Perfect Sound Forever

ALLEN RAVENSTINE


reunited Pere Ubu of the late 80's
a clean shaven Mr. Ravenstine is on the far left

interview by Jason Gross, Part 3 of 4


PSF: Other than "Terminal Drive," you have no other solo material. Was there any reason for that?

(pauses) Yeah, there probably is... I really thought that what I was up to was the emperor's new clothes. What I did came so easy to me and I never worked at it. The vast majority of the time that we were in the studio, when I would go in, whatever I did was on the first take, was what ended up on the record. And it was the same way when I was working with Mayo Thompson doing the Red Krayola stuff. And I think I think I worked with some Germans at some point and it was the same way with them. And I gotta tell you that I just really felt like I was fooling everybody.

I'll never forget that there was... (laughs) Anton Fier (Ubu drummer), who I'm sure you know... I hope he won't kill me for telling this story, if he ever hears it. He used to work in Cleveland at a record store downtown in Public Square. And Anton Fier, on Friday after work, would take the bus to here, to Manhattan, and he would go to the apartment of his drum teacher. He would ring the bell and the drum teacher would open the window and drop the keys down. This was probably at 6, 7 in the morning. Anton would pick the keys up, let himself into the apartment, do the guy's dishes, if not clean the apartment, then the guy would give him drum lessons. Then, he would get back on the bus and go back to Cleveland in time to make work on Monday. And he did this every weekend for a very long time, learning to be a drummer. Anton was in the band at the same time that Mayo was in the band. Mayo was a guy like me- never did anything, practice, nothing. And Anton had NO respect for Mayo, none. And he didn't think that Mayo was a good musician and he didn't have any respect for him because he was undisciplined. Now Anton had a martini or two at the time but we were sitting at a bar in Cleveland and he told me that he thought that I was the best musician in the band, or a great musician or something like that. Coming from him, knowing what he had gone through to be what he was, was... a remarkable thing to hear. But I still didn't believe it.

People often say 'how did you have all that equipment and what do you mean that you don't play?' I don't. And it was easy for me to give up because I never had to earn it. I never had to work to have it. It just didn't have value to me because it was too easy. And so, I made that thing that I made ("Terminal Drive"), which isn't really very good and I don't even have a copy of it anymore but I did for a while and I heard it again many years ago. I thought 'there's really nothing in here.' So I just did not feel compelled to do it.

Now, what I was really interested in... what I really wanted to be was a writer. That was what I set out to do. I went to college to study English literature and I dropped out once, probably because I went to college just a few months after my parents were killed in a car crash and I didn't have any interest in really being there (college) and I just drank the whole time. So the first time, I had miserable grade and then the second time I went, I did better but then Kent State happen and they shut down all the universities and I walked away with a bunch of other people and basically never came back. So I never finished any college but my intention was to be a writer. And when I left the band and sobered up, I wrote some stuff and then I wrote a novel. And then that just kind of dried up too. When I stopped doing music, I thought that I was going to dedicate myself to writing, which I did for a period of about ten years. And I just hit some sort of a creative wall and I just never did anything really. I don't do much of anything creative anymore.

I did go out to L.A. about four years ago- Mayo had called me now and then and said 'hey, would you play a gig with me?' And I would always say 'yeah, I don't know if it would work out.' And I really didn't know if I wanted to or not but I'd say that. And then he called me some time and said 'it's coming, it's in April, would you do it?' And I said 'alright, I will request those days (off).' And then I ended up getting the days and then I had no excuse. I got the synthesizers from a store room in Long Island City. And this is how egotistical I was- by the end of the time of me playing, I put those things in their cases and I didn't save squat! Not a single sheet of paper that had anything to do with what I ever did I save because I knew that if I ever wanted to do something with those things again, I knew them inside and out and I could just pick it up and do it. Well, as in The Magnificent Ambersons, I got my comeuppance. I pulled those things out to prepare to go out to L.A. to do that gig and my wife was horrified. She said 'aren't you going to try to rehearse or anything?' I said 'well, you know, I'll get it...' And about a week before I was supposed to go, I brought them home. I was clueless. Panicked! Fortunately, I still have a connection to Robert Wheeler who's the guy who does the synth work now (in Ubu). I called him up and said 'I’m in trouble.' So he sent me some stuff and I figured it out.

I went out to L.A. and I played two shows with Mayo, one at the Getty Museum, which is pretty amazing, right on the side of that hill, with the sound going out toward the Pacific. They asked me to turn my instrument down because I was disturbing people out there. I think they made some joke about how ships in the harbor could hear it. And then we played at Spaceland. And those kids that Mayo had hired to play with him were great musicians. One of them, the guitar player, was a big fan of mine, which was amazing to know that was still existing. And he could play most of what I could do. Pretty amazing. And there were these young women who were singers and they were just wonderful people, fabulous musicians. Mayo is just a furious man- just mad all the time. Did not enjoy hanging around with him. And then I didn't get paid what I was supposed to get paid and it all just made me think 'OK, I know why I don't do this anymore.' So that was really it. So I packed it up and put them back in Long Island City and I thought I would never get them out again. 'So why do you keep them?' I don't know. I had trouble really deciding that I really am done and get rid of them.

Now if (Chris) Cutler asks me now, then if I would do something. And Chris, I would do something with because he's just completely different from all the other people that I ever worked with. I mean, the people that were the head of something- David and Mayo being the two people who come to mind. Chris is nothing like either one of those guys. So if it could work out to do something with Chris, I would probably do that. I don't know that it would ever happen.

PSF: Going back to Dub Housing, you said that the band didn't have everything prepared when it was time to record that.

I think that's true. I think that a lot of that we wrote in the studio. And I don't know what it was and right now, I can't remember anything that was on that record but I really, really liked that record.

My favorite (Ubu) record of all time was Datapanik in the Year Zero on Radar Records. That was my favorite record that we ever did. I liked everything about it. I can be pretty silly. I like the Radar logo on the disc (laughs)... I like the songs that are on it. I like the packaging. I liked everything about it. I just thought it was the best thing. And it was a 12 inch disc- it wasn't a full album. It was only a half-album. The whole thing, everything about it was kind of new and interesting and Radar Records I really liked.

PSF: What was it was about Dub Housing that you liked specifically though?

I think Datapanik was mostly practiced. I don't think we wrote much for that (at the session). (pauses) Dub Housing in my mind was just a little darker and spookier. There was an element of eeriness to it that I liked. The Modern Dance thing was kind of black and white, rock and roll. Dub Housing was just a little more spookier... It had more color, in my mind so I liked it.

PSF: One interesting track there was "Thriller!" Could you talk about how that song came about?

I think that's a Krauss thing... What was the one where we're breaking the bottles? ("Sentimental Journey" from The Modern Dance). In my mind, it was a take on a Doris Day ditty. And I wish I could remember what he sang... The lyric or the title is right out of one of those... It was like... OK, where I grew up, which I could not wait to get away from, was a place called Rocky River in Ohio (it was in fact a little town that had been settled in the early 1800's). It's a suburb on the West side of Cleveland. And we moved there in 1955 from Canton Ohio for a couple of reasons. One of them was that my dad wanted to take a job where he wasn't on the road. And we moved there because we figured out that the school system was the best school system around and they wanted me to be educated. But it was the epitome of American suburbia in the '50's and '60's. And what that means in my mind is that it was ALL about appearances- who had the nicest car, the prettiest wife, the nicest house... And I hated it. And what I was aware of was an undercurrent that inside this façade that looked so good, there was all this turmoil. There was a lot of drinking, a lot of fighting, a lot of stuff that was always swept under the rug. When you go into somebody's house, it was nice and quiet and clean. In those days, people didn't use things like garlic and if your house smelled like fish, it was because there was something not right! That was all blue collar stuff, you know? And I hated it- it was so sterile. And it was a lie in my opinion. And I couldn't wait to get out of there. And that song that I can't think of the name of... "Sentimental Journey," that's it! "Gonna take a sentimental journey..." That's that period of time. And the whole breaking of the bottles and all that stuff, that's what I think. I wanted that undercurrent- there's chaos here.

That kind of thing always appealed to me so I was always interested in it if there was an element of subversion, darkness. You know, I was a very dark kid when I was a young man. I think I'm less so now but I was very much so when I was a kid. And I was a kid when we were making this music! I was in my 20's. My God, that was 40 years ago! We were angry kids 'cause kids are angry. So we're making this noise and we were poking fun at things and I was interested in that subversion.

PSF: Around that time, Ubu started working with Rough Trade records. Did you like working with them?

I really liked them and I didn't know that 'Rough Trade' was a reference to homosexual behavior. I didn't know any of that shit and I didn't care. They were really nice people and it was a very cool time. Everything was really small scale and simple. We would from the hotel to the record offices and they had a big table there where everybody kind of hung out and ate and stuff. It was just so... mom and pop. Everything made out of pieces of plywood and saw horses and it was just very sophisticated. Everything was hand made, like parts of the city used to be- it was all mom and pop things.

There weren't big box stores and all that stuff. And over time, that's what killed it for me. And not just me but others in the band... We used to be able to borrow or get $20,000, make a record, do the artwork, produce the record and have money to split up. Then there came a time when the fantastic sum of $250,000 was spent on a record and there wasn't a PENNY left at the end. And there wasn't any artwork- it was all spent in the studio. And there was a producer. And they were doing stuff like using a computer and lining up all of Scott's drum beats so they were exactly right.

PSF: You're talking about the '80's now?

Yeah. And by then, all the life was just bled out of it. Back when it was Rough Trade Records and it was just so small, off Portobello Record, and it was just handmade- it was a completely different dynamic and it was interesting and it was fun. But it became a business and once it became a business, it just wasn't interesting.

PSF: There were other Rough Trade bands at the time. Did you feel that they were kindred spirits at all?

I didn't. I honestly couldn't tell you what any of them did.

PSF: You didn't know the other bands at all?

No. Now David probably did but I didn't.

PSF: But you did shows with some of them...

We may have. I mean, the vast majority of the time, I had no idea who we were performing with. I would show up, do the sound check and leave, come back, do the gig and leave.

PSF: You didn't have any interest?

No, no interest.

PSF: What kind of music were you listening to otherwise at that time?

I mostly wasn't. I mean, one of the big thrills for me was when I met Tom Waits out of a Santa Monica hotel that he lived in. And we roomed there one night and I came down and he was sitting in the lobby. I was blown away that he was there. So I like Tom Waits... I liked Richard Thompson. I mean, I had a lot of different kinds of music at home but I don't know that I was really overly enamored of anybody. And I doubt that I have hardly ANY music from that time. Nor did I ever have. A lot of those bands, I knew the names, like Sonic Youth and stuff, but I don't have any idea what they did. I never bought any of their music. And there was somebody who became quite big who opened for us for a while. I didn't go see him and later on, they became a big deal. I thought I remembered that they were around. Gang of Four, I remember that. We did a tour with them.

PSF: What did you think of them?

You know, I don't remember listening to them much. They were fun on the (tour) bus.

PSF: What about New Picnic Time? How was that different than the earlier albums for you?

I think that one we really did write in the studio. This is an indication of how my perspective was different from... how little I know about what commercial is. I think The Art of Walking was the one where we went too far and Cliff Burnstein (A&R guy who worked with Ubu when they were signed to Chrysalis) decided that he couldn't understand how to manage us. But every time we would do a record, I would call him up and say "Oh wow, Cliff, this is the most commercial thing we've done." And then it would be less so than the one before. And Picnic Time was really the end. I remember at some point then being all excited about it and calling him up and saying "Cliff, this is it! This is the one!" And he just heard it and it was like "Oh my God..." So I was really clueless about what was commercial. Just clueless.

What I mostly remember about the studio is David just... We were the yin and the yang of record, 'cause I would go in and I would do one take and I was done. David would just labor over his voice, just seemingly endlessly. Many, many, many, many takes and then trying to piece elements of one to another to make something that he was willing to accept. What he was going for was so complicated that it eluded the rest of it- I just couldn't hear it. I couldn't tell why this was better than that or in some cases, how it was even different. So what he was looking for was so fine tuned to an image that he had in his head of what he wanted that he was really the only one who could hear it. It was like a dog with one of those high pitched whistles. I don't know what the hell he was doing. And he drove most of the people crazy. (Engineer) Paul Hamann is like a Buddha- I don't how he didn't loose his mind.

PSF: Shortly after that, Tom Herman left the band. Did the group break up then?

Yep! We stopped working all together and I think it was May (1980)... I remember we played in London that was called 'The Mystery Gig.' And what it was was that you bought a ticket... I think you knew we were playing but you didn't know where. We went to Chislehurst Caves I think, which were chalk caves. You were told to assemble on a street corner in London in some place and a bus came by and picked you up and drove you out to this place. They were used as a bomb shelter in the Second World War and there was actually a stage in there that was cut into the wall. It was cold and we were there playing this gig. And I remember noticing that right up front there was this guy in a three piece wool suit with polished Oxfords. He looked incongruous for sure. It was weird. And it was this Mayo Thompson guy who at least in our little world was like J.D. Salinger- he'd made these records and then he disappeared from the face of the earth and no one knew what he hell ever happened to him. And then there he was. He'd come out of seclusion to hear us! He and I struck up a friendship right away but I believe it was... It's so hard to figure out how this could be but I think I remember he was playing a gig some place, David and I were in the audience, the band (Ubu) was broken up and we just looked at each other and said "We could do it again with him." And that was how it started up again.

PSF: How was it different working with Mayo as opposed to Tom?

Well, there was a lot of friction between him and David but that was really part of the dynamic. There was friction between Peter and David, there was friction between Tom and David and there was friction between Mayo and David. But one of the problems with Mayo was that Mayo was a very political animal and David was not. And Mayo was always wanting to get a political thing going on there and David was just... It was like the Wicked Witch and the red shoes and those sparks coming out. So they didn't mix well at all. And Mayo didn't like to rehearse, didn't like to do sound checks. He didn't really like to do anything except show up and play. Very undisciplined.

So they didn't get along well and a lot of diva in it... And Mayo and I had some verbal arguments as well. He's a prickly guy. But in terms of how it worked, I don't know...


See Part 4 of 4 of the Allen Ravenstine interview


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