Interview with Pete Kember of Spectrum

Photo: Scott DiPatria

In the early 1980s, in the timid little town of Rugby, about 2 hours north of London, something powerful was born. Some of the most visceral and psychedelic music of all time would be created here by Spacemen 3, a band formed by Pete Kember, also known as Sonic Boom, and Jason Pierce. Spacemen 3 set a sonic template that influenced a generation, inspiring countless bands from Brian Jonestown Massacre to Wooden Shjips.

After the band’s acrimonious split, while Pierce formed Spiritualized, Kember forged on with Spectrum, his solo project/band that would go through countless incarnations. From the psychedelic lullabies of ‘Soul Kiss/Glide Divine’ to the dark, DMT-inspired depths of ‘Forever Alien,’ Spectrum has continued to enchant connoisseurs of mind expanding music. Recent tours which find Kember playing Spacemen 3 songs alongside Spectrum songs have been met with a massive response. When not on the road, Sonic has been keeping busy with production, mixing, and mastering work for artists such as MGMT, Moon Duo, Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola and others.

We met up with Mr. Boom at the Music Hall of Williamsburg before a recent Spectrum show, and had a lovely chat while Crystal Stilts were sound-checking.

Sonic, how are you?

Cool. Just having a banana.

Excellent. Get your potassium.


How’s the tour been so far?

Pretty good. It’s still early on, but not too bad. Last night was nice [at] Le Poisson Rouge.

It was dreary weather last night — did you have a good turnout?

For the weather, it was a good turnout. It was just right. It was mostly seated in there, but it was cool. It was a good mix.

Nice. And you did a couple of dates with Asteroid #4 opening?

Yep, in Baltimore and Philly. Cool as well. Baltimore is always nuts, for some reason.

I’ve never been there.

It’s insane, that place! It’s cool, I like it. It’s got a good vibe. Friendly people, as well. Trippily friendly, after being in New York for a few weeks.

Interesting. You’ve had the same lineup in the band for a while now; it seems to have settled nicely.

Yeah. I found people that can tolerate working with me, and I can tolerate working with them! [laughs] Yeah, they’re a real good bunch. Guto [Pryce, bassist] is from Super Furry Animals. Will [Carruthers] actually nearly did this tour because of some work permit issues, but we managed to straighten it out. Yeah, it’s a good bunch.

From what I saw last time you were here, it seems you’ve been playing a nice mix of old material and new material.

Yeah — we’ve changed it out again with some other old stuff that we haven’t done for a long, long time.

I’m excited to see what that will be!

The first three Spectrum albums are up for reissue pretty soon.

On Space Age, right?

Yeah. The first one comes out in a few months.

So you’re playing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Killing My Life”?

[laughs] We’re not, actually. You know, I’ve never played that song live, [not] one time. I did one show for that album, where I played with My Bloody Valentine — they asked me to do a show with them. I played half of it on a backing tape, and then I played the other half of it. It was pretty horrible. I like that song, though. It’s kind of tough — between the Spacemen 3 stuff and all the loads of covers I’ve done over the years — for some reason, the covers are the most fun to play.

As far as covers go, one I don’t think I’ve seen you play live is “Transparent Radiation.”

Man, I did that every show from 1987 through to about 2008 or 2009. I finally got burnt on it.

Oh, then I’m wrong. I definitely saw you do it in that case.

Yeah, you did. I used to always start the set with it. I guess we used to do it differently. It’ll come back one day.

But you do still enjoy playing the Spacemen 3 tunes?

Yeah, they’re fun. It’s a lot of fun. It was fun playing them with Jonny Mattock and Will and Mark Refoy a few months back. Jason from Spectrum played as well, and Kevin Shields played. We did “Revolution” and “Suicide” — it was insane playing with those guys again. They were so fucking hot on it. It brought back memories straight away. That was always one of my favorite lineups.

We’ve had some pretty incredible nights with “Revolution” at [Brooklyn psychedelic party] Perfect Prescription. Our friend Jay always ends with that song anytime he DJs. Last year, we had a Perfect Prescription party which happened to fall on your birthday —

And Jason [Pierce]’s birthday.

Yeah, both of yours, and it was 4 AM and we were all jumping up and down singing along with “Revolution.” It was really great.

One time, I worked out how long I had spent playing that song — it came out to like four months or something. [laughs] Or was it four weeks? Something ridiculous, in any case.

[laughs] That’s amazing. Do you ever consider playing any of the ‘Forever Alien’ material?

Yeah, in fact, we were talking about doing one of the songs off of that, but we’re not going to do it tonight. Because that album is [almost] all modular synths, it takes a bit of a different setup. We don’t play to a big enough audience that we can afford to travel all that [gear] around. It’s pretty tough — we do all the driving, we don’t have any road crew, we don’t have a sound guy.

I seem to recall seeing you at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco a long time ago. Will was on bass, and I distinctly remember “Owsley” as being very striking.

Jesus, that tour was insane. We played pretty much all of the album, and Will didn’t play on that album. There’s hardly any bass on that record. It’s bass keyboards and stuff. If you listen to it, you’ll notice there are no bass parts, apart from a couple piano parts on a couple of tracks. But once he came up with his parts for playing those songs live — wow. There’s a video of that from The Black Cat in Washington. It’s really cool.

Nobody came to that tour, man. Nobody bought that album. People ask about it all the time now, but at the time… That’s why I haven’t made another record for so long. I put out two albums that sold nothing. This isn’t going to be some sort of vanity project, you know what I mean? I’d rather be doing something more serious if people are not interested. I think this is the last Spectrum tour we’ll do until the new album. It’s been in progress for nearly ten years now. There’s a lot of cool songs that I really like, [but] I just haven’t felt the inspiration or motivation to move on with it. It’s been really cool for me working with MGMT, Panda Bear, Moon Duo, Wooden Shjips, Cheval Sombre, Sun Araw, a bunch of guys.

Yeah, you’ve been doing a lot of collaborations lately.

Also, I just remastered some Red Krayola stuff, as well as a 13th Floor Elevators remix and remaster.

Yeah! A whole bunch of that stuff actually just came out for Record Store Day.

Yeah, I think I was affiliated with four or five different releases that came out [on Record Store Day]. There’s also a semi-exclusive MGMT fan club 7″ coming out. They’re going to do a single club thing for their fans. I did the first one — it’s two mixes of tracks from the album, “It’s Working” and “Brian Eno.” They came out really cool. With “It’s Working,” I brought out the full Zombies/Electric Prunes-ness of the song. And with “Brian Eno,” I brought out the whole Adverts-y punk thing about it. I love those songs.

That’s great. Do you think that’s a direction you’re going to keep going in, working with other bands, doing production, mixing, mastering, etc.?

It’s a lot easier, better paying, and a hell of a lot more fun working with these people. They’re all, pretty much to a fault, total sweethearts, so it’s a real joy to do it. It’s really nice working on other people’s work. There’s nothing better than when people bring you an album, and they’re kind of burnt on it because they’ve been working on it for so long, sweating and knitting it for so long. And then for someone to come in with fresh ears, and have no preconception about whose part it is, or why it should be there because they spent five hours working on it, or whatever — you judge it all just on what you hear. It usually means you get really good mixes. A lot of times the bands are like, “God, you pulled something out of that which I would never have heard!” If you can make someone happier with their own stuff, [it’s really cool]. And with the mastering, it’s amazing what you can do. If you can just step things up one notch, it’s a good feeling. And, of course, the real winners are the audience.

People probably don’t realize how significant the mastering is.

They don’t. And I can tell you, it can absolutely make or break a record. And, I’d say it’s probably easier to break a record with it than it is to make one [with it]. People don’t realize, and they leave the mastering unattended. I don’t know how someone is meant to master something without feedback, or without a good knowledge of the band. I’ve been lucky that I’m really able to just work on stuff that I really like.

So, there still will be a new Spectrum record — you just don’t know when.

[laughs] Yeah…

It sounds like you’ve got a fair amount of material already.

Enough for two albums, really. I’m going to cherry-pick it. It’s tough, you know. It’s ten or fifteen years of my writing, but it’s the stuff that stuck.

Well, I’m excited to hear it.

Yeah. You and five other people, unfortunately.

Well, what will be, will be. I understand these are probably not very lucrative for you, but I also miss seeing Experimental Audio Research shows.

Yeah. Well, it’s not about the money, first of all. I still do them occasionally. If people specifically ask for them, I’ll do them. I enjoy it. But I’d much rather do the Spectrum stuff. There is a marginally larger audience for it. Nobody comes to see E.A.R. shows.

It’d be great to have an E.A.R. performance at Perfect Prescription. I wish we could have somehow fit one in during this tour, because it wouldn’t really compete with the Spectrum shows.

That’s true…

But the gear.

That’s the thing. It’s travelling the gear. We already tour as this commando unit; we don’t travel with amps, we just take guitars and pedals and stuff. We have to play with bands who can match up with us on equipment. We end up playing with a lot of cool bands, because we know them, and we ask if we can play with them because we know it’s going to work out. But, yeah, it’s quite tough doing [E.A.R.] at that level. Especially in the States, where the distances are so big, where driving four to five hours every day is normal. It’s kind of destroying to do it.

It’s probably much easier to pop down to London for a one-off show.

Europe’s a little tighter, all around. We actually don’t play that many shows in the UK. There’s less interest in the UK than there is in the rest of Europe and the States! We do ATP occasionally; we’re doing the Animal Collective one. We did a couple with MBV; one of them was here [in New York]. We did one with Mogwai. I turned down one from Shellac, because the main band was Cheap Trick, and there was no way I wanted to be a part of that bullshit. Also, I knew that nobody in the UK gives a fuck about Cheap Trick. They don’t have the same appeal there.

What about Germany? They seem to like their space rock there.

When Germany unified, the expenditure they undertook in that was massive. Spacemen 3 used to do something like 30 shows [on one tour] in Germany, playing every night for a month. They’re spending all their bread now on reunification, not on arts. They used to have a lot of money to spend on arts, and they loved American bands in particular, but also English bands. Maybe the German homegrown thing is much better now. When we were touring there in the 80s — I’m trying to think of who was a big German band then. Maybe Die Toten Hosen or something, nothing very big.

I hear that there is a lot of space rock going on there now.

Photo: Scott DiPatria

Yeah, especially out of Düsseldorf and Köln. Berlin has loads of cool shit going on as well; every time I’m there, there’s always great people there. Anton [Newcombe] lives there, and Will lives out there now as well. There are a load of good bands in Germany. It’s changed a lot.

You still live in Rugby?

Nominally, yeah. I’m not there too much. I’m mostly working here in Brooklyn on one or another project…

[Two members of venue security open the door. First security guard says to Pete, “I’m just trying to show this guy one thing.” He indicates a door to our right and says to the other guard, “See, there’s a bathroom right there.” They close the door.]

Good to know.

[laughs] So yeah, technically we’re still in Rugby, but we’re not there very much. When we go on the road, I try to spend as much time other places with my wife as we can. We stay in Basel, Switzerland a bunch. I have a good friend there, and I really like that place. We go to Minorca a bunch.

That sounds nice.

It’s basically a biosphere. It’s unspoiled and un-built. What they have built is a cross between gaudy and the architecture from Portmeirion, where The Prisoner was done. It’s kind of nuts-looking.

Tell me more about Basel.

It was the home of Albert Hoffman. It’s where LSD was first hit. I like the Swiss. In the 80s, we used to absolutely loathe going to Switzerland because we couldn’t afford to do anything. The audiences were really bourgeois and hated us, which actually meant that they often got really good sets. There’s a lot of really cool shit going on there. They decriminalized cannabis there in the 90s, and whilst they have since recriminalized it, they are incredibly liberal about stuff like that.

I didn’t know about that.

This may be an old statistic, but Switzerland used to have the highest ratio of heroin and cocaine users to the rest of the population. A lot of rich junkies. In Geneva, you can still go online and order cannabis and have it delivered to you. They’re very sensible about it all.

It sounds like you like spending time in nature!

Yeah! I also like to get up to Joshua Tree. We stay in that motel, what’s it called, with the Gram Parsons special?

The Joshua Tree Inn!

That’s it! We stay in the room that he OD’d in. I get a really weird vibe when I walk into the bathroom of that place.

The one in that particular room.

Yeah, but just in the bathroom, not even in the bedroom. It’s really weird, we were in the room just hanging out, and then I went into the bathroom. It’s all tiled just the same as it probably was then, and it just hit me as soon as I walked in. It was really weird, I don’t know exactly what it was, but the shower was dripping, and I just kind of felt it as soon as I walked in there. I’m not even a big Gram Parsons fan, but he had a good spot there! [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah!

Donovan stays there, as well.

Right, there’s a Donovan room, isn’t there?

Yeah, he has the best room. The expensive one.

Oh, is his the suite?

Yeah, it has big windows and stuff.

Yeah, my friends stayed in that one. It was nice. I think I stayed in Gram’s sister’s room or something like that.

No, it wasn’t that. Who’s the dame that he sang with, the country singer?

Emmylou Harris?

Yeah, that’s it. You stayed in her room. I stayed in her room the second night. She got a nicer room than him, actually.

It’s a nice place all around.

Yeah, they’ve got really cool people running it. Highly recommended. That area of Joshua Tree National Park, which you reach from the entrance which is closest to that hotel, is my favorite part of the park. It’s gorgeous.

It’s really beautiful. You’re still in touch with Anthony Ausgang, I presume? He did the MGMT album cover, after all.

Yeah, I am — shout-out to Ausgang! He’s one of my old bros. But that had nothing to do with me! I mean, when we were recording that album in Malibu, he came down. He’s a party hound. You know he used to run a party line? It was 213-CUTFOOT or something like that. You would call it up and every day he’d have a little piece about what he thought was on. And it was genius. It was fucking hilarious. I know there’s no party that he’d want to miss. I invited him up to the house where we were recording, and we were all partying, and they just really hit it off. It had nothing to do with me. It was totally off their own back to do that. But I was really pleased. It was great for him.

Great for everybody!

Yeah. Those guys [from MGMT] have a real generosity of heart. I’ve got to say, it kind of changed me a bit working with those guys.

The impression I got, as an outsider, was of you taking them under your wing.

Nahhhh. [laughs] That’d be the day. Those guys know exactly what they want to do. Trust me. They’ve almost got an overdose of talent! So much talent, it almost makes you ill. I don’t really know what the deal was with that. Maybe that sort of came out of some of the stuff we were listening to. It just turned out that we all had the same taste in music. They were turning me on to Deep Freeze Mice and shit like that. Have you heard of those guys? Fucking cool. Between the band, they’ve all got great taste, or at least strong taste, and a lot of good taste in it. I can’t say I necessarily like everything they like, but we have a lot of common. Some of the records that I assumed they must have heard, they hadn’t! So I was like, “I get to play you Roxy Music? MGMT hasn’t heard ‘Virginia Plain’?! Cool!”

You would think they would have heard something like that, but they were probably just one step removed, where they heard the things that were down the chain.

Yeah, or like The Electric Prunes. When I heard “It’s Working,” I was like, “These guys must be into The Electric Prunes.” They were into other stuff from the same era, like The Zombies. They probably actually have much broader music taste than I do. Andrew definitely has more music on his computer than I do.

I was always amazed by all the different packaging of various Spacemen 3 and Spectrum releases; all these different 7-inches with liquid packs, picture discs with Ausgang art, Kozik art, and all this amazing stuff!

Yeah. Loss leaders, they’re called! [laughs]

[laughs] But they were such a treat for me and others like me. I would walk into Amoeba Records, and just go straight to ‘S’ and be like, “What’s this?!”

Yeah, “what’s under ‘SP-‘ this week?”

Exactly. I just always wondered how you managed to afford all that amazing packaging.

By losing our royalties. There’s a packaging deduction. Some of the labels, to this day, still charge a packaging deduction for CDs.

As if CDs cost something to make!

It was a “special format” back in those days. It was big deal if they let you make a CD, so initially people accepted it. It’s a bad contract if it still has that in it, but some do. We’re still party to a couple of bad contracts. Bad licensing.

But as far as vinyl releases go, it could maybe still be viable.

I’d love to do it, man. It isn’t really about the money. I’d rather do a really cool thing like that than worry about royalties. The secret is to find something sweet and cool to do that isn’t that expensive. And you can if you think about it. Check it out and look around. Like, there was that Laika sleeve where they obviously had stamps made, and they had the tracks printed on customs labels for letters. And they just stuck them on brown paper and rubber-stamped them! It was killer, and it wasn’t very expensive — if you’ve got the time to do it. I’ve sat doing that, numbering and signing things. Stereolab did some really cool ones like that, as well, where the whole band just stuck shit on, and painted it or whatever. Some of those are really cool.

Do you stay in touch with Jason Pierce at all?

I haven’t been in touch with Jason since ’90 or ’91. Well, I’ve been in touch with him, but he’s never gotten back in touch with me. His wife got in touch one time about royalties. I just referred her to the people that pay them, which isn’t me, so I’m not really sure why she got in touch with me. But I sent my best wishes and stuff, but nothing back. I have a feeling that isn’t going to change, after all this time.

So there will probably never be a show billed as Spacemen 3 again.

Not unless there is; I wouldn’t do that.

If he approached you about it, would you do it?

Yeah, of course, if it was the right thing and it seemed like it would work. I find it hard to imagine, because the other members of the band have issues as well, not with me, but… yeah, so the chances of that happening are zilch.

Do people always ask you that?

50% of the time.

Thanks, Pete!

[clinks his cider to my camera] Cheers.

Pick up Spectrum’s 2009 EP War Sucks.