By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
“Who’s doing a multimedia theater festival?” David Thomas, ringmaster-cum-custodian of Disastodrome!, sounds surprised at the idea. No, he says, “This is a mess. We call it a controlled mess, so people won’t worry.” Encompassing three nights that find Thomas — best known as the voice of Ohio “avant-garagists” Pere Ubu — in a variety of collaborative contexts, the UCLA event is closely modeled on a similar one (dis)organized for London’s South Bank Festival in 1998. (Current UCLA Live artistic director David Sefton also commissioned the earlier staging.) Speaking from London, Thomas explains the weekend’s origin.
“The first Disastos were shows that Johnny Dromette, who’s been Pere Ubu’s only real art director, set up in 1977. Johnny [Cleveland record-store owner John Thompson] would have bands play in an old radio theater on the edge of the Cleveland ghetto, and there would be flaming sofas onstage, and winos from the neighborhood wandering in. People would come up to Johnny confrontationally, and he finally said to me, ‘All of a sudden, I felt like — bring it on, I can take it.’ That’s when we started saying, ‘We call it Disasto, so nothing can go wrong.’”
The present Disastodrome! is a midcareer benchmark for one of not-so-popular music’s bravest frontiersmen. The durable Pere Ubu began life in 1975 as a one-time studio project after the demise of the harder-rocking Rocket From the Tombs (of which more below). The early Ubu albums (The Modern Dance and Dub Housing) were both abrasive and sophisticated; at a time when most Americans had barely heard of punk rock, these Midwesterners had left it light-years behind.
After Ubu’s first incarnation disbanded in 1982, Thomas embarked on a string of decidedly un–rock & roll solo albums, featuring intrepid players from Richard Thompson to Henry Cow’s Chris Cutler and Lindsay Cooper. The last of his backing configurations, the Wooden Birds, enlisted so many ex-Ubu members that they reactivated the name with 1988’s The Tenement Year. Since then, the singer, who now lives in Brighton, England, has shifted restlessly between continents and bandmates, balancing the still-Cleveland-based Ubu with a range of other projects: “It’s fine, because I’ve really only been writing about one thing for the last 25 years.”
If there’s a constant in Thomas’ work, it’s his obsession with place, and our attempts to escape it. “The first things written about Pere Ubu were about our sound coming from the industrial flats of Cleveland. So there’s always been a geographical presence in what I do, though it’s come to seem more specifically American over the last 10 years or so.” On recent recordings, his protagonists helplessly heed the call of the road, whether to space (Two Pale Boys’ Meadville) or along a few Southern highways (Pere Ubu’s St. Arkansas). But most find that their travels are among what the CD notes to Thomas’ “rogue opera,” Mirror Man, call “the hieroglyphics of the mind.”
The smell of burnt upholstery won’t be wafting over UCLA’s sculpture garden during the present shows, but much else has survived. Thompson/ Dromette still acts as MC: “His role is critical, because he gets blamed for everything, in a very ritualized way.” Friday’s show, “Caligari’s Diner,” comprises performances by Pixies founder Frank Black, Thomas’ ongoing trio with Spaceheads trumpeter Andy Diagram and guitarist Keith Molin√© (Two Pale Boys), and Robert and Jack Kidney of Kent, Ohio’s 15-65-75 (“The Numbers Band”), a key, though little-known, inspiration to generations of Cleveland musicians, Thomas included: “If I had to choose between the last Numbers Band gig and the last Magic Band gig, I would choose the Numbers and not even worry about it.”
Then there’s Foyerdrome!, which occupies the Freud Playhouse’s atrium before each show: “It’s about short-circuiting expectations, which can be a terrible burden. It usually includes displays on the Kitchen of the Future and the Story of Coal. Saturday, I’ll give excerpts from my lecture ‘The Geography of Sound in the Magnetic Age,’ but just excerpts, because I’ll be cooking hamburgers at the same time.” These raspberries in the face of theatrical pretense have unmistakable ties to Pere Ubu’s father figure, the “Merde!”-spouting protagonist of French absurdist Alfred Jarry’s plays. (Thomas’ imposing physical presence conveys something of Jarry’s spirit as well, though the fragile, conflicted voice that leaks out of him is something else again.)
The second night of Disastodrome! centers on a more sober and ambitious experiment: the U.S. premiere of Mirror Man. Half On the Road, half Spoon River Anthology, the work threads a narrative through Ubu and solo compositions dating from 1989’s “Bus Called Happiness” onward, tracking a small group of characters cross-country “from Disney World to Disneyland.” A 1999 CD (on Thirsty Ear) based on Act 1 supplies a rough map: The songs overlap with poet Bob Holman’s Kerouac-as-Greek-chorus commentary, like an AM radio caught between stations.
But the map is not the territory: Thomas reconfigures the piece for each showing, encouraging improvisation during rehearsal. “I make a point of getting the performers to take their roles as a starting point. When you see it, you’re really seeing people take a chance.” The same goes for the music, an outgrowth of Thomas’ work with Diagram and Molin√©, whose in-the-moment interaction can be as dramatic as anything onstage. (At UCLA, Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley joins the ensemble for the first time: “The boys wanted an acoustic drummer, and she’s been an excellent addition.”)