Pere Ubu,
The TVD First Date

“The first albums I heard were from my father’s collection, among them the red vinyl The Lighter Side Of Lenny Bruce and the Nonesuch Vachel Lindsay album. I was mesmerized by The World Of Harry Partch, but it was a Kingston Trio record that had the most enduring impact. On it was a version of “Worried Man Blues” and, to this day, I can’t get the song out of my head. I suspect that I’ve been trying to rewrite it for the last forty years. Ten to fifteen years ago I had a long conversation with Greil Marcus midway up a flight of stairs at a Dutch festival about the lineage of that song back to Babylonian times.”

“As a teenager, my favorite pop group was Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass. The first record I bought was the single “In The Year 2525” by Zager & Evans. Then I bought “Lay Lady Lay” by Dylan and then Uncle Meat happened. It was my first trip to a “real” record store, located in the local mall—the first in Cleveland and the biggest east of the Mississippi. My high school buddy had been an advocate of the Mothers and I went to buy Uncle Meat. Hot Rats was just out. I bought that, too. I considered briefly a John Sebastian record. Flipping through the bins was an intoxicating experience, looking at the sleeve art and reading the liner notes.

I got up the nerve to approach the guys at the cash register. They were elevated on a dais behind a monolithic counter. They were high priests. I was sweating bullets that they’d sneer at my purchases. That afternoon I listened to Hot Rats and was intrigued by the singer on “Willy The Pimp.” The next day I returned to buy everything I could find by him—Trout Mask Replica and Mirror Man. The latter is still my favorite Beefheart record. Trout Mask is a work of genius but not as likable.

The record store was an introduction to a new paradigm. Amidst the gloss and froth of the pop marketplace, entry could be made into a Reality Beyond, one laying just below the surface. Mystery. Hidden knowledge masquerading as commercial detritus. Gears grinding away behind the curtain of the visible universe. It’s a sensation that stayed with me for years, nearly surviving the time I worked in a record store myself, coming to grips with the heretical concept of returns percentages.

In the early ’70s, I regularly rummaged through the used record bins at the Salvation Army store on Euclid at East 55th. I was drawn to the singles bins, full of groups I’d never heard of. I studied the labels and admired their aesthetic, especially the silver ink on black paper of the Music Machine records. After my first band broke up, I was determined to record my own single so it, too, might end up in a Salvation Army record bin and one day tease the imagination of a stranger in a strange land. I yearned to join the Brotherhood Of The Unknown.

My first record was Pere Ubu’s “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” b/w “Heart Of Darkness.” I sent it off to Nashville to get pressed. A technician called to say something was wrong, there was noise all over the tape. I was distraught. The recording engineer had to call and assure him that the “noise” was supposed to be there. My mother back-engineered a template for a record sleeve and I had them printed by a local shop to save money. I cut out and hand glued a thousand sleeves, proudly noting the magnificence of the growing stacks of finished units. I wanted to go back to the Salvation Army to slip one into the bins.

Bad times were coming.

The pressing of The Modern Dance was a bitter disappointment, the first of a string, as it turned out. The mastering engineers in charge of the early Pere Ubu records were among the best in the business and yet the surface noise / audio floor of vinyl, not to mention the pops and scratches, made listening a twice-removed experience. I hated the limitations—put the foot drum down the middle of the mix, don’t pan too radically, don’t put bass-heavy tracks last on a side, etc.

Around that time, our studio engineer, Ken Hamann, became a pioneer in the emerging digital audio technology. He would eventually design and build a real-time D/A convertor, the Sumex Brown Box, that is still being used by a classical music label. The first time I heard a Pere Ubu digital pressing I was overjoyed. I could follow reverb trails all the way down. Silence could be incorporated into a recording and it was powerful—the power of Nothing.

Vinyl was dying a deserved death, as far as I was concerned. Still, there were Luddites who rabbited on about “vinyl warmth.” I asked Paul Hamann about it. (He is Ken’s son and he took over engineering our records after Ken retired.)

“Surely, this issue of vinyl warmth is not some mystical property,” I said.

“No, there’s a technical term for it,” he answered. “It’s called distortion.”

Paul, a qualified cutting engineer, has an unvarnished view of the reality of things. He prefers vinyl anyway. I, however, bristled at the notion of an imposed distortion. I love it—I prefer it—but only when I choose it.

Years pass and vinyl “makes a comeback.”

I decide it’s time to negotiate a separate peace with the Old Enemy. I acquire the latest developments in technology. I study the “black arts” of the realms beyond human hearing and the algorithms that attempt to come to terms with the mysteries therein. Paul and I spent days at a time making experimental forays, listening for what can’t be heard but only sensed—hours of hard discipline, focused not on what we can “see” but on what we glimpse fleetingly out of the corner of the mind’s eye. Paul has perfect pitch and can sense police radar guns—a useful ability when he was touring with us. I, on the other hand, have an educated ear but can’t hear worth a hill of beans. I’m also effectively tone-deaf. We, invariably, came to the same conclusions in blind A/B tests.

For the vinyl box sets, Paul transferred the original analog two-track mix tapes to digital using a 192khz / 24 bit resolution. This is the highest resolution available to us, at this point, and dramatically higher, and finer, than the 44.1khz / 16 bit resolution of CD audio. The vinyl was cut from these files. (I will not allow the original tapes to leave Suma. The studio tapes of innumerable legendary albums ended up in dumpsters outside record company offices in the ’80s and ’90s.) The CD masters were prepared using the Sumex Brown Box, which we found to be more accurate for analog-era recordings than any software/ hardware technology we tried.

When we got the test pressings, Paul said, “I bet that’s a Neumann VMS80 cutting lathe. Find out for me.”

He was right.

There’s not been a cutting lathe built since 1980. The VMS80 was the last. Vinyl technology came to a halt thirty-six years ago. Digital technology continues to advance. I am now convinced that, with time, even download audio can be satisfactory. With discipline and effort, CD audio can achieve transparency. Paul prefers the vinyl of the box sets to the CDs but, grudgingly, admits the CDs are as close as damn-it.

Do I still prefer digital audio? Yes. And, no. Any medium is flawed. A recording doesn’t, and can never, survive leaving the studio control room in which it was prepared. Have I come to a separate peace with vinyl? Yes. But the real negotiation is with failure. It’s all pointless—like hand gluing a thousand sleeves. But, that’s the deal. Love it or leave it.”
David Thomas, Director, Ubu Projex

Pere Ubu’s Architecture of Language 1979-1982 is in stores now via Fire Records—on vinyl. TVD’s review of the 4 LP box set is here.

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