Tracing the antecedents of punk rock is as easy as whipping out your trusty map, then looking toward Michigan (The Stooges’ blood-stained, glass-stabbed, track-marked skuzzballness; MC5’s Afro-sized destructo rawk-n-roll bombast), New York (The Dolls’ lipstick-smeared, cross-dressing scum-blues), and finally Cleveland, where future Pere Ubu iconoclastic eccentrics David Thomas and Peter Laughner piloted proto-punk garage-rock innovators Rocket from the Tombs.
RFTT crystallized in 1974, hammered out anthemic classics like “Life Stinks,” “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Sonic Reducer” and ‘Ain’t it Fun,” played a handful of gigs, never recorded and were kaput by 1975 before splintering into avant-rock revolutionaries Pere Ubu and punk dirtbags, The Dead Boys. Laughner was a casualty way too young, succumbing to substance abuse problems at 24.
In 2003, RFTT’s posthumous comeback began when live bootlegs and demos surfaced as The Day The Earth Met The Rocket from the Tombs (just reissued by Fire Records), thus igniting a reunion tour with Television’s Richard Lloyd and inspiring the blistering studio document Rocket Redux. Nearly four decades after its inception, RFTT has completed the improbable, recording its debut Barfly and hitting the tour circuit.
Sound of the City spoke to the elusive (and extraordinarily nitpicking, interview-detesting) Thomas via email from home in the U.K. to talk Rocket from the Tombs and his curious plans for the future of Pere Ubu.
There has been chatter about your health, specifically pertaining to your visible weight loss. If you will, how is your health currently and should your fans be concerned?
I have no comment on the state of my health.
That said, you are going on a short tour with Rocket from the Tombs in support of Barfly, the first official album of studio-recorded new songs since the band’s inception. What sparked your wanting to record a brand-new RFTT album all these years later?
Ever since RFTT got back together in 2003, an album of new songs was on the cards. Work on new songs began almost immediately. The last tour we did a few years ago, featured 2-3 of the new songs. Once we decided to keep playing together after the reunion show in 2003, the only thing to do was write new material. None of us had any interest in being a tribute band.
RFTT is known as a legendary proto-punk band and highly influential along with the Stooges and MC5. A few years ago, the Stooges reunited and released a brand-new album of songs (2006’s The Weirdness) that was universally panned. Why not leave well enough alone with Rocket from the Tombs?
What other bands do or accomplish is none of our concern. What others think we should or should not do is none of our concern. The status of the band in other people’s eyes is none of our concern. We can do what we want. It’s our band and nobody has a say in it but us. We got together in 2003 and it was obvious that it was, still, a great, and exceptional rock band. We decided it would have been cowardly not to carry on and see where we would end up, where the journey would take us.
Since classic songs like “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Sonic Reducer,” “Final Solution,” “Muckraker,” “So Cold” and “Amphetamine” were originally RFTT songs (but later some were taken and recorded by Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys), did you consider starting from scratch by giving them the ‘studio treatment’ and recording any of those songs to include on Barfly, or did Rocket Redux take care of that?
We wanted Barfly to be all new material. That doesn’t preclude going back in the future, but RFTT was always a forward-looking band and it seemed inappropriate to revisit those songs at this point.
The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs includes covers of The Stooges (“Search and Destroy,” “Raw Power”) and the Velvet Underground (“Foggy Notion”). Will you be including cover songs in your live repertoire on the upcoming tour? Did you consider including covers on Barfly?
No covers. I don’t like covers except in rare instances. This was one of the sticking points in the original band. I hated covers. Peter loved covers. We were talking about making a single towards the end, when we already had all those great songs you list, and Peter only wanted to do 2 covers. It was nonsensical.
Peter was an original member of the “classic lineup” of RFTT and both wrote and co-wrote many of the band’s most well-known songs and provided guitar. Since Peter was such an integral member of the band and helped provide its aesthetic, how do you package Barfly as a “legitimate” Rocket from the Tombs album?
How? I tell Johnny to put the name on the CD spine. We do what we want to do when we want to do it and how we want to do it. It’s none of your business.
Richard Lloyd (Television), Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), original RFTT bassist Craig Bell and Ubu’s Steve Mehlman and all played on Barfly. Are you familiar with the fashionable term of choice these days they call “supergroup?” Is this incarnation of RFTT your idea of a ‘supergroup?”
Why isn’t Richard Lloyd partaking in the upcoming tour?
You’ll be playing Cleveland on the RFTT tour. Being that you currently live in the U.K. and have for many years, is there a memory that stands out in your mind you can share of Cleveland?
Getting on to a few Pere Ubu questions. Over Pere Ubu’s existence, you’ve proven to be one of the most charismatic, entertaining and foreboding front-man in rock. However, in the last couple of years, you’ve traded in that persona for a David Thomas with hands in pockets and very little movement, reading lyrics from a stand and drinking from a flask. What changed and what do you attribute this dramatic shift to?
I get to do what I want.
Pere Ubu has performed [the band’s 1978 debut] The Modern Dance at some festivals in recent years. What are your thoughts on performing an album of yours in its entirety? Does it spark memories?
I liked doing MD. It was easy and fun and like a vacation. I could repeat the “value of re-visiting older work” sort of explanations but I can’t be bothered. The truth is it was a vacation. Pere Ubu albums have become major productions requiring great swathes of time to complete and realize. It’s necessary to keep a band playing together regularly to stay in touch with each other. Doing MD was an obvious way of doing this as Lady From Shanghai was being completed.
Does doing an album from start to finish bore you? Would you rather be performing a different one?
I don’t do anything that bores me. I don’t need to. I only do what I want. How many times do I have to say this? I don’t need your approval or appreciation. I don’t need anything you or an audience can give me. You and the audience give me nothing. I don’t do anything for you or for the audience. The audience gets to watch me do what I want if they so choose. That’s the end of it. If I’d rather do another Ubu album I’d/I’ll do it.
“Waiting for Mary” was a moderate hit in 1989, and the video was played on MTV. What did you think of the commercial success that song brought after being in underground rock for so long?
I didn’t notice any particular commercial success from it. Other songs from that era or later have earned us far more money. The song doesn’t figure prominently in my memory. It was a throw-away in terms of my writing. “Wasted,” for example, made us far more money and was by far more commercially successful.
Long Live Pere Ubu and Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi [the album and its performances] was quite the ambitious venture. It seems like your trajectory has pointed to an event like this for you as far as theater, acting and working with a concept. What took so long for you to do it?
An album follows on from the previous effort according to various criteria. One of which is an evolutionary imperative—to go in some way where we haven’t gone before. I’ve explained the genesis of the LLPU/BMTH project in great detail on the website. You can read about it there. Pere Ubu will never end. I am already grooming my replacement in the band. The plan is that he will be taking over in approximately five years, or sooner if he makes more rapid progress in terms of songwriting.
Can you elaborate on the “replacement” you are grooming to take your place in Pere Ubu? Who is he or she?
Not saying yet.
Will you continue to write songs for Pere Ubu after you leave the band?
Maybe. But when I go I anticipate the replacement will do the writing. I will continue as producer for an interim period.
Will you be delving into this on your expansive website over the next five years and filling in your fans as per the progress? That would seem very interesting.
Haven’t considered the question yet.
Rocket from the Tombs plays at The Bell House tonight and at Maxwell’s tomorrow. Barfly is out via Fire Records.