Perfect Sound Forever

ALLEN RAVENSTINE


AR on safari in Botswana, 2010

interview by Jason Gross, Part 4 of 4


PSF: For the next record, The Art of Walking, was that conceived as a concept album?

Not by me. Maybe by David. I don't really remember anything about it really. I was really starting to wear out I think. I was just starting to tire of it I think. The problem with it was is it was that it was just like an ongoing bad marriage. There was just a lot of tension over time. And I would leave a tour and I would swear that I would never do it again. And then I'd go home and I'd be away from it for a couple of months and the phone would ring and "Hey, we're gonna...!" And I would start talking about it and my wife would be like, "You know what happens!" I would say "Well, you know..." Two minutes into it, I'd be thinking "Why did I do this again? It's just as exactly the same as it always is." And so that happened a lot.

And then Scott (Krauss) had left the band after that. And then Anton came in.

PSF: How did that change things?

Well, like I said, there was another layer of tension because Anton and Mayo wouldn't get along. Anton just didn't respect him. And Anton is also a fairly large ego. Scott is not so much but Anton is. So the more big egos you get in there, the harder it is to get anything done. That was the whole problem with it all along, other than at the very beginning... It was just like trying to pull one of those sleds where they just keep putting more weight on it and you don't have any snow. You're just trying to pull across earth. It's just that every year, it just got heavier, harder to pull. It just kept mounting up that way.

And I read a (recent) review by Andy Gill of an Ubu concert, Krauss sent me the link and David was just terrible, just disgusting. Abusing the audience, abusing the musicians.

PSF: I saw them do a recent New York show and he was pretty abusive towards the band.

I don't know what he's doing. He may be acting out some thing in his mind, some role in Pere Ubu. When I read the review, I thought "OK, that's what he thinks he's doing..." But it wouldn't have been pleasant to watch.

PSF: It was pretty awkward to see that.

Yeah. So I guess what I'm really trying to say when I mention that is that it just seems to have stayed on that track of grinding itself into the ground over the years.

PSF: For the last record before the next break-up, The Song of the Bailing Man, I had read that the sessions got pretty ugly too. Is that how you remembered it?

Yeah. But I think that started way before that.

PSF: It was just worse than it was before by then?

Yeah. I mean, in order to have a story, you gotta have conflict. Nobody's interested in a story that doesn't have any conflict. So, some amount of conflict is necessary for a thing to grow but when it gets to be too much, then it stifles growth. And that was... for a while, in the early years of the band, we kind of teetered right on the edge of those two places where it was just enough but almost too much. And then gradually, the too-much just won out. It just got harder and harder and harder to make something. So it was just about impossible.

PSF: So how did the band stop then? Was there a discussion about it?

It ended with me. In 1988, I just decided I had enough...

PSF: No, I meant back after The Bailing Man came out.

Oh yeah, it was that. It was just that everybody was just worn out. And we said "OK, we can just walk away from this for a while."

PSF: So you all thought that it was going to be a break and not a permanent ending?

Well, I think... Probably we thought it was for good.

PSF: And it was mutual?

Yeah, I think so, as best as I can recall.

PSF: But not long after that, you worked with David on some of his solo projects?

Yeah, I think I worked on something. I'm sorry, this must be very disappointing 'cause my memory is so bad! But I don't remember exactly what it was.

PSF: What other kind of things were you doing when Ubu stopped?

I don't remember all of it but in '80, I did some work with Mayo. I was overseas when Reagan got elected. And I did 3 or 4 records with him with Red Krayola.

PSF: How was that different from the Ubu experience?

Well, Mayo was just a lot easier to work with. He was very open and people liked him. He is much more angry now than he was then but he was... (pauses) exceedingly polite and he was very well mannered and respectful of people. But it wasn't difficult to do something that would cause him to feel slighted. But in terms of working with him in the studio or making music, he was very easy to get along with. Again, I felt like I really didn't know what I was doing and I was just sort of... hoping that what I was doing made sense. I didn't really have a really strong sense of whether it was good. But I had some ideas, I came up with some stuff for making sound on various pieces that were interesting. But again, I really didn't get a whole lot of satisfaction out of much of any of this in terms of feeling like I really did something swell, whether that was with him or with Ubu. As time went on, that got worse.

PSF: Again though, do you remember what you were doing when Ubu stopped after Bailing Man and when the band reformed after that?

I probably wasn't doing anything (musical).

PSF: Were you still in Cleveland?

Yeah, I lived out there until my wife and I moved here (New York) in 1994.

PSF: So how did you get back to working with David (Thomas) again?

He probably just asked me. I mean, I always had other work to do. In '83, I got a pilot's license and so I was working as a flight instructor for a while and then I was flying some charter stuff and then I was working as a corporate pilot. So I was doing that kind of work and I was also working... When I had owned the Plaza, I had learned how to do all kinds of stuff- plumbing, electrical, all that kind of stuff. So I was doing contracting work. So I was working always and I was doing all that stuff while the band was together too. There was never a time when the only income I had was the band. So I was just doing that.

PSF: What made you decide to actively become a musician again?

I don't know. (pauses) I'm guessing- I really don't remember. I remember when I had the house after I sold the Plaza and Ann (his wife) and I had moved to a house and had a little studio in the attic. I fooled around (there). And I had had studio in the apartment in the Plaza and Cliff Burnstein had bought me a very nice tape recorder, an 8-track, that I used to mix stuff with. So I made stuff but I didn't really do anything with it- I just made it. But I honestly don't remember how it happened that I got back in.

PSF: Was part of it that you were working with David and other former Ubu members were in the band too and then everyone decided it would be 'Ubu' again?

Yeah, I think that is it, now that you're bringing it back to me. I think if I remember correctly, there was a phrase 'if it looks like a duck and acts like a duck and walks like duck, it's a duck!' I think that actually got said! I think that's what happened. It was like 'who are we kidding?'

PSF: What was different about working with the same people again then in Ubu?

I wasn't drinking anymore then so I had a different perspective on it. And there was a period of time when we were pretty abusive in terms of controlled substances. There was a fair amount of that going on for a while in the earlier days of the band and over time that really kind of slowed down and then stopped all together. So I imagine that it was a different perspective because of that. I guess that's not so true now with David but then I think it was. So it's probably something to do with that. Again, it's just too long ago...

PSF: By the time of the 2nd reunion album (Cloudland), the sound of the band changed a lot.

I don't think I was involved with that one! Wasn't that Eric Feldman?

PSF: No, he on the one after that (Worlds In Collision). On Cloudland, you were credited as part of the band then. Chris Culter was still in the band and Stephen Hague was producing.

Oh... OK. I actually have NO recollection of that. Sorry!

PSF: Do you remember that there was any tension about the direction of the band in terms of the music then?

I think you're finding out why you haven't read many interviews with me! (laughs)

PSF: Chris told me that at that time, David had wanted to go in one direction (more commercial) but you and Chris fought against that.

I remember that... (pauses) I think that I did a Wooden Birds (David's solo project) tour and I remember now that I think about it, at some point deciding that I liked the idea of the acoustic stuff a lot better, that it seemed like it was a lot more open. And one of the things that used to trouble me, that I used to hate, was the kind of wall of sound thing where I couldn't pick one thing out from another. It was just this kind of wall. And I think during the period of time when Chris was in the band, it really kind of opened up and there was a lot more room in it. And then I did enjoy that because I felt like I could do something and I could hear what I was doing and I could hear where it was and I could play with it. Whereas before, I was just sort of 'well, I'm hitting these keys here and I don't really know what's happening.' So yeah, for a short period of time, there was an openness to the music itself. It had space in it, which was something that it had not had in a very long time and I did enjoy that. And Chris was part of that.

PSF: So what finally happened where you decided that you had enough of Ubu once and for all?

Well, I think that it was that I never really did like touring. And so in '88, I just decided that I wasn't going to do it anymore. And then in '91, I got the job with the airline. And then there just wasn't any time to do anything (else) anymore at that point. So I really just stopped. I think I cut a record with them in '91 but I think it was the last thing I did.

PSF: You mean on Worlds in Collision?

Yeah, I think I had a couple of songs on there. I remember going out to Suma (Studios) a couple of times and had some minor part in it.

PSF: So you made the decision that you didn't want to be a musician anymore?

Yeah. It was a conscious decision that I was going to try to dedicate my free time to being a writer.

PSF: So what happened with that career? Did you concentrate on that and then go back to flying?

No, actually. From the time I started flying in '83, I was flying all the time, just not so much. It was sporadic. And then when I had the corporate job, that happened after I left the band. That was what I did in that period of time, in between '88 and '91, when I went into full time for the airline.

PSF: What got you interested in flying in the first place?

I took my first airplane ride in 1955. My grandparents used to go to Florida in the winter time and they'd take me with them. And my grandfather would get me up into the cockpit in the aircraft and I would see those guys up there and all that stuff. And I just thought that was really cool, to be able to do that. So I always had an interest in it. I just didn't think I was smart enough to do it. I'm still not sure about that. But I went after it when I was 33 and I just decided 'well, what the hell- I'm going to try to do this.' And I found out I could and enjoyed it. Then I just remember that there was a conscious decision. I remember taking my wife out to dinner to a small restaurant in Cleveland and telling her that I was going to trying to make a living out of flying an airplane. She did a really good job of hiding how terrified that made her and I didn't know about that for years. But she went along with it and... with one thing after another, I ended up being able to do that.

PSF: Did you continue writing also?

I did until I wrote a novel and then it was not publishable. It's too dark, too strange. No one will ever... Actually, I don't even have it anymore. I managed to lose everything via various computer crashes and the fact that I didn't save things on paper. But it took me a really long time to write it and in the process, I didn't really write much of anything else. And when it was done, I just found that I couldn't maintain the level of interest that it takes to finish something. I would start something and write on it for a couple of days and then I would find that I didn't care enough about it to continue. And that just went on for a period of time while I was living here (New York) for so long that I just found that I just stopped.

PSF: You were talking before that you really didn't have the urge to go back into music, only if it was a really special circumstance.

Yeah and that would really be more out of a friendship thing than a desire to play.

PSF: You couldn't see yourself touring or recording regularly then?

No! Unless something happened where I had to, to make a living somewhere. If it's either that or you're going to be trying to dig holes in the street, I'd probably figure out how to do it. It wouldn't be that I have some kind of desire smoldering inside, waiting to get some air blown on it.

PSF: What did you think were some of the high points of Ubu when you were in the band? What do you remember most fondly from that time?

(pauses) Um... I'll tell you one of my favorite stories. We used to play a club in Berlin called the SO36. It was a very small place and it had almost no ventilation in it. It would fill up and it was so steamy in there that condensation would form on the walls. And I remember one night getting up on the stage and the opening moment of the performance was a woman throwing a shoe at us. And it was just un-bear-ably loud! It was so loud in there, it was painful. And at the end, I went up to the soundman and I said 'why does this have to be so loud? What is that about?' He said 'well, it's because the club is right up against the Wall. The kids in East Berlin sneak in to the buildings on their side of the Wall to listen to the music.'

And Cutler was the one who had me read a book called The Bass Saxophone Player. It's a fascinating story about how in the Second World War, the folks that lived in the occupied territories would sneak off into the hills on the weekend and they would get into these little clubs, hotels and they would put on zoot suits and stuff and they would spin the stuff that was going on over here, like Benny Goodman. And they would dance to it and they would have a lookout watching the road and when the Gestapo would come, they would jump out of their zoot suits and put on their folk costumes. And the band would play folk music and they would dance to that to hide what they were up to. And the idea that... you would risk your life to hear some kind of music... just unbelievable. And so that story was always fascinating to me- those kids were risking their necks, sneaking into these abandoned buildings to hear this. And this club (Ubu was at) was cranking the music as loud as it was so that there was some chance that they could hear it on the other side.

PSF: When was this?

Probably early 80's. So that was remarkable and then like I said, that story about the power shifts in Amsterdam at night...

Oh and I remember, I was very impressed when we got invited to play in Ljubljana- I think it was one of the cities that was bombed in the Serbian War. But it was the cultural capital and the place we played was the Hall of the National Opera. We were the first American rock band that had ever been invited to play there. I remember that the guy that was the promoter there was named Igor and he had wire-rimed glasses and his skin had an odd greenish tone to it. When he wasn't promoting shows, he made his money by submitting to medical experiments. When I was out of the band and was working for this airline and I was in a hotel in Detroit and I had the news on one night, they were showing the shelling of Ljubljana during the Bosnian War, there was a guy trying to interview people running by on the streets and there he was! Igor, getting interviewed by this guy.

You know, it's more things like that than performances that I remember. It's the phenomenon of having been there. I mean, the Iron Curtain was still up and the thing that I had heard about when I was a kid and I was terrified about was still there. We were getting across it to play these concerts. When you went to Berlin, you drove down the highway that went from West Germany through East Germany to Berlin 'cause Berlin was in East Germany. And when you entered, they gave you a piece of paper that had a time stamp on it and you had X amount of time to get to the other end of that causeway or you were in trouble. But I remember crossing those borders and all these young guys with heavy duty weapons... And as soon as they found out you were a band, they were like 'oh my God!' And if you gave them records, they were just in heaven. There was just the phenomenon of all that. It was just amazing that I was there to see it. So I was really lucky that I got to do all that stuff. That's much more precious to me than all the rest of it in terms of what I remember about it. I don't remember the gigs that much, it was those special things.

PSF: Since you left Ubu, have you heard the Ubu records that come out afterwards?

Bits and pieces. Raygun Suitcase, I like that. I thought that was good. That's about it.

PSF: I've thought that Robert Wheeler (the band's current synth player) was taking up your mantle. Did you feel that way?

Yeah. You know, Robert is just the nicest guy. When (Ubu guitarist) Jim Jones died, I was in Cleveland for the memorial. And Robert was there and so was David. I was talking to Robert. David informed me that in the past, I had been very insulting of Robert. I was horrified if that was true. He's done great stuff. I don't know why I would have ever felt that way. But I think he does a great job. He was very enamored of the work I did- another person I seemed to have fooled into thinking that I was up to something. And he DID try to do some things that I did, but I think he was much better at it in the long run. He developed it in ways that I never did, that's for sure.

PSF: What do you listen to nowadays?

Mostly the radio. Most of the time, it's either NPR or the local classical station or the jazz station that's on satellite radio, 'Real Jazz.' That's what I mostly listen to. My wife is the one that usually plays music. My son is a music buff and he is interested in all kinds of music. He puts together compilations that he sends sometimes- I listen to those. Half the time I don't even know what's on them. But I've heard some Prince stuff that I really liked. He's a big Prince fan. I still listen to Tom Waits. And I listen to... those guys that did the soundtrack to Madagascar. Will I Am. I don't know Black Eyed Peas but I listened to the soundtrack and thought 'that's just really good!' So I mean I hear things that I really like... There's a stupid ad on TV for Axe cologne and there's the one called Spin- it's this guy who keeps changing what he looks like. Whatever that is in the background, that is really good. And I loved... that Lincoln ad a while back, 'da da da, da da da, da da da da!' ("Bird's Lament") Is that Moondog? I love Moondog and it really made me mad when Lincoln stole that because I thought 'now there's a whole generation of people who are going to think that somebody wrote that for Lincoln.' I hated that.

And the other day there was an ad on for some car and the music in the background, I thought 'that was really great.' I don't know what it is. I hear things that I like but a lot of times, I can't identify them and I don't know how to get a hold of them.

I'll tell you what I do know! I listen to Pandora and I have a Wynton Marsalis station and I have a Django Reinhardt station. I listen and go the annual Django Reinhardt festival. And Ran Blake. That's the great thing is that I'll hear something and if I can get the name, I'll write it down in my little notebook and then I'll go home and I'll get up Pandora and I'll put that name in there and I'll get stuff back. So that's how I find out about that.

PSF: Do you have any all-time favorite albums?

In my opinion, the record that I've probably listened to more than any other single record is The Band.

PSF: What is it about that record?

Everything! Everything about that is amazing. The horns... When that thing was made, what they were writing about and all that music that they made, that was SO not that period of time. And the quality level of it- the voice, the lyrics. Everything about it... I can listen to that over and over and over again and never tire of it. I get excited about it every time I put it on. So I have to NOT put it on sometimes just so it doesn't completely wear it out. But I bet I've listened to that record more than any other single record. And I know Culter likes it. I was on a rant in an e-mail one day about that and he wrote me back and told me about the parts in it that he liked best. So I know he really likes but I love that.

There's Tom Waits... My accountant is a Cleveland guy who's a nut, who's a disc jockey on weekends. And whenever he does my taxes, he'd send me back a CD that he's made. He did one that I just love and I don't know where it's from but it's Tom Waits talking about cars with cars in the background. He's standing next to the freeway and he's talking about it. He's telling stories about various cars he's owned. He's playing a character, sounds like some Southern guy, but he's talking about the Pontiac maybe and I love that thing. I mean it's just goofy stuff I like but for records, it's really that Band record that I love.

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