Rocket from the Tombs set to sell soul at Southgate House
By Gary Spencer
David Thomas answers questions.
“I don’t volunteer information,” said Thomas, vocalist and saxophone player for Rocket from the Tombs.
I’ve interviewed some tough customers in my time, but Rocket from the Tombs (RFTT) vocalist David Thomas has now been inducted into this writer’s Hall of Pain. Full of snotty swagger and attitude, Thomas’s responses to my questions were often cynical and downright condescending. On another level though, maybe it’s exactly what I should expect from a man who fronts a band that is often considered one of the godfathers of punk rock and received his due 30 years after the band’s initial existence. With that in mind, Thomas and his musical ensemble who have achieved cult legend status in the history of underground American rock music perhaps have earned the right to say whatever the hell they please, no matter how their commentary might come off to others.
Rocket from the Tombs was originally formed in 1974 in Cleveland and birthed out of a thirst to do something apart from the simpleton music being force-fed to the public through radio and the mainstream at the time.
“We thought rock music should be more than what was being offered or provided,” Thomas said. “We thought it should go somewhere different and go there more forcefully, more urgently. And we were utterly pissed off at the ordinariness around us.”
The band’s now recognizable musical style was a rough-and-tumble, amplified rock and roll blast highly influenced by Detroit proto-punk bands MC5 and the Stooges. The original RFTT existed for less than a year, never releasing an album and imploding due to internal band tensions amidst mutual hostility among its members. RFTT members David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner went on to form the influential experimental new wave ensemble Pere Ubu while guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Madansky recruited up and coming vocalist Stiv Bators to form the old school punk icon the Dead Boys. Decades passed and there was a growing interest in RFTT and various bootlegs of live recordings and demo versions were making the rounds amongst music collectors. Finally in 2002, Smog Veil Records released an official compilation of these recordings, titled The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs. Following this release, David Thomas and other RFTT members thought it was high time for a reunion.
“I was tired of the variable quality of the bootlegs and decided it was time to gather all the original tapes and put together something that was definitive,” Thomas explained. “During the process of putting it together we all re-established communications, healed some old wounds…UCLA wanted to do a festival of my music and we were considering who to open for Pere Ubu. The archival thing was fresh in everybody’s minds and someone suggested an RFTT reunion as being natural to the theme of the festival.” Completing this reconstituted RFTT lineup was Richard Lloyd, highly renowned guitarist for legendary New York art-punk band Television, to replace deceased founding member Peter Laughner.
“Cheetah (Chrome) was adamant that Richard Lloyd was a perfect fit,” said Thomas.
In 2004, RFTT went into the studio to cut a new album called Rocket Redux, re-recordings of the songs that they made famous with its then current lineup. In October 2011, RFTT released a brand new album entitled Barfly on Fire Records, a collection of the first all new material written and recorded by RFTT since the 70s. Stylistically Barfly fits in with the classic RFTT materials their fans know and love, chock full of chugging, straight ahead rock numbers and Fun House-era Stooges influenced saxophone-laden rave-ups yet mixing things up with slower, darker tunes and more intricate, arty fare that Richard Lloyd’s more famous group, Television, is famous for.
Despite the renewed interest in RFTT in the modern millennium, Thomas seems to not hold the general public’s interest in his band or coming to see them perform live in high regard.
“I have no interest in enticing anyone to do anything,” Thomas said emphatically. “We are men who deliver the goods. If you want to watch boys pretending to be men you’ve got a world of options in the pop /rock marketplace. If you want to watch men who don’t give a damn what you think or what you want, then you can come see us. We don’t do this for an audience. The audience is irrelevant. The audience can choose to come watch us do what we do. We are going to do what we have to do whether you are there or not.”
And as much as things have changed, according to Thomas, for the most part the band and its mantra (or lack thereof) haven’t changed all that much from four decades ago.
“Everything is exactly the same except we can deal with our individual differences better,” Thomas said. “We are a rock band. We are not here to sell perfume or appear on the Disney Channel. Nothing is pretend. Nothing is surface.”
Rocket from the Tombs will perform on Thursday December 8 at Southgate House in Newport, Ky. Buffalo Killers are scheduled to open. Doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets are $15. For more information please visit www.southgatehouse.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Gary Spencer at Gary Spencer@DaytonCityPaper.com.