Q&A: David Thomas On Resurrecting Rocket From The Tombs, Grooming His Replacement In Pere Ubu, And Doing What He Wants
Tracing the antecedents of punk rock is as easy as whipping out your trusty map, then looking toward Michigan (The Stooges' blood-stained, glass-stabbed, track-marked skuzzballness; MC5's Afro-sized destructo rawk-n-roll bombast), New York (The Dolls' lipstick-smeared, cross-dressing scum-blues), and finally Cleveland, where future Pere Ubu iconoclastic eccentrics David Thomas and Peter Laughner piloted proto-punk garage-rock innovators Rocket from the Tombs.
RFTT crystallized in 1974, hammered out anthemic classics like "Life Stinks," "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Sonic Reducer" and 'Ain't it Fun," played a handful of gigs, never recorded and were kaput by 1975 before splintering into avant-rock revolutionaries Pere Ubu and punk dirtbags, The Dead Boys. Laughner was a casualty way too young, succumbing to substance abuse problems at 24.
In 2003, RFTT's posthumous comeback began when live bootlegs and demos surfaced as The Day The Earth Met The Rocket from the Tombs (just reissued by Fire Records), thus igniting a reunion tour with Television's Richard Lloyd and inspiring the blistering studio document Rocket Redux. Nearly four decades after its inception, RFTT has completed the improbable, recording its debut Barfly and hitting the tour circuit.
Sound of the City spoke to the elusive (and extraordinarily nitpicking, interview-detesting) Thomas via email from home in the U.K. to talk Rocket from the Tombs and his curious plans for the future of Pere Ubu.
There has been chatter about your health, specifically pertaining to your visible weight loss. If you will, how is your health currently and should your fans be concerned?
I have no comment on the state of my health.
That said, you are going on a short tour with Rocket from the Tombs in support of Barfly, the first official album of studio-recorded new songs since the band's inception. What sparked your wanting to record a brand-new RFTT album all these years later?
Ever since RFTT got back together in 2003, an album of new songs was on the cards. Work on new songs began almost immediately. The last tour we did a few years ago, featured 2-3 of the new songs. Once we decided to keep playing together after the reunion show in 2003, the only thing to do was write new material. None of us had any interest in being a tribute band.
RFTT is known as a legendary proto-punk band and highly influential along with the Stooges and MC5. A few years ago, the Stooges reunited and released a brand-new album of songs (2006's The Weirdness) that was universally panned. Why not leave well enough alone with Rocket from the Tombs?
What other bands do or accomplish is none of our concern. What others think we should or should not do is none of our concern. The status of the band in other people's eyes is none of our concern. We can do what we want. It's our band and nobody has a say in it but us. We got together in 2003 and it was obvious that it was, still, a great, and exceptional rock band. We decided it would have been cowardly not to carry on and see where we would end up, where the journey would take us.
Since classic songs like "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Sonic Reducer," "Final Solution," "Muckraker," "So Cold" and "Amphetamine" were originally RFTT songs (but later some were taken and recorded by Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys), did you consider starting from scratch by giving them the 'studio treatment' and recording any of those songs to include on Barfly, or did Rocket Redux take care of that?
We wanted Barfly to be all new material. That doesn't preclude going back in the future, but RFTT was always a forward-looking band and it seemed inappropriate to revisit those songs at this point.
The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs includes covers of The Stooges ("Search and Destroy," "Raw Power") and the Velvet Underground ("Foggy Notion"). Will you be including cover songs in your live repertoire on the upcoming tour? Did you consider including covers on Barfly?
No covers. I don't like covers except in rare instances. This was one of the sticking points in the original band. I hated covers. Peter loved covers. We were talking about making a single towards the end, when we already had all those great songs you list, and Peter only wanted to do 2 covers. It was nonsensical.
Peter was an original member of the "classic lineup" of RFTT and both wrote and co-wrote many of the band's most well-known songs and provided guitar. Since Peter was such an integral member of the band and helped provide its aesthetic, how do you package Barfly as a "legitimate" Rocket from the Tombs album?
How? I tell Johnny to put the name on the CD spine. We do what we want to do when we want to do it and how we want to do it. It's none of your business.