Perfect Sound Forever


Ubu live (with Thomas, Gary Siperko) in NYC, June 2016; photo by Jason Gross

Datapanik Reversal Machine
David Thomas interview by David Gavan, Part 2

see Part 1 of the David Thomas interview

PSF: It seems that society's sensibilities changed notably when we switched from a barter system to a cash economy. The value accorded to science and empiricism seemed to rise, probably because binary oppositional thinking both reflects and tacitly justifies the profits and losses model. What's your take?

DT: Clearly, going from barter to cash is a fundamental shift. Bartering is more socially-involved, and the rise of cash removed a whole system of human interaction. Strangely enough, I was thinking about these ideas, actually, last night. I was watching the Star Trek: Enterprise series, where they're travelling around space and they have to barter. There is no cash in space; in space no one can hear you scream.

I was thinking of this in the context of determining what you can exchange with others, if you need to establish a compatibility of needs. It's similar to a promoter asking me how much I want to play live, and I think: I want 100,000 dollars, but what I'm going to get I don't know.' I haven't thought this subject through properly yet, but, yes, switching from barter to cash changed the social fabric in a significant way.

Actually, there's an associated cultural shift, when our society changed from exchanging literally valuable metals to exchanging representational paper and coin currency.

PSF: Is that because cash and coin is an abstract representation of literal, precious metal value, so by using avatars of precious metals, we are at one remove from reality?

DT: That had to affect the way we think, yeah. It's an early manifestation of virtual reality.

PSF: In Baptized Into the Buzz, you resist the idea that we're other than nature, and argue that technology is part of nature, by virtue of its being a part of us. At the same time, you evoke Henry David Thoreau in "The Fortunate Son" song on The Long Goodbye. Now, Emerson and Thoreau were part of the Transcendentalist movement, and wanted us to rise above the way society and technology has corrupted us. But, what if the ghost towns you despise- along with postmodern relativism, internet tribalism, identity politics versus communal political engagement, global warming, etc.- is entirely natural? This all comes from the heart of humankind, so isn't it part of nature? What if all of the above is our natural destiny?

DT: Well, you could argue that if you believed that the forces of modernity are of nature. I'm not sure that this argument could ever hold up, though. We are entirely political, the agenda is entirely political. And politics is not, in my view, of nature.

PSF: I agree with you.

DT: We have this force that's operating, which is a central force in a social system such as ours. People love conspiracies, but I've always said to the people who push them: 'If it's a conspiracy, then how come you know about it?'

No, the greatest and the only conspiracy is modernity, which brings with it a whole raft of side-effects. But it's not a conspiracy: it's this mindless, soulless, personality-less force that derives, ultimately from... Well, ultimately, it derives from evil. The social constructs of modernity spring from our darker side, and everything flows from that. There could be groups of people who are think that they are controlling modernity, but they are simply surfing on the wave of modernity. They think this gives them power.

PSF: But the sea is sewage.

DT: Yes, of course. Interestingly enough, the sea has traditionally been used to portray man's untrammelled psyche.

PSF: I'd like to return to the subject of the sea and what it symbolizes, but first I'd like to ask you about the technical aspects of your recent work. You've got Robert Wheeler on analogue synth, then you have Gagarin on digital electronics. Have you made a conscious decision to combine analogue and digital with a view to simultaneously sounding retro and futuristic? The Long Goodbye reminds me of how Roxy Music's first album simultaneously looked backwards and forward.

DT: (laughing) The album originated with me in the studio playing synthesizers. There's a certain retro-ness to my playing in that I don't know anything! I would sit there and work until I came up with something that seemed to suit the subject of the song. Previously to this album, yeah, I purposefully envisioned that combination of analogue and digital. Those are the two faces of synthesizers now.

I was brought up with the analogue idea of synthesizers, and part of that idea is very compatible with the way I work. It facilitates your working impulsively, quickly, and the first idea you get is the best, if you've trained yourself that way. Also, you can't go back to a given sound. That's the thing with analogue synthesizers. You get a sound and a context and have to use it immediately, 'cause it's gone as soon as you shut your machine down. Whereas digital synthesizers have an entirely different ethos.

These differences are very interesting to me, and I love that combination. It's the nature of life, where you want to have something that is absolute, that you can return to, and it sets the parameters, and it's always reliable. Well, that's digital creativity. But, then, there's an element of the human consciousness which is entirely impulsive, non-conscious, which is dealing with an understanding that's beyond words. And there you have the analogue.

PSF: You're interested in our pre-verbal consciousness, aren't you?

DT: I've never liked words, particularly. I hate talking, I don't like participating in conversations. Which is odd, in that I come from a very literate family. My father would frequently burst into a Walt Whitman recital, or whoever happened to be on his mind. I suppose it was comical, the way he would just erupt into quotations.

But, this is the nature of consciousness; that things come from nowhere. This whole notion that we think is absurd to me. I've never had a thought in my life. I sit there, and then something comes into my head, then brain experts portray this in terms of my constructing ideas from pre-formulated blocks of meaning.

Humanity is all about that combination of the absolute and the uncertain. Digital and analogue. Creativity is impulsive, but it must be organized.

PSF: I was thinking that your father's recitals must have percolated through your unconscious, because certain lines on The Long Goodbye remind me of, say, Whitman or Faulkner. Or "Something's Got To Give" on The Tenement Year album (1988) seems to be steeped in the atmosphere of The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos.

DT: Well, I don't know if I could quote you a Whitman line, but, as I've mentioned, I see patterns. So the pattern of these things was imprinted when I was very young. The individual words are an irrelevance, it's the pattern that counts. I couldn't get through much Faulkner- probably because I was only 10 at the time- but I did pick up on his syntax, and the very notion of syntax. My favourite writer was always Hemingway; I loved him; that was the dawning of consciousness for me. I read The Sun Always Rises (1926), and realized that the whole message lay between the lines. As a little boy, the idea that what was being communicated was beyond words seemed like a major revelation.

PSF: This notion filters into your music. There's a song on Worlds In Collision (1991) called "Playback" (the title nods towards Raymond Chandler's final novel) which contains the line: "feel like the raging sea." Some might find this hackneyed, but, given the music's elemental power, it feels as though that's the only line you could have placed there. Music doesn't just portray, it embodies, and Playback embodies something primal, pre-intellectual and pre-postmodern.

DT: You raise a very fundamental issue, here. Number one, I purposefully wrote that song to be hackneyed. I allowed myself to go into that territory. One of the reasons is something which you alluded to, which is that humans are connected through thousands of years of poetry and thought on this planet. As I've mentioned, the sea traditionally represents spiritually-unmoored humankind.

PSF: Jung wrote that the sea was a powerful symbol of the unconscious.

DT: Yes. This all struck me when I heard The Kingston Trio's version of "A Worried Man" (1959) in the early sixties. 'It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.' I was having a discussion with Greil Marcus one day about how that song goes back to Babylonian times. Or think of Neil Young's 'Down by the river, I shot my baby': that is one of the most ancient motifs known to humankind. It's all about the river, and rivers mean something; they have a fundamental power in expression, that's essential to humans. You know:

'By the river of Babylon,
we wept when we remembered Zion.'
(The Melodians "Rivers of Babylon," 1970)

Again and again, we bring up these images, because they can express life more evocatively than some philosophical, academic contrivance. So, if people don't like my singing about "the raging sea," I say: 'Too bad, honey! Me and the raging sea go back to the pyramids.' It's like the Metric system. You know, feet, inches and yards all go back to the pyramids. 'So, what have you got, Metric Boy?! You've got Napoleon.' I'd rather go back to the pyramids, thank you.

PSF: Yeah, when young hipsters complain about "cliched," "cheesy" expressions of adoration, they're missing the fact that our unconscious is stuffed with ineluctable archetypes, and these often evoke nature. Music pre-empts intellectual snobbery.

DT: Something only becomes a cliché when a cynic gets hold of it! That's one of my bon mots. I like to think in slogans, because:

a) I find them very reassuring, and

b) I have a fundamental belief that all problems have a simple solution. If a solution to a problem is complex, it won't work, I'll tell you that right now. It only takes courage, fortitude and wisdom to understand the simplicity of everything.

The lie is complex: if you try to maintain a lie over years, it get pretty damn complex pretty damn quickly, and reveals itself.

PSF: You once said that David Lynch wants 'small town America to be about weirdness and decay' because it 'justifies his life choices.' Whereas Lynchland has an element of postmodern irony in the atmosphere, your evocation of Chandler's Bay City is pervaded by moral outrage. Is this what lies behind your love of Chandler's work; the unwavering respect for decency?

DT: Yes, of course. The whole point about Philip Marlowe- which is at the centre of the American iconography- is he's a good man. Imperfect, but a good man, trying to make his way in a bad world. This is the crux of the Elvis phenomenon.

I stumbled upon a gathering of Elvis fans in Memphis in the week he died. They meet every year. You should go to one; I hope they're still the same. They take over a motel somewhere, all of the doors of the rooms are open, and people have displays and things on their window sills and beds. They sit around all night talking about Elvis, and you hear over and over how decent he was. People try to trap them into thinking about drug-use scandals or the problems he had, as if these people are rubes or something. No, what you keep on hearing is that he was a good man, he had a good heart! But he was corrupted by the Colonel, or Hollywood-however you want to personify the forces in question. And, that's Philip Marlowe.

Fundamental to Philip Marlowe is moral outrage, the stench of corruption. So Bay City is- as I say in "The Road Ahead"- the end of the road. The end of the road is the grave; it's looking back and understanding that it was all pointless. That, in the end, the struggle was the whole point. Trying to keep a good heart, trying to be a good man, and to do the good thing, when you're imperfect and you're in a world that's just crap. So when Marlowe is sitting on a bench watching the waves break on Bay City, which he always knew- WHICH HE ALWAYS KNEW- would be the end of the road, at least he knew that he had fought the good fight.

PSF: The idea of a defiant decency, even though it is utterly futile and gets washed away by time reminds me of Samuel Beckett's work.

DT: Whatever you believe at heart- whether you believe in God, or you don't believe in God, or you don't know what you believe- that's the only conclusion you can come to.

PSF: When writing about Nirvana's video of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991), in Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives (2000)- a book that I know you know- Greil Marcus opines that "sometimes you need to speak without irony." David Foster Wallace was also concerned about the corrosive effects of postmodern irony.

Doesn't cultural relativism (although such ideas weren't championed by Jacques Derrida) and irony of the "that-film-was-so-shit-it-was-good" variety militate against rebellion, or any form of sincere expression?

DT: Well, I'm trying to remember my bon mot on this subject, which went something like:

'Irony is the final refuge of the weak-willed and cowardly.'

So, yes, I agree. Irony is despicable. What is the point of it? A certain amount of self-deprecation might be confused with irony, but I think that humility is healthy. One thing that I despise about the English is that they think that irony is some sort of admirable attribute. It's like a get-out clause from facing life, and I'm not in favour of these escape hatches.

And humour does not have to be sneering irony. If you can't see the humour that's chucked in huge bucketloads all over Pere Ubu, then you've not been paying attention. But that doesn't mean that the band is a vapidly comical enterprise. Don't get me started on comedians: I despise them; it's just typical of our times that they're so exalted.

PSF: The song "Cry, Cry, Cry" from Worlds in Collision is both funny and deadly serious. It's fifties rock 'n' roll played in 1991. The spoken intro evokes those doo-wop songs from bands in nostalgia films like Grease. Obviously, although the song's character isn't David Thomas, you've surely experienced his desolation.

That seems to be the point that you're making. The perceptive line: 'I play the part of a broken man, and all I've got to do is act naturally' tells the listener that the singer both isn't and is you. It's a canny comment on the unreliable narrator in literature. Also, the song evokes a passed era, so could be described as postmodern. But it's not just pastiche. What's your view?

DT: That line you quote is a good line, but I probably stole that from somebody. But, okay, I'll take the compliment. You see, the nature of folk music is that it's a vast communal repository of stored wisdom, and you can respectfully rewrite somebody else's song.

You had it back in the sixties: the Beatles would write a response to a Beach Boys song, and Brian would write a response to their response to his response. It was a shared dialogue, a shared exploration, a shared set of characters. It's a shame that that's been lost, because the singer-songwriter syndrome is really very irritating. Everybody thinks they're watching some tortured individual playing out his misery for their entertainment, and this is all about him. But, that's really a very recent idea.

PSF: In an interview with Jim Jarmusch in 1977, you say the following:

'We're not innocent, like the Beach Boys are innocent, cuz nobody can be innocent anymore. But we know what innocence is, and we know we have to try to get back there, even if it is tinged with reality.'

The concept of reality runs all the way through the Pere ubu canon: The Modern Dance (1978) featured a song called "Real World," and "What I Heard On the Pop Radio" on the new album derides our love of ersatz reality. Related themes are the horror that the world may be exactly the way it appears; the inability to distinguish between dreams and reality; the idea that non-places are more real than actual locations.

Why were you sensitive to ontology and the nature of reality at such a young age?

DT: It's an interesting question, actually. The more I think of our theory of Datapanik, and our whole understanding of the media, the more I realize that it was pretty damned prophetic for very young kids.

Cleveland was a very strange experience, because we were isolated, but we had access to everything. So, there was no imperative to choose one thing over another. When it came to musical taste, for instance, everything was there.

We had an innate understanding of the media that I think comes from the fact that the mass media was going through a paradigm shift as we were growing up. It was changing from a BBC parental, do-gooder attitude, which assumed that the refined are in charge of the media, and this is where the great and the good gather to guide us poor morons who were blindly living our lives.

And it was a crucial transition period into the mechanised beast that it would become. So that period from the late sixties through the early seventies was where this transformation was transmitted. And I think we just saw it for the recalibration that it was; it was plain as day to us that this trend would continue.

I mean, we were huge fans of late night used car commercials, and Popeil Veg-O-Matic commercials (an early food-processor appliance). This was a media frontier that had just opened, so you had a lot of people popping up on T.V. at night. You began to get the U.H.F channels; it was really cheap T.V.; almost anybody could get into it. I remember this one guy, who had a late night talk show, and there's this one time where he told the crew to turn off all the lights. This guy smoked cigars, and for an hour- ON T.V.!- all you could see was the glowing ash of his cigar. You can't get that sort of thing anymore! There was a lot of stuff like that, and then you had Ghoulardi (the fictional T.V. character invented and portrayed by actor and D.J., Ernie Anderson) lighting fireworks in the studio, and so on.

And, out in the world, as a kid, I did stuff THAT YOU CAN'T IMAGINE! In these days of health and safety, and rules and regulations, I can't imagine how any of us survived. We didn't have any of that shit. We went out into the street and just played.

So, everything was very different at that point: it was the last days of a very seasoned frontier. And the technology was in the hands of wacky people, who were just willing to DO things. You know: 'Well, let's just do it. What could go wrong? We won't get arrested. Nobody is watching!'

So, we saw the control begin to move in, and suddenly, the newscasters were being replaced by slicker, younger people, and the news was changing, and the quote/unquote narrative was changing, and forms of manipulation were coming in.

There was this art terrorist crew in Cleveland called "American Splendor"- Fred and Ethel Mertz. This was the point at which these American news crews, with their happy-clappy, 'I'm your friend, and I'm going to tell you the news' attitude were moving in.

There'd be these massive billboard portraits of this shabby 'family gathering' of the 11 o'clock newscasters, and Fred and Ethel Mertz would paint moustaches and goatees on these billboards. They would also write in huge letters above these portraits slogans like 'Nuke the whales'! So, it was a very potent time of change, and we saw these changes cranking into life. And I guess that must have sensitized us to what was coming down the tracks.

PSF: Fred and Ethel Mertz were like Cleveland Situationists. Also, you all pre-empted that 1977 film Network, didn't you?

DT: Right. I remember that film being released, and thinking, optimistically: "Oh, good: everybody's catching onto the media manipulation." But, of course, that was a dead end...

(It's apposite that David Thomas concludes the interview by using street imagery with reference to cultural changes. He sees patterns; that's one of his skills.)

Special thanks to Kiersty Boon for all of her help

Also see:

Our interview with Pere Ubu's Allen Ravenstine

Our article on Peter Laughner

Our article on Rocket From the Tombs

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER