Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To
Andrew Stevens interviews Peter Kember/Sonic Boom.
Spacemen 3 formed in 1982 in the Midlands town of Rugby, based on the enduring songwriting partnership of Sonic Boom (Pete Kember) and J.Spaceman (Jason Pierce) that lasted almost a decade. The S3 sound was influenced by 1960s bands such as The 13th Floor Elevators, The Stooges and MC5, as well as influences as diverse as Suicide and Can, however the end result was a trance-like drone found on classic albums such as The Sound of Confusion and The Perfect Prescription. The band split in 1991 with Jason Pierce forming Spiritualized and Sonic Boom eventually investing his energies [sic] in Spectrum and projects such as Experimental Audio Research and his collaborations with Jessamine and 1960s experimentalists the Silver Apples.
3:AM: When you got Spacemen 3 together during your late teens in sleepy old Rugby, what bands had inspired you to form a group?
SB: Well, I wouldn’t just say bands. I was influenced by films and “ambient”, or day to day, sound. Hence, my pseudonym “Sonic Boom”. I always was very impressed by droning washing machines, heard through the floor on those sick days in bed off school, and more so by the symphony of summer mowers in suburbia, accompanied by various planes (I like the big WW2 bombers). That sounds as much as it feels. Also, I got dragged along to motor-racing events from as early as I can remember and the feel, sound and smell of some 16 valve or V8 pumping out power is quite impressive. A symphony of 16 valves — there’s a concept for you…
I didn’t come to music much till I was about 10 or 11, but it came very strong from then. Some of the first things I liked were things I heard from my parents like the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison. Music lessons at school were very poor compared with what was on offer in some state schools where tape recorders and synthis were often part of the course. I was stuck with 45 minutes a week listening to Wagner, Dvorak, Britten, Beethoven, Mozart etc. On special occasions they played ‘Peter and the Wolf’ — I think voiced in true Newley-style by David Bowie. Oh what a treat that was!
Bandwise I like(d) a lot of high-octane stuff and also some real mellow stuff — a real mix of stuff like Surf, Rock’n’ roll, good early and electric blues — early field hollas and spiritual stuff. Plus Muddy, John Lee, Rockabilly, Punk Rock, 60’s garage, early psych (pre ’68) — you know Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Elevators — Red Krayola, Misunderstood, Stax (pre ’67), Kraftwerk, Laurie Anderson, The Staple Singers (pre ’67), the Velvets, Stooges and Suicide — Martin Rev’s solo work, the Sex Pistols, Devo, Beefheart pre-Trout Mask, early Who, Stones pre ’75, Beatles (mostly mid-period and later), Beach Boys, surf stuff and weird stuff, the Yardbirds, Panther Burns, early electronic stuff — Delia Derbyshire. The Troggs… Eno’s ambience, the Kinks pre ’69. T-Rex. A lot of stuff! The Cramps’ first three LPs (up to Peppermint Lounge). I was soooo in awe of Brian Gregory’s guitar sound: shimmering, shuddering fuzztone waves of acidic sound.
I was always particularly fond of simple music, ideally featuring a drone, or common note throughout the music (e.g. The Kinks’ ‘See My Friends’, Rolf Harris’s ‘Sun-Arise’, the Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’, Roxy Music’s ‘Sultanesque’, lots of Velvets stuff, Stooges stuff, MC5, Suicide). Basically, one chord best, two chords cool, three chords OK, four chords average. Much of my sound (as opposed to conceptual and songwriting involvement) in Spacemen 3 was textural. Simple drone chords of texture, slow crescendo and dynamic — being able to take one chord from the proverbial whisper to a scream.
One of the other big influences was of course, consciousness exploration and change and the experimentation with sound under altered states of consciousness — but also to bring back the “language” to be able to re-transmit those states through sound and music. Actually I very much believe the Cage-ism of any sound having the possibility to be musical. Almost any sound can be made to enthrall, astound, bore, outrage through simple temporal elongations, pitch transposing and numerous other sound processing possibilities.
How our music sounded straight and under the influence of various drugs was absolutely fundamental to me, and was a prominent aspect of the band. Also, how things like natural sound mixing and phasing was “hearable” under psychedelics like acid and mushrooms was a revelation. Cars swishing along the road in the rain was suddenly (and to me is still) a very emotive sound. Whereby, I mean I think it strikes strong feelings from within. This has always been my main aim. To make music that strikes and evokes/captures strong feelings/emotions. To that end, I think a composer is literally an antenna to take in feelings, emotions etc and analyse, resynthesise and then broadcast out to other humans. We felt we were making music (in the mid 80’s) for a sector of society including ourselves who seemed uncatered for. We could only imagine that there were other people out there wanting something more than what was currently on offer and in the realm which interested us. Luckily, we slowly seemed to find the other alienated types seeking something special from the music in their lives — i.e. not aural wallpaper as music is sometimes used.
3:AM: Did the surroundings in which you grew up have any impact on the music you made?
SB: Are you referring to the fact I went to a private school? Of course, every thing in life you experience influences you in some way. I enjoyed being amongst a very cosmopolitan bunch of kids after growing up in a small village. It represented a great deal of freedom for me. It wasn’t a wholly typical experience. My parents were both from working-class backgrounds, both art-school educated. My father has an ingrown work/entrepreneurial ethic common in dyslexic kids of the 40’s and 50’s. I also feel lucky that they had kids young, so my parents were less than 20 when they had me, number two of three. I think working/formulating music from within a non-existent local scene was also beneficial. It let us grow without undue external influence. Likewise, sharing a house with 60 other boys was rather a good way to hear a broad and extreme spectrum of music.
3:AM: You say you preferred the Stones pre-1975, was the Playing With Fire album in any way related to the Stones’ song of the same name?
SB: No, other than that it is a famous idiom, the Stones use idioms a lot and I’m partial myself — but, you can’t always get what you want! Sorry!
3:AM: I have an early interview you with you here in which you said you hated Laurie Anderson’s ‘O’ Superman’!
SB: Yes, on its release it became like Number 2 in the UK for weeks, was a DJ novelty disc etc. Of course it is massively minimal and totally out of context without the rest of at least Big Science, or the whole of United States Live. It was perhaps four years later in around 1983 that I first took psychedelics and happened to hear Big Science in full during a trip. It was a blinding intro to one of the most beautiful, clever and humorous albums ever. ‘Let X=X’ is one of my favourite songs ever. I also really dug Crocodiles by the Bunnymen, on mushrooms at this point.
3:AM: You also say ambient sounds and films influenced you. What films?
SB: Oh god, all sorts of shit. From Surrealist Cocteau stuff to Apocalypse Now, via If…, Performance — a lot of 60’s b&w stuff. All sorts of stuff! I like abstract animation a lot. All that Czech and Canadian shit. Plus those crazy geometric post-office ads from the ’30s… Kenneth Anger’s Don’t Look Back, Clockwork Orange — all the Brit classics, but a lot of US stuff too. Apocalypse Now is an all-time and clichéd fave.
3:AM: I like what you said about ordinary day-to-day noises. Have you read David Toop’s Ocean of Sound? It has an interesting quote about how some of us are all looking for that switch in our brain that can be triggered by hearing the “right” sound that does it for us individually.
SB: No. I would hope it’s every artist’s aim to relate to the human condition and communicate. I don’t think it’s a switch. I think they’re sliders. You can take them to different levels via different augments i.e. psyche music being able to partially re-feel the experience, but with the right setting and set, or even the right drugs, different levels of “switching” can be perceived and achieved — I think it’s continuous not discrete. Ultimately, we as part of the organic universe are principally analogue devices. I think analogue methods might be best further explored in parallel to digital methods.
3:AM: Getting back to more traditional music forms, when you first formed Spacemen 3 Britain was into the whole ska/mod thing, did this have any bearing on you?
SB: I used to love nothing more than hugging a sound system pumping good reggae pre ’82/83. I love Reggae — particularly its earliest incarnations like the Marley/Perry stuff, in fact all Perry’s stuff up to the late ‘Black Ark’ period. Godlike genius.
3:AM: Spacemen 3 had a political undercurrent, especially around the time of Playing With Fire. Did the band have a political message at all, or was this an individual component of your songwriting?
SB: We felt that there was a strong need for some serious law changes, particularly regarding drug use. UK and US jails are packed with the product of the Drug war. We felt that total decriminalisation was a crucial step. Things have changed a lot since then. Not soon enough for some. I think that initially decriminalising will have attendant problems, though less so than prohibition — but they will become massively easier to address and deal with in a realistic way and after an initial period things will change dramatically with a lot less people using addictive drugs, though more may be attracted to potentially harmless or minimal risk drugs like cannabis. There are few people able to offer a decent argument against the legalisation of marijuana products.
3:AM: Do you retain any interest in politics or current affairs now and does anything you’ve done solo have any similar context?
SB: The politics of love, the politics of consciousness, but otherwise no. I think politics should retain a fairly restrained profile in music — like religion. It really isn’t what it either proclaims to, or actually should be.
3:AM: Your recent releases have been more electronic, almost computer-like, do you think computers will have any effect on music in the near or distant future?
SB: They turn out about 20,000 peeps trained in audio/video media each year for 4,000 jobs max — loads of geeks turning out average CDs, flooding the market with mediocrity — by virtue. I think all that crap about computers giving music back to the people is 99% crap, music made by democracy is rarely merit-worthy. Put a little tension, competition etc and shit really happens. I’d rather be in a band with good sympathetic musicians than good sympathetic friends — sure a mix is ideal, but given the choice.
3:AM: When you were putting out stuff around the time of Sound of Confusion and Perfect Prescription, had you noticed anyone doing anything similar at that time?
SB: No, definitely not in the UK. Suicide were sort of still going — The Scientists in Australia, the Gun Club and Lux and Ivy in the states. Not too many — most of these were heroes more than contemporaries.
3:AM: Again, I note from interviews that you felt Loop had stolen your ideas and identity even.
SB: I think they did. The guy — Robert (Josh) — was the tea boy at our label, Glass. He had his nose firmly implanted from day one that we went to the Glass office. Their first gigs were in support of Spacemen 3. Their first sleeves are pastiches of our first two sleeves etc etc. At the time it seemed particularly vacuous to then deny knowledge of us in interviews. Jesus, I even turned the guy open to Acid in ’86, now there’s thanks for you!
3:AM: So you’re not into any of their subsequent bands — Main and that?
SB: No, he seems a real charlatan. Some folks I knew who played with him said he always ripped their ideas and took all the credit. That rings true to me…
3:AM: Did the constant drug references in the music press ever get to you or anyone else in the band?
SB: Jason lately has made comments, mostly barbed in my direction. Ask him. I stick by him being capable of great things and would like to see him doing such again. I don’t really know him now, he moved away from here years ago, to London — and fame, fanfares etc.
3:AM: So would you rule out ever working with him ever again? I’m sure that’s some people’s wet dream, like The Stone Roses reforming.
SB: I could, is all I can say. I doubt he would care to. He doesn’t necessarily like to reflect on it perhaps? It really wouldn’t bother me. I played for Yo La Tengo for a week and put up with Ira Kaplan, so anything is possible…
3:AM: Well I saw Spiritualized at the Eden Project and ‘Take Me to the Other Side’ was a bit like a bad cover…
SB: By a pomp shoegazing band? Weird thing is I wrote most of that song… which I guess Jason has forgotten? I would happily do, and do on occasion, songs like ‘2.35’ — which was a Jason lyric. I considered ‘I Want You’ from Laser Guided Melodies too, but I acknowledge them as covers…
3:AM: Is it true that you almost signed to Creation?
SB: Yes, plus Alan McGee used to manage me for a while post-Spacemen 3.
3:AM: There were a lot of delays in putting out your stuff after Spacemen 3, why was this?
SB: Perfectionism, ha ha! I guess just trying to be happy with stuff and not rushing into stuff. Also money doesn’t make for hungry hearts. Hungry hearts seem to make good music.
3:AM: You appear to be concentrating on EAR and the like, will Spectrum be revived? Will you ever use a guitar on record again?
SB: I tour as Spectrum in the US where some folks seem to care — I play a lot of Spacemen 3 stuff. I’d like to do more in the UK, but I don’t have an agent here at present. Recording a new Spectrum LP this winter with Randall from Füxa. Still like writing/singing “songs” as well as EAR’s sound experimentation.
3:AM: Finally, is music your life or do you have anything else going on?
SB: No, I’m totally sad! I collect junk and do a bit of horticulture for relaxation. I design the odd electronic thing too.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 10th, 2002.