Perfect Sound Forever

ALLEN RAVENSTINE


classic Pere Ubu late 70's line-up
with Ravenstine in the middle wearing a big mischeavous grin

interview by Jason Gross, Part 2 of 4



PSF: Were you familiar with modern classical composers and did you find that they influenced your work at all?

I wasn't but interestingly enough, that studio that we made all those records at, Sumo... The old man, Ken (Hamann, engineer), who's long dead now, had worked with Stockhausen. And when we came in there and I started doing some of the stuff that I did, he said to me, 'some of that stuff reminds me of Stockhausen.' I was like 'who's that?' I did that a lot. I would say things like that and people go 'you don't know who...?!' 'Sorry, I don't!'

PSF: Were do think your style might have originated from then? Was that from some of the jazz you liked when you were younger?

I don't know what else it could be. And the other thing was, I was just interested in sound. I had a little Sony TC-55 cassette recorder when they first came out, it was big time modern technology. I bought one of those and I got a diode mike. And I would just go around and record stuff. There was one day when I went down into the Flats and I just set that microphone near a railroad track where there was a seam in the track and I just recorded the wheels hitting the seam just because that stuff interested me. I didn't know if anybody else was doing that. I was just doing it 'cause it sounded good. Like Gershwin... when you hear "Rhapsody in Blue," you can hear how he heard the city. You can hear the horns and the cars and stuff if you're interested. So I got that. I knew of Gershwin and I got the idea. I liked the idea of ambient noise as being part of something. It's like when we'd rehearse. In all those places, we didn't have air conditioning. So we'd be down there on a July night and all the windows would be open and Harley Davidsons (would be) going by and police sirens. Most of time we were in fairly rough neighborhoods 'cause there wasn't anything but rough neighborhoods downtown. And all that stuff just fit. I just thought 'yeah, that makes sense.' Birds chirping as you were doing things, it was just like... 'yeah, that makes sense.' I always thought that was part of it. I didn't hear it independently of that. I heard that as part of it. It's like with architectures who in my opinion know what they're doing, they build the building with where it is in mind. They bring the outside in. It's like a part of it. It's not like you put this thing down where ever the hell you are. No, you build it. So the fact that we were making all music in the city... it just seemed like the city should be part of it.

PSF: So you think that you were reflecting what Cleveland was like then?

Yeah, I hope so. 'Cause I spent a lot of the time that I lived in Cleveland just absolutely terrified because that the building I had was right on the edge of a ghetto. I had guns pointed at me more once when I was there. And that building would get broken into almost every night. And some people got robbed at gunpoint. I was scared a lot of the time. So I'm sure that was in there. With the sounds I made, some of those sirens and things... that was the level of intensity to that place that was frightening. A hell of a lot scarier than it is here (New York). It was civilized here.

PSF: You left the band briefly early on and then came back. What happened?

Oh yeah, that's easy. They asked me to make this record, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo." And I was interested 'cause of all the airplane stuff (in the song). I loved airplanes since I was a kid- built models, did all that stuff. I made that record. And then everybody got it in their head that they wanted to have a band to play gigs. And I said 'no, I'm not doing that! I'm not a stage musician.' So, they said 'well, OK...' and I left. But it bothered me that I had said that. And so I went to all the shows that they did without me and I listened to Dave Taylor (the guy who replaced him) and I gradually figured out and thought actually 'well, I could do that.' I didn't really want to. I don't think I ever really enjoyed live performance but I didn't want to get left behind. I didn't want to get left out. So, at some point I said that I wanted to try it again. And Dave (Taylor) got treated really badly... I mean, he just got the rug pulled out from under him when I said I'd come back, which was not very nice.

And he did "Final Solution." The only contribution I had to that was the moment in there where it says 'guitar's gonna sound like a nuclear destruction' and he (Taylor) had a great big explosion there and I said 'no, that should be the opposite. It should be a vacuum.' And so they made the sound suck itself up and that's my contribution to "Final Solution." That's the only thing I did.

PSF: You played that part on the record?

No, I didn't. I just told them that was what they needed to do at the moment. That's all I did for that song. But then they dumped Dave (Taylor) and then I was back.

PSF: How did the band change without Tim (Wright, Ubu guitarist/bassist) and Peter (Laughner)?

Peter leaving was... There really wasn't any choice. Peter wasn't of any value anymore because he was shooting up back when not a whole lot of people even knew what that stuff was. And drinking all the time and his mind started to go. And he did the thing that a lot of speed freaks do, he got paranoid. So he started carrying a Walther 9mm PPK (ED NOTE: James Bond's gun of choice too) in his guitar case. And just the other day I was thinking about this... There was a bar we used to go into down on the Flats called the Harbor Inn, which is a bar frequented by merchant seaman and it had been there for a long time. And they had beers from all over the world when that was not the usual thing. And (laughs)... Oh God... We went in there one night and Peter wanted to check his gun! And the bartender was like, 'this is not the wild west! Get the fuck out of here!' So he was psychotic and he'd get mad and he'd start waving that thing around. So he had to go. So he wasn't really doing much of anything when he left so there wasn't much of a thing about that. And Tim left long before that. So I don't remember there being... But Tom (Herman) had come in before Peter had left. And there was tension between them but I don't remember it being that bad. But when the tension got bad was when Tom sensed that where the band was headed was not in his position or in opinion rock and roll.

PSF: This was later on?

This was around Dub Housing. And then when he found out that David (Thomas) was a Jehovah's Witness and was trying to get his Jehovah's Witness message in there, then he got very upset. So that was the end of him.

But that period of time when Peter was losing it and leaving, I don't really remember. I think... the band stopped and started a lot of times so... this is a long time ago and I really don't remember the details of that anymore.

PSF: Wasn't it a different dynamic when it was the five-piece band that went on to do the first album?

Yeah. Well, Tony (Maimone, Ubu bassist) had been a barber who had a barber chair in his apartment and he had taught himself to play bass and he worked hard at it. And he was kind of a glamour guy. I honestly don't remember exactly how he got in. But the constant fight between him and David was that he (Tony) was too loud. They fought about that all the time. But Tony was a pretty traditional guy. I don't know that he was really creative, he was just a good solid bass player. And Tom was creative and he was constantly trying to write stuff that was rock and roll music and David would not want it. And they fought a lot. I was the guy who... I was never in trouble. David always liked me, always liked what I did, so I didn't have to suffer the various abuses that everybody else did. For some reason or another, he liked everything that I did. The problem for me was that it ended up making me the guy who always had to be the peace-maker. And I always had to be the go-between to try to smooth it out. And when we went on the road that got into David's... You know, he's a difficult guy and he can behave badly. And he would alienate people. He'd alienate soundmen, he'd alienate roadies, he'd alienate hotel people. And I was constantly going around, trying to mend the fence. And that got really tiresome over the years, which is one of the reasons I left.

PSF: How did you find making the first album (Modern Dance) different from recording the early singles?

I don't know that it was actually. I don't think so. Somebody gave us some money and we went in the studio but it was the same people who we had been working with so there really wasn't any change there. We were just making more... If I remember correctly, by the time we got together to make that record, we pretty much had that record.

PSF: You mean that you had the material down?

I think so. I don't think it was really much of an effort to make that record. Dub Housing was the one that we had to come up with stuff. And now actually Dub Housing is my favorite record. Everybody else likes The Modern Dance.

PSF: Did the punk bands that were starting to come up then in New York and England have any effect on the group?

Well, it didn't on me. But probably the other guys probably did but I'm guessing 'cause I don't really know. Those guys were listening to that stuff all the time so they were much more aware of what was going on than I was.

PSF: When the group started touring with that album (Dub Housing), did you find that there were any other bands out there that seemed to be kindred spirits?

I don't think. I don't remember that.

PSF: You guys just thought you were alone with what you were doing?

Yeah. I don't want to make it sound like we thought that we were superior to everybody. It wasn't that! We were just doing the thing that we were doing and other people were doing what they were doing and we weren't hanging out together. One of the cardinal sins that Devo committed was they came to the Pirate's Cove and Jerry (Casale) mimicked David- got a big suit on of some sort and got some outfit on that made him bigger. Whoa... That did not go well! So I don't think we had anything to do with them after that and they were pissed 'cause David couldn't take a joke. And he was pissed that they did that and so there was just electricity. And I don't remember seeing them... I think the very next time I saw them after that was when we were both signed and in London at some big concert hall. I don't think we were playing and I don't think they were playing and I think I ran into one of them in the crowd and they were in all kinds of trouble 'cause they had walked out on their contract with Warner Brothers. I knew about that and said something to whoever it was and they said 'well, we knew they'd be pissed but we didn't think they'd be that pissed.' That might have been the last time I had talked to any of them also. Although, I go to movies sometimes and I see Mark Mothersbaugh's name up there. He'd got some nice stuff. I'm listening to it and I'm going 'god, that's beautiful' and then his name comes up and it's like 'wow, I didn't know he was doing that.' He does some great stuff. He's a highly talented guy but I didn't really know him.

PSF: For the shows Ubu was doing, was the material evolved a lot them or were you coming up with new stuff through that?

Songs evolved... And I guess that I did play some part in that because I didn't do things the same way twice after a while. And so I think Tom would start paying attention to what I was doing and start working off of that and change what he was doing. And then, I don't know how it happened, but we went through some kind of 'reggae' thing were a lot of stuff ended up having a reggae beat to it. I think there was some version of "Street Waves" that was like that and some other stuff. And it was fun... I don't know where the hell it came from.

And I'll tell you, here's the kind of thing that I used to like. In Amsterdam, at midnight, they shut down the trolly system and when they do that, there's a power shift, the voltage changes. They got 220 (volts), like all of Europe and I had a transformer that would gear down to 110. And at midnight, it would change. And so it was like, at 11:59, I would hit a key and did what I thought it was gonna do. And at 12:01, I hit a key and I had no idea what the hell it was gonna do. And I loved that! "Oh boy, it's midnight... Let's see what happens!" (laughs) So that was the kind of stuff that I enjoyed.

We didn't do the same thing twice a lot and I think that... the stuff did evolve and things were different over time. And the other thing was, I think that we were... It got to the point where I think David was, for a while, he may feel differently about it now... for a while, I think he was really, really sorry that he wrote "Final Solution" because everybody wanted to hear it all the time.

PSF: And some people had the wrong connotation about the song, i.e. the Nazi's idea of a 'final solution.'

Yeah, and it had all kinds of stuff he didn't intend.

PSF: What did he actually intend then?

I have no idea but it wasn't that! So it got to be where we just didn't play it. And then people would get pissed... So there got to be songs that we stopped doing because everybody was just sick of doing them. I can't imagine a worse fate than being Neil Diamond doing...

PSF: "Sweet Caroline."

Yeah! Exactly. It sounds like hell. So, we just didn't do that stuff and songs evolved just because people started playing them differently 'cause they were tired of the way that we'd been playing them. So that was one thing, there was evolution.... yes. We were not bound to make it sound the same way all the time. And in fact, there were people that thought that we were much better live than we were in the studio.

PSF: Did you think that too?

I didn't know 'cause I can't really hear anything. That was one of my gripes, that I could never hear anything where I was standing. The whole stage sound mix thing was always a complete, total mystery to me. David wanted his monitors... he was just hugely specific about how they had to be or he wouldn't deal with it. And then he would get pissed at Tony for being too loud and Tony would turn it down and he would still be too loud. And they'd go back and forth and back and forth...

PSF: This was happening on stage?

Yeah! And I couldn't hear stuff. And we had a little act at one point... I don't even know if it started from a real thing or not but at one point, there was a period of time where I had all those patches on paper and I had them on a music stand. At some point, there was a night when I got pissed and I threw it into the air and that turned out to be something that everybody thought was interesting. So then I sort of had to do it. So Dave would come out and pretend to harangue me about one thing or another and I'd throw those things in the air that didn't even have anything on them anymore. So we did that for a while and then at one show that was really funny we did in England, a girl took off her top in the front row and David walked off the stage 'cause he was offended. The grapevine in England was pretty good and the next night, where ever we were, there were four girls (who did that) and then there were ten. And whole rest of the time we were in England, every single night, somebody would that. So it got to be like 'hey, WE have control!' So there was silliness.


See Part 3 of 4 of the Allen Ravenstine interview


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