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How Did It Feel? Spacemen 3's Playing With Fire Revisited
Julian Marszalek , February 19th, 2019 06:55

Julian Marszalek speaks to Jason Pierce, Pete Kember and Will Carruthers about the making of Spacemen 3's 1989 classic, Playing With Fire

“Thirty years? Fuck! Thirty years!” Jason Pierce, one half of the creative duo at the heart of Spacemen 3, is struggling to take in the fact that Playing With Fire is celebrating its Big Three-Oh. And, it seems, he’s also struggling to remember events from 1989.

“What were you doing 30 years ago?” he asks as he gathers his thoughts together.

Getting baked to Playing With Fire, your correspondent tells him.

Pierce chuckles in response, but it’s an honest reply to his question, not least becausePlaying With Fire is that kind of an album: lay back, fire up and float on. But that’s to damn the record with faint and superficial praise for in truth, it’s so much more than that: Playing With Fire is an extraordinary album and its ramifications and reverberations are still being felt to this very day. Not only was it the moment that Spacemen 3 found themselves reaching a wider audience after years of indifference, but it was also one that saw them create a contemporary form of psychedelia that was ripe for the time and beyond. And in fairness to Pierce, three decades is a considerable period of time, so a re-acquaintance with Spacemen 3’s third album and the times in which it was made is called for.

Looking back three decades is to be reminded of a time characterised by huge social, political and cultural upheavals. The year leading up to the album’s release had been marred by shocking levels of violence in and around Northern Ireland. Margaret Thatcher became the 20th century’s longest-serving Prime Minister at the turn of the year. The Local Government Act – featuring the notorious Section 28 preventing local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” – became law. And in a grotesque full stop to the year, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie when a terrorist bomb went off on board, killing a total of 270 people.

Cultural changes were afoot. The first rumblings from the Pacific Northwest were beginning to make themselves felt, hip hop had taken bold steps forward thanks to groundbreaking records by Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim and EPMD among others, while the likes of Sonic Youth, Pixies and R.E.M. were reaching far and wide.

Closer to home, the psychedelic experience was in the process of taking an unexpected turn when British youth once again seized upon underground black American music and this time began to refine it into rave culture. The addition of MDMA to the existing menu of mind-altering substances inextricably linked the drug with the scene. If you want to track the seed of the best of the 90s and what followed, this is when it was planted.

And it was against this backdrop that Spacemen 3 unshackled psychedelic rock from its origins in the 60s to give it an updated and modern vernacular.

Driven by the partnership of Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember and Jason Pierce, Spacemen 3 had been ploughing their own unique and unfashionable furrow since their formation in 1982. From the fuzzed-up ramalama of their Stooges-indebted 1986 debut album, Sound Of Confusion, through to its follow-up a year later with the laid-back and medicated washes of The Perfect Prescription, Spacemen 3’s gradual reduction and minimalising of their sound would result in Playing With Fire. Opening a fresh chapter in the band’s evolution in the shape of new bassist Will Carruthers, the circumstances around the album’s creation helped precipitate the increasingly fractious relationship between Pete Kember and Jason Pierce.

Speaking to tQ from his Berlin home, Carruthers muses: “People always ask, ‘Why did the band split up?’ The more interesting question is, ‘Why did they stay together?’”

Carruthers has a point and the answer lies in the grooves contained within Playing With Fire. This is an album that’s defined as much by what’s not there as is there. The monolithic and overdriven onslaught of their debut is largely gone, and when it does re-appear on the hypno-monotony of the repetitive call-to-arms that is ‘Revolution’, the sound is more streamlined, focussed and attacking. Boiled down to a single E chord, its audacity is matched by its mesmeric qualities as it layers one guitar on top of another, before reducing the sound down again to the bare minimum of guitars and single, open strings.

Similarly, ‘Suicide’ strips away structures to just an isolated chord, and instead applies washes of tremolo, delay, echo and wah-wah on a circular guitar riff for dynamic effect. Its tempo is anchored by the beat of a single, programmed bass drum and a bass guitar that locks in on the groove. The end result is a relentless wall of sound that simultaneously disorientates yet welcomes the listener to an experience where time, space and structure become meaningless concepts.

Yet for all that, Spacemen 3 were creating even more space on the album. Opening with the beatific ‘Honey’, the band’s intentions become manifestly clear. This is to be a trip fuelled less by power and more by stealth, pace and room to roam. The sparseness at the heart of ‘How Does It Feel?’ – an eight-minute exercise in minimalism – is matched by the haunting yet oddly lachrymose ‘Let Me Down Gently’.

And among these stark excursions are songs of stunning beauty. ‘Come Down Softly To My Soul’ dances and shimmers, while ‘So Hot (Wash Away All Of My Tears)’ is a tender search for redemption and inner peace that’s underlined by the neo-gospel yearn of ‘Lord Can You Hear Me?’

In short, Spacemen 3 were making the best music of their career. And in doing so, they were also laying down the groundwork for what was to come next as they gradually fell apart first into factions, and then two separate groups in the shape of Spectrum and Spiritualized. But how much of it was evolution or revolution?

“I don’t think there was ever a wilful decision that said we’re going to do something different than we had before, but there was always an assumption that it was going to be like that,” states Jason Pierce. “But what seems to be a giant leap for the listener isn’t such a big step for the musician. To my ears it doesn’t seem like a huge step. We were moving relatively fast anyway, and we had a huge amount of influences already involved ahead, even, of the first album.”

It’s a viewpoint shared by Pete Kember: “I would venture that Sound Of Confusion through to The Perfect Prescription was a night and day switch as well. My thing has always been that I’m not that interested in making the same record twice. I think most musicians feel like that and it’s an unfulfilling thing to repeat yourself. Most of the bands that I like, they like to keep themselves walking.”

He continues: “Speaking for myself, I’d call myself an untrained musician and we were very much experimenting with what we could do and how we could encapsulate what we were trying to present in sound, really. The Perfect Prescription was definitely an awakening for us. Initially we thought that there would be severe limitations to having these one and two-chord, very minimal song structures that would burn themselves out quickly, but they never did. I think we kept finding other ways that we could have these other avenues and branches where we could take music that were still part of the same tree. Playing With Fire was a slightly different direction.”

“There was also a certain musical inability that helped our sound,” elaborates Pierce. “We couldn’t do certain chord changes so we minimalised the whole thing through necessity. With Spacemen 3, it’s almost like you’re listening to people learning their instruments as they go along; there might be guitar bends here and there, but they’re not learned guitar bends. And you’ve also got the inherent stupidity of rock & roll, but that’s not to undermine anyone’s talent. The simplicity of language and notes makes things so exciting.”

“Well, the greatest effects came from the least effort. That’s one of my driving motivations!” laughs Kember. “I’ve always been in awe of people like Kraftwerk, who wouldn’t have more than three or four elements in their tracks; they would all own and occupy their own space, sonically. They’d keep clear of each other but would be awesome around each other. I think there was some influence from that.”

Work began on Playing With Fire in June 1988 when Kember and Pierce were persuaded to record at ARK Studios in Cornwall instead of VHF Studios near Rugby where they’d previously recorded.

“We got offered a cheap deal at a studio that didn’t turn out what it was meant to be,” recalls Kember. “We did, in fact, complete about half of the album back in Rugby at VHF. We had to re-record parts as stuff got wiped in Cornwall.”

Will Carruthers, who had never actually played with Spacemen 3 until he arrived for the sessions, is less flattering in his recollections of the Cornish studios.

“We’re not talking about fucking Abbey Road,” he chuckles at the memory. “It was the corner of the living room in a hippy house. It was a really crusty, anarchist punk household.”

“We liked the idea of not being on an industrial estate in Rugby in a closed box for another summer,” adds Kember. “The best summers of my youth were spent in a box with no windows! In Cornwall, we could actually set up outside and play there.”

Indeed. While the inside of the studio may not have lived up to the band’s expectations, its surrounding areas had a more positive effect.

“It was very exciting making a record and being in a studio and playing those songs and working with Pete and Jason,” says Carruthers. “I remember sitting in the garden, playing music and smoking hash and being pretty much focussed on making that record. That was all that really mattered.”

Carruthers had arrived in Cornwall to find the recording sessions in their infancy.

“There wasn’t very much down at that point,” he says. “Maybe the backing track for [the cover of Suicide’s] ‘Che’, a few little drones for ‘Let Me Down Gently’, and a lot of it was written as it went. But what there was sounded great.”

An oddly compelling aspect to Playing With Fire is that for a largely beatless album, it’s driven by a palpable groove. Was this by accident or design?

“The drums went down in some kind of form in Cornwall, but not particularly well executed,” says Jason Pierce.

“This French guy was drafted in to have a go but didn’t really nail it,” explains Carruthers. “They had to programme the drums but no one was really labouring over that for weeks to get it done.”

He continues: “But it was hard to play those Spacemen 3 songs with a drummer. They’re deceptively simple, but if you weren’t bang on when you played them, they sounded gash.”

“Well, the thing with Spacemen 3 were the very minimal or underplayed drums,” adds Kember. “I love rhythm and groove but I’m not particularly great at creating it. I tend towards the minimal and simplistic. I’m bound by limitations and Spacemen 3 were band whose limitations helped us become the band we were. We were trying to make something out of nothing and sometimes, when you do that, you get really good things out of it.”

The distance between Cornwall and Rugby gave the principal players time to soak up further influences. For Kember and Carruthers, who’d drive back to their hometown at the weekends, it was bootleg cassettes of The Beach Boys’ Smile sessions as well as illicit recordings of New York’s electronic pioneers Suicide, while Pierce, remaining in Cornwall, would immerse himself in live bootlegs of The MC5 in action. But inspiration was coming from other areas, too.

“Jason got into gospel around the time of Playing With Fire,” says Will Carruthers. “‘Lord Can You Hear Me?’ is a classic gospel soul tune. We listened to a lot of that stuff.”

“I think gospel has always been there, even in the early days,” says Pierce. “And American soul. It’s there on ‘Lord Can You Hear Me’ but it’s evident on some of the others tracks, if you listen carefully enough.”

“That song is so good that it should be a gospel standard,” opines Kember.

“But I don’t think those influences are that disparate,” continues Pierce. “I didn’t think it was that odd to be listening to The MC5 and Kraftwerk and Otis Redding. Now, it’s not such a big deal because it’s all easily available and has some kind of reference point. It all seems to make more sense now because the world is a little smaller.”

He adds: “It was very natural. As soon as we put those sounds together on the earliest recordings, it didn’t sound like anyone else. Of course, it was coming from our small world of music and it became bigger as we heard more music. But it wasn’t trying to copy those sounds. It was this thing that worked.”

“We were certainly a magpie band,” admits Kember. “We would delve into the past but we ended up with this weird mix. But all of those songs are from the same place, in a weird way. It’s just people meaning what they say and owning it when they say it. We were definitely listening to Kraftwerk and Laurie Anderson, plus there were the records that we found in the studio in Cornwall that we didn’t have. Penguin Café Orchestra were an influence around that time and elements of all of them found their way into Playing With Fire.”

While Jason Pierce and Will Carruthers deny that the emerging popularity in MDMA had any direct impact on the music Spacemen 3 were making, Pete Kember remembers things a little differently.

“‘Ecstasy Symphony’ from The Perfect Prescription from ’87 is entirely referencing the ecstasy scene. We were lucky to play some of the pre-rave ecstasy shows in Hackney. They were called ‘The X Parties’ and we played two of those that I remember. There were large amounts of people there taking ecstasy and other psychedelic drugs. The days of The Grateful Dead and all that nonsense were long gone.”

Pondering the cultural impact of ecstasy, Kember continues: “Ecstasy really changed British culture. If you were a kid then and into Spacemen 3 and you went out into your town or city on a Friday or Saturday night, then you’d better watch your back. When we played gigs in Rugby we’d hear bottles smashing behind us after they’d been thrown on stage. But that really changed with the whole MDMA culture and it changed that whole British bloke thing. It opened up a whole empathetic side to people that was culturally really important.

“It was one of the more interesting cultural steps; maybe even the last truly interesting cultural movement to have happened.”

Less harmonious was what was to come. A perfect storm of Jason Pierce’s romance with future Spiritualized keyboard player Kate Radley, a new management contract with local businessman Gerald Palmer and Kember’s perception of an imbalance in songwriting duties was beginning to take its toll on the band’s two song writers.

“We were badly advised and badly managed,” sighs Kember. “We were kids learning and trying to figure shit out.”

A tone of remorse enters his voice.

“If I had the chance to change things, there are many things that I would’ve done differently,” he admits. “You know, at that point we separated our song writing and there was a period when Jason stopped writing songs and we’d always split the credit. I was like, ‘Dude, you can’t just leave me floating here. Come on – you come up with totally different stuff and our stuff works really well together. I’m not going to split the credit with you, dude, if you’re not going to write anything’ and I regret that.”

He continues: “It was only a small and temporary period that Jason wasn’t writing, and I think I reacted badly to it. I wish we had worked closer together and many of the tracks on the record were done in isolation: ‘Lord Can You Hear Me’, that’s Jason and I don’t play on that track. ‘Honey’, that’s me but Jason doesn’t play on that track. It wasn’t a critically destructive thing but it wasn’t good vibes.

“I just wish that maybe we could have done it differently. But on the other hand, I feel that, as with the bands whose music I really love, that dysfunction can produce great music. Sometimes, that’s the way it goes.”

In some respects, Playing With Fire is an album that’s curated as much as it’s composed. This far down the line it’s easy to spot the ingredients that went into its making but this is to miss the point. The analogue world of 1988 – 89 didn’t offer the same off-the-peg musical choices that it does now. Influences, records, and their histories and significance had to be physically hunted down. Time, effort and money were spent to seek these materials, to make sense of them and to refine and streamline them into something new. Consequently, Playing With Fire not only comes at the listener from different directions, it also sends the curious on a journey that joins a lot of dots. But crucially, it holds it all together to create a satisfying journey from beginning to end – and one that has continued to do so over the last 30 years as it inspires subsequent generations of space cadets.

Says Will Carruthers: “It’s a peculiar album, especially when you think about the diversity – from ‘Suicide’ to ‘Let Me Down Gently’, ‘Lord Can You Hear Me’ to ‘How Does It Feel?’ and I don’t know how it works as an album. On paper, it shouldn’t fucking work. You’ve got Jason’s classic, poppy and gospel tunes. It’s interesting how it hangs together, given the peculiarity of the elements within it.”

As one of the album’s two chief architects, Pete Kember has a clearer idea of how those different elements coalesce into a coherent statement.

“It’s one of those weird things where sometimes you have a collection of songs that don’t appear to go together and then you find that actually, you find a way to thread them together, and so make them all stronger,” he explains. “You know, ‘Suicide’ next to ‘Revolution’? That’s not such a great mix, but when you put ‘Suicide’ next to ‘Honey’, then it makes both of the tracks more extreme. I really like that kind of journey.”

“It’s funny, there are a lot of people now who sound like Spacemen 3 but when we were kids, we didn’t want to make psychedelic music that sounded like psychedelic music,” adds Jason Pierce. “I don’t think we’d have been able even if we wanted to. There were bands at the time wearing paisley and playing music that was copied from West Coast psychedelia, but the music we played didn’t come from that. We weren’t constrained by style or form; we went for what sounded right.”

Pete Kember agrees and it’s with no little pride that he states: “I’ve never wanted to make a lot of records, but I’ve always wanted to feel happy about the ones I have made.

“I could go a decade without listening to Spacemen 3, but when I hear that stuff I’m always psyched and I think to myself, Yeah, we fucking nailed it.”

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