Sonic Boom
Transparent Radiation
by Stephen Slaybaugh

While the legacy of noisy psych maestros Spacemen 3 and the four albums they made between 1986 and 1991 would be enough on their own to sustain the reputation of Sonic Boom (nee Peter Kember) for years to come, since that band’s split, Sonic has continued to explore musical outer reaches under the monikers of Spectrum and E.A.R. (Experimental Audio Research). While the more pop-oriented Spectrum begat a burst of releases in the ’90s, output has slowed in the last decade as Sonic focused on E.A.R. and extracurricular endeavors with Stereolab and others.

However, Spectrum activity has increased recently, first with a collaboration with Jim Dickinson last year and then an EP of new material, War Sucks, recently released on the Mind Expansion label. The band hit U.S. shores this past month, so it seemed like a good time to check in with Sonic as to what the future holds in store.

I guess the place to start is when and if there will be a new Spectrum...

Sonic Boom: LP? Yeah, there will be, but it won’t be till late September now. I’ve got some other commitments: I’m working with MGMT over the summer, doing some production for them. So I’ve got some finishing up. The single’s only just now coming out so we’ll let that sink in for a bit.

This is the one that’s been working under that “On the Wings of Mercury” title?

SB: It was a working title that the record company has sent people, but it isn’t the name of the album.

But it sounds like it’s been in the works for awhile?

SB: Yeah, some of the songs I’ve been writing over the last 10 years since the last Spectrum album proper.

I know you have your other projects, but is there any other reason for the output being so sporadic?

SB: No, I’ve been doing other projects with other people, working with Magnétophone, Stereolab, Dean and Britta, Cheval Sombre. It’s nice to keep it fresh, and with the amount that we tour, it’s nice to have little breaks.

You mentioned Magnétophone—I didn’t know that you worked with them.

SB: Yeah, I’ve played with them for awhile and did a remix for their second album. I did about 10 or 15 shows with them. They’ve called it... well, they haven’t called it a day, but it’s much more low profile. Matt (Huish Saunders) has started his own label, Test Conditions, and he’s concentrating on that. They’re still doing Magnétophone, but they live about 100 miles apart.

How do you tend to work? Do things come out in spurts?

SB: Nah, it’s a continuous thing. I’m continually writing, continually trying to evolve stuff that I’ve written—it’s a constant process. And I’m constantly working. We do a lot of the booking, we manage ourselves and, as I say, I do production work for other bands, and I do it all myself. My partner, Sam, helps with the management and booking, but there’s a lot of work to do. I do all the artwork, writing and recording, promoting.

Is it a lot of different than when you were on Silvertone?

SB: It is, but not really. I was always heavily involved with the sleeves. I went to graphic art school—what little training I do have is in graphic art, not in music. The whole thing’s important to me, and I enjoy doing it. It’s interesting working on artwork one day and mastering a record the next, then working on coming up with a hook the next day, then the next day maybe booking shows and then doing a show the day after that. It’s all over the place, but it’s good. It keeps it interesting to mix it up a bit.

Was it difficult back in the day to get Silvertone to do those elaborate packages?

SB: No, it wasn’t because they really wanted to do it. But if they hadn’t wanted to do it, there would have been no way. I had to give up a lot of my royalties on those records to do those sleeves, but barring that, they really wanted to do those sleeves and wanted for me to be able to do the sleeves as I wanted to do them.

Do you miss those days? It seems like these days packaging has been devalued.

SB: Yeah, the whole format of music has been devalued and is now valueless. A download—people don’t want to pay for it. They’ll just steal it. They don’t think that they’re stealing, but they are.

Given the form that you work in, how much of that is improvisational or do you have it pretty mapped out in your head when you go in to do something new?

SB: I have mapped it out in my head in the sense that my whole career has been based around some very basic precepts and I work within that format. Everything comes from somewhere and improvising or experimenting at some point. It’s a mix. It’s knowing what you like and what’s good. If you do improvise, it’s very easy to improvise and just churn stuff out, but it’s knowing what’s right and what’s good that is important. I know how I work and I set out working that way so there’s not as much improvisation as there might be. But of course there’s an element of improvisation, just as there is in life as well.

Have your motivations or ideas about music changed over the years?

SB: No, not really. I still have the same passion for it and it still affects me in the same way. Even though all my records are quite distinctly different, they are also cohesive as a whole.

You once described being an artist as like being an antenna. Are there particular things that you are taking in to broadcast out?

SB: Always, of course, but perhaps imperceptibly. The new single, “War Sucks”—is that political? Well, of course, it’s political, but it’s not political in favor of any particular party. It’s more of a statement about the politics of life and the horrendous things that human beings do to each other in the name of all sorts of crazy stuff. It’s religion a lot of the time, something that is supposed to be about understanding and love and spirituality. A holy war? That’s an oxymoron to me. I’m not super religious, but I am spiritual. I don’t align myself with any particular churches or political parties or sects, but I’m a human being like anyone else. If there’s some small part I can do to make people question their part in life and how they interact with the rest of the world then...

But you’ve often used religious language. Is that just a mode of working in the vernacular of old blues and gospel?

SB: I would call it spiritual...

You’ve addressed Jesus specifically.

SB:Yeah, but it’s a very abstract concept. If there is a God, he is within not without. And Jesus is a metaphor for that and is something that everyone understands. Just that word immediately has a strong connotation which is very useful in songwriting. I believe that Jesus existed, but do I believe that he was the son of God? No, I don’t. I don’t really believe in some almighty being. I believe in spirituality and general benign ways of going about things so that we can all have a pleasant stay for the limited run on this planet we get.

How did you approach the Laurie Anderson piece (“Walking & Falling”) as far as the music that came out?

SB:I was doing it live for awhile. I love the Big Science album particularly, but I hated “O Superman” when it first came out. I didn’t understand it, didn’t get it. I think it was a top two record in England. Then the first time I took mushrooms someone played me Big Science and they were actually having a bad trip. I don’t know if they put it on to change their mood, but I had never heard it and when I heard “O Superman” in the context of the rest of the album, I just fell in love with it. It’s still something I play a lot. It’s an album that’s not dated. She has other great stuff, but that United States period, which is when Big Science is from, is just every bit stellar. So it was really nice to take something that she had done so minimally and actually expand on it and try to make it our own.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the album with Jim Dickinson. Going into that, did you have specific ideas of things you wanted to do?

SB: I’m a big fan of a lot of the stuff he has done, and we went in there open-ended just to see what we came out with, and I think we came out with a really good album. It’s quite an interesting mix of what he does and what I do and the points where those sub-sects intersect. He’s a legend, and it was quite a big deal for us to work with him.

On paper it seemed like it could have been kind of contrived, but it fit.

SB: He’s a cool guy. He ain’t just some old fat guy from Memphis. He was on Sun Records with the Jesters. “Cadillac Man” is one of the greatest Sun records. The stuff he did with his own band, Mud Boy and the Neutrons, the stuff he did with Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, the Alex Chilton stuff—he’s just done a lot of stuff that I really, really like. His solo album, Dixie Fried, from the early ’70s. The Stones track he played on, “Wild Horses,” is one of my favorite songs by them. I’ve got a lot of records with him on them.

Did you have to get over any nerves to work with him?

SB: We’re all just human beings. Anyone that pulls airs and graces is usually not worth wasting your time on. Sometimes you might catch someone at the wrong moment and get a bad impression, but on the whole most musicians are just like anybody else.

You were talking about taking mushrooms. Does drug taking play a part in your life today?

SB: Yeah sure, in my life and music. Sure, I recreationally take drugs. I don’t think there’s any drug I’ve ever taken that I haven’t found inspiring musically in some way or other. It helps you tap into moods, and a lot of what I do is about experiencing moods and trying to encapsulate them in sounds, which is what I think most music is about.

Anything in particular these days?

SB: No, I’ve always dabbled in different bits and bobs, but without getting too hung up on anything.

Going back to talking about religion a little bit, when Perfect Prescription came out, did that confound the Spacemen 3 fans at the time?

SB: I don’t know that we had many fans at that time! I think we set a benchmark fairly early on that we weren’t just about one thing, that we could do fuzz and feedback stuff or we could do very sensitive acoustic based stuff or mix the two together even. But neither Sound of Confusion nor Perfect Prescription was a popular album—particularly with the press—when they came out. It was only with Playing with Fire that people started getting into it or at least were prepared to align themselves with it. A lot of the reviews that we used to get were very fence-sitting, hedge-betting.

A lot of people perceive the roles as being split in that band. People think Jason was the softer side of the band and you were the more experimental.

SB: I was the more experimental side, that is true, but it’s never as simple as people think it is. The press always like to simplify things and encapsulate things behind phrases, tags and easy formulas. But it’s not about easy formulas, far from it. One of the most gospel-ly songs that we did early on was “I Believe It,” which is a song I wrote, not Jason (Pierce).

I guess it’s a prerequisite to ask if there’s any chance in this day and age of everyone getting back together to ask if it’s at all a possibility.

SB: I haven’t ruled it out, but I would be very surprised. I don’t think Jason is interested in doing anything like that. Spacemen 3 was, rightly or wrongly, perceived more as being my band at the time and I was perceived as being the figurehead, which is unfair on him. I think it had a detrimental effect, not because of me, but because of the way the press presented it, and I don’t think it suits him to risk going back to that situation, which is fair enough.

Your set the other night figured heavily from the older material. Do those songs resonate particularly strongly with you?

SB: Yeah, I’ve always liked playing them and I never stopped playing a lot of those songs. And people want to hear them. When I do my solo set, I do totally different stuff. I try to spread it about. At this point, there’s so many options.