Interview: In conversation with Pete Kember of Spacemen 3, Spectrum and Sonic Boom
Peter Kember, the English musician and producer born out of a small town called Rugby, sometimes referred to as Sonic Boom, yet best known for being a founding member of shoegaze rock pioneers Spacemen 3.
Earning a cult following in the 80s with records like Recurring and For All the Fucked Up Children of This World We Give You Spacemen 3, Kember went on to carve out success as Sonic Boom, Spectrum and E.A.R before focussing more recently on his role as a producer.
Now residing in Portugal where he continues to work, Kember caught up with Lee Thomas for a recent edition of Far Out’s radio show Night Trippin’. In it they talk the past, the present and the blurred lines between musician and producer:
Hey Pete, what have you been working on musically?
“I’ve been working in Portugal for the past five years and I actually moved here around six months ago. I moved to a place called Sintra just outside Lisbon.”
I’ve read a lot about how everyday sounds are an important process of how you work, could you explain a little more if possible?
“Well I don’t really think of everyday sounds being massively important to me, but they were definitely important when formulating what I liked about sounds and music.
“I like simple droning things, electrical appliances, garden stuff, hedge trimmers and stuff like that. I like the ambient sound of those things.
“Where I am here there’s a tram that goes by and squeals by the house. It squeals in quite a spectacular way, I really like stuff like that, just really cool sounds that just happen to improve your day a little bit whether its electrical tram lines flashing or depending on where you’re living.
“I like these environmental sounds for sure and sometimes turning them into music, but it’s not something I necessarily think about that much anymore.”
Our interview, which was being held over the phone, was then interrupted by the sounds of the squealing tram which screeched past Pete’s house at that very moment. Interestingly, I was struggling to hear the noise as the builders outside the office rattled the scaffolding – a common hilarity ensued and seemingly lightened the mood of our chat.
You once said you felt with Spacemen 3 you were making music for a sector of society (including yourselves) who felt un-catered for, do you think that has changed now?
“Yeah it has for sure, no question about it.
“We knew from the sort of people that we were that we’re exactly tapping into one of the great commercial gold veins. I think we were well aware that we were creating music that if it appealed to anybody at all it was likely to be a small minority. We were always surprised about how successful the stuff was, as soon as we got out of our home town and took the music out it always kind of surprised us.”
Who do you feel like you’re making music for now, if anybody?
“Well I guess it’s the same people. We always kind of poured our hearts into the this kind of stuff and, for better or for worse, we did put everything into it. A lot of hard work.
“So I guess it still appeals to the same kind of people, I don’t know who to accurately define those people. There’s nothing obvious, they certainly don’t all take drugs for example. I think the music has a certain quality that appeals to some people and It always seems to find the right people, certainly the internet has mad things much easier.
“I think when we made For All The Fucked Up Children Of This World, that was certainly where a lot of our audience can relate to.”
How have you adapted to your new role as a producer, are you enjoying the new way or adapting your creativity?
“Well, in some ways. In Spacemen 3 we could never find or afford anybody who could produce us, a mixture of finding and affording really in different occasions so we decided to just do everything ourselves. So I’ve been doing production work on that level since the 1980s.”
“I’ve always done remixes and worked with other bands since those times. I remember a band called the Beautiful Happiness who I made records with around 1990, I’ve been doing mixing and production for people on and off since then.”
How does it feel producing work for another band or artists rather than yourself?
“Yeah, it’s different for every band and everyone I work with, they all pretty much have their own idiosyncratic way of working so it’s definitely a job where you have to adjust to the way you work according to other people, the idea is to obviously get the best work out of them possible. It’s kinda whatever it takes really.”
I always thought that Sonic Boom was quite insular, do you still get the same feeling of accomplishment completing a record with and for somebody else?
“I do. I do, yeah.
“It depends and varies as I have different involvement with different records over the time. But I do yeah, I wouldn’t get involved with the job if I didn’t and it’s about trying to do everything you can to help. Everything you can to get the best record you can possible.
“When it works out it feels as good when you’re working with anyone. Working by yourself is probably harder than working with other people. With other people you’ve got contact and opinion and stuff like that. There’s consensus.
“It’s nice to be working with other people and I enjoy that as much as when I’m working on my own stuff.”
Do you ever find the that the lines then become a little blurred?
“I hope so!
“I don’t know how clear it is but I never really wanted to do anything rigidly defined and I feel that most of the records that I’ve done have their own personality and character which I think is important. I’m not particularly interested in repeating myself.
“A common thing with most musicians is that they’re looking to expand, to improve. I don’t think many people in music feel like they’ve achieved everything they wanted to achieve immediately. You learn over time and things change, it’s one of those processes.”
I know a visual concept has always been important to you when you’re making music. Whether you’re living in Portugal, or Rugby, or London; how much do you think your environment changes the type of music that you create?
“I think environment affects the music and they way that you’re making music and, for example, if I’m mixing stuff I don’t like to be in a closed box, I like to get out and see landscape and mix like that. I’d rather be able to mix in a semi-outside situation. I mean, obviously you’re dealing with electronics and electricity so there’s some limitations but I like to try to get the music outside as much as I can.
“Working in a nice environment definitely impacts upon the music. What that says about Rugby I don’t really know.”
Let’s move on to some of the covers you’ve recorded over the years. Is that something personal to you? Is it about hearing a song you like but through your own ears?
“It’s through love of the song. Like ‘Lonely Avenue’ for example, I wasn’t that familiar with the Ray Charles version, more the Panther Burns version. It’s more certain songs that I feel were formative to informing me as to what I wanted to do. There was a certain point that I realised there’s certain parts of certain songs that I liked and it was usually the fact that they’re very minimally constructed, sometimes just a couple of cords but not that easy to recognise until you analyse it.
“If I come across songs that fit the format that I’m working and that they’re covers, I kinda like the continuity of doing somebody’s song and taking somewhere else. I think covers are an important part of music, paying your dues in some ways.
The Daniel Johnston cover of ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ still manages to keep the songwriter’s quality but really feels quite ‘Pete Kember’, If that makes any sense?
“Yeah, when that record came out in 1990, I think I may have done the first cover of that song. When it came out it was very clear that he was an amazing song writer, but there was a lot of similarities in the stuff that he was doing.
“Some kind of naive effect on some of the songs, I always really liked that song and recognised it fitted in with what I was doing at the time and decided to a cover of it. To be honest there’s a lot of songs on that album that I could have easily picked.”
You collaborated with Tim Gane, do you have any plans to do anymore with him?
“Yeah I hope so. Nothing concrete but yeah we’ve been things on and off since the late 90s and he’s a great guy. He asked me to do a vocal on his last record and I was very happy to do it. I don’t know what his plans are but it’s always fun to be involved.
Without making this an obituary, but is there any defining moments that stick in the memory over the years?
“No I don’t really see it that way. I feel that way about the whole thing, it wasn’t something that just happened by mistake, we applied a lot of energy into it while in our little town Rugby.
“I remember our first London show, I remember our first tour when we went to Europe which was just to Belgium and Holland. Spacemen 3 pretty much managed to become what it was without being pestered by the rather annoying music press at the time. The whole NME thing was awful, I re-read some interviews with them recently and I realised this is why I really despise those people, some of the things they would say… you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re stupid.
“When I read it again I think ‘how can people live with themselves writing those things about human beings?’ Luckily we got to grow and evade them, I think that was good. These people were trying to influence us with their opinions, if you ready the early Spacemen 3 reviews many of them are far from complimentary.