Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom, has been the gatekeeper of modern psychedelic music for more than 30 years. Picking up from where MC5, Velvet Underground and 13th Floor Elevators left off, he has operated below the radar in a bewildering variety of shapes and forms since his first band, Spacemen 3, shifted the boundaries of indie in the early eighties.
From the first Spacemen 3 record in 1986, which he created together with Jason ‘Spaceman’ Pierce, right up to the present day, Pete has consistently pushed the limits of songwriting and production with his simple loop-based approach and hypnotic drones.
The sad demise of Spacemen 3 in the early nineties was well documented, as was the band’s heavy drug use, but their legacy has been a string of classic albums including Playing With Fire and The Perfect Prescription that continue to define the notion of psychedelic music.
Pete continued his musical vision through guises including Spectrum and Experimental Audio Research, and has been responsible for some of the most emotive records to emerge over the last couple of decades.
He’s also worked with a long list of incredible bands including Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, Brooklyn psych outfit Crystal Stilts, MGMT and Panda Bear – always bringing his stamp of authenticity to every studio he’s graced.
We caught up with him at the recent Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia – where he’d created an audio/visual installation Animorphia with graphic artists Heretic – to find out where his head is currently at…
What do you think defines psychedelic music?
I don’t know there is such a thing as psychedelic music. I think there is a lot of music that is psychedelic – some people set out to make it specifically psychedelically influenced, whether that’s John Coltrane or the 13th Floor Elevators. There are plenty of people whose music I consider to be supremely psychedelic – if you’re talking about Acker Bilk for example – I don’t think that was his intention.
How has your approach to making music changed in your 30 year career?
No one really sets out to repeat themselves and there aren’t many people that are able to replicate a certain type of record or hit that they had and it’s futile to do that. There are certain precepts that have gone right the way through the music that I’ve made. It’s always been basically in the same style but I’ve used a whole different range of palettes to do it in different ways and intensities.
So has the process changed quite a lot in that time?
Of course, you learn as you go. From Spacemen 3 onwards I’ve always done the production myself, partly early on because we couldn’t find anyone simpatico with what we were doing. It was hard to find people who got it and didn’t think we were morons that shouldn’t be allowed in their studio! It made us learn how to do stuff the long way, but it’s good. I’ve worked with a whole range of technologies over the years but you pick up skills from all of it. You never know when different things are going to come in handy. I like to think that I’ve got slightly better at it.
You’ve worked with so many people – Panda Bear, MGMT, Peaking Lights all spring to mind. It’s fairly obvious what you bring to these collaborations but what do you take away?
I take away a lot from them. You always learn different things from different people and everyone who I’ve worked with has a wealth of their own amazing knowledge and talent. I’m often a kind of enabler – I’m just helping out a situation and trying to shortcut to the best possible result, within budget usually. It varies but I always learn a lot from these people. I can’t imagine my life without that – it’s a really important part of it. It’s as important as making music.
You got to know Delia Derbyshire quite well towards the end of her life. What did you take away from that experience?
My god, where to start? She was a musical genius. She was very interested in mathematical relationships and once you start looking into the mathematical relationships within music you find that’s where the sweet spots are found. Maths is a part of music. She spent hundreds of hours teaching me. I didn’t have any musical training but she was quite happy to have someone who was interested. I think she’d given up trying to find someone who was as interested and passionate about it as her.
We’d trade: I would teach her about sampling. She thought it was a mechanism to steal other people’s sounds but I told her she’d invented sampling, except when she did it she had to keep copying tape and piecing it together. These days, no problem, you can undo your cuts and splices, and she was like ‘My goodness! Just give me one synth and the sampler’. The field she’d been working in had developed.
Did your musical tastes overlap much?
She was passionate about radio on every level, which was something her and I disagreed on because I wasn’t really from a radio generation the way she was. Although I wish I had been more of her radio generation – it was because of the music she made that Syd Barratt, Brian Jones and Paul McCartney went to the radiophonic workshop to seek her out and find out how the hell she made those sounds. There are hundreds of hours of her stuff that have never been released; stuff that was played once on the radio and that was it. Much of it does still exist.
In dusty old boxes at the BBC?
Yeah, and there’s politics involved at the BBC. As a woman working at the BBC at that time she fell really foul of it. She didn’t get any recompense at all for the Doctor Who theme, which they are still using parts of in the contemporary theme. Yet Brian Hodgson, who made the sound of the Tardis door opening, gets a royalty every time that happens.
She was very modest about it. But supposedly when Ron Grainer first heard the theme he said, ‘That’s amazing – but did I write it?’ Very politically, and with a smile, she replied, ‘Well, most of it’. But there is no way you could get from what Ron had written onto paper, with those few little ink dots, to what that piece of music became without an incredible amount of time and genius. To do it, she used to work nights when no one was there. People would try to fuck her over by monopolising the equipment, so she would work late to get around all that.
Tell me more about the installation you created with Heretic for Liverpool Psych Fest…
It was something that they decided to do for the festival fairly last minute – about a month ago I guess. They asked me whether I’d be interested in doing it with Heretic and I already knew some of their work so I thought it could work out between us. We rushed around like idiots, and I’ve been in other countries working on totally separate installations, so we’ve been communicating back and forth. I’ve never met these dudes! I just threw something at them that I thought might stimulate them to do things.
Have you seen it yet? It’s definitely stimulating! I nearly threw up when I had a look round this morning, though that might have been the hangover…
Nope I haven’t seen it yet. Only the sketches and pictures. It’s meant to be totally encapsulating so it sounds like it’s worked!
Two of the main influences for it were cuttlefish and razzle dazzle. Cuttlefish are amazing – the way they transform to look like other creatures and they way they hypnotise. Also razzle dazzle is a similar theme, it’s a type of camouflage but non-environmental camoflage. Environmental camouflage would be me wearing bricks to stand by a brick wall. Non-environmental camouflage is a distortion to confuse and gain a little time.
They painted a lot of ships in the second world war with what they called ‘dazzle camoflage’ which vastly distorted the shape so you couldn’t detect the direction they were travelling in, the shape of them or what exactly they even were. When it’s done properly it’s astounding. There was a guy called Norman Wilkinson who was a kind of English abstract artist. They got him to look at the U-boat blockading in the first world war, which obviously affected Liverpool more than most places.
So what’s the cuttlefish connection to Liverpool?
They don’t exist in many places. We’re lucky to have them around the British Isles. In Australia they have the giant cuttlefish. People find their flotation bone on the beach but you never get to see them. I think there’s something supremely intelligent about them. People can train them in a flash. Their closest relations are things that do nothing – molluscs.
What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t done music?
I’d have been a cuttlefish! I can’t imagine what else I would’ve done so I might as well of been a cuttlefish.
But they don’t live very long…
Not usually more than three years, but it depends when they mate. They die as soon as they mate. All the males do is deposit a sperm sack and the female says, ‘Cheers’ and puts it under one of her arms. She later decides where to look after it but she’ll start to fall apart while she’s still alive. They’re trippy things!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working with Aaron from Peaking Lights on a new project. It’s something different from either Peaking Lights or what I do. There’s Space Lines 2 coming out, which is a compilation of stuff that has influenced me over the year. Volume 1 has been out a while. What else? I’m working with Cloudland Canyon on their new LP.