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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Pete Kember
Brian Coney , July 9th, 2018 09:15

From Spacemen 3 to Delia Derbyshire. From Sonic Boom to MGMT. From Spectrum to E.A.R. Pete Kember talks to Brian Coney about his bewildering back catalogue of work

The constantly progressing Spacemen 3 co-founder, musician and producer offers ten points of entry into his vast discography and talks to us about serial collaboration, Syd Barrett, Paul McCartney and Brian Jones. He also tells us about seeking out Delia Derbyshire at the BBC and that's before we get to how he lost a one-off MGMT live album on a plane.

A solid indication of the scope of any prolific musician’s oeuvre can be quickly gleaned from their respective Discogs page. In the case of Pete Kember aka Sonic Boom one click finds his discography sprawl out like a serpentine tapestry of sound, woven, scene-by-scene, via countless projects, production credits and collaborations over four decades.

By the time Spacemen 3 flamed out on their 1991 swansong, Recurring, Kember had already begun exploring other musical avenues in different guises and realms. In the 27 years since, this seemingly insatiable drive to delve deep has encompassed a panoply of solo releases as Sonic Boom, Spectrum and E.A.R., as well as alongside artists such as MGMT, Delia Derbyshire, Panda Bear, Silver Apples, Stereolab, No Joy and dream-pop duo Beach House. It’s clearer now than ever before: Kember’s curveballing imprint on modern experimental and electronic music is nonpareil and largely stems from collaborative interactions.

Spacemen 3 - For All The Fucked Up Children Of The World We Give You… [1984]

This release shows a young band trying to get to grips with the studio - namely a studio run by Dave Sheriff, who used to be some sort of one man band record holder. So, you can imagine, it was a surreal experience. I remember it was a basement and I couldn't stand up in there! Those were very different times, and we never really found anyone who understood what the fuck we were trying to do, so it was always a sort of battle - not rough, but sort of dislocated. There was no common reference at all between us and the studio people.

I think it’s fair to say that For All The Fucked Up also captured us at the point where we hadn’t quite gelled our sound one hundred percent. But on tracks like ‘TV Catastrophe’ and ‘2.35’ you can hear our songwriting aims starting to come together songwriting-wise. Jason wrote ‘2:35’ with that riff wholesale. As for ‘Walking With Jesus’, he wrote those lyrics but the song was still finding its bed and the version with the slide guitar on that record was a mid-way phase before it really found itself. ‘TV Catastrophe’ was my 'riff' and Jason used some Stooges’ lyrics, as he had done on several early tracks, whilst we were formulating it fully. ‘Fixin' To Die’ is a cover of a traditional song but I think it was Jason who pulled that into the fray. I forget what else is on there. ‘Things'll Never Be The Same’ went through several incarnations before fully forming too, and again was one of Jason's lyrics. His lyrical powers were pretty much on fire, I think.

Spacemen 3 - The Perfect Prescription [1987]

That record made very little impact in its day. I saw Paul Adkins recently. He owned VHF studios where we recorded The Perfect Prescription, much of Playing With Fire and Recurring - he now teaches a sound and engineering course in Coventry. He came up to me to say that he never realised at the time what he was part of. I guess he gets students Googling him and figuring out he was involved in those records and was, I guess, stunned at the resonances so long after. He may have been merely tolerating us, but he gave us almost unlimited access to the studio at a time when we were creatively on a roll.

We did a deal with the studio where we had all the downtime we needed, so we got a chance to experiment and be fluid. We started to realise around this point that the music we were making transcended fuzz and feedback and could be presented in many different forms. I think they're mostly vignettes from different drug experiences, which was obviously a theme of sorts.

Sonic Boom - Spectrum [1990]

Jason [Pierce] and I had stopped writing together in Spacemen 3 by this point, which is another story, but I was writing a lot of stuff and Silvertone were offering a nice deal where I could do anything I wanted with packaging. I had the material, so I think our songwriting was influenced by each other. But we both brought something different to it. I didn’t make that album on my own. Jason, Will Carruthers, Mark Refoy and several others were involved on most of the tracks. Music is best when there's a collaborative interaction and I would be the first to credit all those I have made records with. I couldn’t have done it without them, and I wouldn’t want to. It’s not always an easy process - and this is the same for every band, but out of the striving usually comes something intense.

Let’s be clear: Spacemen 3 were dysfunctional and I've come to realise all the bands I loved were, too. You don’t get that sort of music without some creative intensity. If the music is damaged, the people usually are, too. There were no guides or tutors or courses in those days. It was what it was. You chose a path and that was kind of it or you went and did something else - which, in the 1980s, the prospects for were somewhat depressing.

Spectrum - Forever Alien [1997]

The vision for any release is something that’s hard to see until the tracks start clustering and it becomes clear which are the strongest set and how they fit together. I was wanting to make a predominantly electronic record but without it being super sequenced and block-y. I wanted to bring to it some of the flowing stream of effects that I was exploring through DMT. I was writing what I felt were some quite soul-searching songs and I wanted to marry it all in another world. In another land, if you will. I was really getting into modular synths at the time, like the EMS VCS 3, and getting enveloped in the endless possibilities it presented. I don’t really play guitar on the LP and there’s almost no tracks with bass, so I was exploring that region.

Spectrum & Silver Apples - A Lake of Teardrops [1998]

I was into Silver Apples since the Eighties. Spacemen 3 used some of Simeon’s lyrics in 'How Does It Feel’ - the second verse is from ‘I Have Known Love’. A guy from a band called Birdhouse turned me on to them. He recognised the patterns. I guess I went to see Simeon in the 1990s, when he returned to the fray, when the possibility to do a collaboration came about. I think it was 'engineered' by one of the pricks at Space Age recordings. I think they were trying to butter Simeon up. I know now that they illegitimately registered a bunch of his rights. Nevertheless, as it was the only time they ever really instigated anything I was keen to do it and working with Simeon was a fun proposition. I decided that I would try and write some basic tracks as backings for him and some lyrics. I think we both brought three songs in to the session and spent the weekend overdubbing and doing vocal takes. It was an easy session from my memory.

E.A.R. - Vibrations EP [2000] and Continuum [2001]

I called Delia while we were recording the song 'Delia Derbyshire', which was the inception, I guess. I didn’t put her in touch with anyone much. She was very shy. I was not terribly successful at getting her back in the saddle. She definitely had been thrown a time or two too many by the music business and fate sadly played its hand early, just as she was just getting back into the whole thing. Delia taught me pretty much everything I know about the structure of sound and during those few years before she died, it was a high point of my life to talk and meet with her.

To this day, I still listen to her work and am still floored by her genius. I believe the Doctor Who theme is possibly the most important electronic piece of its era and to that time. Stockhausen and Boulez and all those dudes were pivotal, no question, but Delia took their lead and placed it in a cultural context, courtesy of the BBC, that affected millions and millions in a really transportive way.

Delia told me that three people sought her out at the BBC to discover who the hell was sending those amazing sounds through the airwaves: Syd Barrett, Paul McCartney and Brian Jones. I think that gives a hint as to what an impact she was making culturally - which resonated right through electronic music via White Noise, the Silver Apples, Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin.

MGMT - Congratulations [2010]

MGMT are smart kids, so by this point they were well aware of the studio, its potential and good ways to use it. I was really impressed immediately that they had rented gear, well-chosen gear too, to record in a large house in Malibu. That was extent before I was involved but due to that smart choice, they had a lot of time to do different stuff. There was a whole live album of them jamming fairly cohesive songs in the studio but I believe it got wiped and the only copies I had went AWOL on a lost iPod on a plane seven or more years ago.

People would come by and hang out, maybe party, the band would play for them and it was often recorded. Oracular Spectacular was still riding high in the Billboard charts and they were having a lot of fun, surfing, going to shows and recording a lot. They never planned to record the songs live - me neither. Of course, the drums and bass would usually go down together and then overdubs. They already had the title track nailed in the form you know it. We tried other arrangements, but the original recording was it. Other songs like ‘Siberian Breaks’ grew in the studio. We then were at Vacation Island and Blanker Unsinn doing vocals and final overdubs. I don’t think the EMS Synthi defined that album but that synth and the Fenix 1 we used were definitely important to some songs. The endless crying baby sound on ‘Lady Dada's Nightmare’ is the Synthi in Ben's hands. I might say the Fenix modular synthesiser was more key to the defining of their next album (2013's MGMT).

Cheval Sombre - Mad Love (2012)

I’ve worked with Christopher Porpora aka Cheval Sombre on all his albums thus far. Our working relationship started with him sending me demos maybe ten years ago. I told him I couldn't get much interest from the industry myself, so the best I could do was to help him record the songs properly without buckets of hiss. I played it to my buddy Nick Kramer, who at that time had a studio with David Max in Jersey City, and he really liked it said we could record it there. When I started working with MGMT, Andrew and Ben were setting up a small studio in Brooklyn heights - Blanker Unsinn - and I introduced them to Nick as he had a lot of nice gear and nowhere to put it. We did a bunch of stuff there for Panda Bear, Red Crayola, The Mad Scene (The Clean, Yo La Tengo etc.), Wooden Shjips and others. During that time, Andrew generously let me stay at his flat above the studio, particularly when he was away. That was how Mad Love was done. A few of the MGMT guys play on there - I forget if it was credited. It was some classic record company contractual power trip bullshit. I play keyboards on the tracks.

Christopher is easy to work with. He's got something great going on and is confident in that and down for interesting juxtapositions that take what he does from a song to a world. Luckily, we have really similar taste - pretty wide musically but focused on a certain vibe, I guess. If you look at some of the covers he does on Mad Love or his first LP its kind of ridiculous - what he chooses and where he takes it. Hoagy Carmichael never sounded like that, that’s for sure. And his cover of the Walkmen's ‘Red Moon’ is transcendental. I think he might be one of the most underrated artists around now but I see that’s changing. His treatment of covers usually takes a song you hadn’t realised was so good and takes it to whole other realm. That’s the sign of a great artist to me.

Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper [2015]

I was a big fan of Noah Lennox. I thought Person Pitch was such a great record. It has a really nice texture and vibe. So it was a pleasure to work with him. He has a more hands-off approach than some but I think that can often beget better results. He's always really open to other elements being involved and maybe because he works pretty solo, it’s a refreshing change to mix it up a bit. Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper was a big session - twenty tracks, which definitely takes time but I'm really happy with the way both [2011 Panda Bear album] Tomboy and Grim Reaper turned out. He gave me a lot of freedom, which I always appreciate. It’s always nicer to collaborate than dictate. He's a fun guy to work with.

No Joy/Sonic Boom - No Joy/Sonic Boom EP [2018]

I've worked on a lot of different projects and sessions since then, so I'll have to scour my brain a little. My memory is that Jasamine [White-Gluz] got in touch a year or so back asking if I would be interested in producing and collaborating on a record, and sent me some demos. I gave her my feedback on which tracks I thought could work and then she went into a studio to record a bunch of stuff. It wasn’t initially clear exactly how it would piece together.

But like a lot of things, through experimenting and working through the stuff it started to homogenise into something that we both felt worked well. I did my stuff in Sintra [a town just outside Lisbon, where Kember lives] communicating via emails and photos of stuff that was inspiring for me, such as the fruit of the Swiss cheese plant aka monstera deliciosa (delicious monster). It's a kind of banana or pineapple sort of fruit which comes covered in green hexagons of peel that break off individually, revealing the fruit inside.