Artist Profile: Sonic Boom

By Daniel Gottlieb

Spectrum: "Waves Wash Over Me"

What punk bands did with three chords, Sonic Boom could do with two. Forming the cult outfit Spacemen 3 in the early 1980s with bandmate Jason Pierce, Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember) bridged the guitar-based psychedelia of artists like 13th Floor Elevators and Red Krayola with the experimental textures and drones of electronic pioneers like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Spacemen 3 were reductionist in their ethic and sound, but their ability to drone you into ecstasy with repetition and subtle shifts in dynamic between strings and electronics, all within tight song structures, offered a fresh take on the possibilities of modern psych. With their open drug use, and the occassional 11-minute assault of noise, Spacemen 3 were as hostile as any of their punk contemporaries to the claustrophobic precepts of the old guard.

Peter has worked under the Spectrum moniker since the end of S3, in the early '90s, collaborating with the likes of My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields (in E.A.R.), Galaxie 500's Dean Wareham, and Moon Duo. He mixed and mastered Panda Bear's new album, Tomboy, and is currently finishing up a two-week American tour (destination: the Austin Psych Fest). He's also producing the new Wooden Shjips LP, and has a new Spectrum full-length, On The Wings of Mercury, due out this year. I caught up with Peter in the studio he was working out of in Brooklyn to talk Panda Bear, drugs, and what appeals to him about the minimal/maximal aesthetic.

AZ: You're in New York a bit ahead of your upcoming tour. What are you working on at the moment?

Pete: This is some mastering work for Panda Bear. They’re talking about doing a special edition of Tomboy. I'm not entirely sure if it's been announced, and if they are going to do it what it's going to contain, but I’m doing some stuff that may become part of that.

AZ: How did you wind up mixing and mastering the new Panda Bear album?

Pete: A friend of Rusty Santos played me Person Pitch at a party at the Tribeca Grand and I was blown away. It was just sickeningly good. I bought a copy of it, and he had listed a bunch of influences or nods to people on the sleeve, and Spacemen 3 was on there. My memory is that I said to him, “Hey man, if you ever wanted to do anything collaborative I would be so into it for a 7” or something.” Memories are notoriously unreliable, but I remember him being like, “I haven’t got time to do more Panda Bear stuff because I'm really busy with Animal Collective.” I was just like, “Oh, don’t tell me that, you gotta keep going with this!” But he has a wife, two kids, and a band to feed, so to speak.

At some point, he decided he was going to start his new album, and I guess he did all the singles and wasn’t happy with the final mixes. I think Deakin and Avey were meant to be kind of fleshing it out, but then it was running late and they were unable to do it. Then Noah sent me an email asking Spectrum to play the Animal Collective ATP, and right at the bottom, in his typical style, he wrote, “Oh, by the way, you wouldn’t want to mix my new record would you?” Yeah, like I wouldn’t.

AZ: How often were you in contact with Noah during that process?

Pete: A lot. Even before he sent me the stuff, there was a certain amount of, you know, "This sounds pretty cool, man. What is it that you’re looking for?” He had really specific things he wanted fixing, improving, and showing. Obviously, I wanted to know about the songs and lyrics as much as possible. When you get to see the lyrics, they’re really impressive. He’s all super modest about it, but it's just sickening how talented he is.

We ran instrumental and a cappella mixes of all the songs, which may or may not show up at some point. As weird as it sounds, in some parts of Tomboy, the vocals detract from the music and the music detracts from the vocals-- in that when you take each element by themselves, they’re so amazingly pure. The combination is incredible, but to my ears, the mixes sound amazing. It's an album that really stands up looking at in that much detail. The decisions all really lie with him, though.

AZ: I read somewhere that you put some parts down yourself on the album?

Pete: Yeah, I was like, “Man, if there are any bits where I think I can add something, do you care?” and he said to go for it. We were sending mixes back and forth regularly so he could change anything if there was something he didn’t like. For example, the solo in “Tomboy,” I told him like, “I really like it, but it's kinda sloppy,” but he wanted to keep it. He made a lot of decisions on stuff like that. I also re-tracked a lot of the basses using his original part. There’s a pedal that you can buy that Boss and Behringer have knocked off that turns a bass guitar into a synth bass. I ran all his basses through that and regenerated a new track from that. We used it in the mix and it did exactly the job. On some tracks, like "Slow Motion," it doesn’t work properly and it sounds like a dub speaker sort of distorting it, and occasionally squibs when it's not quite sure where it's going. But in with the track, it just fits perfectly. We had some luck with just two or three little effects that made a big difference.

AZ: Any Sonic Boom/Panda Bear collaborations to look forward to?

Man, he’s so busy. I’d go there in a flash. I know there are bigger fans than me but I’m a pretty big fan, I think. I got married to Person Pitch. It was playing before we went in and after we came out. It's really special to me.

AZ: You've also worked on some stuff with Moon Duo?

They wanted me to do the new album, but I was committed to Panda Bear and Spectrum stuff so I couldn't, but I said I could remix two songs. I’m working on mastering the new Wooden Shjips album, however.

AZ: That seems like a great collaboration, stylistically.

Yeah, it's worked out pretty good. It started because I owed them a favor. We were on a bill together and we were going to play one song together as part of my set. But one of the main parts of my equipment totally crashed out and I was fucked, so I said to them, “Can you guys help me out and back me up for a couple of songs?” So I owed them one.

AZ: With the new Spectrum album that's due soonish, have you been tampering with more modern equipment?

I’ve always tried new stuff. Like when I started using little Casios, they were brand new, fresh out of the box! But time's flown by and sure enough, I still use them. I bought the reverb unit used for most of the Panda Bear stuff because we used it for the Spacemen records-- Playing With Fire, Perfect Prescription, Recurring. I hadn’t used it for years, but I always really loved it. And then I found out that no one cares for these things, and you can buy them for like 40 or 50 bucks. Back in the day, they were like 200 bucks, which for me at the time was a lot of money. It's magical the way they made them. It has this one setting that’s called a multi-tap, and it repeats like a delay. It does little shimmers and its echoes reverberate, and you can have it in stereo as well. It's just got a really magical quality.

AZ: You seem to take the outlook that you can write something great with only two chords, and by disciplining yourself with them, you can tap into different channels and possibilities.

That’s partly the "minimalism is maximalism" philosophy. There was a point where I worked out that all the stuff I really liked was incredibly simple, to the point that a lot of it didn’t change chords much. When I realised that was the essence of the stuff I liked, I started exploring from there. I like the idea of being self-taught and self-learning, and learning what you want to learn because you feel like you need to learn it. If you put a few really good elements together, they'll always sound better than a lot of half-done ones. It's a study in limited resources. To have one source of equipment, like a EMS Synthi or VCS3, that’s one of the ultimate statements. In theory, they're very simple pieces of equipment, but they have an almost endless number of possibilities and can be incredibly versatile and complex instruments. By feeding stuff back, and through clever manipulation and balancing, you can get sounds that technically you shouldn’t be able to get out of a simple two-oscillator, one-filter synth. It’s just phenomenal.

AZ: Did Jason [Pierce] share that affinity for minimalism? His Spiritualized records seemed to divert from that philosophy, in the sense that he began working with orchestras and gospel choirs.

But a lot of songs are still very simple with Jason. He’s a genius-- one of the great masters-- of taking something very simple and making something really cool out of it. He’s also the master of layering way too much on stuff that doesn’t need it sometimes as well. That could’ve happened in Spacemen 3. On The Perfect Prescription, Jason wanted to put more guitars down. Beautiful, beautiful parts, but it would’ve made us look limp live a lot of the time. Jason has a very natural style. I can’t remember him ever playing anything that wasn’t right first time. But my idea and his idea of gospel singers is totally different. My idea of gospel singers is a bunch of untrained people singing their hearts off in the back, not a bunch of people that are trained, professional, off-the-shelf gospel gingers. It does absolutely zilch for me. But to each to his own. Loads of people think Spiritualized's the greatest thing since sliced bread.

AZ: Can you remember the first time that the possibilities of electronics and synths started to appeal to you?

Oh, for sure. Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop music, absolutely-- the "Doctor Who" theme. When I was a kid, it terrified me every time I heard it. It was certainly one of the most evocative pieces of music. Every English person has this memory of hiding behind the sofa as a kid as soon as that music came on. The program was rather poorly made, poorly acted, and poorly scripted, but the music and the sound effects were good and it started and ended with that music.

I was reading the Pink Floyd, Pipers At The Gates of Dawn 33 1/3 book, and the author suggests that Syd Barrett and Roger Waters must have been influenced by Delia's tape work. She told me that Syd Barrett came to the Radiophonic Workshop to meet her-- that the only three people that ever sought her out were Paul McCartney, Brian Jones, and Syd Barrett. But the way she did that stuff is insane! She only had test-tone oscillators and some of them had modulator oscillators built in. And they had stacks of these things with keyboards that could play across nine of them to play a little scale and stuff. It was so primitive. In the last two or three years of her life, we used to hang out once a week. I was learning about synths and the way sound works and she had all the answers.

AZ: Are you ever surprised by the enduring popularity of vintage analog equipment, given all those difficulties?

Nah, all that stuff can be fixed now, temperature instability and the like. I think there’s room for both, but the [synths] that have the most stability don’t usually sound the best. A little instability goes a long way.

AZ: When you and Jason Pierce met at Art School back in Rugby, were you already taking music seriously, or was it only then that you really got going?

There’s a sort of truism, or there was at least until the '90s, where if you wanted to form a band in England you went to art school. I left private school after O-levels, having done pretty badly. I couldn’t have stayed on and just done art, so I decided to leave. I mean, really, what I wanted to do was music. But when you’re 16 or 17 and you think you’re going to make your living from music, you’re unrealistic. There’s a hell of a lot of work and time and effort that goes into it, and hopefully a little bit of talent along the way. It's a bonus, though, not a necessity.

AZ: What kind of venues were you playing when first starting out?

Real small places. We started up our own little club called "The Reverberation Club." It just made sense to be fixed around one place. We’d put other bands on and I guess we’d play once every month ourselves. It wasn't a big music scene but we actually managed to build up a kinda decent little one just by playing and putting it on. Our motto, I think, was "'50s, '60s, '70s rock and punk," because we were only in the early '80s at that point. It was stuff right the way through from early rock 'n' roll stuff and free-form jazz, to stuff it wouldn’t be unusual to hear in loads of clubs now: MC5, 13th Floor Elevators, garage stuff, a few punk bands like the Sex Pistols, and some The Damned.

AZ: Did the punk ethic of the 1980s, especially in the context of Thatcherite England, have any impact on your music?

No, not really. I do remember the politics of the '70s: the vicious inflation, the strikes, power cuts, three-day working weeks. The place was nuts. And as much as I hate Thatcher and am not sure she was suitable medicine, something needed to be sorted out, because shit was just falling apart. But no, it didn’t have any effect on us. One of the things that used to help bands in England a lot was the dole. I always worked, but if you wanted to just concentrate on your music, you could exist on that and you’d be left alone for at least two or three years. Some people were on the dole for seven, eight, nine, ten years without really being hassled. It wasn’t a lot of money, but they could afford to eat and buy drugs. And I mean, you also used to have to pay for music, of course.

AZ: What were songs like "Revolution" trying to get across, then? There are also a lot of religious references in your songs.

I guess with "Revolution" it was just a lot of fun to make that much noise. In some narrow ways, we were political in our stance on drugs and being open about it, particularly in the “just say no” era. I watched heroin boom during the '80s as the government took out massive billboard adverts in some misguided attempt to quell the situation and it just didn’t work. It’s like your parents telling you not to do something-- it’s the first thing you want to do. If you read the stuff that we talked about, it was about using drugs in a considered way, not in a like, “Yeah, let’s just get fucked up” way. And we were kind of badly pillaged by the press for it. But it was amusing to then see the Happy Mondays come along and yell, “Yeah, let’s get fucked up!,” and the press just loved it. It was amazing to see that whole scene explode around the same time or thereabouts as "Revolution." Around that time, we’d been playing at the very first ecstasy parties before there were ecstasy clubs. There was a guy that did the "X Parties" and they were big parties with all different types of psychedelic music, but not much of it was dance-based, initially. Then clubs imported from Ibiza began the whole dance thing.

My upbringing is lapsed Catholic, but at least two generations lapsed, and I can’t say I believe in the original sin thing too much. I suppose I do believe in spirituality and stuff, but I think it's more within than from some outside force. I think it developed more through psychedelics. There was a strong sense of déjà vu with psychedelics that opened up things that I experienced as a child that had been fairly fleeting or distant memories. I feel like there was a type of therapy involved. It was a useful way to solve some of the problems that may be going through your head-- things that bother you about the world, the people that live in it, about yourself, about the way you interact with other people. I think for some people, it’s a really beneficial tool.

Spacemen 3: "Transparent Radiation (Flashback)"

Spectrum April tourdates here

Tags: sonic boom, artist profile, audio, features

Posted by alteredzones on 04/22/2011 at noon.

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