- David Thomas: A legend in his own mind.
The book isn't quite closed on Pere Ubu. Formed in Cleveland some 25 years ago, the group was never popular enough to garner radio airplay, but has still had (and arguably continues to have) an enormous influence. "Final Solution," one of the first songs it recorded, prefigured both the punk and Goth movements. Singer David Thomas, who now lives in London, recently reflected on the underground art rock band's significance and said that he knew he was onto something when he was playing shows at small clubs in the Flats in the mid- to late-'70s.
"We certainly knew we were special, and there was a sense of being unique and of being at a point in art history," he says via phone from his home in Brighton. "The thing you have to keep in mind is that [punk rock] hadn't been invented yet, so there was no model of expectations. We didn't think anyone would hear anything we ever did. That's why we decided to put out one of our records in 1975. We thought that maybe someone would find one of our records one day. We thought that this burst of whatever it was was over. We were just going to make a couple of records and see how it went."
Well, Ubu has made more than "a couple of records." While its lineup has fluctuated radically over the years (cult guitarists like Mayo Thompson and Wayne Kramer have even been part-time members), the group put out close to 20 albums and, according to Thomas, has begun thinking about yet another studio record. In the meantime, Thirsty Ear Records has been reissuing the band's back catalog. The latest reissues, Song of the Bailing Man (1982) and The Art of Walking (1980), come out November 16. While there's virtually no difference between the Thirsty Ear reissues and 1996's Datapanik in the Year Zero boxed set, Thomas says that reissuing the individual albums was important, because the boxed set was taken out of print two years ago, and the Thirsty Ear versions include the original artwork.
The material from the group's years on the Fontana imprint has yet to be reissued, but Thomas says he's working on clearing the legal hassles that have prevented the material from seeing the light of day. This year, he also released a solo album (with the assistance of an ensemble he calls the Pale Orchestra) called Mirror Man (not to be confused with the Captain Beefheart or Human League songs by the same name). It's the first act from a two-act play that Thomas wrote, conducted, and directed. Part of the Disastrodrome Festival, which ostensibly took its name from the nickname given to the old WHK Auditorium on Euclid Avenue, the play was performed on a stage adorned with old refrigerators, traffic cones, and scrap metal (which sounds like a typical Slavic Village backyard). Its bleak setting, a place called Nowheresville, might seem similar to the industrial parts of Cleveland, but Thomas insists that's not necessarily so.
"Mirror Man takes place in the middle of nowhere," explains Thomas, who moved to England in 1984. "Cleveland has an influence on everything I do, but it's not located in Cleveland. It's about that twilight region between darkness and light. Clearly that's a feeling that was very prominent in our perception of Cleveland 20 years ago, but it's not limited to that. Bruce Springsteen writes about the same kind of stuff all the time, and it's not necessarily about New Jersey."
It could be argued that Thomas has found greater acceptance in England than he ever had in the U.S. Mirror Man, after all, was part of a government-commissioned festival that Thomas organized. In addition, guests on the album include English avant-garde artists like Chris Cutler and Jackie Leven. Thomas, however, doesn't see any great differences in the band's status on the two continents.
"The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I don't have any deep and meaningful experiences in England. It's just a place I live," he says, adding that he moved to England for "family reasons that had nothing at all to do with music."
"I live in Brighton now, and I actually live on the sea. I like Brighton considerably more, just because of the sea. London is a very anodyne town. There's no geography to it.
"We're not better recognized anywhere. We're legends here; we're legends there."
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Mint Condition, an R&B outfit from St. Paul/Minneapolis (although singer Stokely frequented Cleveland as a child to visit his Aunt Sula), was in town last week as part of a short promo tour to push its new album, Life's Aquarium, due November 16. It's the band's first studio release in three years and first on Elektra, its new label. In addition to doing radio and TV spots, the band made an appearance (but didn't perform) at Fat Fish Blue, where promoters handed out shells with raffle tickets inside (Soundbites is still trying to extract its ticket) and incense in plastic wrap that had the slogan "R&B isn't dead -- it's in Mint Condition." Soundbites isn't sure who's saying that R&B is dead, but whatever. Elektra's Ohio Valley Regional Promotions Manager Louis "Big Lou" Hoggard (not to be confused with "Big Phil," who does urban promotions at Warner Bros. Records in Manhattan) was on hand to slip select guests advance copies of the new album. Taking care of the promotional matters was Invictus Entertainment, a local agency that's hoping to sponsor other similar events and perhaps even book some hip-hop shows in C-town -- something that's desperately needed.
"We're party planners, for lack of a better word," says Greg Douglas, who started Invictus two and a half years ago with partner Tonya Range. "We want to do marketing and promotions, and bring different types of comedy and plays into the city. We want to be a fully functional entertainment company and do everything from concert promotions to artist management. We're trying to bring some good R&B and hip-hop groups to the city, but we want to bring good, fun, clean entertainment."
You can contact Douglas at his office at 216-426-1010 or by pager at 440-680-0882.
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MTV film crews were on hand for Static-X's show in Akron on November 3. The band, which was opening for Megadeth and has its single "Push It" in heavy rotation on said music channel, was being filmed for a live performance show that will air in the near future. Wonder if anyone told aptly named singer Wayne Static to comb his high-as-the-sky hair? -- Jeff Niesel
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