Have you ever dreamt that you were at a party in some unfamiliar house, and one of those cool, obscure bands that you admire was playing there? I found myself saying that to a friend one evening recently—one of the strangest, most singular evenings I’ve had in a long time!
Pere Ubu started out in 1975 as Cleveland apocalyptic art-punk, noisy and chaotic. But of late, they have revealed themselves more and more as purveyors of a strange sort of folk art—mixing experimental sound art, poetry, performance art and storytelling. The original self-described “avant garage” band released some epochal albums in the ’70s and ’80s, starting with The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, and since then has continued to refine their sound—less punk or “new wave,” but more a kind of experimental performance art. As The Modern Dance implied, they embodied the ’70s punk slogan, “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance,” except what they did was art too. My favorite album of theirs was their first live release, 1981’s 390° of Simulated Stereo, part of which was, according to liner notes, recorded at “the Disastodrome” in Cleveland: “One outlet supplies an electrical current that can only barely be considered to be under control. Cracked steam pipes and big sparks provide special effects. Winos lend a Voice of Doom to the proceedings from out of the dark fringes.” Lo-fi recordings on cassette and reel-to-reel, years before GBV or the “lo-fi” sound was hip, and to my ears, it’s utterly magical. There isn’t a band that better exemplifies the art-punk ethos of what you might call “controlled chaos.”
But they have lately followed a path more and more as storytellers. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in their “Living Room Concerts.” House concerts have become one of the hip developments in live music in recent years. In between tour stops, some bands allow fans to arrange for them to play small shows in people’s homes for a set fee, often without the full lineup, usually quieter than a regular concert, due to neighborhood noise ordinances. Hosts aren’t allowed to promote it as a commercial concert (it’s invite only), but they can recoup costs by asking for donations. It’s a more intimate setting, and often an opportunity to chat a little with your favorite musicians before or after the performance.
Kim Kasey, a friend of mine who is a friend of the evening’s host, alerted me to the show on Facebook a mere days earlier. Excited as I was to see probably my favorite band from the early ’70s “art-punk” scene, a time when the coolest bands in the world came out of Akron, Ohio and environs (see Devo!), I emailed my RSVP post haste. Several other friends got the word, too. The anticipation began to mount.
After taking the wrong freeway exit (and thereby missing a winter weather highway accident) a friend and I managed to locate the humble abode of Tyler Rentz along snow-lined Main Street in Farmington, 20-odd miles north of Salt Lake City. Rentz had been considering flying to their upcoming San Diego show later this month, but instead decided to propose a Living Room Concert. Unsure it was the right address at first, I knocked tentatively. A 40-ish guy with a soul patch and a baseball cap with “Edison” on it answered the door. “I’m Robert,” he said, and he ushered us in. As we began to orient ourselves about the smallish residence, a slightly older, slightly heavy-set man in a trenchcoat, with fading salt-and-pepper hair and scraggly whiskers introduced himself. He said, “Hi, I’m David,” (David Thomas of Pere Ubu, OMG! Robert was synth/theremin player Robert Wheeler. (Wheeler is a direct descendant of Thomas Edison)
There is wine and cheese, locally made (I think Beehive); bread and Kasey’s homemade jelly, typical of these gatherings. After a little conversation and the band’s minimal soundcheck of their minimal equipment—David’s melodium (a squeezebox similar to an accordion), Steve Mehlman’s electronic drumpad and real cymbal, and Wheeler’s theremin, Mellotron and Altschul synth. It was ‘Pere Ubu lite,’ sans the rest of the band, who would join them in Portland, Dec. 12. This event served to launch their West Coast tour!
David Thomas, from the looks of him, could be a traveling salesman, an itinerant preacher or an eccentric scholar, and his performing persona embodies all of these, as well, as at times, that of a raving street person. As an actor, filmmaker and playwright in addition to musician, he has a certain imposing stage presence. His voice ranges from streetwise, gutteral, throaty rumbles full of soul to high-pitched wails that evoke long periods of suffering. He has something about him roughly akin to Tom Waits as well as Captain Beefheart: the unlikely combination of street poet and avant-garde oddball.
The lights were dimmed, Rentz’s living room lit by candles as the audience sat on couches and chairs circled around, facing one end of the room that would be the “stage.” The instrumental backing on the numbers that they performed often served as atmospherics, as though to set a scene or create visual imagery. Before they started, I asked Thomas what they were going to play, and he answered to the effect that they had no idea. But at some point, they played something from their latest album, The Lady From Shanghai. As much as the songs were distinct entities, they still seemed to all run together. Maybe it was the surreal, dreamlike experience of seeing this legendary, influential yet still somehow obscure band in someone’s living room near your home town.
Thomas had a songbook he turned to at times, labeled on the front “Green River Anthology.” The title evoked local resonances as well as that great American folk poetry collection, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. To a song with chords similar to Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger,” he sings, “On Mars the Astros are losing/Mars has no women again.” … “Just over the horizon there was a valley that was filled with frozen clouds.” This is poetry. Remember that their namesake, Ubu Roi, comes from a reference to the Dadaist art movement. “I gotta work a deal in Heaven (Brother Ray)/The stars are comin’ undone.” There was an improvisatory feeling to the performance; Rentz said, “I like how almost intuitive the band sounds in their complete disregard for the structurally expected.”
Thomas may be the one truly idiosyncratic voice we have left in indie music. He was also dictatorial to the other band members, or pretended to be, scolding Wheeler, joking that the synth player would get fined for breaking a band rule of being the last one playing before a song ends. Several phrases with unfamiliar melodies float to the surface of recollection from the song “Heart of Darkness” from the album, Terminal Tower: “I don’t see anything that I want … and nothing that I see there isn’t deformed …” An apocalyptic Spoon/Green River? Wheeler was a bit like a mad scientist with his apparatus, rolling up his sleeves to make the gestures and movements around the wires of the theremin to shape its toneforms seemingly out of thin air.
They played several other songs: “Wig Alley” and “Kathleen, Why Don’t You Call My Name?” Several of these songs had been performed by Thomas at a solo show with melodion at a screening of the film “Zzyxx” last November in Milan, Italy. At one point, Thomas directed Wheeler, “I want to see orange groves in the desert. I wanna see lamplights, a little shack, full moon out in the desert. And Steve, I need to feel the blood pumping in my head, the chains rattling around.” And they conjured, out of their minimal equipment, an aural landscape that evoked an entire backdrop as Thomas spun out yet another story.
For roughly an hour, we had been held spellbound by his voice and words, by the sounds coaxed out of the musical equipment. “I wanna ride the mystery train,” Thomas exclaimed, and it was a journey into the mysteries of what music can create in the space of a small room between a handful of people.
Rentz says of hanging out with the enigmatic band after the show, “As David sat in the chair he had used for the show, and after he had grabbed a handful of cheese from the kitchen while Mehlman was disassembling some of the setup, I found it strange not to be asking a lot of questions. So it just came out of my mouth that I found it odd that I have no questions for him, but I understood that it would not be taken awkwardly. It was understood, relative silence, and I received an assured nod—like the uncle across the room from you. We had already talked as they were setting up anyhow, about their cold, windy hotel stay in Rock Springs, trying to stuff shirts and sheets in the visible and unrelenting gap of their Motel 6 door. This was their only performance stop between here and the destination in Portland. I then told him that I find both by questions and answers within the songs or performances themselves. They are the question and the answer. It seems that no true artist is an apologist, just as no artist can avoid betraying something about himself in a painting or other work. He asked me if I was a musician. I basically said I had been involved in the past and dabble now (former drummer with local band Die Monster Die). He warned me not to go down that path. As everyone recalled he played several songs about or with Utah features. They didn’t know why.
“Mehlman gave me the “Musicians Are Scum” shirt almost in answer, as well as the Lady From Shanghai CD and book Chinese Whispers. I am very eager to read it.”
As for myself, after a few glasses of wine, lightweight that I am, I gushed to David Thomas sitting there about how important their music was to me and how much I enjoyed in particular 390° as he cringed awkwardly. It seemed like pretty much how it always goes when you converse with someone possessed of genius. Then my friend and I went back out into the cold, barren winter night that seemed to offer no account for itself.