Sunday, November 26, 2017

David Thomas is a blue butterfly: a Steve Mehlman interview!

Pere Ubu at the Cobalt, Nov. 2016, photo by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

IMPORTANT NOTE! THE PERE UBU (OFFICIAL) FACEBOOK PAGE AND MO AT THE RICKSHAW CONFIRM: TOMORROW'S SHOW HAS BEEN CANCELLED (apparently due to a medical emergency). My best wishes to David Thomas and hope for a speedy recovery! Hope to see you again! (Hope you don't mind that I called you a blue butterfly!). By the way, since this was posted on the Ubu official FB page yesterday, the article has gotten over 1,200 views! (The remainder of the article below is unchanged!

(Note: the following is Allan speaking; we'll get to Pere Ubu/ Rocket From the Tombs drummer Steve Mehlman presently).

You know that Leonard Cohen poem where one of the links in his armour - he says a chain, but you imagine chain mail - is a blue butterfly? And people who want to attack him (or his third-person character in the poem) keep aiming for the blue butterfly, and failing, because it happens to be his most fortified spot? It's called "Nothing Has Been Broken" and can be read, maybe even heard, here; I won't repost it in full, but the last lines say, "A thrust at any link/ might have brought him down/ but each of you aimed at the blue butterfly."

Well - I'm not trying to bring anyone down, here, or even make an attack, but somewhere back there I got to thinking that David Thomas is Pere Ubu's blue butterfly. By which I mean, as the frontperson and the sole constant member since the band's founding in 1975, he's the link in the chain that is going to draw all the attention and interest, not just from the audience, but especially from journalists, trying to pry into the various mysteries of Ubu (a mysterious band indeed; who among us can truthfully claim they REALLY understand them?). There might be other exceptional elements to the chain (ANYONE who has been playing in Pere Ubu for some 20 years, as is the case of Robert Wheeler, Michelle Temple, and Steve Mehlman, is bound to be an interesting person), but he's the one people are going to notice and have questions of.

Pere Ubu at the Cobalt, Nov. 2016, photo by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

That makes him a somewhat daunting interview, because before you even interact with him, you know he's heard it all before, been asked it all before. And he's got a pretty interesting philosophy that raises the bar even higher. When I HAVE interviewed him, in the past, he's said - when I asked him about my impression that he was disinclined to explain his songs - that "if the 'meaning' of a song can be condensed into a few sentences then what is the point of making a song?"

Which is a really fair point, actually - to borrow a different metaphor, I prefer humour to dead frogs, myself. But it brings me to a full stop as an interviewer, where I have to admit that I kind of like the inexplicable nature of Pere Ubu, enjoy their strangeness, would rather interpret their music in my own way than pester him to explain lyrics to me.

All of which I'm fine with, but what the hell else am I going to ask him about? Having interviewed him a couple of times over the years - straining and occasionally failing to make it interesting for him, too - I decided, last time the band came to town, that I had run out of ideas; that I would rather give him a break, and find out about OTHER members of the band.

Pere Ubu at the Cobalt, Nov. 2016, photo by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

I mean no censure of David Thomas here, note. I gather that he had a very convivial and charming conversation with the Vancouver Sun recently. But not aiming at the blue butterfly seems like a possibly fruitful strategy. It worked pretty well with Robert Wheeler, last year, when Pere Ubu played a very memorable, tight set at the Cobalt. And this year - apropos of their November 30th show at the Rickshaw - I decided to aim at long-time Ubu and RFTT drummer (and Ubu merch table man) Steve Mehlman, who exudes a bit of a pranksterish charm onstage, and is a personable enough fellow when you talk with him at the table.

Plus on all the internet (in English, anyways!) there appear to be only one or two interviews with Mr. Mehlman - here, for instance - so, you know, you don't have to be too afraid of boring the guy. I sent Steve a bunch of questions about his history with drumming and with the Cleveland music scene - including Pere Ubu. I asked about his role with the merch (both on the Ubuprojex website and at merch tables). And I asked about Pere Ubu's new album 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo - a very pleasntly ROCKIN' album, far more guitar-driven and straightforward than their last few records; aspects of it seem practically RFTT in their drive (check the lead single, "Monkey Biznis," say; that's one driving rock song for Pere Ubu to do). I didn't even realize that he'd written most of my favourite songs on the album when I pitched the interview! (The album just says "all songs written by Pere Ubu"). Steve elected to not respond in a question-and-answer fashion, but wrote a sort of autobiographical essay in response. There are a couple of places where you might infer that there's an absent question that he's responding to, but rather than track down what I think he's answering, or fake a question, I think this just works pretty well as a story (a pretty funny one, too) - you may have to ride past a couple transitions, but I think it works. (He also mentioned a video for his old band Sissy doing the Birthday Party's "Sonny's Burning," but there was no link, so...)

Anyhow, that's about it for me. Folks, if you haven't seen Pere Ubu before - it will be hard for them to top their show at the Cobalt last year, but if that gig and the strength of 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo are any indication, Thursday's show is not to be missed. Rickshaw proprietor Mo Tarmohamed has been talking about Ubu being on his bucket list for bands he's wanted to book since I first interviewed him, and I'm very excited at the opportunity to see one of my favourite bands at my favourite local music venue. Never did I imagine I'd get to see Pere Ubu four times in my life. I figured when I caught them on the Tenement Year tour at Club Soda, with John Cale opening, it would be my only chance to see them... how wrong I was.

Thanks to Steve Mehlman for doing this! 

Pere Ubu at the Cobalt, Nov. 2016, photo by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

Steve Mehlman writes:

When I was a little kid, like maybe six or seven or so, my cousin Tom had a big drum set and I was fascinated by it and I loved watching him play. Shortly after that, while living with my Dad, the next-door neighbor's son Mark, who was a little older than me and my brother, had this cool room in the garage which included a drum set and lots of records. I used to sit and watch him play all the time, he played me weird shit I'd never heard of and lots of backwards masking stuff. Eventually, when I was nine my dad got a drum set for my brother. I probably played it more than he did, but about four months after "we" got it some girl that went by the name of "moose" pushed him out of a tree and he smashed his elbow in a million places… And then I just kept playing.

It was halfway through fourth grade when I moved back to Cleveland with my Mom (my Mom had to put up with most of the noise and visits from the police for being too loud, but she was super patient and both of my parents are really supportive). We had a neighbor that lived behind us named Jeff that played guitar, and I used to go over and watch him play all the time. He was a shredder and played a bunch of metal stuff. We would jam together a lot. He was only a year older than me, but he was way better than I was, so it was probably a little bit boring for him but fun nonetheless 'cause neither one of us had anyone else to play with except for some older kind of weird dude with a curly mullet whose name I can't remember that played bass. I do remember that we played a lot of Van Halen because the huge talent gap between Eddie and Alex fit our needs.

I also had these twin friends, Derrick and Danielle, who had an older brother named Mike. When I was in sixth grade and Mike was in ninth grade, he and some of his older friends had a sort of band and they asked me to play with them. I thought it was the coolest thing ever because I was like 11 years old hanging out with these 15 and 16-year-olds. The only songs I remember playing were "Living After Midnight," some other Judas Priest song. and "Am I Evil"... we were called Rotted Goat... that was my first band. I think the chalk graffiti of a goat head and a pentagram are still on the wall in my childhood bedroom...

I had a couple junior high/high school bands after that- at my eighth grade dance, two of my friends and I played like three or four songs, but the only one I remember playing was "Mony Mony." We got unplugged and yelled at because of that little added lyric that I have no idea where it came from that we weren't even singing... but everyone else was ("here she comes now sayin' in Mony Mony. Hey! Hey what? Get laid get fucked..." Don't ask me).

When I was in ninth grade my friend Steve and I played in a band with a bunch of seniors and kids that just graduated doing a bunch of covers for a Catholic school carnival… My first paying gig.
I had a band at the the last couple years of high school with a couple of younger friends. The beginning of the year right after I graduated we played some pep rally thing and got shut down because we had a smoke machine and pretty much filled the place. I yelled and threw shit and we knocked all our stuff over... The best part was that a bunch of teachers came up and apologized to me afterwards…weird. This was also the first band I played in a club with.

So, in The summer of 1990 my grandmother (my mom's mother) passed and left me enough money to buy a new drum kit. I still use that same drum kit today...almost every day. I'd give you the specs on it, but really who cares, unless somebody has a Yamaha rock tour custom kit for sale for a reasonable price...?

I went to college for a minute and that is where I meant the legendary Lamont BIM Thomas of The Bassholes, This Moment in Black History and OBNOX. I have been playing with OBNOX for the past couple years or so. He puts out more material than Jo-Ann Fabrics. In October we released a record called Murder Radio, his second full length of the year and the first record he's put up with a different drummer other than himself (we will be doing some touring next year). Anyway, I dropped out and joined a cover band. I learned like 60 songs in a couple weeks- all kind of alt rock type of stuff from Love and Rockets and REM to Jane's Addiction and Nirvana and so on. They were all good guys, but they didn't really pay me anything because they had so much debt on all the gear and the box truck that they bought years earlier… I don't know what they paid themselves or if they ever even paid that shit off. Nonetheless, they are all all off doing great things now.

Shortly after that in the summer of '91 I was at my friend Dean's little brother's graduation party. I had rainbow hair, a red beret and painted nails and shit, and a bunch of us were screwing around in the backyard. My friend's mom and some friend of hers were hanging out up on the patio when they called me over. My friend's mom introduced me to her friend and said that her daughter had a band that needed a drummer. So, Sally Martello introduced me to her daughter Rae, and I joined the Vivians… I think they tried a couple other people out, but ended up with me. This is where I met Michele Temple (at that time she played guitar and like no one I'd ever heard before, or since really). I remember during practices with them, we would finish a song and she'd say "that was great, but can we do it again a little faster and a little louder?" So we do it again and she'd go "that was better can you do it again a little faster and a little louder?" so we would and so on. So I became a basher pretty early on.

At that point Stewart Copeland (The Police), Matt Cameron (Soundgarden), Hugo Burnham (Gang of Four) and Mike Bordin (Faith No More) were (and still are) my favorite drummers, but the Vivians turned me onto Mac McNeilly from The Jesus Lizard who I thought to some extent kind of combined my favorite parts of all of them. But I was also into a lot of goth and industrial, so I really liked Bauhaus, The Sisters of Mercy, Einstürzende Neubaten, Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails and so on- a lot of that was because I was enamored with the older brother (Danny, also a drummer) of one of my best friends at the time (Dean C, the guitar player/singer of my high school band) and that was all shit that he listened to. When we were most definitely not old enough to be at bars we would sneak in to watch his brother's bands play.

I think it was in 1993 that Michele got into Pere Ubu when Tony Maimone left to play with They Might be Giants and Bob Mould and start his own studio and...probably a whole lot of other things… I think it was later that year there was a Pere Ubu tribute album (Ubu Dance Party, which was finally released in 1996) that was going to be put out and they had asked the Vivians to do a song for it. From just having been around the music scene in Cleveland I had heard of Pere Ubu, but I didn't really know anything by them despite probably having heard it in the background many times. Anyway Michele offered me five songs to pick from. I think my first two choices were "Final Solution" and "Humor Me," but she said by the time we got to it that those were not options anymore, and we ended up doing Codex. I thought it came out pretty sweet. We even had David come up and sing it with us on stage at a Vivians show at the old Grog Shop, where I also worked picking up pieces of broken toilets and mopping the carpet.

Pere Ubu was on some bigger label that I can't remember right now and doing some package tour and the rest of the Vivians and a couple friends went up to The Metro in Chicago to see them play. The show was pretty amazing, they had Garo Yellin playing cello and David played what I later found out was Robert Wheeler's 10th grade electronics project - his homemade Theremin that he got a C on because he couldn't play "America the Beautiful," or something like that. But David was quirky and captivating.

SO, in 1995, Scott Krauss quit Pere Ubu for the, I think, third and final time. I don't know exactly how this goes, but they were recording Ray Gun Suitcase and I believe they did everything to a click track. Michele got the original Vivians' drummer Scott Benedict, who is a total beast of a drummer, and he came in and blasted through the whole album. When it came time to tour however, because he had a business and a new child, he wasn't able to make that commitment so Michele asked if I wanted to. I said yes. And that was the end of the audition.

I was given a list of about 25 songs to learn and told when to show up for four days of rehearsals before an eight week tour… That was probably less than a month before the tour started, but I was really good at learning and memorizing songs, so it didn't really seem like that big of a deal to me. I was aware of the legendary status of the band and that the original guitar player, Tom Herman, was returning as well.

Now, this is hearsay, but I heard it from Tom and David; it certainly sounds right enough but I don't remember it exactly. They said that I showed up with long blue hair and painted fingernails, shit tied around my arms, a shredded shirt, boots and a skirt, and they looked at each other, eyes wide as if to say "what the fuck did we get ourselves into?"

Well, since I had done my homework confidently without any real problems I basically walked in thinking "what are these old men gonna tell me that I don't already know? It's not whether or not I can play the songs, it's whether or not they can keep up with me..."And what did those old men have to tell me? Mostly to play quieter... Also, I am now older than they were when I started in the band.

The rest is, well, still happening…

We did a bunch of cool shit with a bunch of cool people - we did a couple of shows where we had Wayne Kramer from the MC5 play guitar for us at the Knitting Factory NY. There have been a lot of people that have shown up to shows that I wish I would've met, and many that I actually did talk to - the last Ubu tour I met one of my favorite guitar players when we were in Seattle, Kim Thayil from Soundgarden. He was super nice and appreciative, and he assured me that Matt Cameron would love my drumming (I'll take that!). Rocket From the Tombs played a show in DC and before the show this woman came up to me and introduced herself as Ian McKaye's sister; she said a lot of her family was there. After the show while David and I were selling merch, Ian came up and introduced himself and my jaw just dropped and of course I said "I know exactly who you are." Then David asked me to go get change for him and Ian immediately offered to do it for me! What a sweetheart and goddamn, sometimes you meet your idols and they're as cool as you want them to be.

We did lots of little tours and one-offs with Ubu and RFTT here and there in between the bigger tours for the albums but never more than a couple to five weeks at a time. There were a few years in between each of the few first few records I was on and in 1996 I started college... but it still took me five years and taking classes every summer to get my chemistry degree because I kept having to take semesters off to do tours. A couple of times I just skipped Friday classes, flew to somewhere in Europe and got back in time for Monday classes. In 1999 when we went to Japan, Australia and New Zealand I had to bring my chemistry, calculus and physics books with me so I wouldn't be too far behind when I got back after missing the first two weeks of classes. I got a job as a research chemist immediately after graduating, got laid off a little less than two years later and never looked back... mostly because having a full-time job would interfere with my ability to tour. Two weeks of vacation a year will not do it.

In 2003 David decided he was going to put Rocket from the Tombs back together for a weekend festival at UCLA called Disastodrome. I don't know the whole story, but he couldn't get ahold of the old drummer or whatever, so he asked me to do it. and I thought yeah, more touring (maybe) with heavier songs! It was at that festival where I saw one of the weirdest combinations of people backstage. I'm sure I was staring and giggling while I watched Stan Ridgway, Frank Black and George Wendt talk about...who cares what; it was weird enough just seeing them. I didn't need to know that they were trading cooking tips or whatever. That's also where I met Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo, two of the nicest people you'll ever meet.

Rocket From the Tombs have recorded two records of new material. The most recent one being the Black Record which I am very proud of, and also I finally contributed another song, "I've Got a File On You," that I am really proud of- made it up on the spot, taught it to the guitar player, recorded it on his iPhone gave it to David and it ended up on the record just like that. I think i'm now on 3 RFTT records and 8 Ubu records, the newest being 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo

I think the first song that I actually submitted to the band is on Saint Arkansas called "Steve." There was also a song that David and I recorded in his hotel room in Lisbon called...? Yup, "Lisbon."

What seems to have happened in the past is that David would ask people to start giving him songs. Sometime after that we would either get together or get some demos to learn or write parts to and then we would go into the studio maybe all at once, but rarely recording more than one instrument at a time. As of the last several recordings, it's usually just me, David and Paul and a click track or a demo (it is Ubu law that all demos are recorded to a click track) and I have the structure of the song written out to keep track of where I am.

I have been made to do some very odd things in the studio; I often record my parts to nothing but a click track, but sometimes I have to do everything separately (one pass of kick drum, one pass of the rest of the drums and one pass of cymbals...). I've been asked to sing back ups for songs I don't know the lyrics to and apparently sometimes I'm just not allowed to know. The weirdest one was doing hand claps for a song that I think was on Saint Arkansas. First they made me do "analog panning" (two mics set up, one to the left and one to the right and I had to sway back-and-forth the clapping in to each one), but they could hear my shirt rubbing against itself so I had to take my shirt off. Then David decided the clapping didn't sound wet enough so I had to cover my hands in Vaseline. Then, because it was the middle of summer, I was sweating and they said they could hear my armpits sloshing, so I had to towel them off and get as far as I could before they started hearing it again, stop the tape, dry off my armpits and then continue recording...

So, a couple years ago we were playing a show in Poland and staying in some hotel that Hitler used to use… I was in my big ass fancy room that I clearly didn't deserve, trying to book a bus ticket for when I returned to Brighton to go up to Manchester to see my girlfriend. After trying and failing several times because it kept denying my credit card and then blocked me from making any further attempts, I killed my phone. major-league-baseball-pitch-style, against a stone wall... I hate phones. Nonetheless, a week later I got home and about a week after that I went and bought a new phone. It had Garageband already installed on it, so rather than dicking around on Facebook or playing video games or using it as a communication device, I started writing songs. Between July 2015 and January 2016 I sent about three dozen unsolicited songs to David. they were all "complete" songs in that there were drums, guitar and bass, some with multiple guitar lines, some with keyboards, solos etc. several of them I suspected would work for Rocket from the Tombs several of them I thought would work for Ubu, but there were a bunch I knew he wouldn't be interested in but I sent them anyway. Well, five of the first nine songs that I sent to him ended up on the new record ("Toe to Toe," "Monkey Bizness," "Red Eye Blues," "Howl," "Cold Sweat"), none of which were songs that I thought he would pick. Again, I'm really proud of how they all came out, the entire album is, dare I say, stunning.

As far as playing in other bands, I've gotten to the point where I'm limiting how thin I will spread myself, so it's just Ubu and OBNOX. However, I have been in a ton of bands and have a lot of recordings but I don't know how many of them are even available. One of my favorites is the Terminal Lovers album Drama Pit, later released as Drama Pit and Loan. Me and my friend Dave Cintron who also did a couple of tours with Ubu several years ago worked on a bunch of songs in my girlfriend's basement and we ran in the studio and recorded a pretty blistering album… If he's still got copies, you should get one from him. Another one I'm really pretty happy with is a 10 inch EP I did with Roué called Totally Fucking Totally. It's four songs of chaotic mindfuck rock - I know there are still copies available but I have no idea how to get them. One last band I will mention is Mofos. That is the band of Gary Siperko, who I got to replace the lead guitarist of RFTT and later just to fill in for Ubu guitar player Keith Moliné when we could not get a visa for him. Gary wrote a few songs on Rockets' Black Record and a couple songs on the new Ubu record as well.

There's probably stuff from all of my bands, including cover bands available on YouTube... I have a basement recording from about eight or so years ago of a punk band i was in called The Plain Dealers (after the Cleveland newspaper, The Plain Dealer) with Cheetah Chrome's replacement in RFTT, Buddy Akita. I'd love to release some of that one day... but I'm just going to give you a few with me and Gary from the one Mofos show that i did with him:

...and here is a Terminal Lovers video that a friend of ours made and submitted to a Godzilla video contest… and he won!

...fuck it, here's some Roué:

I've already sent 12 more songs to David for consideration for the next album, so with any luck that will be underway in the relatively near future. If you want dirt and gritty details you're going to have to wait for my biography that I'm never going to write... but ply me with enough alcohol...

Pere Ubu at the Biltmore, by Bev Davies, not to be reused without permission


planckzoo said...

Nice interview. Steve is a fantastic drummer and a great,funy guy. I regret not being able to see UBU earlier this month in DC, work got in the way.

Allan MacInnis said...

Thank you! It was his playfulness that really drew me to Steve. But btw - note my subsequent piece on this very blog re: David Thomas (above this one) - he is in hospital and the west coast dates have been cancelled, all of which happened VERY suddenly, I gather, so there's still some chaos afoot. I'm really bummed not to be seeing them tonight, as I'm sure are his bandmates, not to be playing, and I imagine EVERYONE is worried for him! ...While everyone is unique in their own way, some are more unique than others, and David Thomas is on the level of Beefheart or Zappa or such in terms of his singular idiosyncratic talent and contribution... really really hope he recovers fully and quickly!