SONIC BOOM: TWO CHORDS BETTER, ONE CHORD BEST
Peter Kember—a.k.a. Sonic Boom—is the leader of of the band Spectrum and was also a main songwriter for the influential band Spacemen 3, which broke-up in 1991. He also maintains his band Experimental Audio Research. He speaks now after a Part Time Punks performance. This interview by Daniel Clodfelter.
How were the recent shows supporting My Bloody Valentine, and do you think these shows have expanded the audience for Spectrum and Spacemen 3?
I think so. The audience for Spectrum and Spacemen 3 has grown a lot since the days we first did it. A large part of the audience who come out to the shows now is younger kids. We still get some of the old fans but it is a permanently regenerating audience—which of course is really great. My Bloody Valentine—they were always the only band we considered as true contemporaries in Spacemen 3. There were other bands, like Loop, who were ripping off different stuff, let’s say—whereas My Bloody Valentine were much more original and while they were—by their own admission—a little bit influenced by Spacemen 3, it sort of changed the way they evolved musically around ‘86 and ‘87. Bands that are that strong are able to state their influences and know that they rise above it and are not just a subgenre of that. And I think that applies to Spacemen 3 as well. We were always very honest about our influences and our musical allegiances and it never did us anything but good in my opinion.
How does it feel playing songs you wrote twenty years ago?
It feels as good as it always did. I mean, I never stopped doing some of those songs, and songs that I didn’t write but are best known by us, like ‘Transparent Radiation’ [by Red Krayola]—I’ve always played those songs. I love playing them. Often half my set will be other people’s covers because I love playing their songs. As a songwriter, I probably have a higher opinion of other people’s songwriting than of my own. So I love to play other people’s songs. For me it’s been one long continuum.
How do you feel about Jason Pierce—the other creative half of Spacemen 3 and now of Spiritualized—still playing Spacemen 3 songs?
Well, it’s kind of tricky. Because Jason has recently been doing ‘True Love Will Find You In the End’ which I covered twice about sixteen years ago, so that’s kind of trippy. Why would he pick a song that I’d already covered?
The Daniel Johnston song?
Yeah, I covered it within a year or so of it coming out. It came out on the album in 1990 and I think I released it in 1991 or 1992. Seeing Jason do that is kind of trippy. I’ve seen him playing ‘Walking With Jesus’ and stuff and I found it absolutely soulless and miserable, quite frankly. I didn’t like it. One of the worst versions I’ve ever seen done of it, and many a band have covered it over the years. I don’t like his rent-a-gospel singers that he picks up where ever he goes. I just find it all a little bit—it doesn’t have the soul and the dirt and the sort of—it just seems a bit too premeditated, somehow. I like a bit of synchronicity to come into things and just see what happens. Sometimes you get real magic.
There is definitely a sense of spur-of-the-moment rawness to the Spacemen 3 recordings.
Absolutely. I like to improvise with my band; I never like to tie down arrangements. I like to work with people good enough that you can improvise in a meaningful and interesting way—not just sound like a bunch of people who’ve watched other people improvise and think they get it, but are just creating a soulless interaction. That’s not really what improvisation is about. Improvisation isn’t just about doing anything and maybe something good will happen, and maybe something won’t. You can do something great with improvisation every time!—if you are a good improviser. In E.A.R. I worked with Eddie Prevost from AMM, and those guys are master improvisers in the most amazing way. I guess I’m not that wild about Jason doing the songs the way he does them, but he probably thinks the way I do them sucks as well.
You’ve mentioned that many bands have covered ‘Walking with Jesus.’ The Los Angeles band the Muslims recently covered it for the B-side of a new 7”—have you heard it?
Really? Maybe once a year someone sends me a cover. ‘Revolution’ gets covered a lot as well. Those two have always been prime ones. And Jason primarily wrote ‘Walking with Jesus.’ I wrote the choruses and he wrote the verses. The song is about the verses in the story, and of course the chorus kind of makes it up. ‘Here it comes, the sound of confusion…’ Nah, it doesn’t bother me about Jason doing the songs in that way. But I know he can do much better than that. I’ve seen him play a couple of times—I’m just like, ‘Jason, you’re just coasting man.’ I think he’s been very pampered by the press, and to some extent by record companies and stuff, and that rarely begets good music and good results.
I read in an interview where you said, ‘One chord best, two chords cool, three chords okay, four chords average.’
‘Three chords good, two chords better, one chord best.’ It’s the idea that minimalism is maximalism. That’s one of the things I don’t like about some bands. They have like 24 different instruments going off together on the same track. My thing is about finding the three or four most essential things to convey it, and if those parts are well played, they’ll shine in a way they never could have if they were surrounded by twenty other things. I feel that the more minimal approach has a much more maximal effect on the listener. I don’t think I’ve written more than two songs that don’t have a drone all the way through it. Even if it has a three-chord chord change, there’s one note common to all three chords. I like stuff in that whole Pythagorean scale where you basically pick a key and stick to it and all changes are sympathetic to it.
In Spacemen 3, the mantra of the band seemed to be ‘Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to…’
We had several mantras—that was one of them. We also had ‘For all the fucked-up children of this world.’ At the time there was really very little prospective audience for us when we started out. So we thought, ‘Fuck it, we’re just gonna do it exactly the way we want to do it.’ Yeah, we wanted people to like it and I’m not going to bullshit you and say ‘We did it only for ourselves and didn’t care what anyone else thinks.’ Of course we want other people to like it, but ultimately it’s about how we want to do it and what we think we can do for people. We just hoped there were other people like us—and of course there were. Over time, the whole of pop culture has changed in a pretty positive way through the Internet and stuff, and the spread of information about good bands that maybe couldn’t have been exposed without lots of money before. People are finding out about all the good stuff.