It’s always been tough to mistake Pere Ubu for anything else. The pained vocal delivery and uninviting racket of shrill guitars that have made for calling cards of the band’s career are far from what most people associate with rock ’n’ roll. But founder and vocalist David Thomas says that skewering of concepts has always been the point.
“I hate to start talking about things like ‘concepts’ and stuff like that,” he says over the phone, stopping at a gas station in Kentucky on the band’s current tour (which brings them to the Brighton Music Hall on Saturday). “All albums themselves are concepts, no matter if it’s One Direction or Pere Ubu. Frank Sinatra introduced a number of things into the business and one was the notion of a concept album — ‘In the Wee Small Hours,’ where he was going through that breakup with Ava Gardner.”
Despite his insistence, the nearly 40-year-old Pere Ubu is no closer to being a pop group now than it was in 1975, when it began to release gnarled early singles such as “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Final Solution.” Their early output paved the way for everything from Gang of Four to the Talking Heads and the Minutemen, predating the term “post-punk” before punk itself had barely gotten on its feet. Thomas is a cynical old Rust Belt native, hailing from northeast Ohio like other ’70s rock misfits Devo, the Dead Boys, and the Cramps. Like those bands, he built mythologies and philosophies from the rubble and cable access shows that surrounded him.
“It was like living in a ghost town,” he says. “The town becomes the things that are no longer there that you still see. In a bigger, metaphorical sense, that’s the nature of modern society. Many people end up living in ghost towns like that and it just goes with you, no matter where you live. I live in England but the ghost town is still with me as it were, speaking poetically.”
Pere Ubu has been through dozens of changes over the years. Early guitarist Peter Laughner died of drug addiction in 1977 and Thomas cycled through many lineups and solo projects in the years since. Original bassist Tim Wright, who died last month, left for New York in 1978 to found influential “no wave” band DNA. Two members of the current band — guitarist Keith Moliné and keyboardist Graham Dowdall — have been blocked from the US tour by the American Federation of Musicians union, essentially denying them work visas (Cleveland guitarist David Cintron is filling in).
The band’s latest album, “Lady From Shanghai,” is a brainy, synth-heavy behemoth that Thomas says is 20 years in the making. Composed through a process called “Chinese Whispers,” the band composed and recorded songs one track at a time, each in isolation, leading to a sort of on-edge series of performances by musicians that seem to be performing as if they’re feeling their way down a darkened hallway. A 100-page book by Thomas is also available: “The Making of Lady From Shanghai.” It reads like instructions to sets of Surrealist games and barstool music history lectures, the lyrics like sparse Richard Brautigan poems.
Influential Boston punk rock DJ Oedipus remembers well the days when Thomas was an idealistic young musician. “Because my early days were in Cleveland, I always felt a personal connection to Pere Ubu,” he says. Oedipus did an early interview with the band when he was working at WTBS (before it became WMBR). “I certainly didn’t get the sense that they were anything like the rest of the bands coming out of that region. I suppose you could call it rock or punk or New Wave, but they were really their own genre.”
Thomas has very few kind words for pop music of the last few decades, but he says he refuses to play dictator or cheerleader for new music movements. “I don’t tell people to fight against the system or anything,” he says. “I’m from Cleveland — we know we’ve already lost. That was the big thing in the ’70s in Cleveland: We thought nobody’s ever going to like what we do, we’re never going to find any place to play except in our garage and maybe once in a while in some hideous, stinking bar. So if nobody likes us and we’re never going to be successful, then we might as well do what we want to do. Because what’s the difference? That’s my attitude now, too.”
Still, Thomas brushes off ideas that his band is somehow rooted in outsider or avant-garde movements, areas of music that have traditionally craved high-concept art. Creating thoughtful frameworks for his music is typically irresistible for Thomas, from the new album’s companion book to his deep website full of self-authored information about band history and stacks of tour riders and FAQs.
But there are still many dots for the listener to connect. “I thought that’s what art and music is about, the audience is supposed to figure it out for themselves,” he says. “The point of a show is that you want to lead the audience down a garden path and then jump out at them every now and then to scare them. You want to make them doubt what they think.”
Sounds like something bordering on high-concept, perhaps even a philosophy. Thomas sighs at the thought, though.
“ ‘ Philosophy’ is a big word,” he says. “We’re just a dumb rock band from the Midwest. Just because we’re intelligent and ambitious and pretentious, that shouldn’t affect anything. Everybody should be that way.”Matt Parish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.