bass in Ubu from, 1976 to 1993. Currently a producer and a member of the
Mike DeCapite is a friend of Tony's and an Ubu fan. He is also the author of the novel Through the Windshield. He asked the questions.
This interview was conducted over the phone. The references to "This guy's stupid questions" refer to several questions I had sent to Tony earlier.
Tony Maimone: At the time when we first started, I know that I was listening to a lot of different music with my friends, who all lived in that building with me. Peter lived across the hall, and we were always listening to Bob Dylan or Jimmy Cliff or Bob Marley or Howlin' Wolf, and this is just on Peter's end. Lots of Eddie Cochran from Peter.
Peter was really
into songs. He was into a bit of experimental shit, but he was really
into songs. And he was writing for Cream magazine, so he was getting a
ton of records. I remember sitting around and listening to Rory Gallagher,
or when those Springstien albums came out he came over and said, "There's
this really weird guy, man, and you gotta check him out." And he
wrote out the chords for "I Came for You" and we were pounding
that out on the piano.
Yeah, we brought
it down to his place in the back of his truck. And I remember I was driving
down Cedar Hill and Peter was in the back singing "Tangled Up in
Blue" at the piano, bouncing back and forth. I'll never forget him
singing "I CAME FOR YOU---FOR YOU--- FOR YOU" like Richard Hell
Right but I remember that really strongly----all of those people were listening to all that Everybody was into Roxy Music. And right below Peter is where Scott lived. I'd go down there and listen to even more with him. I used to listen to music with Scott, like, way back in '71. We had a house on 23rd
Yeah, we had this big house between 23rd and Page, just one block over from
Oh, just because I'd visited his house, which was like a house full of musicians.
No I wasn't, I was just drifting. What was I doing back then? I think I was working at the steel mill or some shit, saving up money so I could get out of town.
Yeah---to do something
with my life and move to Fort Lauderdale!
Well, I didn't start playing with Ubu until the summer of '76 then. And I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis---the dark, really electric shit---and a lot of Velvet Underground. Darker pieces, like Peter Green's "The End of the Game". I used to listen to a lot of that stuff with Scott. And at the time I was playing a bit, hustling money
I was on a schedule where I'd do a couple hours of piano and a couple hours of guitar and a lot of bass in between.
I did. I thought,
"Wow, I'm already 23", so I thought I was way behind everybody.
Like Scott had already been playing music for 8 or 9 years, since he was
a teenager. And I definitely felt like the inexperienced guy. So I put
myself on this schedule. When I came back from Florida I lived in Lakeview
for a few months and all I did was play bass. Then I managed to save up
some money, moved into the Plaza, got the piano, got some amps, and just
started playing everything. I was only in a couple bands before Ubu but
I remember my dad telling me that somebody's brother's kid's got a band
and they need somebody to play bass---it was like a fuckin' Holiday Inn
band doin' "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree"
That song has a million fuckin' changes! All those Stevie Wonder songs
If you don't know that music
I did that for a couple months, though.
Oh this was like uh It was
That car was beautiful. Anyway, I did pretty good---I moved down to Florida with a couple hundred bucks, a bottle of whiskey, and a little guitar that I didn't even know how to play. And I came back with a good stereo, a bunch a records, and a beautiful bride.
Did you ever hear any of that early Herbie Hancock stuff? Really electric and funky, like "Watermelon Man" and all that? I remember coming out of one of those Holiday Inn band rehearsals, wiping the snow off my car and you know how snowy Cleveland gets, all quiet, and I'd be playing this funky shit really loud in the car and just feeling so far away from where I really wanted to be.
I wanted to be playing shit like that!
We were all living
right downtown, all of us. And the pastime down there was just driving
around. It'd get snowy and we'd drive around and drink in the car and
just BE downtown. I lived downtown for like 12 years.
to me when I look at what I've done, and those first couple of records
just seem like
I feel like I've almost come full circle from the
early seventies. I used to turn off the lights and play the piano, and
that's "Dub Housing". I used to come home late at night and
turn on an amp and play, and that's the beginning of "Codex".
That stuff was really influenced by my surroundings.
This was later, maybe early '80s. I probably met him in the late seventies and by the early '80s I was playing with him. He wanted me to join his band, but I was touring with Ubu and I didn't really want to stop doing that.
Let me just stop you. The first place we ever rehearsed at was in that building over on Euclid Avenue around 62nd. It was a small room and it was dark in there, and it felt like the heart of Cleveland. And I think organically songs like "Sentimental Journey" came straight from that dark room with everybody being in there, looking into themselves, listening to what was going on around them and reacting to it.
Yeah, for sure that's what we were doing. Absolutely.
And writing songs. "Let's write some songs."
A song like "Modern Dance" or "Streetwaves", that's most definitely true. It's not an easy thing to go back and look at because I believed in it so much
I remember playing gigs and then going back to where David lives, then sitting out back on the lawn, getting high and talking and stuff, but those days didn't last that long. I mean, Tom got really disenchanted with David's Jehovah's Witness thing, and when he left the band it really really changed.
Yeah, for a while. And Scott and I had been playing with Doug's brother Pat and we wanted him in the band because he was a great guitar player. But David wouldn't go for it.
I guess. We got Mayo Thompson, who wasn't really
David just invited him into the band.
Yeah. I didn't really know the Red Krayola the way David did. I had heard 13th Floor Elevators and I'd heard Red Krayola, but David was into that. I was like, "Hey, David, this is great, but let's have Pat in the band, too." But David wasn't going to go that way. And that was definitely a major intersection in the life and times of Pere Ubu.
"Picnic Time" was Tom's last record. The next one was "Art of Walking", and if you go back and listen to that one it's way different. There's actually some good stuff on that record, and I've grown to like it more as time has gone on, but it was definitely a move away from the rock changes that Tom was really good at.
Yeah. Intellectualizing it. Which Mayo was just so good at---he could talk about things He had just produced this record for Blood Ulmer and he wanted me to play like Blood Ulmer's bass player who's like one of those virtuoso machinegun bass players. "Give it more lift! Give it more lift!" And then add Anton Fier to the equation for the next record and it's just too much.
No. "Art of Walking" was after and is the one that Tom wasn't on.
No, he's on "New Picnic Time". But it's funny that you say that. Even though he's on "Picnic Time", he wasn't really into it. I think he had already decided he was going to leave. There's some quirky funny little songs on there that are okay.
Tom is still on "New Picnic Time", and there's still a certain amount of the organic flow of the songs on there.
I still was way into it. When you're just a beginner and new to the studio and stuff, you're just so excited about playing piano or organ, playing guitar. I was getting to play all these different instruments and I was way into it.
No, most of it was rehearsed.
Not really because I was way down with practicing. I was really into practicing. When it came time to record, I knew every single thing I wanted to play.
We weren't pulling in odd directions yet. I was way into the idea of playing some guitar and getting to switch up instruments. Scott was still It got to the point with "Art of Walking" that he wouldn't know what to play. If you go back and listen to some of that stuff it's way arty, and Scott would just stop playing, which I thought was pretty cool---to just stop playing. But David wasn't into that. David and Scott were always bumping heads. I guess I was a little bit with David at that point but I guess Scott saw it all coming early than I did. He would just say "I don't have anything to play to that." And for me, I can play to anything.
I know a lot of
drummers who can play to anything. I always thought that in a lot of ways
Scott was a really uncompromising drummer, who could only play if he felt
a certain way about something, and I always respected and admired that.
No, David always wrote the words afterwards.
We always talked about it---"this is good, this is good, this needs a change"---but that kind of talk was a lot less in effect back in the early days. And as we got older, there were more and more request about what we should do to the music. It was always fun, though. I wrote a lot of David's stuff, too---I'd go into a room with him and, say, Chris Cutler, and that was something that we always did. David always talks about having a hand in the music.
In the beginning he was just another person in the band, talking about "let's try that, let's try this."
I think in the very beginning it was way way up on improvisation. We would start improvising, and then the challenge was to remember what you were doing. We'd be playing and something wouldn't get taped, and then it would get forgotten. That was always a great source of frustration. Then as time went on, people would bring in an idea and in the beginning it was usually Tom and me.
It's interesting because Alan was very adamant about not being a musician, so his roll was like David's in that he would react. I didn't get together with David to do stuff outside the band, either, though. It was never "Hey David, let's go out and get a coupla drinks and pick up some girls, maybe go dancing."
I'd played guitar when I was a kid, then I'd played bass with a rock funk band in Cleveland. I told you about that guy---I named my dog after that guy! That was my first real band. Then after that I played with Friction, which was Peter Laughner and Anton Fier. And after that it was Pere Ubu. That's for the record.
I was tending bar at the Picadilly Inn. They had a penthouse and there was a club up there. They had a disco place downstairs and a rock club upstairs.
Television played there, Johnny Thunders played there. It was so cool. What's his next question?
That's totally what you were talking about earlier.
Tom used to play bass, and I actually used to play guitar way back when. I was never trying to play guitar on the bass, but I was in to playing melodies. And Tom was really good at laying out a really strong rhythm part. It was easy to jump off and play that stuff, and Scott's such an amazing 4 on the floor drummer, that with those 2 going it was really easy for me to jump off.
I was always into reggae and dub and Motown, funk, soul I feel like I'm just learning to play that stuff now.
I think one of the main reasons that David's always been the focus of Pere Ubu is that David always did the press.
That's funny. We should think up a good answer.
Yeah, the band always wanted to get into the studio.
To a large degree, we never were totally successful at capturing that live spark in the studio. We were never that successful at it.
It's hard. It's hard just to capture the sonic qualities of it. "Modern Dance" has a great sound, I love the sound of that record, but live It couldn't be controlled as much, so it was wilder, and had that little touch of anarchy that I felt got mixed out of what we did in the studio.
I think the live records come pretty damn close. I think those live records for better or worse give you a good taste of the energy that was involved.
There was sort of a network at that time, and it was magical.
Yeah, very friendly.
If you needed a place to stay people would put you up. If you needed to
have your hand held when you went to sleep there was someone there to
hold your hand.
I don't have as much time now as I did back then. I want to run my studio. But I still want to go back out on the road. I do it whenever I can but now I don't want to go on the road for 8 weeks because I've got this studio.
Poka Poka just went to Washington, that's one of my bands. And it's great, it's fun, but on that level I can't do it as much since we're not making much money. Going out with Crust was like going out as a hired gun. I love drum'n'bass, it's the music that I really really love, and it doesn't feel like a hired gun thing. Now when UV Ray goes to Europe next month, that won't be as a hired gun---that's something I'm a member in. So I'm not really going out as a hired gun anymore. I'd go out and play with Crust for a plane ticket because I believe in it that much.
And going to Europe just amps that up to the 10th power. I remember going
to Europe with Pere Ubu. That was a real
congealing event for that
band. It really pulled the band together because we were a certain way,
then we got on a plane and went to Europe and took a boat across the Channel
and went to Germany and played in this place where people were breaking
the windows so they could listen to sound check, or going to play in Berlin
There were a lot of adventures, and it did pull the
band together in a certain sense, but David was already changing by then.
When we went to Europe the press went nuts over Pere Ubu, the same way
they always go nuts over whatever the flavor is that week. I remember
at Rough Trade one of the first couple times we were there they got David
a 4-track machine so he could work on things in his room and that was
the beginning of his solo record. It wasn't like "Why don't you guys
go into this studio and bang out a 7" for Rough Trade?" And
David just went along with it solo. He did the same thing with the press.
Scott and I always wanted to do press, but it all got directed towards
I would just say
that Peter was one of my major musical influences, and one of my best
friends. Back then, when I moved into the Plaza I didn't know anybody.
But Peter lived across the hall. And as soon as I got a bass amp and started
playing it he was right there knocking on the door. So I open the door
and here's this guy in a leather jacket, "Hey man, what's up?"
with a 6-pack of beer and a reggae compilation record. "Hey, did
you ever hear any of this stuff?"
To recap this, though, I would say that I had a really great time playing in Pere Ubu. It was great to write all of those songs with those guys, to go on the road with them, and I have a lot of really great feelings about Pere Ubu. I'm listening to myself talk, and to me Pere Ubu isn't just David Thomas, it's all of us being in that band. It's all of us being out at SUMA with the Hamanns, all of us playing all of those shows at the Pirate's Cove.
I know and it's
good to hear myself say that. But as a band it was a great time. Like
when we played the London College of Printing, it was mayhem! And David
would always tell me that I was too loud, and maybe I was, but everybody
was so into it! I wasn't gonna fuckin' turn down! I can't help it, though.
I'm passionate about that shit.