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Punk rockers Pere Ubu explore their namesake

Cleveland-born band turns Alfred Jarry's absurdist 1896 play 'Ubu Roi' into a sonic experience.

September 20, 2009|Sam Adams

It took 30 years for Pere Ubu to embrace its destiny. Born out of the industrial wastes of Cleveland, the protean avant-rock ensemble has tried its hand at apocalyptic drones, brittle minimalism and even mildly disturbed pop. But its 14th album, "Long Live Pere Ubu!," released last week, is the first to explore the source of the band's name: Alfred Jarry's absurdist 1896 play "Ubu Roi."

David Thomas, the band's singer and only constant member, had been approached many times about adapting the play, which centers on a grotesque, corpulent Polish despot named Pere Ubu and his ambitious, conniving wife. But the obviousness of the suggestion always put him off.

"I was never interested because I wasn't interested in doing it as nostalgia, nor was I interested in making it 'relevant' or 'updated' or anything like that," he said from his home in Hove, England. "But I think I found the proper medium ground."

The songs on the new album were written for a stage production at London's Southbank Centre called "Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi." The band's members took on roles from the play in addition to their usual duties, with Sarah Jane Morris, best known for her stint in the synth-pop group the Communards, incarnating Mere Ubu as a scheming harpy reminiscent of Glenda Jackson's Lady Macbeth.

That production, in turn, formed the basis of a radio play incorporating dialogue and songs, the first half of which is available as a free podcast. (The latter half will eventually be available for sale via the band's Hearpen label.)

Throughout Pere Ubu's existence, its music always has included some element of electronic noise, beginning with the analog synthesizer bleats on their first single, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo." But the use of ambient sound on "Long Live Pere Ubu!" is more pronounced, with the pulsating chords and furtive blips played by Graham Dowdall (also known as electronica artist Gagarin) forming the backbone of songs like "March of Greed."

In fact, what led Thomas to the play has as much to do with abstract notions of sound as its ostensible subject matter.

"I started to think what I wanted to deal with next on an album was the silence between songs," he said. "You've got a song, then you've got a gap on the record, and then another song, and this all seemed to me too artificial."

He began the process of writing the songs, several of which are atypically credited solely to him rather than to the band as a whole, by setting up a network of vintage computers that randomly cycled through various noisemaking loops. He then added drum machine and synthesizer to create dense tendrils of sound that twist themselves around the melodies and chord changes.

Thomas' adaptation of Jarry's play is a liberal one, touching on most of its plot points -- the assassination of Poland's king, Pere Ubu's tyrannical and arbitrary reign and his eventual downfall -- but using only small slices of dialogue and none of Jarry's lyrics.

Pere Ubu's swollen physique, his thickheaded obstinacy and petty vanity were initially received as a broadside against the polite society of 19th century Paris, but in Thomas' interpretation, he is the incarnation of "do-gooderism," which the musician describes as "a broad, cross-political-party, nondenominational affliction of humanity these days."

Do-gooders, Thomas said, "are greedy for power. They're gluttons. They want power to feel good about themselves, to justify their own choices, their own lives."

Looking to avoid any heavy-handedness, though, Thomas' thesis makes only fleeting appearances -- like a high-pitched speech by a character identified as the Whining Child lamenting "melting icecaps and other stuff," taken verbatim from some forgotten congressional testimony. Thomas' Pere Ubu is a smug glad-hander convinced that his ruinous taxation and unprompted executions are all to his subjects' good.

Although Pere Ubu is often cited as a progenitor of punk, Thomas disdains all but the first wave as a counterrevolutionary movement built on conformity and repetition. "Long Live Pere Ubu!" is, to his mind, "the first true punk album released since 1979," as well as "the most intelligent and successful social satire ever undertaken by a rock band."

"Alfred Jarry was a punk," Thomas said. "If you're talking about punk in one way, it's just a juvenile attack. And this is a juvenile attack in the grand tradition of Alfred Jarry and other satirists from the past."

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