WHEN DISCUSSING the unusual decision that he made two years ago to have Pere Ubu perform its 1978 debut LP The Modern Dance in its entirety at a festival in Australia, singer/lead songwriter David Thomas revealed the overriding philosophy behind his creative endeavors.
"We tend not to be nostalgic," the 60-year-old musician says, speaking from his home in Brighton, England. "I tend not to remember things anyway. As soon as [an album is] done, I'm already looking at the next thing."
That mindset goes a long way toward making some sense out of the labyrinthine trajectory of Thomas' career, both as a frontman for various permutations of Pere Ubu and in his own solo undertakings. When his band first came together in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late '70s, their music was informed by the surge of punk rock in the US, but sounded nothing like it. Early singles like "Final Solution" and "Heart of Darkness" offered up hints of garage rock that burbled under the surface, but were overlaid with electronically rendered dying quails and some particularly smoldering guitar burnouts.
Over the course of 17 albums and nearly 40 years, Thomas and his revolving door of collaborators folded surf rock, new wave-edged pop (as on their underrated Cloudland and Worlds in Collision), and denatured blues into a base of avant-garde theatrics and sonic experimentation.
The latter model drove the creation of the latest Pere Ubu album, The Lady from Shanghai. There were no band rehearsals or group recording sessions. Thomas took demo recordings from one member, added to it as he saw fit, then handed it off to another of the musicians in the group—a laborious process and one that could have resulted in a mess, but the LP (released in January of this year) that came out of this is spotless. Electronic whirlpools threaten to overtake the rubbery rhythms and billowing melodies, leaving only Thomas' distinctive vocals and arch poetics to maintain an unusual balance.
Thomas also opened up the doors to Pere Ubu headquarters throughout the creation of the album, posting raw demos on the band's website as they were being worked on, as well as releasing a book-length treatise about the recording process, titled Chinese Whispers.
"I love the process and the method and watching other people work," he says. "So, we had this idea of transparence for this. We don't want to overburden you with extra information, but if people want it, they can get it."
It's also a reflection of how Thomas operates in interviews. He doesn't seem particularly thrilled about doing them, yet he's incredibly forthcoming about anything you'd want to know, like the strange news that he's training someone to replace him in the band.
"They'll have to learn to think in a compatible way to me," he says. "They'll have to be able to write and perform in a way that fits the band. It's a question of understanding the rules and why we do things the way we do them, and how to do things under those conditions."
Thomas isn't looking to retire anytime soon, mind you. Pere Ubu are already working on album #18 and, in Thomas' eyes, "beginning the next phase of things," he says. "We've jumped into the next thing, because I want to get on with it. I've still got years to go. I'll go until I get bored, and I don't get bored."