"The classic Pere Ubu way of dealing with problems," explains the band's lead singer, David Thomas, "is to stop working until the problems go away." Classic perhaps, but not exactly expeditious: Pere Ubu, the seminal Cleveland band that took its name from the once-scandalous Alfred Jarry play "Ubu Roi," has neither toured nor recorded since 1982.
"It's not even particularly a reunion," Thomas says of the two-week "reunion tour" that will bring the band to the 9:30 club tomorrow night. "We never really broke up. But recording the last album was a very difficult situation. Nobody had the strength of will to solve what needed solving."
Now time has ameliorated those "personnel and logistical" problems, which Thomas declines to discuss in detail. Asked what is different about the new incarnation of the band, which recorded seven largely unheralded studio albums (including its masterpiece, the clangorous yet oddly graceful "Dub Housing"), Thomas replies, "Well, basically nothing. Our principles remain the same since 1975," the year Ubu's first self-released single, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," helped define an emerging punk-rock scene.
The new Ubu includes four of the band's former mainstays -- Thomas, synthesizer player Allen Ravenstine, bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Scott Krauss -- and two recent recruits, guitarist Jim Jones and drummer Chris Cutler. A former member of Henry Cow, Cutler is well known in the English avant-rock circles that Thomas, who's lived in Britain for the past three years, has frequented recently; Jones, whom Thomas describes as "an old mainstay of the Cleveland music scene," has worked as an Ubu sound technician. All of these musicians have played on one or more of Thomas' solo records. Indeed, the Wooden Birds, Thomas' backup group on his latest album, "Blame the Messenger," includes all of the new Ubu lineup except Krauss.
The current sound, Thomas says, is "progressive, forward-thinking and, as usual, spiced with a number of surprises." The dual drums, the only major break with the old Ubu strategy, "form an interesting breathing mechanism." Otherwise, he says, the reactivated band is simply "continuing on in the process. We're quite pleased that we don't fit any better now than we did in '78."
Considering the contemporary underground rock scene's debt to Pere Ubu, some might argue that the band fits better now than it did a decade ago. But Thomas rejects as "lunacy" the classification of Ubu as a precursor of the so-called industrial movement. The raw, sometimes brutal sound of Ubu's records, he concedes, has given rise to "the false notion that there is something industrial about Pere Ubu." He dismisses that scene, professing ignorance of some of the better-known industrial bands and saying, "I don't find a lot that's interesting in what's going on."
Ubu's Ravenstine, along with Suicide's Martin Rev, was a pioneer of the synthesizer, demonstrating that it could produce more than the mock-orchestral sonic upholstery common among early-'70s English art-rock bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Thomas, though, also has contempt for the synth-pop sound that Ubu helped spawn.
"The relationship of the musician with the sound is becoming estranged," he argues. "That's the crucial issue of the times. Sound intrinsically has meaning. The digital music being made today is distant, cold and has no meaning. That's not really using the power of music."
Ravenstine, he explains, plays an analog synthesizer and does not use preprogramming -- "he has developed a relationship with the instrument." However mechanical his timbres may sound, they share the looseness and spontaneity of the band's complex, jazzy style.
"We use sound for its evocative power," Thomas says. "One sound is worth a thousand words. You can express complex emotion in a few moments of music -- that's the true marvel of music. Obviously, if you could say it in words, you'd be a writer."
The "industrial" tag that Thomas resents also owes something to Ubu's close identification with its home town. The band's record covers frequently featured images of The Flats, Cleveland's dilapidated industrial sector. "For us," the singer recalls, "The Flats fulfilled the function of an art museum." He cites the area's shapes, sounds, lights and "sense of things being made" as crucial to "a vision that we are shaped by to this day."
Thomas doesn't worry that distance from this source of inspiration -- though the others remain Cleveland residents, he and the Washington-born Cutler live in London and Maimone resides in New York -- will hinder the band's creativity. "The Cleveland that we have the vision of never existed," he says. (Just in case, the sextet will still be based in Cleveland, where Thomas has continued to record despite his expatriate status.)
Though Pere Ubu has never sold very many records in this country, Thomas has supported himself as a musician since 1976. "We do pretty well," he says, "thanks to Europe." This two-week tour "to announce we're back" will also serve as a "warmup for album recording," after which the band will embark on an extended European tour. Thomas expects the record to be released in March (he thinks a label has been secured, but not securely enough to be announced), with a longer U.S. tour following the European jaunt.
Before all that, this mini-tour will test both a band that Thomas calls "a very powerful unit" and his impression that "the new material is quite wonderful." Ubu is "going out with 11 new songs that we can get all the way through" and "six catalogue hits," visiting some of the cities where the band has always drawn well, a short list on which Thomas includes Washington, New York, Boston and Los Angeles.
By his reckoning, though, the biggest hurdle has already been surmounted. "The severe test was Cleveland," he says. "The verdict of Cleveland, believe it or not, was that it was better than ever."