Their classic tripped out social punk perfectly fit the times they were living in – we chat with Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom about the making of their albums, their culture and the possibility of working again with his former bandmate Jason Pierce of Spiritualized. Sean McRae interviews.
For all the Fucked Up Children Of The World We Give You Spacemen 3 was a call to the disaffected, forgotten youth of 1986 Britain. And there was enough of that lost generation with more than a million youth unemployed under the Thatcher regime. No present, no future, no voice, no hope.
Step forward Spacemen 3, a band of ‘soul punks’ from Rugby with their debut album Sound of Confusion, an internal, cosmic psych primal scream that resonated with many.
A hurricane howl of Stooges, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Cramps and Velvet Underground it was both shaped by the time and deeply influenced by the past. Spacemen 3 advocated revolution, but of the soul not fighting in the streets. It was the politics of consciousness.
Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom, said: “ I came up with that (For All the Fucked Up Children…) as a banner to set out our manifesto as succinctly as possible. I think it was intended as a rallying call. A lot of teens and early twenties feel this alienation from trying to figure out the world and what parts aren’t fucked up.
“Spacemen 3 didn’t claim particularly to be repping anyone but ourselves, but of course we were invisibly sound-tracking like minded soul’s lives as we were found by them. Both parties in the UK had trashed the country and it was an interesting time. It was gritty …..it clearer who your enemies were for sure. We were definitely a product of that era.
“We used the term ‘soul punk’ to describe ourselves. I think it stands.”
Spacemen 3 also adopted the phrase ‘Taking Music to Make Music to Take Drugs To’. In era rife with band’s hypocritical about their drug use it was an honest, refreshing stance. Many of the country’s youth were turning to drugs to escape bleak Britain but no-one was willing to admit it – apart from Spacemen 3.
Sonic, credited as Peter Gunn for that debut album, said: “I can only speak for myself here , but we were functional drug users I think. Being honest is a tough path sometimes , but I still believe the drugs issue was the right path. Times are more in sync with that now, but honesty and reality are the weapons the ‘just say no’ brigade wouldn’t use. We definitely got stick from the press but that’s kind of the nature of those old music papers.”
How the band’s music sounded both straight and ‘under the influence’ was fundamental. Fueled by copious amounts of weed Spacemen 3, Kember, Jason Pierce, Bassman (Pete Bain) and Natty Brooker began recording in Birmingham in Spring ’86. The Jazz Butcher’s Pat Fish was chief roller throughout the sessions. Sonic said: “As to how it sounded under the influence? I’ve always road tested material whilst demoing and mixing to make sure its pointed squarely at the right spots. We were only smoking hash and weed (in the sessions). Pat Fish kept papers rustling when our fingers were otherwise engaged.
“The band was formed out of a desire to transmit strong feelings and emotions through our music and to incorporate sounds and structures that were evocative of the different drugs we were doing. We would have all got A+ on that course so making music that evoked those feelings wasn’t a tough process. We fell on a simple concept that delivered everything we hoped. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a special group of people who became friends and swapped info and music in those pre internet days. A lot of luck I realize now.”
Sound of Confusion was released in July 1986 on Glass Records. It was a slow burner and made little impact at the time commercially or critically but to those ‘Fucked Up Children…’ it reached it meant everything. It was a light at the end of the tunnel in a time of darkness, Britain was imploding, Chernobyl had exploded just weeks before.
Troubled times need music of the soul. Spacemen 3 provided that.
They were also painful times for the band as friend Christopher Fitzgerald had died from an overdose that year.
Sound of Confusion is dedicated to his memory. Did that tragedy seep into the recording of the album, even subconsciously?
“Yeah , of course,” said Sonic. “Fitz was unlucky , and it was sad to see that happen – and more motivation to say our piece. He was a sweet-hearted, well liked guy – like many who die young. And it’s heart-breaking to know that all that happened because of fools making hard drugs as valuable as gold. If Fitz had been able to get factual advice and sympathetic help it couldn’t have hurt.
“The drug he died from was a dangerous product of the pharmaceutical industry trying to maintain grips on patentable drugs , when nature had already provided a safer and non patentable drug. The same as is happening now with the multi billion dollar cancer drug scam that cannabis sativa and CBD’s can knock into touch, from a benign and non patentable source. The drugs industry tops even the record business for its flagrant abuses of the, admittedly weak, law in the name of a buck.”
The band had earlier recorded sessions in Northampton that were rawer and more representative of their colossal live sound. Those tracks would later emerge on the bootleg release Taking Music To Make Music To Take Drugs To. Spacemen 3 spent five days recording in the Acocks Green side of Birmingham with producer Bob Lamb who had worked on UB40’s Signing Off.
“Finding someone who entirely understood our music was unlikely in the climate of the time ,” said Sonic. “However we dug what Bob did on the first UB40 record and he had a good understanding of reggae and dub , so….. It was our best option. Understandably , Bob tried to bring an air of professionalism to proceedings , often over riding our wishes in the process.
“In the Northamptonshire demos / Taking Drugs…..recordings. , the engineer very much let us have hands on. What we lost in fidelity was seriously made up for in vibe. At Bob’s we were under pressure to sound polished. Polish is great, but only if the feel is there.
“Live we were quite a tonal assault and that dynamic is hard to get in a studio. That said I think we captured a flavour of it. It’s hard to replace the endorphin creating powers of high volume and high frequencies. Jim Dickinson (producer of Big Star, Rolling Stones, Tav Falco) made some quote about the greatest music can never be properly recorded – it’s too intrinsically wild. I’m probably misquoting him, but the essence is there.”
Thousands of miles and two decades apart Sonic and his fellow Spacemen saw many similarities between Rugby and another out-post, Austin, Texas in 65 which spawned similar aliens Thirteenth Floor Elevators. The Texas psych legends’ Rollercoaster, a treatise on tripping on hallucinogens, is covered on the album as are Little Doll by the Stooges and a radical reworking of Juicy Lucy’s Just One Time, re-named Mary Anne. The Stooges’ TV Eye also heavily influenced the towering OD Catastrophe. “Those songs and those bands felt like kindred spirits,” explained Sonic. “Austin circa ’65 and Rugby circa ’85 had a lot of parallels. We both jetted in on the same wave that made unconventional people decide to set out their store in fairly red neck towns ….bloody minded for sure. I always really resonated with them on that.
“I hung out in later years with Rocky Erikson and Tommy Hall (both of Thirteenth Floor Elevators) who should get more credit as the lyric writer on many tunes. We didn’t discuss our cover version. They nailed those tunes so hard any comparison isn’t really valid. Tommy Hall ‘s theories on the cosmos are far more interesting a subject.”
Fundamental to the Spacemen 3 sound was the drone, a mantra capable of producing a trance like state.
Rollercoaster would later be expanded for a near 20 minute transportive epic as a single.
The Stooges earliest shows had Iggy Pop playing a microphone dropped into a blender and a guitar with each string tuned to the same note. Likewise for Spacemen 3 the drone was everything. And Sonic heard it constantly.
He said: “Radiators , fridges , lawnmowers and jet planes were always a big influence , but the drone goes beyond. I was always really taken with certain songs and when I figured out or had shown to me that they all had chords with one note in common, I realized it was the way forward. The drone is like the cohesive root that binds all the separate elements into a ‘world’. Those ‘worlds’ are what interest me.”
Walking with Jesus (Sound of Confusion) was recorded for that 86 debut but did not surface until the follow up The Perfect Prescription. We recorded Walking With Jesus but it just didn’t jam,” he said. “That song and many of Spacemen 3 songs were quite fragile and slight tuning drifts were fatal to the vibe.
“There was a tradition of calling your first LP after a song that didn’t make it , and we went with the flow. On a time constraint you have to make hard choices sometimes.”
Spacemen 3 would go on to record three more vital albums – The Perfect Prescription (87), Playing with Fire (89) and Recurring (91). Sonic and Pierce remained the driving force for each album. Each album retains the fundamentals of that ‘soul punk’ drone but each stands as a unique soundtrack for the Fucked Up Children.
“We made four distinctly different records,” he said. “Four records is enough from most bands I feel. Keep it tight. Sometimes when you push the envelope things get lost in the post ….. so no regrets. Everything has its own natural unforcable course.”
By Recurring the relationship between Sonic and Pierce had broken down so drastically each had a separate side to the album. Sonic would go on to form Spectrum and Experimental Audio Research (EAR) while Pierce emerged with Spiritualized. Neither have worked together since.
However for the first time in 25 years Sonic admits he is open to playing with Pierce again. Asked if he could ever foresee working with Pierce again, in any capacity, he said: “I was super lucky to have been in a band with Jason. He’s kept an integrity to what he does that I admire. I’m always open to anything that makes sense.”
Thirty years on and Spacemen 3’s resonance can still be felt in bands like Wooden Shjips, Cult of Dom Kellar, The Myrrors and The Third Sound. Now 51, what advice would Sonic give to his own 20 year old self. “I’m gonna play the ‘I wouldn’t change a thing ‘ card,” he said. “There’s ups and downs to most things but trying to figure out the theoretical whys and hows of everything is pointless.
“I do blame myself for some things , but life’s an evolving process. My advice to a 20 yr old me? Learn from your mistakes and improve. It’s all about who you meet and when and where. I have friends I’ve learnt a lot from that I wish I had of known then, but I’m just trying to do my thing and recognize life’s blessings when they happen.”
For Sonic there is no time for nostalgia, he is constantly evolving and embracing fresh musical challenges and collaborations. Alongside albums with Spectrum and EAR he is also a highly sought producer, working with artists including MGMT and Panda Bear. He has collaborated with electronica trail-blazers Silver Apples and Jezzamine. “I’ve some stuff I’ve been working on in the mill for release soon,” he said. “An Ear LP and a new Spectrum disc for next year. My production work also continues with a new Cheval Sombre album is in the pipe-line and a collaborative LP with Peaking lights.
“Working with other people and artists has always been really important to me and I rate my involvement with Panda Bear and MGMT as proudly as my work with Spacemen 3 , Spectrum and EAR.
“It keeps me moving laterally and I learn as much from the people who I work with as much as vice versa. And that’s what its about for me – a conversation , an exchange , a common aim – just as it was for Sound of Confusion.”
Interview by Sean McRae. This is Sean’s first piece for Louder Than War.