Friday, January 06, 2017

Al's Disenfranchised Top 5 Films of 2016

So UBC won't have me in their film studies MA program, and no local papers want to pay me to write about film at present, but fuckit, here's my top five list of 2016 movies.

Disclaimer: there's a bunch I have yet to see. Bear in mind that I have limited access, since I don't make this my living, have limited time, etc. My impression is that it's been a pretty good year for movies - where Hell Or High Water counts as one of the disappointments, you know the bar is pretty high. There's plenty I'm interested in that I haven't gotten to as of yet, that maybe would belong on this list, from The Interior - tapped by Mack in his list - to the Korean thriller The Wailing. Or The Handmaiden, for that matter.

Also, I'm highly tempted to cheat a little, because a couple of my favourite film experiences of the year were films I only caught up with on home video. They're technically from 2015, but since they saw no theatrical distribution here - since there was no other way to see them in Vancouver, at least by legit means, until they showed up on DVD - it seems almost fair to include them; those being Bone Tomahawk and He Never Died. The first is about as old fashioned a western as can accomodate scenes of graphic disembowelment and cannibalism, the kinda film that will inevitably get called "The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes," but it's not altogether an unreasonable description. It is the sort of film you kind of want to protect from a political analysis, because it is essentially, inherently, at its fundaments a "whiteman versus the savages" film, which it (rather slyly) tries to excuse by having one good (token) First Nations character on hand to disown said savages' savagery and differentiate himself and his people from them. It's kin to having the "one good Japanese" signaling the kids from the cockpit to run and hide as his Zero closes in, in Pearl Harbor, or giving Schwarzenegger a "good" sidekick of Middle Eastern descent in True Lies; it's an obvious "see we're not racist" ploy. But it's skillful enough as a ploy that it sort of shimmies by your bullshit detectors on first viewing.

But to heck with it. Most thrillers are reactionary, politically problematic things, across the field - from the inherent racism of King Kong to the subtext of Die Hard that women should not have careers, thrillers, because they tap into common social anxieties, tend not to be the most progressive things. (Don't even get me started on The Dark Knight). You can either disown such films or admit that you like them, noting the problematic aspects, perhaps allowing yourself to be colonized just a little in the process. Sometimes I am offended enough (as with The Dark Knight) that politics trump pleasure, but in the case of Bone Tomahawk, so much of what is fresh and enjoyable about the film is NOT dependent on its inherent racism - especially Richard Jenkins, and the relationship between his character and Kurt Russell's - that I was inclined to give it a pass. Plus the best late career use of Sid Haig this side of Captain Spaulding.

Anyhow, I liked Bone Tomahawk a lot. He Never Died, meanwhile, is a funny, strange, gory little tour de force for Henry Rollins - also, coincidentally, involving cannibalism - who demonstrates that the key to his being good in a movie is apparently for the movie to be built entirely around him. He's been crap in any support roles I've seen him in (Johnny Mnemonic, Morgan's Ferry, The Devil's Tomb), but he's so great in this I actually tried to interview him about it. He turned me down, but I'm glad Hank is enjoying a sort of career high these days, regardless of what billboards he agrees to appear on. (I missed his manic rant the other day at the Vogue, am told it was pretty great).

But anyhow, those are really 2015 movies, so let's no cheat. Here are my top five films from 2016:

The Lobster. I keep describing it to people as Bunuelian, but all this is doing is demonstrating to me that most folks have no idea who Bunuel was, anymore, which makes me a bit sad. But people who like the idea of a darkly-humoured, surreal exploration of the dating scene - the curious totalitarianism of relationships - should see it; I've given away seven copies now as Christmas gifts, as befits my role of Lobster Claus (see previous). Colin Farrell used to irritate me, but he generally chooses film roles quite well, such that I've come to like him a lot; he's been in too many films I've admired - The New World, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths - for me not to (and will also be in Yorgos Lanthimos' next film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). I like Rachel Weisz a lot, too (Constantine, Agora, The Whistleblower, Denial, and, hey, whattaya know, she's in an upcoming fictionalization of the Donald Crowhurst story, which is kind of fascinating; see the doc Deep Water if you can, or, for another fictional treatment, read Robert Stone's Outerbridge Reach).

I have seen a bunch of films beyond that that I liked - Hell or High Water, The Arrival, Midnight Special, The Witch, Don't Breathe, 10 Cloverfield Lane, De Palma, Denial - but not enough to go "top five" with them (maybe The Arrival). I would actually consider Ti West's In a Valley of Violence above any of those, but it's better to enter it expecing a small but enjoyable film than some best-of masterwork. It's a somewhat uneven homage to spaghetti westerns and classic westerns, with a generous helping of Unforgiven laid in. I would have liked it better if it had upped the spaghetti quotient, because it seems to me that you can't really make obvious nods to the subgenre (in the title sequence, say) while getting other elements wrong (the music is almost completely unspaghettilike). But Ethan Hawke is good (gets better as he gets into it), John Travolta has his moments, and the story is engaging, and people who like westerns will like it. Beats the snot out of that Magnificent Seven remake, anyhow (except for Vincent D'Onofrio, who contributes the only great element to that latter).

But definitely Green Room gets on my list, for getting so much right, and for having at least one brilliant moment (involving a loyal dog, which I think is wins the prize for "most unexpectedly touching moment in a movie this year").

Also, I loved The Neon Demon, which is the most purely cinematic, "scopophile heaven" film expereince, trumping Only God Forgives (which I also really liked).

Train to Busan was fairly linear, and fairly conservative, but I loved it, best zombie feature I've seen in awhile, and the angle sheds an interesting light on Korean culture.

Tickled was pretty great, too - a documentary dealing with "endurance tickling" and, apparently, an unusual, bullying fetishist. It's a small but strange little film that kind of lingers in the mind.

I guess The Arrival trumps it, though. Okay, there:

Al's Top Five Movies for 2016, in order:

1. The Lobster
2. The Neon Demon
3. Green Room
4. Train to Busan.
5. The Arrival

Still want to see: Elle, Swiss Army Man, Sausage Party, The Greasy Strangler, The Interior, The Love Witch, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Red Turtle

Don't get the fuss: The Nice Guys

Disappointed by: Blair Witch

Don't care: Birth of a Nation, La La Land, Kubo and the Two Strings (am I wrong on that?).

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Merry Christmas from Lobster Claus!

Erika helped me with the design of this! Friends wanting a free unique Christmas card are welcome to print it out - though, um, we retain copyright for any commercial uses: "not to be reused without permission," and so forth.

I kinda love it, tho'.  And by the by, this makes a fun card to go along with gift DVDs or Blu-Rays of The Lobster - easily my favourite film of 2016. That particular movie is 2/ $20 at HMV on DVD, though over twice that price on Blu Ray. Alas, supplies seem to be running out at some locations, especially with me buying multiples for people!

Merry Christmas from Lobster Claus! (And a big thanks to the great Pete Campbell for singing "Hockey Sucks" the other night. Lobster Claus will visit you soon, Pete...).

Sunday, December 18, 2016

All I Got For Now, plus gigs

Strange days... started a warehouse job, checking and packing parcels. Basically my girl got me it - it's at her workplace - which is kind of odd/ different for me, doing a job that my partner hooked me up with. It seems to speak a little to my lack of enthusiasm in looking for a new gig on my own steam, but there's no denying that's been a factor, lately, after disappointing experiences at pretty much every job I've worked recently. In particular, the stresses and frustrations of trying to scrape by as a writer have been mounting. I haven't felt a lot of passion for it, and I was singularly disappointed when the Westender, on changing editors, a) blew off a Pere Ubu article I had already begun working on and b) then asked me to do an article at less than 50% of what I was being paid previously, essentially adding insult to injury, without the new editor even seeming to notice what she was doing. The Straight has run a couple of things of mine in the last while - Anciients and In Flames - but are getting thinner and thinner and trying to rely on them for freelance work just makes no sense; I've donated the odd thing to them for online-only publication, but that also doesn't seem very wise (can't expect them to give me payin' work if I give them stuff for free, eh?). And then there's this weird phenomenon of people asking me for press, either personally or through a publicist, then not doing the article, either ignoring the questions I send them, which happened twice last year, one time from a guy who then continued to ask me to give him press (?!), or else not getting in contact with their publicists who have contacted me (happened two or three times last year, with La Femme, Arkona, and maybe LA Witch, though they at least tried to get in touch).

Plus - as some of you might have seen, since I briefly published a rant here - I felt on the end of some pretty disrespectful treatment at the Venue, after having been told I was guestlisted for a show, suffering an hour-long wait in the cold outside to get in, and then NOT being on the list, which led me to having to haggle with some rude and disrespectful people. Shit like that kind of forces you to take stock: after having done this for over ten years, I have neither a reliable income nor a lot of respect, so what the fuck have I been doing with my time?

The ESL school that I've been working at hasn't exactly worked out for me, either. I still like the place and like the people, and I suit the work well, but the short version of things is that we won a strike that meant everyone lower in seniority got laid off, as soon as the parent company started going through some (mostly unrelated) tribulations and student numbers plummeted. I've been at the school for something like fifteen years, but signed away my seniority when I took a "voluntary lay-off" the last time that the school went through trouble, circa 2011, so I could move back to Maple Ridge and be close to Ma in case she needed me. I had no intention of ever going back, at the time. If I hadn't signed on that particular line, I would have been working full-time through this period of drought, but as things are, I am now very near the bottom of the seniority list. It doesn't leave me a lot of enthusiasm for the union. I fought for it, supported them through the strike, but I wasn't thinking at the time that I was just working for the benefit of the senior teachers, which sort of seems to have been the case ("support the union so that when the freeze comes, WE can have jobs and you can go look for something else!"). I don't mean to bitch about it that much - there are also advantages to being in the union, I guess - but this is my second winter with basically no teaching work, or maybe just a few hours here and there, subbing or tutoring or "being a conversation partner." It doesn't really matter how I feel about it, it's not much like having a job, and it sure doesn't pay the bills. I had enjoyed being back there, got one good year of fulltime teaching in, but... who knows if it'll ever go back to how it was, or if I'll ever have a regular class again?

Starting near the bottom at some other ESL school isn't exactly inspiring, either...

So here we find me - a decent, interesting writer and a really good teacher - doing warehouse work. Grab a plastic bag with merch in it, check the merch against the paperwork, build a box the appropriate size, wrap item in newsprint, pack the box with extra newsprint, tape box shut, put appropriate stickers on it ("do not freeze" "fragile," a pictogram for "this end up," and a warning label instructing receivers to inspect the contents before signing for the parcel), and put it on the shipper's cart; pick up next bag. It's relatively simple work, though I still manage to stress out a bit internally ("did I overpack it? Did I forget a piece? How do I build a box for THIS?" - because occasionally there are some irregular shapes and sizes). Mostly it's hardest on the hands: the cardboard sucks all the oil out of my fingers, and moisturizing only puts so much back in: I end up with throbbing, pulsing pain in my fingertips for much of the time, and lots of little splits and cuts, which further lessens my excitement at writing when I'm not at the job.

But the company seems like an excellent one, which very smartly rewards BOTH long service and outstanding performance, where union shops seem to only recognize the former, producing mediocre lifers. Plus the people are really nice - lotta headbangers work warehouses, it seems! - and the radio is on while we work (classic rock - 101 FM - but I have stayed far enough away from that over the last years that I'm kind of enjoying it, and so far, two weeks in, I've only had to listen to "Hotel California" and "Comfortably Numb" - surely the two most overplayed songs in rock history - once each, which is kind of a pleasant surprise. And there are things I'm genuinely enjoying hearing again, like that cool little synth riff in Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry," say, or Heart, whose brilliance and stature as Pacific Northwest, female-fronted rock I can no longer deny or, indeed, avoid, since they get played a fair bit, somewhat to my surprise).

Given all the above, I haven't much to say. There are two, or maybe three, must-attend gigs coming up, in my book: David M's Christmas Alone in No Fun City is happening Monday at the Princeton. David has put together a Paul Leahy-centered NO FUN compilation to benefit his friend and collaborator, which you can get at CD Baby (or buy off him at the show). He and I have had a few bickering conversations about his not wanting to be involved in this Paul Leahy tribute show planned for January at the Rickshaw, I think with the Pointed Sticks and I, Braineater in attendance, but - save from noting the fact that NO FUN has been taking the piss out of tribute shows for their entire career, and aren't about to start taking them seriously now - I can't really begin to represent him on this count, especially not while my hands are hurting. Suffice it to say that it has nothing to do with David's feelings about Paul, whom he obviously counts as a great friend, and whose illness (from which, if you are unclear or in denial, Paul is not expected to recover) is devastating to him. He has said that if Paul asked him to be at the tribute show, he would be do it, but not otherwise. I will leave it at that - but I will still be at David's Xmas show on Monday (note that I have an interview with David M. and his passion for Christmas in the current issue of BC Musician magazine, which you can pick up at Zulu, Audiopile, Red Cat, Bone Rattle, Neptoon, or at Monday's show; I've brought it a few places besides but I've kind of lost track. That article does not appear to be online at their website as of this writing).

Finally, fans of Petunia and the Vipers, the Minimalist Jug Band, Rodney Decroo, Big Top, and Geoff Berner should note that all the above (and others!) are coming together in a fundraiser at the WISE this Thursday for Ms. Blanche Norton, AKA Karen Norton, written about in the CBC here (Al explains that Blanche is her assumed name and that the CBC went with her birth name. "Blanche" is definitely better than "Karen," as names go). That's a must-attend show, by me: even if you don't know Blanche, don't care about making a difference in her situation (which sounds grim and frustrating, but also SOLVABLE, so you should care, you should)... even if your heart is a lump of coal in your chest, on its way to being compressed into a diamond, that's a stellar cast of musicians they've got lined up. And I've never seen Geoff Berner before, despite having heard a ton about him, and have only occasionally seen Rodney Decroo, and then never for long... so... I gotta be there.

There is so much more I had thought I might like to write about - from my father's fondly-remembered trait of saying "excuse me" after he farted in his sleep to the weird tears I burst into reading Hubert Selby's "Song of the Silent Snow" to my girl in bed the other day to a dream involving Henry Rollins (I think reprising his role as a cannibal killer from He Never Died). But I have one last paid writing assignment to do, which is going to take up the last of the strength in my hands for the day, before I go back to building boxes tomorrow, and then it's Christmas and Boxing Day and New Years and stuff with my girl's family and....

I hope people are enjoying the holidays and get some good swag for Christmas. That's all I got for now. I don't even have a good title for this piece. You might not see a lot of me for awhile.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

At Lanalou's tonight: A Series of Dogs - a mini-interview with John Armstrong


John Armstrong, 2016 (provided by Mr. Armstrong)

Now updated with a brief email interview!

The Modernetttes' John Armstrong has three books out there now: Guilty of Everything, his Vancouver punk rock memoir; Wages, about his time spent as a journalist; and now, A Series of Dogs, which is based on a great idea: it's a canine-centric memoir, about the dogs in Armstrong's life. I have not read it yet, but I fired some last minute questions to Armstrong, and he shot me some quick answers while commuting to Vancouver for the booklaunch, tonight, at Lanalou's, featuring The Judys. Our Q&A is below.


Allan: Am I confused? I thought from following you on Facebook that you were working on a dystopian science fiction novel. I wasn't expecting your next book to be about dogs.

John: Not confused; that book called Schadenfreude, Inc. is finished and waiting for a blurb from a certain Big Time SF author who lives in Van. But he's trying to get his own book finished on deadline so ... waiting. That novel is one of four I have coming out in the next year - the last five years' work. We can talk about them some other time as it would eat up space and I'm typing this on a bus.

[John pauses to ask me to please fix typos - if he attempts to address them, as he jostles along he makes "three new ones." Virtual keyboards suck, indeed, but note that some of what follows was so typo-rich that I MIGHT have introduced errors of my own here!]


Can you share an anecdote from the book? Does it overlap with the time frame from your previous books, or is it in sequence with them, like "part three" of your memoirs...?

It runs from my youth on a dairy farm on the Island to today. I think nine dogs in all. I'm in it as much as they are - we were friends, good friends, and its about our relationships, and concurrent human ones. So yeah, it covers the same years and beyond, through to my current years - going on ten - on a mountain at tthe ass end of the Fraser Valley, at the foot of the Cascades. My Rotweiller Bobo made the move planning with me from the Downtown Eastside to the country - I mean, hillbilly country - and we both went through some serious READJUSTMENT. The first time he saw a 'coon he looked at me as if to say, "What the fuck is up with that cat?" He had no clue how to be a 'dog' - wouldn't eat salmon down at the river even though my new wife's dogs caught one and dropped it at his feet. Bobo did not trust food that didn't come from either a can, a bag, or my plate.

Any intention of doing anything musical tonight? (Any background with the Judys?).

I'm not planning on it but two or three beers ... I've known Dennis Mills for 40 years - Rhythm Mission, AKA, Jazzmanian Devils... one of my favorite people and on a very short list of same.

The last time I saw you make music was at Ron Reyes' birthday bash, a few years ago at the Rickshaw. It was pretty great, actually - I enjoyed it more than I expected - but I didn't recognize the songs. Did any of that get released or recorded? Will it?

We recorded ten or eleven new songs with the current band - they still need final mixes and mastering, but $$$ is in the way.

Curious - since you live kinda near Gerry Hannah, one of the funniest stories in Guilty of Everything is where you catch him blowdrying his shoulder tufts in a bathroom before a show. How did he take that? You guys good neighbours? Ever run into each other?

Gerry is a sweet guy and held no grudge - it's never come up, anyway. We usually only talk politics. He's amused that I'm more radical in my dotage than when I was a punk rock agent provocateur.

 Whatever happened with The Rebel Kind, the film adaptation of Guilty of Everything? (The film was set to be directed by Canadian filmmaker Reg Harkema, with Jay Baruchel as a young John Armstrong). 

The Rebel Kind is on life support and not expected to recover. The star publicly announced he was all in, then made a bunch of Hollywood movies and by the time he was available again he had broken up with his girlfriend, who was set to play Mary. But who knows, weirder shit happens in Hollywood every day?

Any stories from the Modernettes tour of Japan? 

Japan was one of the great experiences of my life. We were the Beatles for ten days. People wouldn't let us carry our own bags or gear, hung out with us like little kids, eyes shining. "Please use my amplifier, Mr. Buck-san!" 

What else is up? Musical plans? Writing? Anything you want to tell people about? 

I'm going to start writing and recording soon. I have an album's worth of songs, all about show business in some fashion, a song cycle if you will. Hoping to get Gay Nineties to be the band, with Paul Leahy on guitar when he's feeling better. But we're not likely to play live around here - not really fun or lucrative, and I insist on one or the other. Don't much care which it is but one of them is required! I'm thinking of doing Europe in the summer, twenty or twenty-five shows. 

Lastly, what am I doing now? I write 1000 words a day, five of seven days on average. The goal is ten books in ten years and I'm halfway there. Only one nonfiction left in me, about aging, called The Back Nine: grimly, bleakly amusing. 

Otherwise it's work forty hours a week, play basketball at the Y, hang with wife and kids, don't hardly drink, gave up bad drugs yonks ago... got to stay alive and healthy so that when the world finally appreciates me, I'll be in shape to enjoy it. But mostly I write, and when I'm not writing I'm thinking about it. I'm told this fairly common. if i miss a day at the keyboard, I feel out of sorts. I'm finally addicted to something that won't kill me,


John Armstrong at Richards on Richards, 2007 (?), by Cindy Metherel, not to be reused without permission

John Armstrong will be reading from his book A Series of Dogs tonight at Lanalou's. Event begins at 8pm. Admission is free! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Frank Frink 5: are you ready for the country?

Before I listened to rock music - and long before I got into metal and punk, I listened - thanks to my parents - to country music. They played it in the house sometimes, on a big black and white console TV/ stereo that eventually lived in my room. I loved some of their LPs, and still have a couple of them (like my Dad's copy of Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, which is one of the greatest country albums ever made, by my estimate, and one everyone I discuss it with agrees on, including Joey Only, Adrian Mack, Petunia, and, indeed, Nick Jones, below - we'll get to that presently).  


As a child, they brought me to concerts, too, at the Pacific Coliseum, by Johnny Cash - I'm guessing on August 24th, 1980,  and, I think, Charley Pride. (I have no clear memories of either show, though I thought "A Boy Named Sue" was funny, and clearly remember it on the set list, along with some gospel with June Carter Cash). When we would go for drives in the car, an old American Rambler, the cassettes we played on the little portable shoebox player were Jerry Lee Lewis, Charley Pride, Fats Domino, and Elvis' Gold Records (though later when I was starting to develop my own tastes we added the Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies to the list, my selection of which was more a matter of chance, having found it in a bargain bin, than taste, though I still love that album to this day). As a result of those drives, I am still more familiar with Charley Pride's version of "Kaw-Liga" than either the original by Hank Williams or the Residents crazed cover of it, though I grant that it's the least of the three, and the most problematic politically (because a black man appealing to white audiences by singing a song about a wooden Indian, lacking any irony, and complete with faux-Indian yelps, is just disturbing, which was lost on me at age eight, which is about the time period under discussion).

However, you have to make a break from the music of your parents at some point, or at least I did. Once I got turned on to the Sex Pistols - at around age 14, in 1982 - I was part of the "country music sucks" club, rejecting all that country stood for, reviling it even more than disco (which I knew even less about). It was actually pretty common to say "country music sucks" among my peers in high school - country music was the out-group that helped us define our in-group, it was a consensus that even the headbangers and the punks could come together on. I still have friends who are part of that club - who take it for granted that they can proudly proclaim their hatred of country music and thereby bond with me. I'm not sure they realize that these days, when someone says that, I feel kind of sorry for them...  

Two things changed things for me, when it comes to country. The first was Eugene Chadbourne, and especially his album There'll Be No Tears Tonight - featuring John Zorn and Tom Cora. I got into Doc Chad in my 20's, despite the protests of my comrades in psychedelia, who basically forbade me to play Shockabilly or anything by Eugene when we tripped (though I would occasionally sneak something in). I still don't really understand what freaked them out so much, because even my father came to appreciate Doc Chad, delighting in particular in his cover of Phil Ochs' "Knock on the Door" and on the wittiness of "The Last Word in Lonesome is Me." Doc Chad's fusion of country music with jazzy, psychedelicized avant-gardism pleases me to no end - and is not just a matter of sending stuff up; he's said that he is quite, without irony, a fan of stuff like Roger Miller (whom he frequently covers), and that country music is as much a part of his palette as other stated influences (like Bugs Bunny and Boris Karloff). 

Back when I thought he was making fun of it, Doc Chad made it safe for me to listen to the odd country tune; when he told me his fondness for it was sincere, it helped crack the door a bit further. 

The second thing that swung me back towards country was digital technology, which allowed me to easily make playlists for my parents, so that we could listen to their music during Scrabble games. I found I could easily remember their favourite tunes - the things Dad would sing to himself as he went about the day, like Engelbert Humperdinck's "Release Me" (a troubling song to hear a family man singing to himself; it ended up being the last song he requested I play at the hospice, though wouldn't you know, I didn't have that particular CDr with me that day). Listening to those mixes with them, certain songs grew on me unexpectedly - like Roy Clark's "Yesterday When I was Young," say. So songs by artists I associated with country began to sneak their way onto my playlists - like Kris Kristofferson's "The Piglrim - Chapter 33," which for years was the only Kris Kristofferson song would acknowledge; it popped up on a CD mix I made to give away on my 38th birthday, which had plenty of folk (Dylan, Ochs, Townes van Zandt and such) but only one or two flat-out country tunes, like Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" or maybe some of the Rick Rubin-period Johnny Cash. 

I still wouldn't go so far as to say I loved country music, at that point. It wasn't really until my mid-40s that country music really took hold, and while I can't say whether the change was mostly one in me or in the culture, suddenly the stuff was all around me, with bands like Petunia and the Vipers pointing the way, to country swing, to authentic roots music, to some fantastic, moving, and very entertaining songwriting. Adrian Mack helped. Having a girlfriend who doesn't much want to go to punk shows helped. And seeing punks cross over into country music, assuring me that in fact this was respected and approved of stuff, that this was actually cool to listen to, helped. 

And though I have only seen them once, at the Railway, quite some time ago, the Frank Frink 5 helped.  

The following is an interview with Pointed Sticks' vocalist Nick Jones on his country/ crooner side project, the Frank Frink 5, who are going to be doing two of their seasonal shows this weekend, on December 2nd and 3rd, at Lanalou's (I will be missing the show on the 2nd, the actual country show, to see Pere Ubu - see my previous post - but I hope to make the 3rd, the "City Frink" night). Here's an email interview with Nick! 


Allan: Orient me, Nick, if you would - what's the backstory of the Frank Frink 5, once again? How long have you been doing this? 

Nick: The Frank Frink 5 have been playing gigs since 1982, in one format or another.the current lineup is Butch Norland (me), Billy Clyde Frink (Randy Carpenter) Dash Schmidt (Gord Nicholl) Jelly Bean Beaudine (Bob Petterson) Stinking Tim Connors (Jon Card) and Mink Frink (Scott McLeod) .Past members and guests have included just about every scenester from our generation, including Dimwit, Brian Goble, Rockin Ronnie Scott, Stephen Hamm, Ford Pier, Barry Taylor and more. In fact, pretty much every Vancouver drummer named Taylor (and there are a lot of them) has played in the band at one time or another!


"Live on the Mud Bay Delta, probably 1983 or 84???", provided by Nick Jones

Thank you! So ttell me about Country Frink - City Frink. What are the differences going to be between sets/ lineups/ approaches?

Same lineup, but the first night will be country music in the Gram Parsons/ Buck Owens/ Roger Miller/ Johnny Cash mode... the second night will be more eclectic, mostly 60's and early 70's classics ranging from the Standells to Redbone, and everything in between...Lee Michaels, obscure Kinks, Buddy Miles, Mashmakan and so much more .

Did you always like country music and crooners and such or did you ever reject that stuff in your youth? If the former, what were formative influences? If the latter, what was your road back? 

The closest country music came to my radar when I was young was watching the occasional episode of Hee-Haw... but in 1981, after the advent of Hardcore, I turned my back on punk rock as it had become (violent, musically limited, intellectually dogmatic, misogynistic, and exclusionary, particularly to women and girls) and started playing rockabilly with Buddy Selfish. That led to country, and Randy would have been the principal influence in introducing me to Gram Parsons and his many incarnations... it expanded from there.

What kind of music did your parents listen to, anyhow? Did they have any impact on your tastes, positive or negative or...? Are there any songs you got from them that you really, really love? 

My Dad was past president of the Edinburgh Jazz Society, so through him I heard Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sinatra etc etc.... I loved, and still love all of that music. I never thought it was square.

If you were going to name five country artists (or crooners) that most punks would off the cuff turn their nose up at, who you think they should give a chance to, who would they be? (Can be on the basis of songwriting or singing or playing or whatever you like, but maybe let us know why you picked'em!). 

Obviously Johnny Cash, because everyone loves the Man in Black, but Hank Williams, because he was the Chuck Berry of country music, Buck Owens, who invented a new type of tougher, west coast country, Ray Price, because his music swings, daddy-o, and of course, Gram.... the Keith Richards of country, who despite his image being so overwhelming, was a very good songwriter, and an incredibly emotive singer.

Do you have any actual "guilty pleasures?" Bands or albums that you're kind of embarrassed by liking? (It's weird - I actually am quite proud of loving Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads, have even had it on my wall, though I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't get it... but I am kind of embarrassed that I own and have fondness for Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell). Do you ever include a song in a Frink set that you're embarrassed of liking, as a way of fighting back against your own embarrassment? (Does this question even make sense?). 

Well, if you knew the history of the Frinks,we usually tried to play the most embarrassing songs we could find. How about "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo?" Or "Honey?" Or "Tennessee Birdwalk"... I keep a copy of K-Tels' Goofy Greats close at hand at all times! And Gunfighter Ballads is a wonderful record, no need to feel guilty about that! We often do "Big Iron," or "El Paso"...even "Cool Water"... Bat out of Hell??? Uh...no... I guess ABBA might count? That is, if liking pure pop genius can be considered a guilty pleasure.

Are there ever disagreements about songs that are included on a Frank Frink Five setlist? Do people have the power of veto? 

 Yes, I do. Seriously though, we all have a remarkably similar take on what constitutes a good Frinks song. We did however, veto Dimwit wanting to play songs by Budgie...

Are there any "original" Frank Frink Five songs? I actually don't know this. Do they still feature in the set, if they exist? 

 We wrote a stunning Neil Young tribute called "Emma Joe" that we played a couple of years ago. We also play "Thinking of You, Drinking For Two," by Sawhorse, off the second Bud Luxford record. I wrote that. We're also playing a song that Randy and Buck wrote for the Modernettes called "Tears Will Fall". That will be on the country night.There might be more. Memory ain't what it used to be.

This has been a kind of rough year for celebrity deaths. Will there be any special songs added to the set in tribute to anyone who passes? (Prince's "Erotic City" might be fun). 

No special tributes to dead guys by the Frinks. Of course, almost all of the songs we play are by dead guys.

Are there any heroes of yours, country-music-wise or crooner-wise, that you've met and interacted with? (In your "other" career, do you ever do merchandising or such for country singers?). 

 The only country band I ever worked for were the Dixie Chicks, and I went out of my way to avoid interaction with them. As I do with most artists I work for. Its a job.
By the by, the Pointed Sticks have a gig coming up, right? Anything special or unusual about that one? 

Well, its an early show. Doors at 7, the Top Boost, who are a stunning young band from New West will be onstage at 7:45, followed by the talented and sexy Eddy D and his band, then us. We have to be off stage at 10:30 , as I'm told the Fox turns into a pumpkin then. I've noticed that Keithmas is on the same night, which is unfortunate, but the Rickshaw goes until 1, so there is plenty of time to attend our show, and still make the 2 minute cab ride to the Rickshaw to catch La Chinga, Rich Hope and Biff do their Keith impersonations.One great night, two great shows...... as for what surprises the PS show might bring, you'll have to be there to find out. We always have a rabbit or two up our sleeves...

The Frinks at Lanalou's, "a couple of years ago..." photo by Corinne Kuan


Here's the link for the Facebook page for Country Frink - City Frink (Dec. 2nd and 3rd at Lanalou's) and for the Pointed Sticks show at the Fox Dec. 16.... see you at one of them, at least?

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thee Oh Sees meet the Ice Cream Truck (a Pere Ubu tickler), plus a Kyle Morton afterthought

NOTE: This article got briefly taken down so the real Pere Ubu feature could be at the top of my blog. This is actually a post from BEFORE I wrote that feature. The Oh Sees gig was last week. Anyhow, I'm putting it back up. 

"Once and for all, there is a great deal I do not want to know" - Friedrich Nietzsche  




Since there isn't much \intelligent discourse around rock music, things that people say about it that are significant and strikingly true tend to stay with you. 

For instance, there is a song called "Ice Cream Truck" that appeared on Pere Ubu's 1989 album Cloudland that I constantly return to in my head, even though I haven't owned that particular album, or heard that particular song, since around the year of its release. Ubu leader David Thomas is a very smart man whose statements (like his observation that properly understood, punk and metal are actually forms of folk music; or his issues with public arts funding when it comes to the making of music; or his opinion that rock and roll is a brotherhood and that women who wish to participate must become honorary men - I'm paraphrasing on all three counts, here) may seem provocative and disagreeable, or else simply and obviously true, depending on your own point of view (for the record, I go along with him on the first but am at best uncertain on the latter two). Without even troubling with the song itself - playful and accessible, from a period where Ubu were beginning to experiment with a more commercial and straightforward sound - there's an element of striking, significant truth to the lyrics that has kept "Ice Cream Truck" with me for something like 27 years. 

Those lyrics go like this:
Here it comes. Here it comes.
Here it comes again.
Here it comes, the ice cream truck.
People flyin' out the doors, runnin up the street.
They really love their music.
Man, it's just my luck.
Baby! Baby! Baby! Come here quick.
The melody's about to make me sick.
Baby! Baby! Baby! Shut that door.
I don't think I can stand anymore. 
There's too much music in the land.
You hear it everywhere.
Everybody's in a band - can't get enough of it.
Brother Jimmy,
Cousin Ray,
Mom and Dad on bass and drums -
someone here's just gotta quit. 
Baby! Baby! Baby! Come here quick.
The melody's about to make me sick.
Baby! Baby! Baby! Shut that door.
I don't think I can stand anymore. 
It's not the sugar.
It's not the sticky sludge.
People wanna eat that stuff I don't hold a grudge.
It's that music - there's too much of it.
I wish someone had the guts to quit. 
Baby! Baby! Baby! Come here quick.
The melody's about to make me sick.
Baby! Baby! Baby! Shut that door.
I don't think I can stand anymore. 
There's too much music in the land.
You hear it everywhere.
Everybody's in a band - they can't get enough of it.
Brother Jimmy,
Cousin Ray,
Mom and Dad on bass and drums -
they just can't help it. 
Baby! Baby! Baby! Come here quick.
The melody's about to make me sick.
Baby! Baby! Baby! Shut that door.
I don't think I can stand anymore.

There are a few reasons why that's a memorable lyric. First off - though I didn't realize it back in 1989 - that's an agreeably clever riff on Blind Gary Davis' "Cocaine Blues" in the chorus ("Hey baby won't you please come quick/This old cocaine's makin' me sick.") It sort of indirectly illustrates Thomas' point that folk music - I'm expanding a little here - is the basis of popular music, including, at least in this case, Pere Ubu itself. Of course, this assumes you go with me that the blues is in fact a form of folk music, but certainly if you go back far enough, it's nearly impossible to tell the difference. It also cleverly likens music to a drug, which I don't think most music addicts would argue with much. 

But the main reason the lyric stays with me, of course, is in fact the point of the song: that there is "too much music" in the land. As I remember it - sitting in my bedroom at my Mom and Dad's apartment, lyric sheet on my lap, pondering the words - I didn't really feel that way in 1989, thought Thomas was just being provocative (and maybe a bit hypocritical, being in a band himself). Too much music? Of course, at that time, my record collection wasn't a fifth of the size of my current collection, and I didn't have an entire universe of popular music accessible via the internet. Too much music? Hell, how can that even begin to be true?

I sure feel that way now, though. It may be that it's a function of age: once you're in your late 30's - as Thomas was in 1989 - as your awareness of what's happening in the world expands and the boundaries you built in your teens and twenties - when I was much more judgmental about what music was cool - start coming down, you start to get overwhelmed by just how MUCH music there is out there. Maybe you even start trying to shut things out - start adopting a self-protective posture to keep you from being overwhelmed. Certainly for the last few years I have been on that page: fellow music geeks (bev davies and David Ames, I'm looking at you in particular) suggest bands to me and I go no, no, I don't want to know, I can't keep up with my own interests, let alone take on new ones. Part of it might be that I'm a music critic deluged with requests for attention. Part of it might be that given my budget and the size of my apartment, I really can't fit many more records or LPs into my life. Hell, since I got rid of my storage locker, I had to sell off a quarter of my music just so the remaining 3/4's can fit into the apartment. I haven't the space, room, time, or need for new music, especially with all these remastered vinyl reissues popping up (see my Tad Doyle piece, a few posts ago).  

But another thing might now be true: maybe there simply is too much music out there at present for anyone to keep abreast of? (A "glut," as my friend David M. calls it). These things are hard to quantify - and I certainly can't speak to 1989 - but apparently, as of 2009, at its peak, there were five million bands on Myspace. Which is only a thin sliver of the amount of popular music out there, because you also have to take into account not only bands that existed off the Myspace grid, but bands that formed since Myspace became a negligible force. AND - here's where it really starts to weigh you down - you also have to take into account all the music recorded before the internet even existed, that never HAD a Myspace presence; this includes stuff that has never been digitally released in any format, but which exists in the form of LPs, tapes, or wax cylinders, but is particularly relevant in the case of digitized music, because thanks to digital technology, all popular music that does exist in a digital form is present or potentially present at all times, available via your computer, competing with current bands for your listening attention.

Which brings us to Thee Oh Sees, playing the Rickshaw this Saturday (not sure if there are tickets left for this gig, but I recommend acting fast, since at least some places say it is sold out). This time, I blame bev davies for my interest - since she wrote me about going, and I felt compelled to at least check them out, which - given the ears-in-fingers posture described above, I hadn't, as yet. And as I usually feel these days when I discover a band that merits my attention, my reaction was, I must confess, something like, "ah, damn it to hell. They're good."

 Thee Oh Sees by bev davies, May 8 2015, Austin: not to be reused without permission

I don't begin to have anything intelligent to say about Thee Oh Sees, however. Like Guided by Voices, they appear to be extremely prolific (also cause for cursing). Their most recent album, An Odd Entrances (linked under the word "good," above) is one of two they released in 2016, offering a sort of trippy psych-garage with an element of the Pixies. I'm playing it now, and it is wholly agreeable - but so were the Black Lips, Spider Bags, and Titus Andronicus, other current bands that I've experimented with taking on in the last couple years, since I reached my threshold for new stuff. But I can see why Bev likes them so much. Indeed, so does Mo Tarmohamed of the Rickshaw, who tells me they "were one of the top 10 bands on my wish list to book" - a wish which he's been lucky enough to fulfill twice, now.

So while I'm not even going to try to do Thee Oh Sees justice, I think I'm going to check out the show tomorrow. It takes a pretty remarkable band to get past my "I don't want to know about it" barricades these days, but I can't resist, when I hear a band that just might manage the trick; I gotta at least give them a chance.  

On the topic, meanwhile, of Pere Ubu, they're another band on Mo's wishlist, though they're going to be playing the Cobalt on their next trip to Vancouver, not the Rickshaw, on Dec. 2nd. They're presently on the Coed Jail! tour, playing only material from their earliest years (1975 to 1982). It's a smart, crowd-pleasing gesture, because that is some classic stuff - presumably including their take on the original version, by proto-Ubu band Rocket From the Tombs, of "Sonic Reducer," as well as classics like "Final Solution," "Heart of Darkness," "Non-Alignment Pact," and "Street Waves." Mo writes that he remembers "being mesmerized by Dave Thomas stage presence / antics at the Commodore when I saw Pere Ubu open for the Pixies in 1991." We're assuming he'll be in the audience at the Cobalt on the 2nd, licking his wounds that the gig isn't happening down the street and around the corner.

That is really all I have to say - Thee Oh Sees sound really good, but I don't know if I have room for them in my life, because of - see "Ice Cream Truck." But while I have your attention, here are a couple of other photos, of Thee Oh Sees audience at that Austin gig, also by bev davies. The first one is one of my favourites of her photos that I've seen lately, capturing the almost entire spectrum of possible audience reactions to a live concert in one photo:


The only thing missing from the above is a stage dive, so she also includes this:


Thee Oh Sees audience, Austin Texas, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

But finally, when it comes to the Rickshaw, Mo asked me to give a plug to Midge Ure - best known as a member of Ultravox, but also Thin Lizzy (!) and others - who plays the Rickshaw January 5th. and finally, plugwise, he also thought it worth mentioning that Kyle Morton of Typhoon is coming on January 9th. Morton is apparently a Lyme disease sufferer, touring his solo album What Will Destroy You. He says of that album in the press release:

"Most of these songs were written in about a day, many of them while walking aimlessly around Portland, others wrote themselves in the moments just before sleep. They were recorded and mixed with the invaluable help of Paul Laxer from the inviolate comfort of his living room, mostly in the evenings during the winter and early spring of 2015. At the outset there was no deliberate attempt at an overarching concept, though once finished and lined up together the theme of my subconscious was revealed to me: this was a record about love, more specifically (not devolving into platitudes just yet), the ambivalence of erotic love."
Needless to say, that's all wayyyy too much for me to take in, but Thee Oh Sees - maybe. And Pere Ubu? Definitely.

Upcoming: a Pere Ubu interview. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Unprecedented, Un-Subsequented Music of Pere Ubu: interviews with David Thomas and Robert Wheeler

"I believe that long after rock and roll has run its course, Pere Ubu’s uncompromising and panoramic vision of it being not only capable of, but well-suited to, complex and original expression, will be recognized as one of the most vibrantly conceived and uniquely executed in the form’s history."
- from "Elitism For The People: In Praise Of Pere Ubu" by Entrippy!

Pere Ubu by bev davies, Biltmore Cabaret, 2013, not to be reused without permission


I kind of hate top ten lists. As they exist on the internet, these days, they're often lazily assembled by people who know less than you, either to confirm your tastes and suck up to you ("my favourite ___ made the list!") or to challenge you to quibble. You play the game anyhow - you click, you read, and feel either validated or scandalized; but the number of times you learn something that is useful and interesting is pretty small, and most often you go away unimpressed.

But the challenge of assembling top ten lists is another matter. So who would you call the top ten most creative/ unique/ original rock bands of the 20th century?

I am only sure about a few of them: bands whose approach is so unique, so game-changing, so without parallel or equal that they get a space without argument. Let me start with two of the bands that wouldn't make the cut, first off, so you see where I'm going with this: the Cramps and the Gun Club. When I interviewed Kid Congo Powers earlier this year, he argued for the uniqueness of both bands, because "there was not really a psychedelic rockabilly band before the Cramps, and there wasn’t really a punk blues band before the Gun Club." (He was a member of both bands, of course - incidentally, having first really gotten to know Jeffrey Lee Pierce at, yes, a Pere Ubu concert). I agree with him on both counts, but it's still not enough to make me include them on this list, because given the environment from which they emerged, eventually, there WOULD have been a psychedelic rockabilly band without the Cramps, and there WOULD have been a punk blues band without the Gun Club. Maybe they wouldn't have been as good, but the combination of elements in either band's music, great as it may be, just screams inevitability to me. You've got the fries, you've got the ketchup, you've got the rum and the Coca-cola: and sooner or later, someone is going to put them together. They might deserve credit for doing the inevitable BEFORE anyone else, or doing it better, but overall, bands that rooted in the music that had gone before them would need to do something very, very unusual with those influences to make a list like this - which points to another problem: how can you describe a band as the most creative/ unique/ original anything when you can more-or-less encapsulate what they do with two words? (And no, Ubu cognoscienti, "avant garage" doesn't really apply here, since it barely gives you any idea what Pere Ubu might sound like if you don't already know, whereas "punk blues" and "psychedelic rockabilly" give a pretty strong image).

Don't get me wrong: I love the Cramps, especially. They might appear on some OTHER list of mine - maybe even "top ten all-time favourite bands." But on a list of "the most creative/ unique/ original rock bands of the 20th century?" Hardly.

Here are some bands I know I would put on the list. The Residents, for sure. Nothing else has ever quite sounded like them or approached music in quite the same way; while there are other bands that are weirder (Nihilist Spasm Band? Smegma? The Haters?), they weren't really making rock music, which the Residents clearly are, at least for the most part. And while they did have their influences - especially if you look at some of that very early footage that crept out awhile back, where they're carrying on like theatrical, costumed, Beefheart-inspired hippie freaks - nothing that came before them would prepare you for what they became, once they actually started releasing albums; a lot of what you hear in their music comes not from some apparent outward influence but from some space INSIDE the band and its members, some interior cauldron of weirdness where precedents are either meaningless or impossible to track down. The immensity and singularity of their accomplishment is only reinforced by how prolific they are and the fact they are still around.

Pretty sure, also, that Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention would deserve to be on the list for their theatricality, independence, their fusion of jazz and classical music into rock, and Zappa's sense of satire and emphasis on virtuoso musicianship. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, too. True, Beefheart owes plenty to bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf in what he does, especially early on, except nothing about combining surrealism and free jazz with Howlin' Wolf seems like an inevitable combination of pre-existing elements. If Beefheart hadn't made the music he made, I'm not sure anyone else would have, could have, or would have even wanted to, had it occurred to them. And there's an aggressive insistence on the primacy of the artist, even a sort of quasi-cultish, you-get-it-or-you-don't authoritarianism that seems to come not from anything that had gone before in rock, but from the mind and soul of the man himself (though Zappa and he reinforced it in each other for a time, it seems).

That's three artists/ bands I'm pretty confident belong. But it gets murky after that. For the all the Velvet Underground's importance - even to Pere Ubu, who have acknowledged them as an influence and would probably have opinions on my not immediately mentioing them - there are pretty discernible forebears, including avant garde minimalism, a pinch of Bob Dylan (on that first album, anyhow) and more than a pinch of NY beatnik performance poetry: just listen to "Venus in Furs" and imagine Lou Reed in a beret and turtleneck (items of clothing I am  not sure he ever wore, but boy it is an easy thing to visualize). And it's not easy to separate them out from everything else that was bubbling up in the cauldron of New York City at that time, in the same way that the richness of swingin' London makes me pause before asserting Pink Floyd. They might belong on the list, I don't know - I am not arguing that they don't, and, like I say, the list is unfinished - but for one reason or another, I feel reluctant to include them at the outset.

Ditto the Ramones: influential, sure, but - sorry! - it's hard for me to tap any band as the most creative of anything when their songs all sound so similar to each other. And even if those songs don't sound much like anything ELSE that had existed previously, the fact that there are so many bands that SUBSEQUENTLY came to sound like them - and that COULD sound like them, if they wanted - makes it very hard to want to include them here.

Call me a heretic if you must, but in fact, there is only one other band I would confidently, definitely include on this list (without a lot more thought or discussion, that is): that being Pere Ubu.
.

Pere Ubu 2016, by Kathy Thompson, not to be reused without permission. Left to right: Steve Mehlman, Robert Wheeler, Gary Siperko, David Thomas and Michele Temple.


There's nothing inevitable going on with Pere Ubu's music at all. Whatever else was happening in Cleveland in 1975 - and it does sound like there was quite a bit! - and whatever non-musical influences they've described, like the strange beauty of the industrial landscape around them or the avant-garde theatrical provocations of Alfred Jarry - there is an immense creativity to this band's music that really has no equal. Listen to 1975's "Heart of Darkness," the B-side of the single, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" that started it all, Compare it to anything else that had gone before. Sure, there are recognizable elements: youthful angst and introspective alienation, a garage-band directness, a propulsive beat...  but what about Thomas' downplayed, half-muttered, doubled vocal, the stripped-down emphasis on the bass, the strange skronkiness of the guitar? You can see the influence in bands that came after (Mission of Burma, who have covered the song, and Sonic Youth, especially); and the noisiness of it obviously owes something to the Velvet Underground. But there was still nothing much like it in 1975. And the band would evolve quite a bit further, over the next few years, into something even more unique. By 1978, with Dub Housing - which I believe was voted Pere Ubu's greatest album, by fans - they're making music that sounds like nothing anyone has ever done or would do, that stands totally alone in contemporary pop.
Take "On the Surface" as an example (it's actually my ringtone, so I can't listen to it without compulsively wanting to answer the phone). The catchy little keyboard signature that starts it off seems like a harmless and friendly pop gesture, almost like something you could find on Pet Sounds. The bassline bubbling up under it is a bit weirder, but definitely hooky and unthreatening (and about as "dub" as Dub Housing gets). But fifteen seconds in, once David Thomas' fluttery vocals kick in - two voices, blissfully muttering and humming at each other like preoccupied co-workers in a Fleischer brothers cartoon, melancholic but not totally unhappy in their labours - you're in completely uncharted territory; pop music had never sounded quite like this before, and - this is essential - it has never sounded like this from any other band, ever, since. Not only is it without precedent, it is without subsequent. There's nothing quite else like this anywhere, and once Pere Ubu stops, there's probably never going to be anything quite like it again.

This early material - spanning a handful of singles, and including their first five LPs (The Modern Dance, Dub Housing, New Picnic Time, The Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man) are all relevant to the Coed Jail! tour the band is presently on, entering the West Coast end of it. I have no arguments further for catching them when they play the Cobalt on December 2nd (or, for those reading this outside Vancouver, on one of their other West Coast dates, listed at the bottom of the page): the main one is that this is one of the most creative and original bands in rock history, which surely must mean something to you. Even if you don't get it YET - and I know people who became huge Ubu fans who were completely non-plussed at first blush, who were made flat-out uncomfortable the first time they were exposed - you should seize the opportunity, because you may never have a chance to see them again. You CAN'T see Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart (or the Velvets or the Ramones or Syd-era Pink Floyd). And if you're a music geek on the West Coast you probably ALREADY have seen the Residents, who have been pretty active touring lately. But Pere Ubu doesn't tour North America that often, and when they do, they don't always get out west. They're not getting younger - this is a band that has been playing for over 40 years, with frontman Thomas now 63. (His retirement seems unlikely, but who knows?). Don't let your future self regret the chance you had, that you didn't act on: this is an opportunity not to be missed.

People who have yet to be convinced are further directed to Entrippy!'s article, quoted at the top of this piece, and endorsed on the Ubu homepage ("if you really want to understand what Pere Ubu does, read this," the band writes; how proud Entrippy! must be). That article places them in the light of the work of another great original artist, Bob Dylan (who I would definitely have included on my list, except I don't really think of Dylan as making rock music). You might also want to look at my Big Takeover interview with David Thomas, from 2013, or the Pere Ubu website, which has a wealth of information.

Two interviews follow: first, a brief email interview with Pere Ubu's sole original member, David Thomas, who was quite candid in saying that he doesn't really care for interviews ("I think about what I do. I don't have to talk about it also.") I decided to let him off the hook for the remainder, and shifted instead to talking with Pere Ubu's current sythesizer/ Theremin man, Robert Wheeler, who has only been in Pere Ubu since 1994, but who has been on the Cleveland scene from the outset, and a witness to some of their earliest performances.  Both of these interviews took place a few years ago, in fact - and have been sitting waiting for the moment to use them; but they are still relevant now, and in the case of Mr. Wheeler's section, it was updated by him last week...


Robert Wheeler (foreground) and David Thomas (background) at the BBC, photo by Kiersty Boon, not to be reused without permission

David Thomas interview 

Allan: Do you dislike discussing the meanings of songs? I remember you writing somewhere that lyrics should not be printed, is that part of the same thing or different?


David: Yes, if the 'meaning' of a song can be condensed into a few sentences then what is the point of making a song? As for printing lyrics, it's a different issue (though possibly related), rock music is not poetry bolted onto naive folk art. I covered this a little in 'Book of Hieroglyphs.' Rock words and music are not separable. Printing lyrics, though sometimes desirable, serves to validate the schism. I went through a long process trying to make it work. It is very clear from my solo work of the 80s that every unintelligible utterance vocally is intentional and functional. When I am comping vocals in the studio I go thru and add or delete ruthlessly. Nothing is there by neglect (mostly). If you actually work to understand every syllable coming out of my mouth on many of those recordings you can see that I am introducing a running commentary of doubt or an Intrusive POV into the 'meaning' of the words/music partnership. If you sat down with me and listened to one of those songs I could explain to you exactly what that third "unh" in the 4th line was doing. Over the course of one line of vocal delivery there can be an entire journey that swings wildly from one POV to the other. If I could actually write out all the 'lyrics' so that you could follow then this might be clearer to the listener. Unfortunately, what you would get is a long sheet of partial words, untranslatable utterances and syllables. I tried it. It didn't work. And eventually I revised my vocal approach to get this under control and move off in another direction. I have gone thru a number of vocal reinventions over the course of my career because I get comfortable and I don't like the feeling of 'getting comfortable.' I like what I was doing with this method but in the end the idea is communication and I wanted to look at other methods that might work better or differently.

I would love to hear some stories about how certain songs were written, where they came from, how you assembled them...specifically, would like to know how you wrote "Sonic Reducer" with Cheetah Chrome, to start with?


I don't do anecdotes and often the process is so convoluted, or so straight-forward, that I forget. For example, there is an entire series of songs inspired by nothing more than looking out the window as I was driving along the Yellow River out in Montana or somewhere and saw the sun flashing thru the leaves of trees along the river bank. Not a single one of those songs mentions or alludes to that scenario. As for 'Sonic Reducer' I don't remember much. I came up with the lyrics probably because 'sonic reduction' was so evocative that I figured I should do more with it. I came up with the words first, as I remember, which is a very rare way for me to work. Cheetah had some music and we put them together or something. Ask him.

How did the RFTT and Ubu versions of "Final Solution" materialize? It seems the most "reworked" song in the transition from band to band... Do you have a preference between them? Was it odd dusting off the RFTT version?


That's the way different musicians interpreted it.


David Thomas with Pere Ubu, onstage in Vancouver, 1980, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

You joked onstage about how people take you for a "grumpy weirdo," but in fact you seem to have gotten a lot chattier with the audience over the years. I don't remember a whole lot of banter when I saw you in Vancouver in 1988, except for joking that people who cover "Final Solution" often sing it so the words can be understood, which you regarded as a mistake. But you were very warm and talkative during the recent Vancouver show... has your approach to performance changed over the years? What's driving it?

I evolve what I do. I've got places to be, things to do. Members of the audience see me in snapshots spread over decades. I see myself in a continuum, in a stream. The water is flowing, the current eddies and swirls. Sometimes I swim, sometimes I drift.

Is your stage patter worked out in advance, or totally spontaneous, or does it evolve from show to show? In Vancouver you started with a rap about ghost towns, then moved largely to joking about performing for "the ladies" in the audience... if I had seen the Ubu shows before and after the Vancouver gig, would I have seen a progression in these themes?

It evolves from show to show. This year I have had 3 basic stage 'stories'. There are certain routines I like and will repeat. Others I do a few times and drop. Depends on what the focus of the particular show/tour is. The stories are there for a reason. Often the same story can be applied to different purposes. I don't joke. Humor is a tool. I use it in a Skinnerian way. I manipulate an audience. I toy with them and exploit them to achieve an end. Very rarely do I say something without purpose. Even when it seems I'm babbling or getting off-track or stumbling, I very rarely am. 95% of it is ruthlessly designed either in the moment or in context. Some times I simply figure I should appear to be rambling so that's what I manufacture. There's no point to asking me why. Often right before a show I will come up with a plan or at least a starting point for that evening. Sometimes this involves telling the band I/we will be doing something in a particular way. Sometimes I head off in a direction knowing the band will pick it up. They tend to be sensitive to nuances.


Robert Wheeler by Alex Horn, not to be reused without permission

Robert Wheeler interview

Allan: You're just a few years younger than David, right? So did you get to experience a "before punk came to Cleveland and after," or was there already a fertile scene happening there when you started going to gigs and listening to music? Any insights into the genesis of that scene?


Robert: There was a strict 18 yr old+ bar policy. I was not old enough to get into clubs, tho' I did go see lots of rock shows, like Hawkwind, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople. Cleveland was where David Bowie and Roxy Music broke (and bands like Rush also, tho' I was more into English bands). Interesting note: my mom said, I’ve been hearing this guy David Bowie on the radio, are you going? Me: no.

It was his first North American show. I have no insights.

What are your memories of early gigs? What bands did you see? Was there a feeling of something new and exciting happening, or…?

The first shows I saw were at Pirates Cove in the flats. Pere Ubu, Peter Laughner’s Friction, Chi -Pig [no relation to SNFU], Styrene Money Jazz Band were the first local bands I saw. For me it was new and exciting.

When did you first meet David, and what did you make of him? Any stories to share…?


I remember David from when I was in first grade; he was probably in 6th grade.  I was in school with his little brother Allen from kindergarden to high school. I could almost see their house from our apartment, just across Cedar Road and up a few houses on the right. David was a big guy (to a first grader). That made him imposing. I went to Allen's house a few times, I don’t remember David there.

David has written about - I can't quote - the unusual, vibrant, and not at all negative experience of growing up in the industrial landscape of Cleveland, suggesting it was an inspiration... did you feel that way, too? What was your relation to the landscape, and did it shape your reaction to the music...?


When I was 2 to 5 years old, my mom would take me driving down through the flats, I remember the winding, twisting roads that run along the Cuyahoga, the big trucks, the smelting plants, the steel factories, the huge bridges that would lift to let the ore boats through. We would go exploring - abandoned factories and desolation of places below the view of the city at the top of the hill. Smells and clouds of smoke, banging of the heavy machinery plants. My parents both worked in Cleveland, and on weekends we would go to the family farm in Milan. Ohio. I was blessed to have grown up in the city and the country. My heart was in the country.  


Hideo's Discodrome is a helluva cool name for a record shop. Were there Japanese involved in the running of it? What was the history of the store, how vital was it to local musicians, and how unusual was it in Cleveland?

Hideo’s Discodrome was John Thompson’s record store, the 1st incarnation was around the corner from where I lived. It would move 2 times. Eventually the name just became DROME! No Japanese involved. For me, it was vital. My old record store was Record Revolution on Coventry, great for its time, but seemed too ‘hippy’ Drome had a different buzz about it. David worked there. Peter Laughner worked there. For me, it felt like a record store for those who didn’t fit.

If it wasn't by Ubu, what was, by the way, the first single or record that you think of now as punk that you acquired? The first gig you think of now as punk that you saw? Was the word part of the discourse in the early scene in Cleveland? When the world finally started talking about punk - did it feel like old news to those of you in that scene?

My memory may be shot, but I think "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" was the first ‘punk’ record. By punk, I mean someone who put out their own record. Other than that Ubu has nothing to do with punk. Malcom McLaren created punk we know to sell clothes, it was a marketing tool. "30 Seconds" was by people who wanted to make their own music - very little in common with each other, except they happen about the same time and neither sounds anything like Boston...   this is before Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Ramones, Damned, and way before Sex Pistols.


It says you saw the band play "their first night at Pirates Cove" in your bio. Probably my fault - I haven't researched deeply - but I'm not entirely clear: does that mean their first gig, or their first gig at that club? What do you remember of it? Tell me everything you can recall, all impressions, reactions, observations (if your memory is like mine these will be few and strange - it's odd what the brain files, eh?).

Not their first gig, but the first of 2+ years at Pirates Cove on a weekly basis. Pirates Cove (the flats in general) was kind of a scary place at first for me - dark abandoned streets. not many street lights. Seemed to be about 30 of us (though I’m sure there were more) at first. and it always seemed cold in the winter, like "wear gloves" cold. I remember Cheetah Chrome dropping his pants and mooning people... the cute girl who I later found out was Chrissy Hynde (once she moved away and became famous)...  Chris Yarmock (later of Easter Monkeys) became my first friend of that music scene.

Were you listening to/ aware of electronic music before you saw Ubu? What?

I don’t know if Hawkwind and early Roxy Music count, but I had most Hawkwind and all Roxy. All Kraftwerk. Heldon from France. Cage and Terry Riley. Nonesuch sampler. I don’t count Switched on Bach.

How would *you* describe (original Pere Ubu synth player) Allen Ravenstine's innovations with electronica? What was hearing him like?

Great seeing someone play live electronics, and play it in a way that very few did. Most synth players are keyboard players that play a machine that plays notes and sounds like strings or woodwinds or try to emulate other sounds. Allen and early Eno play electronics like they have their own voice. Much more exciting.

It sounds from your bio that you bought your first synth in emulation of  Allen. Did you ever interact with him? How did you learn your instrument? What's this about "electronic school?”

As I used to see them every week it was a natural to ask him what type of synth to buy. I had it down to Buchla or EML. He said EML. How do you learn an instrument when you don’t have a manual? You sit down and play. and experiment. and patch and explore. and try everything.

When I turned 21, I had no skills, nothing marketable. When I went to Pi Corp to try synths and buy the EML, I was fascinated by the smell of warm resistors and solder and feel his shop had. I asked how he (David Yost) learned how to do this, he said he took electronics. A friend of my father's said you should always know a skill to do with your hands. Being good in math and science, and [because] it looked like we were on the cusp of an electronic revolution, I chose electronics. I have an Associates Degree.

If I recall, there's early Home and Garden stuff out there to be heard, on the bonus disc from the old Ubu box, but what about your other early projects? (Savage Tractors - are there recorded examples of that? Are any still in print? What did you sound like? Ditto Dr. Bloodmoney...?)

I have cassette tapes of Savage Tractors. We never thought we were ‘good enough’ to go into a studio, though a number of people said we should. We did 2 covers off of "Spiral Scratch" (1st Buzzcocks 45),  a Joy Division cover off a Factory Records sampler - but we played it at the wrong speed. it was a 33, we though it was better at 45, that’s the version we learned: fast.

(Ubu / RFTT drummer Steve Mehlman by bev davies, not to be reused without permission)

Was science fiction a big influence on any of you back then? There's something very SF about some of that early Cleveland music, and obviously, Dr. Bloodmoney is named after one of Philip K. Dick's novels.... Incidentally, that was my introductory comment to David Thomas when I met him briefly after the RFTT gig in Vancouver awhile back - that he looks like Philip K. Dick when he has a beard. (Just a little). He didn't really react.

I read tons of science fiction. so I assume it must be an influence, as Ray Harryhausen movies would be.

Why/ how did you keep joining bands that Tony Maimone left? Just a coincidence, or…?

I was asked. Tony was a great supporter of people and projects. Tony introduced me to Linda who would become my wife.


Robert Wheeler onstage at the Biltmore, 2013 by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

Did you grow up aware that you were related to Edison? Did this shape your interest in electronic music, or in invention, or... in any relevant way?

Was I aware? Yes, as a 2nd grader. Did I know what that meant? No. What impact he had on me: not a clue. I don’t think it shaped me in that way.

How does one make a homemade Theremin? It sounds like you knew how to make one long before you knew how to play it. Incidentally, can you play "America the Beautiful" on it now? Will you be playing it - the Theremin, not "America the Beautiful" - onstage with Ubu?

You start with a schematic and a sheet of copper. Use black tape and mask off, on clear plastic, what you want the circuit to look like. Spray the copper board with a photo-resist, shine a bright light on the plastic that is now taped to the copper board. Acid bath to remove unwanted copper. Get a small drill and drill holes; insert parts; solder, tweak, adjust, tweak, adjust. I had not seen anyone play a Theremin, I didn’t know how the antennas were to be tuned. I assumed you would not want it making noise all of the time, only when you got close (not the way it was designed).  So mine originally got louder as you got closer to the antenna. I have never attempted to play "America the Beautiful" since. I will have a Theremin with me.

Where do you turn for inspiration re: the Theremin?

Jack Daniels. (Not really, I just like to tell people the more you drink, the easier it is to play) I don’t follow any Theremin player. I get inspired by beautiful music, art or nature.

 (By the way: a very, very cool Theremin player is on the Vancouver scene, namely George McDonald, of the Melodic Energy Commission, a band whose early claim to fame is that they included an early member of Hawkwind. I would be happy to pick up some CDs of their music for you and swap them for yours at the gig.)

Ok. (We eventually swapped).

How did you end up in Ubu, and how did that feel? 

This was the 3rd time I had been approached by Scott Krauss. I didn’t have the confidence in myself and I had full time work and a small baby at home. My wife Linda said, this is the 3rd time they’ve asked, it’s your favorite band and they won’t keep asking. You better accept.

They had just come off their "digression" into making pop music for Fontana and such, right?  I confess that I kind of tuned out during that period. Had you been following them throughout? What was the mood of the band like at that time? Ray Gun Suitcase seems like a bit of a back to roots kind of album...

Of course I followed what they were doing. my bandmates from Home and Garden were in the band (Scott Krauss and Jim Jones and Michele Temple). And it had been my favorite band. Right when I joined, Scott quit Ubu. I thought the mood was good, at least mine was. With Jim and Michele in the studio, we were ‘jamming’ and it was just like playing with Home and Garden - David started the recorder and we got the song ‘Horse’. Played it once, and never again. I assume it’s back to roots, because Ubu had an analog synth again...  back to the beeps…

Michele Temple by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

What are your favourite recordings with Ubu - the ones where you're particularly proud of your contribution? Can you pick one and walk us through what you're doing? (I, by the way, am NOT a gear geek and have no real clue how you make the sounds you do).

I really like "Vacuum Cleaner" (AKA "Vacuum in My Head") from Ray Gun Suitcase: the little squggles. the Indian finger cymbal samples.



Robert Wheeler and Allen Ravenstine, photo provided by Robert Wheeler

Do you have favourite songs to play from BEFORE your time in the band? Why? Did you go back and try to learn what Allen was doing so you could duplicate it, or did you just come up with your own solutions/ approaches?

I used to say I loved being in Ubu because I got to hear Tom Herman's "My Dark Ages" guitar every night, and I had the best seat in the house, 5 feet from him. Honestly, that guitar makes my heart soar like an angel on gossamer wings and then that angel cries tears of blood. Tony’s bass line. it’s all too much. I go for the feel Allen had, I don’t try to duplicate it. On that song it’s the constant relentless THUMP like Chinese water torture and the uneasy wobble on the chorus. On virtually every song he played on, I don’t try to mimic. I can’t. I’m not that good.

When did you first meet Allen? What was that like? What are your recordings with him like? I haven't seen I Dream of Wires yet [electronic music documentary that united Robert and Allen and lead to two solo albums worth of electronica].

I first met Allen at the early Ubu shows. I remember the band standing at the door as we left, saying ‘thank you for coming, and drive safely’ (probably more Tony, Scott and Tom than Allen and David… but that’s fuzzy.

What are our recordings like? No rhythm,  no notes, no melody - does that help?


Any favourite tour stories with Ubu? Do *you* have pastimes on the the road? What is the mood like in the (music-free, comfort-free van?).

The tour van is pretty quiet, usually silent. People have headphones or books, or look wistfully out the window, wishing they were home. Or that they lived in the little town in Italy we just passed through. Driving through snowstorms in Wyoming when they are about to close I-80 and you can not see the highway was memorable. not in a good way.

Funny, I think of the things that were miserable. Unable to fly home in time for Christmas because we can not fly out of the Paris airport for 3 days. (I did make it home about 8PM on Christmas Eve). No favorite happy stories coming to mind...

What's working with David like? Any insights into his personality as "bandleader?" What is the concept of leadership like in Ubu? (How collectively are decisions made?).

David is a hard driving, super sharp leader. During recording or on tour. It’s a real treat to work with the other members, we are a machine. No one needs to be told what to do, we all know our jobs when we arrive at a venue. All venues and audiences are different, but we are the same, we give 100%.


Pere Ubu West Coast tour dates 2016:

12/10/16 Casbah, San Diego, CA

For Pere Ubu touring information go here.