Pere Ubu


Not many rock bands have a motto, and those that do seldom live out their philosophy with the dedication of Pere Ubu.  “Ars longa, spectatores fugaces” translates as “Art is forever, the audience comes and goes”. and tonight it proves to be a perfect articulation of the Pere Ubu ethic.

Honing their unique and ever-evolving brand of experimental art-pop since 1974, they have garnered much critical acclaim while managing to avoid anything approaching commercial success.  My pre-gig reading around the band finds leader David Thomas describing Pere Ubu as “the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock ‘n’ roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio”.

Tonights show at the Band on the Wall is split into two sets.   The opening half hour is performed by ‘The Pere Ubu Moon Unit”, who we are told will improvise and work through some ideas “If we’re OK with that”.  Thomas performs seated, flanked by Theremin and chief electronic noise architect Robert Wheeler, Darryl Boon on Clarinet, Steve Mehlman on drums and Keith Moliné on Guitar.  There are no apologies offered for what will happen: Thomas asks us to “concentrate on the soulfulness of the situation”, and promises to “come back in a professional situation” for the main set.

What we then hear is an evolving soundscape, as the sonic experiment unfolds:  At one point I’m hearing soaring jazz-clarinet over a sample of a toilet flushing, then moments later a heavy blues Tom Waits stream of consciousness accompanied with chain-struck drums and 1950’s sci-fi sound effects, then haunting folk melodies and dolphin clicks thrown against the sound of the edges of the universe folding in on themselves. It is truly out there, and astounding to witness.

It is clear that Pere Ubu do not deal in songs and melody so much as sonic tension and textures, and they use familiar sounds to both ground and alienate the listener, constantly shifting expectations, such as placement of warmth of the Clarinet against a white noise squall. There is free jazz, electrics, noise and dissonance, rhythm and rhyme, squawks and squeals. It is unhinged yet crafted, careless but crafted, and totally immersive.

This improvisation is a rare insight for me into how these musicians shape pieces potentially destined for a future album, and the dynamic between the players is fascinating to watch.  This is still performance though,  and Thomas provides an entertaining narrative throughout, demanding at one point that the band produce “Martian hillbilly Dixie music, with 47 marching drums and I want it to swing and sway, I want it to groove the way we like it back home (on Mars)…”


Pere Ubu

By comparison the main set sees an initial degree of normality descend, as the band are joined by long-time collaborator Gagarin
on Keyboards.   Opener ‘Come Home’ is a composite of radio static, narrative cut-up and clarinet genius :  ‘The Long Walk Home’ is a squall of energy before beaking down to free-form jazz and a closure of electro-burps.  ‘Bus Station’ from new album Carnival of Souls is the nearest thing I’ve heard so far tonight to “commercial” music, and gets the sparse crowd moving before a significant mood change occurs.

As the final bleeps of ‘Nevada’ fade, it becomes clear that something has upset David “We appreciate the feeble effort at appreciation.  If you really want to appreciate strange, if you really want to experience strangeness, just all of you stand there some night and don’t clap:  You won’t be able to stand it. You think you can? Alright, we’re going to do an experiment…Nobody claps from here-on out”.

A sense of ambiguous unease settles on the room as this expectation is set out, and the set proceeds. Highpoints of the night  include ‘333’, ‘Caroleen’ and the beautiful ballad ‘Irene’, but the whole mood of the evening is off-kilter. When a heckle is raised at the end of ‘My Friend Is a Stooge for the Media Priests’ Thomas retorts “We discussed before, it’s not a dialogue.  I don’t need your help.  I don’t need your comments, I don’t need your encouragement.  Frankly, I don’t need you. It’s OK! You don’t need Us!. It’s like a perfect partnership”.

I reflect then on the Motto, and see his truth.  David Thomas and Pere Ubu are ploughing a furrow of individualism in a commodity age, and his alienation, frustration and general contempt are enablers to this, allowing him to focus his thoughts and energy on achieving his art without having to accommodate the distractions of commercialism or populism, or satisfying an audiences expectations.

But the truth is we all have bills to pay, even conceptual artists, and Thomas ends the night with a singular and engaging ploy.   Dispatching the drummer off stage he declares “this last song is only to provide time for Steve to get out to the merchandise stand because that’s the most important part of the show. The only reason we show up here is to sell you T-Shirts and records and CD’s and books and badges, just anything you want, we got it”.

And the final song?  “Buy merchandise now”.  Genius.

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