(Credit: Pete Kember)

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Pete Kember, an unconventional genius

Pete Kember’s career is about as eclectic as you can imagine. In a career path which started out close to 40 years ago, a time when he formed the pioneering shoegaze band Spaceman 3 with Jason Pierce as teenagers back in 1982, the group would release four records before going their separate ways in 1991 under a cloud of turmoil. Since then, Kember has allowed his career to follow an unexpected path and one which has seen him constantly change with the seasons.

Spacemen 3 were one of the original shoegaze innovators, a group who played a pivotal role in helping create a completely unique sound that was like nothing that had come before. The swirling fuzz and distorted sound that the band helped master is an underappreciated chapter in the history of the genre, one in which Spacemen 3 never quite received the mass recognition that they deserved. Even during their time together, commercial success was something that always evaded them and was never an aspect of music creation that they chased or, in truth, ever really considered. This dynamic young creative duo, hailing from the small sleepy town of Rugby, were happy left to their own devices to create beautiful atmospheric music in a way that nobody else had done before, a period of time which made them the unexpected forefathers of shoegaze.

The sound that Kember helped create is a giant reason why now-iconic bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Ride even exist. While the aforementioned groups would go on to become more well-known names than Spaceman 3, picking up the mantle from Kember and Pierce they left behind, without them ushering in this new subgenre, the history of British music would be a different landscape.

Despite their inexperience from the beginning of Spacemen 3, it was obvious to Kember that he and his closest friends had landed on something incredibly special from the “very first rehearsal”. “Some things have something that is just this indescribable, I guess animal magnetism is like that. It all came together pretty quickly,” Kember told me during our telephone call, the musician speaking from his home in Portugal.

Shoegaze was a genre made for the misfit kids who didn’t fit into grunge or Britpop, the people looking for something deeper and more fulfilling than whatever else was on the table. However, by the time that the appetite grew for the sound that Kember had crafted, he had already moved on to something new. In 1990, he stepped out as a solo artist under the moniker of Sonic Boom and released his debut record Spectrum before Spaceman 3 had even officially called it a day.

“I could see it disintegrating slowly, but surely,” Kember regretfully stated on the decision to go solo and leave Spacemen 3 behind. “We were kind of dysfunctional as a band. I probably didn’t even think we were dysfunctional at the time. I just thought we were a bunch of kids, silly kids. But now when I look back, and I’m like God we were so fucking dysfunctional,” he honestly reflected.

“Some may or may not be more dysfunctional than others, but I mean, they’re all pretty awesome people and they are all they’re all interesting characters. I don’t always see eye to eye with all of them,” he said humorously.

The first Sonic Boom record saw Kember experiment even more than before, a space of freedom that allowed him to express his creativity without any boundaries standing in his way. This new-found liberty was exactly what Kember needed, it was an escape from the toxicity that had become impossible to avoid with Spacemen 3 due to the deterioration of their relationships with one another.

(Credit: Pete Kember)

Since the split, Kember and Pierce’s careers have gone down two different paths with the latter forming Spiritualized, a solo venture that has achieved monumental success. Kember, meanwhile, has gone down an unconventional route which offered up a plethora of different avenues. Predominantly making music as Spectrum or E.A.R., earlier this year he brought his Sonic Boom moniker back to life after 30 years away. That said, you’re just as likely to catch him making somebody else’s record than his own.

Even though it has been widely reported over the last 30 years that Kember and Pierce haven’t been on speaking terms since the split of the band, this was something that he refuted: “Me and Jason still speak and communicate, I met him last year,” he told Far Out, in words which will warm the hearts of Spacemen 3 fans. “A lot of the stuff that we have to do with each other is to do with Spacemen 3,” Kember then went on to admit, “There’s all sorts of things about it that I wish I wish I’d done differently. I wish we’d done differently. But mostly I can speak for myself.” It offers a momentary glimpse of reflection from Kember who, at the time of our conversation, was planning to celebrate his 55th birthday the very next day.

Variety has been the one constant in his life since the split of Spacemen 3 and this has played a huge part in what has kept him motivated. “I never wanted to make a lot of records and the idea of just making a new record every year, I just don’t feel that inspired to and I like to filter what I come up with,” he said with renewed vigour. “I like to take time to do it and if I’m happy with the records I put out then that’s all I can do and if other people like them even if it takes them 20 years to like it then that’s fine. But as long as I like it, then I’m happy.”

All three of his post-Spacemen projects have allowed Kember to do what he enjoys best, a space to experiment with musicians who he admires, inviting them into his world as they create sweet noise together. He has occasionally taken on projects such as E.A.R.’s 1994 debut release Mesmerised in a solo manner and, on the flip side, he has also worked with the likes of My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and AMM’s Eddie Prévost on other projects under the same moniker in what is a clear example of his ability to adapt.

Now residing in his Portuguese home, a place located in a little mountain range about 20 miles outside of Lisbon, Kember has set up his life to work in a new way. While the mundane small market town life of Rugby had shaped the sound of Spacemen 3 in the early days, an outsider view of Portugal’s hilly, coastal capital city is having the very same effect. This time though, Kember is inviting the work of bands such as MGMT, Beach House, Moon Duo and Gold Panda into his home studio, taking up production duties and imparting some of his unconventional expertise.

“I learned from all these people,” he says on the art of collaboration. “I had some strange intuition I think and all the people I ever approached to work with me were always really generous. I learned a lot from each one of them and kids are getting smarter. When you’re working with MGMT or Beach House or Gold Panda, I mean, these are all really smart kids,” he said, full of praise.

While collaborations have dominated his work in recent years, 2020 saw Kember release music under the name of Sonic Boom for the first time in three decades, a decision which provided a glimmer of hope for people hoping for Spacemen 3 to be rejuvenated one day. “It just felt right,” he said on returning to the name Sonic Boom. “There was also some perception, I think, from promoters, and maybe labels as well, that Spectrum wasn’t as well known as Sonic Boom because of the Spacemen 3 interest. On that level, it made sense to, and I just felt it was right.”

His career has been the definition of eclectic and he’s now living out a dream quaint life in Portugal, one which has become the perfect place for Kember to make his beautiful art and his 2020 album, All Things Being Equal, is a project that is an expression of where he is now aged 55. While he’s undoubtedly still the wild soul that ventured into music with no grand plans with Spacemen 3 in 1982, he has lived a life that is all about the journey rather than reaching the desired destination.

The decision to move out of his comfort zone, lead a new life in Portugal, was one of his greatest life choices. “I wanted to change my life, I was like 50 when I moved out here so I have to assume at least halfway,” Kember said. “I didn’t want to live in the same environment and I lived in a small town and it was noisy, it could be fairly toxic. Then I guess, over the years, I learned that it wasn’t didn’t wasn’t like that everywhere. I just felt the need to change my life and they wanted to get away from an urban environment and into a rural environment.

“I couldn’t believe that such a place existed, so I was like ok, this is what I have to do and my wife was down for it as well. There’s no perfect world there’s no perfect place. If your life shit it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s the same as it doesn’t matter how much money you have. Money won’t fix the important things in life.”

Pete Kember has an innate ability to not overthink every single step he makes, instead he takes it one project at a time, a decision which has resulted in a vast career that is truly unique to him. From speaking to the musician, I can see that there are regrets about certain things he has done at stages in his career but I also get the sense that he wouldn’t swap the life he has lived for anybody else’s and, more importantly, he seems to be more content now than ever.

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