BY JONATHAN VALANIA In the beginning, before there was Spiritualized or Spectrum, there was Spacemen 3. If you came of age in 80s, in the dreary grey flannel age of Reagan/Thatcher, when drug war hysteria was reaching a feverish pitch, Spacemen 3 was hands down the most persuasive and rewarding argument for the ingestion of mind-expanding substances since Pink met Floyd. In August of 1984, Jason Pierce (a.k.a. Jason Spaceman) received a government grant to attend Rugby Art College — which he promptly misused to purchase an electric guitar and amplifier. It was at Rugby Art College that Pierce met classmate Peter Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom, a.k.a. Peter Gunn), son of a wealthy importer. Kember ’s initial impression of Pierce was that he’s “someone who is very smart, but very lazy.” Kember and Pierce bonded over a mutual interest in psychedelic music and recreational drug use. Pierce turned Kember on to the Stooges. Kember reciprocated by turning Pierce on to the Cramps, Velvet Underground and heroin. They formed a band that combined all four influences and call themselves the Spacemen. Later, they’ll add a “3? to the end of the moniker, borrowing the number from an early Spacemen gig poster that reads “Are Your Dreams At Night 3 Sizes Too Big?”
“Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to ” was their mantra and their methodology. At the height of Just Say No, they openly sang the praises of mind–altering substances to the media and crowned themselves kings of the one-chord drone, funneling White Light/White Heat-era Velvets and pre-mental-hospital 13th Floor Elevators through a mesmerizing prism of noisy trance rock. And they did it all sitting down, as did the audience members. In fact, some laid flat on their backs. Many of them, you see, had taken drugs to listen to music to take drugs to. Here’s Kember talking about the role drug use played in the creative and personal life of the band during an email interview I conducted with him back in 2001:
ME: What role did drugs play in the creative process of Spacemen 3?
PETER KEMBER: It’d be a lie to understate their role, but plenty of folk have found our music enough to replace drugs for consciousness alteration. I always felt I was merely a conduit or antenna receiving moods/feelings and translating them into sound forms and lyrics in order to re-transmit the experiences that encapsulated our lives .
ME: You have spoken very candidly about your heroin use during the band. Was that something you and Jason did together?
PETER KEMBER: Sometimes. Not much, Jason took very little drugs during the S3 period—except lager and Jack Daniel’s. I turned Jason and other band members on to LSD, etc., and though we used heroin together occasionally, I think it was always more my weakness. Not to say hash, weed, speed, coke and mushrooms didn’t figure -they did frequently. I never believed in turning on friends to smack. Jason made his own choice, I have not been a social heroin user ever; (it’s) more a personal habit. It interferes surprisingly little, but for the effects of its criminalisation.
You can literally hear the drugs in Spacemen 3’s music: Kember and Pierce wove dense, hypnotic chimeras of sound out of hazy, heavily-pedaled web of guitars (usually one chiming immaculately and the other completely fuzzed out), the pneumatic wheeze of vintage keyboards, throbbing bass and trance-inducing rhythms fashioned out of simple, repetitive drum patterns. Sample lyric: “In 1987 all I wanna do is get stoned.” Still, whatever they were taking it worked, because if they started out channeling their impeccable record collection, (The Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, the Stooges, the MC5, Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, the Silver Apples, Kraftwerk, Neu!, 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, the Electric Prunes, the Beach Boys, the Cramps, the Gun Club, Tav Falco, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, the Staple Singers and John Lee Hooker) they soon became something completely original, something ecstatic and transcendent. Like putting conch shell up to your ear and hearing the infinite, or at least an uncanny approximation of it.
Somewhere around 1991, something happened that neither Kember nor Pierce have ever talked about publicly, but they went their separate ways and, to the best of my knowledge, haven’t been on speaking terms for the last 20 years. Pierce went on to form Spiritualized, which would enjoy fairly massive critical and creative success with 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space and spend the next decade trying, with diminishing returns, to repeat it.
Kember formed Spectrum, which carried on the Spacemen 3 tradition for a series of albums and tours, concurrently he also formed the aptly-named E.A.R. (Experimental Audio Research) to indulge his more avant garde impulses, sometimes joined by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. In the late 90’s he put Spectrum on hiatus, and started playing with Stereolab around the time of Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Since then he’s released a blizzard of exotic, limited edition vinyl, split singles, EPs, collaborations and comp tracks.
More recently, Spectrum opened for My Bloody Valentine on their reunion tour. In 2008, Kember collaborated with legendary Memphis sideman/producer/raconteur Jim Dickinson — shortly before his death in August of 2009 — under the Spectrum name for an album called Indian Giver, and followed it up with the War Sucks EP in 2009. A new Spectrum album, tentatively titled On The Wings Of Mercury, is reportedly in the works. In 2010, Kember produced MGMT’s Congratulations, and he also mixed Panda Bear’s just released Tomboy album.
Spectrum is currently spring tour of the U.S. that stops at the North Star Bar tonight (with Asteroid #4 and Music For Headphones). Kember promises a mix of old and new Spectrum material as well as some Spacemen 3 classics. (Vinyl lovers take note: A tour-only split single with New York sleep-rockers Cheval Sombre, featuring Kember’s seven-minute ode to the dearly departed Mary Hansen of Stereolab, will be on sale at the show.) The following interview was conducted via email and his responses to my questions are reprinted here verbatim — including his decidedly unique use of punctuation and abbreviation, and his complete disregard for capitalization.
PHAWKER: Let’s start with Spacemen 3. Do you remember the day you and Jason Pierce first met?
PETER KEMBER: Oh yes. Jason was quite the card around town. He had had a haircut that would’nt have gone un-noticed in a small town. So, I sort of recognised him from seeing him around . the only bigger freak-show knocking round was Natty Brooker who became our 2nd drummer circa 1984 ……i wish i had photos.
PHAWKER: Considering that what you guys were doing sonically — long, minimalist, droning trance songs — was so out of step with what was going on in the mid-80s, what was the initial reaction to the band in the UK and the US and when and why did it finally find an audience?
PETER KEMBER: no surprise , everyone thought we were the biggest Troggs since, er, the Troggs. Which is about right I guess. Sure enough few got it. Mostly the druggier hipster kids – although hipsters as of now were a MUCH rarer breed. Nothing you’d look at as a good market ripe for the exploitation. haha
PHAWKER: Is it true that people used to lay on the floor during your concerts in the UK?
PETER KEMBER: yes , but mostly at the sides of the rooms . if u r tripping , u wanna get comfy . somefolks found a way to dance to stuff , but after NME or someone said ‘ spacemen3 fans lie on the floor or sit around ‘ that it became more common .
PHAWKER: Dreamweapon is my all time fave trance out record, can you please explain the circumstances behind the recording of those tracks?
PETER KEMBER: we were asked to play a contemporary sitar music festival . we’d sacked rosco fairly recently , so he wouldnt let jason play his sitar (tssssscccccchhhhhh) so we did it on guitar . its kind of a precis of my favourite riffs circa PWF . we were meant to do a second set w/ jazz butcher joing , but the cinema audience queue we were playing too hated it & they asked us not to do the 2nd set but paid us off . Steve Evans played drone guitar somewhere in there too & will carruthers mimed after his amp failed & he was too nervous to start fucking with it to get it fired up . haha . 45 minutes of miming……perfectly executed tho , i gotta say .
PHAWKER: What role did psychedelic drugs play in the band’s creative development? What role did opiates play? Did you guys usually perform or record under the influence?
PETER KEMBER: a bunch of drugs all played large roles . I used to like chloroform quite a lot too.
i dont ever remember doing anything straight w/ s3 . I’ve been a wake & baker since too long , so ……..and ofcourse it would be a little crazy for drugs not 2 b involved in a band who’s mission statements were ‘ taking drugs to make music to take drugs to’ & ‘for all the fucked up children of this world ,we give you spacemen 3’ .
PHAWKER: What role, if any, do drugs play in your current creative or spiritual endeavors? Can you take a moment to explain your religious/spitural beliefs, assuming you have the. Do you believe in God? Please explain why you do or don’t.
PETER KEMBER: pretty massive , personally .
i know there is no god , the kingdom of heaven if anywhere lies within your mind . I frankly am astounded constantly by the nonsense people believe they ‘believe’ about religion . Or the stuff people blindly accept . however , thats their trip & if it works out , fine .
If religion or god has anything to do with all these ‘holy’ fools trying to screw us all up , I dont recognise their definition of god.
PHAWKER: Was there ever any blowback — police harassment, etc. — for candidly advocating drug use in interviews with the press at a time when JUST SAY NO was the mantra of the day? I’ve read that drug convictions made getting a visa and touring the U.S. difficult if not impossible. Please explain the circumstances of said convictions and how that impacted the band’s ability to tour overseas.
PETER KEMBER: not really . it makes it tuff in the land of the free yes . true enough , like no where else .
PHAWKER: What led to the break up of Spacemen 3?
PETER KEMBER: my answer is gonna b differant to everyones else i imagine . i have my opinions . its nothing i’m proud to share . It was shame-ridden at the time and it does’nt bear furthering now. i would say though that the press & fire records decided it would b a good sales ploy to get some argy bargy going through the media . sweet , eh ? the nme used to delight in that trade .
PHAWKER: I have read Jason Pierce in interviews say that part of the problem was that he wanted to branch out into different kinds of songs and you wanted to stick with the formula, for lack of a better word. Any truth in that?
PETER KEMBER: is that born out by reality ? quite the opposite if u check into it……..in quite a ridiculous way .
does that scan with yr perception of my work versus his ??
I never heard that one before .
PHAWKER: Aside from the fact that Jason wasn’t involved, what was the difference between Spectrum and Spacemen 3 in terms of the music you were making and what you were trying to accomplish?
PETER KEMBER: not massively . every record by s3 or spectrum are quite differant.
PHAWKER: Why the 11 year hiatus between 1997’s Forever Alien and 2008’s Indian Giver?
PETE KEMBER: no one wanted to hear shit , least buy it anyways. I did a bunch of EAR lp’s in that time – 6 , 7 , 8 ?
PHAWKER: Speaking of Indian Giver, your collaboration with the legendary producer/musician/raconteur Jim Dickinson who sadly passed away recently. Tell us about how that collaboration came about and how it worked, where you recorded it and why you wanted to work with him.
PETE KEMBER: i was a massive fan from panther burns originally , then went back thru . someone who i turned onto his stuff had a label , birdman , and sought out JD & JD was interested & we did it . He did some mixing for Jason b4 then , so i think he knew who i was . though he had a funny story about JP i wont repeat , i will say the only gold discs he had were spiritualized & primal scream .
PHAWKER: Having had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Jim, we know he was a great story teller — it’s tragic he never published a memoir — and surely he laid a few beauties on you. Can you share some?
PETE KEMBER: sure enough he did , and we created a few new ones . he liked to butt heads quite a lot . he was die-ing , old & he was famously cranky . I have to say , he’s still one of my biggest heroes . His kids are killer too . N. Miss Allstars stuff is cool & like cody & luthers tastes & work .
PHAWKER: Did he talk to you at all about taking LSD as a test subject when he was in the Army? Or the time the acclaimed photographer and Memphis resident William Eggleston gave Alex Chilton a tab of acid when he was still a young boy?
PETE KEMBER: no . I ofcourse read the robert gordon book ‘it came from memphis’ – a truly killer book . a must read . buy the 2 cds that accompany it too .it’ll be money well spent .
PHAWKER: Word has it there is a new Spectrum album in the works. Can you tell us a little about it and how it differs or relates to previous Spectrum albums.
PETER KEMBER: not really . the time will come . needless to say i think its got good stuff…
PHAWKER: What is a typical day in the life of Pete Kember these days? Are you still living in Rugby?
PETER KEMBER: there is no typical day . i’m either in rugby or n.y. or l.a. or basel as likely as rugby – love to travel & visit friends . just normal stuff – or on tour or working somewhere . it varies a lot . if i’m at home i do a lot of nothing . reading . thinking . lisning to music . hanging w my wife & friends . I love working on stuff . the mgmt , panda bear , moon duo , wooden ships ,cheval sombre et al keep me very happilly busy .
PHAWKER: EAR is your more experimental/collaborative/ambient project. Can you explain this technique of ”circuit bending’ you utilized on 1998’s Data Rape, 2000’s Vibrations and 2001’s Continuum?
PETER KEMBER: its where u creatively short-circuit sound generating toys ,instruments etc to release sounds otherwise unavailable . it also can involve random sequencing & rythmn programming based on the chips possible permutations not accessed in traditional musical forms .
i.e. – a drum machine can play rythmns that are outside of the considered norma equal temporal spacings . its an almost limitless zone , but can b achieved by anyone for very little or no cost .
PHAWKER: One of your early collaborators in EAR was Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Perhaps you could shed some light or offer your theory as to why MBV never followed up Loveless?
PETER KEMBER: haha . he told me that if he couldnt make a record as good as loveless he didnt want to make another record . whatever u want to make of that . I didnt understand it
PHAWKER: What are you listening to these days that you are excited about?
PETER KEMBER: Panda Bear’s output since person pitch has been stunning . i listen to him a lot , Sun Araw , Cheval Sombre that i been working on . I like the Aliens , I like the Deerhunter stuff & the Atlas sound stuff . Sixto Rodriguez is new-ish to me , but that and a bunch of stuff that light in the attic r putting out have been on my turntable a bunch.
PHAWKER: If you woke up in the middle of the night to discover your home was on fire and there was only time to grab on album, which one would it \be and why? Can you describe the circumstances that lead you to connect with that album so deeply and why it continues to speak to you today?
PETER KEMBER: i probly wouldnt b able to reach it quickly . i dont wanna think about THAT . i have too many favourites .
PHAWKER: What can we expect at your Philly show? Will it just be you or a full band? Will you be playing guitar or just keyboards like the last time you were through Philly? Will you be performing songs from all your various projects — E.A.R., Spectrum, Spacemen 3?
PETER KEMBER: Something old, something new – people can expect to hear Spectrum and Spacemen 3 stuff . I’ll be playing a a mix of guitars, keyboard, theremin and other assorted electronics played with the band
PHAWKER: You produced MGMT’s 2010 Congratulations album. What made you want to work with them, aside from they asked you and you presumably got paid?
PETER KEMBER: money is secondary . they’re killer people , i like their music a ton . they’ve become good friends . they ofcourse looked after me in a truly charming fashion top to bottom . they’ve got cool management & its kind of just of a fun trip . hog heaven for someone who likes music .
PHAWKER: You mixed Panda Bear’s new album Tomboy, can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with the record. How long did you spend mixing it? Where did you mix it? How do you think it compares to Person Pitch?
PETER KEMBER: I think its a stunning record . chock full of goodness . As i sed PB holds a special place for me . I think its a far more focussed lp than PP , tho’ that lp is one i’d b searching out in THAT fire . no question .
PHAWKER: The album was slated for release in the fall of 2010 but didn’t come out until the spring of 2011, why the delay?
PETER KEMBER: dunno . not my end . cos hes a super busy father of two , with a wife & a band to feed ? he’s pretty busy .
PHAWKER: Do you see bands like Animal Collective as the children of Spacemen 3?
PETER KEMBER: ermmm…….i do now . haha . can i take any credit there ?? not much i think . they’re pretty unique in their own right .
PHAWKER: Will Spacemen 3 ever reunite to record or perform live?
PETER KEMBER: doubt it .