Out on the road, you are constantly confronted with myriad choices. Some choose wisely, and are content. Others choose poorly, and find themselves full of regret. There are many who play it safe, enjoying predictability.
And then, there are those that yearn for the adventure of not knowing what comes next. Not only do they yearn for it, they revel in the uncertainty with unbridled anticipation.
At an age when many would choose to stop and smell the roses, David Thomas is still charging full-steam ahead in search of what’s over the next hill.
Now living in England, I caught up with him via the wonders of the modern technology that we all too often take for granted. Blending the old with the new, I was talking with him through a computer. But, I was diligently taking notes with a pen and pad of paper.
He’s touring Rocket from the Tombs for a few select dates in May, with a show at Ace of Cups on May 13. A founding member of RFTT and Pere Ubu, why did he decide to hit the road now, if only for a few shows?
“Well, we have a special event down in Austin (TX),” he said, “that will have Rocket on one day, and Pere Ubu the next. So, that was part of it. Cleveland is the warmup and Columbus is THE show (laughter). I just finished the new Pere Ubu album and I wanted to work a bit with Rocket, again.
“We didn’t want to let it go too long without doing things, you know? Eventually, there will be another Rocket album and it’s all part of the process of getting it going and keeping it active. You know, why the hell not?”
When Rocket from the Tombs take the stage on May 13, it will have been 42 years, 10 months, 28 days since they debuted at the Viking Saloon in Cleveland on June 16, 1974.
Vastly underrated and underappreciated during much of their existence, there is a younger generation that is discovering RFTT. Is Thomas surprised that these younger fans are embracing the RFTT and Pere Ubu music and ethos?
“To answer your literal question, no,” he said, laughing. “You know, Rocket and Ubu are… I’m not sure if I would say they are unique, because that means they’re the only ones. It’s a very select and small group of people who, over the years and into decades, stay sharp. Stay… dissatisfied, you know? I surround myself with people that aren’t satisfied.”
We all know, or have known people that aren’t satisfied. They are constantly searching for something that many don’t know exists.
“It’s like you were given this great vehicle and you get it out on the highway. In Pennsylvania, you open the thing up and see what it will do. Then, you come along after a while to an exit sign that says ‘Satisfied City, Exit 1 mile.’ And, you think to yourself that this sounds good. I could stop here, have a life and everything would be cool. There’s nothing wrong with Satisfied City.
“But then, you see the highway disappearing over the next hill and you’ve got to know… you’ve just got to know what’s over that next hill. So, that pretty much sums-up my attitude. As I say, I surround myself with people that feel the same way.”
He took great pains to make sure that I understood that he was not judging others when they decide that “Satisfied City” is good enough for them. The point was not lost on me, as I have found myself wanting to know what’s over the next hill.
“So, to get back to your question… no, I’m not surprised,” he continued. “You could name any number of hundreds or thousands of pop bands, rock bands or whatever you want to call it that get off at Satisfied City. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are people that recognize that it’s a good thing to know what lies over the next hill.
“Very little surprises me anymore. It’s not a blasé attitude. It’s just that, you know, look at the world we live in. Why would you be surprised by almost anything?”
Talking with him is an exercise in testing your cerebral acuity. I felt more alive during our conversation than I had felt in quite some time.
This led my train of thought to the status quo that most are happy to live with. But, does being satisfied lead to becoming complacent?
“It can,” he agreed. “But, I want to stress that there’s nothing wrong with Satisfied City. It’s a perfectly good place. It’s just that it’s not for everyone. So, yes, it can lead to complacency, but it doesn’t have to.”
What started out as an interview about music, began to morph into and almost-existential questioning of everything. There are many things much worse than receiving life lessons from David Thomas.
To make his point, he brings up the early days of RFTT and the way they were tuned-in to their fans. Cleveland was their turf. Good luck trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
“Our audience in the beginning… in those days, there would basically be two sets. And there would be visiting bands that would come through (Cleveland). We told the visiting bands ‘Hey, you guys go on second, you know, we’ll go on first.’ And they all thought that it was very magnanimous of you and all that sort of crap. But, frankly, it was pretty brutally cynical, because we knew that our people… it was a Thursday night, and we knew that our people had to go to work in the morning.
“So, we would do the opening sets, then it would get to be 11 or 12 o’clock and people would start drifting out. This was not CBGB’s, you know. This was factory workers and on and on. That’s always been our audience. It’s always people that just get on with it.”
He’s been getting on with it for many decades, never satisfied with the status quo. The path that he’s blazed is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those unwilling to do their own thing and not care what others think of them.
He doesn’t care what people think of him or his music. He knows that there are people out there that “get it.” They are the people that refuse to be pigeonholed into a box not of their making. Those are his people.
But, there will always be those that feel the need to shoehorn people into a specific box, or pigeonhole a band into a specific genre.
“Let me clarify, it’s the journalists that are most concerned with pigeonholing, I’ve found. The journalists have to try and describe something. Most of them, and I don’t want to get personal about this… most of them aren’t as good at their jobs as the musicians are at their job. So, they want short little sound bites, and they want ease and comfort.
“Pigeonholing isn’t the worst thing in the world, I suppose. You know, I got out of your game decades ago. But, I am sympathetic.”
The point is, he’s correct. Whether it’s music or your daily life, the ones that attempt to pigeonhole you are the ones that can’t do their own job that well.
I’ll leave you with this thought from David Thomas to close the first installment of our conversation. Although he references Pere Ubu, the same sentiment holds true when Pere Ubu is replaced by Rocket from the Tombs in the following statement.
“You know, Pere Ubu does not recognize politics. Pere Ubu does not recognize ‘swarm think.’ Pere Ubu doesn’t care what others think or don’t think. Pere Ubu recognizes people who get up, go to work and just get on with it. The world changes, Pere Ubu doesn’t.”
Ed. – Part Two of our conversation with David Thomas will publish Saturday, March 11.