he here?' I just couldn't believe that people didn't know who he was. I didn't start out knowing who he was but once I did know who he was, I learned all about all that stuff.

So I wasn't really a music guy. Scott Krauss (Ubu drummer) and those guys, they could name what everybody had done for years and years, like how people know about baseball stats. David Thomas (Ubu singer) was the same way- he knew all that stuff. That whole Mayo Thompson thing, like "Hurricane Fighter Plane." I had no idea who that was. And he was an icon to a lot of people. And I think are people are probably frequently disappointed that I was as ignorant as I was of all that stuff. Or maybe they thought I was kidding and I really knew but I wasn't admitting it, you know?

PSF: Did you take music lessons when you were a kid?

I did! I took lessons for trombone when I was in grade school and I didn't like it, like all kids. I didn't persist. I used to like to play around with my mom's piano but I really used to just make noise with it- I'd come down on a whole bunch of keys and hold the sustain pedal down and let it roll. But playing notes didn't interest me much, which you can kind of tell from what I did (later).

PSF: How did come around to work with synthesizers?

It's not really a very good thing to say but it's truthful- that had a whole lot to do with smoking pot, which I don't do anymore. Like a lot of things that happened to me, it was just kismet. I was living in a hole that I moved into after I left college for the second or third and last time, when I was about 21- that was 1971. It was in Lakewood, Ohio and a buddy of mine had lived on the second floor of this house. I was looking for a place and he said that he had an apartment available and I moved in. Then he moved out and this other guy moved in. This other guy that moved in (Bob Bensick) was a visual artist, going to school at Cleveland State University. He had figured out how to rewire fuzztones into oscillators. He used to sit around with them, plugged into his stereo and make noise. He was a pothead and I'd go down and we'd sit there and smoke a bunch of pot and sit in front of the stereo with these oscillators and make a bunch of noise. It was just silliness, but whatever... It beat watching TV, I guess. Eventually, we started to hook some lights up too and figured out a way to make the lights work in conjunction with the noise. And then he said 'this is art. We should put on an art show.' So we were like 'OK...' So he found a gallery, the New Gallery and it was actually run by the daughter of Leo Castelli. We did a couple of shows there and people liked it so we did some more.

PSF: Was there a name for the group?

At one point or another, he was calling it Hymaya. We were a duo. So we fooled around with that stuff for a while and then I ended up leaving that house and I stopped associating with him, where we just didn't hang out anymore.

I moved out to this house in the woods where some of my friends had been living. They went out to Colorado and they were leaving the house, saying 'hey, this is for rent, you want it?' So I said yeah and I took it. I bought a 4-track TEAC tape player. I wasn't working and my folks died when I was a teenager and I was in high school. They had left me some money. I was living off of the trust fund- I had $500 a month back in the day when you could do that. I could work with my hands and we had made some great big speakers like they use in theatres. We had made them and sold them and I had a couple of those in this room with this synthesizer set up. See, I had gotten these boxes that were all wired together and somebody came along and said 'you know, all those boxes come in one box and it's called a synthesizer.' That was a brand new concept.

So there was this outfit in Vernon, Connecticut- ElectroComp. They had been contracted by the Vermont school system to develop a synthesizer that could be put into elementary schools, on which kids could learn about what was called 'electron music' which a machine that was basically indestructible. And it had no internal patching. It was just units, like a high filter and a low filter and a reverberation unit and a sampler, which meant a completely different thing back then- if you took a triangle (sound) wave and put it through a sampler, it came out like a staircase, going up and down.

PSF: So this was the EML synthesizer?

Yeah. And I bought that. That was the first synth I bought- an ElectroComp EML 200. It had a dark blue face and the serial number had only a couple of digits and had been engraved by hand. I literally got up every day and plugged all this junk together and sat and made noise onto 4-track tapes. That was very good for my job, even though no one was paying me! And some of the art folks from the university would come out sometimes and we would have these jams. It was like a little farm almost, in Mentor, Ohio. It was all based around Cleveland State University, the art department there. And then there were musicians who would show up and eventually, some guy came out who working with the ballet department. He heard some of these tape I made and he said 'could we take these and use them to dance to?' I said 'yeah sure!' (laughs) So I would just make these things and give him to him.

And about that time, I was aware of these monks who would stand on a bridge and write poems and drop the paper in the water and let it go. So in my mind, that's what I was doing. I was writing these tone poems and giving them to these people and I had no idea what would happen to them after I gave them away. I never saw them again or anything.

So I did that for a while and then I had a friend who was part of that Cleveland State bunch and was living in a building downtown that was right near the University. He really wanted to save this old building that was going to get destroyed by urban renewal. He was dying to find some way to save it and I had some money. I said 'what the hell- I'll buy it.' So it became an artist colony and somewhere in there, I made this long piece that I called "Terminal Drive." And word got out that it existed and some people heard it and I got invited to join this band that was forming (Ubu). The concept behind the band was that if you took a group of people that were like-minded in terms of their sense of... what mattered, some sort of similar philosophy, and you gave them a bunch of instruments and you told them to make noise, they'd make something interesting. And so I joined.

PSF: Before that, did you know about Rocket From the Tombs?

Right. Before that, my business partner was a bartender at a place called at the Viking Saloon, where Rocket first played. Peter (Laughner, Ubu guitarist) was already living in the building and some of these guys might have been... Scott was, I think. One morning, my partner said 'man, I heard this band last night and they were just amazing.' So that's when I first heard about them and they did a show with Television in this club that was on top of a building that was a nasty 60's building. They did a gig there and I was asked to record it 'cause everyone knew I knew something about recording. And I guess I kind of got in that way some how.

PSF: What did you think of Rocket when you saw them play?

I don't really remember. I remember that Television was pretty interesting.

PSF: You hadn't heard of them before?

I don't think so.

PSF: What was the local music scene like in the area otherwise?

I'm not going to be able to help you with this. I just didn't go out to places to listen to it. I don't know... All of a sudden, there was a whole lot of stuff going on. There was us and there was Devo down in Akron and then there were all these bands, (like) the Styrenes and these various bands that Peter (Laughner) was in as he went through his demise. And there were a whole bunch of bad marriages- they (the bands) would break up and everyone would get together and call it something different, like Cinderella Backstreet (one of Laughner's bands). And there were these dives all over town where people would play like Billy's, I think was the name, which was a bar on Prospect Avenue (Cleveland) which was where the plaza was, which was the building that I owned. There was the Pirate's Cove down in the Flats.

But it was really very depressed. Nobody lived downtown. Pretty much roll up the streets after dark and everybody was afraid to be down there 'cause it was all black people and everyone was terrified 'cause they'd get killed. I'm not saying that these fears were realistic but that's what they were 'cause race was a huge problem in Cleveland. So it just really was dead at night. And there wasn't anything happening so anything that was happening was interesting. And this Pirate's Cove, I think it was a Thursday night that we played there and I think when we started playing, it wasn't even open on Thursday nights. He said 'well, I'll open it up and I'll let you guys play there.' And that was the one club that would let us play in the city. And Devo had a similar story in Akron. So we'd go down there and open for them and they'd come up and open for us. I can even remember nights when the guy didn't even turn the heat on and there would be 15 people there, standing on chairs, trying to get near the ceiling where there might be some heat, listening to us.

And of course, we were borrowing money and making these singles. I don't know anything about what David was up to. He was writer, he wrote about music for some local rag and he knew other people that did that. So unbeknownst to me, he was sending these singles out and these folks were listening to them and reviewing them. I don't know who knew that but that's what was happening. Somehow, some way, that stuff got overseas and I remember that, in my recollection anyway, even when we couldn't yet fill the clubs, when a good night was 50 people, these photographers showed up from France and they said 'oh, you guys have invented a new music! It's called the new wave!' And I was like 'really? What the hell?' (laughs) So, it was all quite a surprise to me when this was happening. But I think David was... He's smart, he's manipulative, he's devious. And I think he was working this thing the whole time. I think everything was going the way he wanted it to go. I never felt the need to inform people of what he was doing.

PSF: You mean within the band?

Yeah. So, I don't think many people in the band actually knew what he was up to.

PSF: In those early gigs, what kind of crowds and people would you see there? Did you know them?

Yeah. It was just people you knew and the people they knew. You don't want people discovering it!

PSF: So it was people from the school and such.

Yeah and friends of friends.

PSF: Early on, with Ubu, what was the dynamic of the band? Was it just David running things?

There was the illusion of a democracy. Our job was to come up with the music, David's job was to come up with the lyrics. But David held the trump card because when we made some music that he didn't like, he would just say 'I can't write any lyrics to that.' And he's a big guy and he has a bigger presence. So when you hear people use the phrase 'dark cloud,' David's really good at that. He could be a STIFLING presence in a room. So we would be up in these rehearsal halls, trying to make something and he would just be so miserable and so heavy that it was hard to walk around. So those rehearsals were pretty brutal. They really weren't even rehearsals- they were creative sessions. And that seemed to get worse as time went on. And he became less and less open to things. So it became pretty stifling over time. I think anybody that was there would tell you that.

PSF: With those early sessions, would people just throw out ideas, like 'here's a riff'?

Yeah! Exactly.

PSF: What were some of the things you came up with in particular for the songs?

I don't know that... People would just start making noise and I would just start trying to figure out some way to make some (other) noise that fit. Somebody would decide that what I was doing was interesting. A lot of stuff went on... Tom (Herman, Ubu guitarist) and I worked together pretty well. He would hear something I was doing and he would start to work off of that. So there was a relationship there. And Scott (Kraus) was very open minded. So, I think there was some kind of thing going on there a lot of time. But I certainly was not responsible for writing any songs that I'm aware of. For "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," they just told me what it was about and I said 'oh, I can make some big airplane sounds.' And I was interested in that anyway.

PSF: Sometimes it seems that what you were playing was almost diametrically opposed to what the rest of the group was doing? Was that the intent?

Yeah. I didn't do a whole lot of stuff on those records. I was strictly an improvisational player and I would response to how it felt to me. And I would end up making some sort of noise that I thought accentuated that. So yeah... I'm sure there were times when I was in conflict with it and that was just how I felt at the time. In the beginning, I had... there were patches (on the synth) because the thing didn't have internal wiring. Now, over time, I ended up with two synthesizers- the (EML model) 101, which is the one didn't have any wiring internally and then the 200, which did. And I would wire them together but I really only used the 101, which had a keyboard on it, as a trigger device- I didn't really play 'notes' per se. In the beginning, on "Street Waves" and all these songs, I had a patch that said 'street waves' on it and I would have all these things together, like a music stand kind of deal, at times. And in between songs, it would be like... (motions trying to move things around quickly). And then over time, I just stopped doing that and I would come up with a patch for the night. I would just plug it together in a way and I would just work with that patch that night and I would make everything come out of that, however I had to. I mean, I'd move stuff around but I wouldn't have individual patches. And then after a while, I would have those written down but then I just blew it all off and I would just plug it in together.

See Part 2 of 4 of the Allen Ravenstine interview

Also see:

Our interview with David Thomas

Our article on Rocket from the Tombs

Our article on Peter Laughner

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER