Spacemen 3 – Urine Salesmen Of The Apocalpyse [sic]
By Nigel Cross and Byron Coley
Sweetly, simply put, Spacemen 3 are the only English band that I’d walk across the street to piss on. Meaning mostly that I wouldn’t even bother to piss on any other English band that comes quickly to mind. Spacemen 3 take the grunge lessons taught by formal masters, force them through a drug-stained wringer and vomit the accrued fluids over acres of buzzing, humming riff. From the twee, sustained chirp of their “ecstacy sound” to the stark naked, Eskimo-inspired string-beat of their most primally fish-trouncing duntage, Spacemen 3 are world class mindbenders and each of their records deserves a “greasy” “spot” on yr “shelf”. Drop a pane on yr eyeball, get in the tub, and crank up The Perfect Prescription. If you don’t end up singing the band’s praises, yr a goddamn fatso. So start warblin’. Interview conducted in a pub, Kilburn, Oct. 1, 1987 and on a phone, Mar. 16, 1988.
FE: Nigel “Clam Friar” Cross or Byron Coley
SONIC: Boom, a guitar player in a damn fine band.
FE: I’d like to know the origin of the name to start off with.
SONIC: Yeah. Not an easy one. I can’t quite remember how it came about but we just decided we were spacemen. I don’t know how we came across it but it seemed to be very apt because we seemed to be able to say to everybody, “We’re spacemen.” And they’d just go, “Yeah, I believe you!” [laughs] And the 3 came about completely by mistake. We did a poster which was just for the Spacemen, which we were for a while. But it was The Spacemen and I hated that, it sounded like a fifties rock ‘n’ roll group – that’s all very well, but we didn’t want to be imagined as a band that would play Fender Telecasters and wear silver space suits, one of those surf bands. So we stuck the 3 on afterwards – that came about from a poster we did which had “Are Your Dreams At Night Three Sizes Too Big?” with a very big 3 on it and it really worked as a logo, it just fell into place. It’s really for the third eye. Pete, the bass player, came up with the Spacemen 3 logo. I really like pyramids and triangles – I’ve done a study on them, how you can sharpen razor blades, keep milk fresh in them indefinitely.
FE: What’s the longest you’ve personally kept milk fresh in a pyramid?
SONIC: Well, I haven’t. But when I was in school a mate of mine was really heavily into Egyptology and had a little pyramid about ten inches high made out of cardboard. It was a four-sided pyramid with no bottom.
FE: And he used it instead of a refrigerator?
SONIC: Yeah. Well, I don’t know how long he used to keep milk, actually. I guess to prove that it worked he must have kept it a couple of days. I just really like pyramids. We found a pyramid-grave in England that’s about twenty feet high. We were gonna have some photos done there.
FE: I’ve seen you referred to as both the Spaceman and the Spacemen…
SONIC: Yeah, people call us the Spaceman – I really hate that – and the Spacement – Space Cement 3. I had that yesterday. We had a bad review in every [music] paper yesterday.
FE: Was that for the show you did with Psychic TV?
SONIC: Yeah it was all this twenty minute long feedback set and they couldn’t stand it. They didn’t like us playing it. That’s the thing we’ve come up against with our new album – it’s quite easy to get into, it’s more accessible than our last releases, a bit softer, a bit mellower. A lot of people who like that come and see us live and they can’t relate to us doing all this noise and feedback and one chord for twenty minutes. It’s put us in a funny position, in a way.
FE: Is there a particular reason you play sitting down?
SONIC: I can hardly play guitar and don’t understand a lot of chords and I always found it much easier to sit down and play. I can never understand why people do stand up to play. Even when we did stand up – I think I did one or two gigs where I stood up – we weren’t exactly bopping around, so there wasn’t much point in just standing there. You might as well be comfortable. It’s a lot easier to get into the intricacies of the music if you’re sitting down.
FE: So you’re just “serious students” concentrating on playing?
SONIC: Oh there’s a hell of a lot of concentrating going into it, even playing one chord for twenty minutes, a massive amount of concentration going into it. In fact, saying it’s all one chord belittles the song because there’s so much sound going on there. I think that’s something we got from the Stooges, “O.D. Catastrophe”… I got a couple of letters, one from Byron Coley and one from Eddie Flowers – they both said simultaneously that this song was like “Black to Comm” and I’d never heard that song at the time. It was interesting that we’d tried to do a Stooges-type song and the MC5 had tried to do a Stooges-type song and it had come out almost the same. I think the MC5 did owe quite a bit to the Stooges, especially on “Black to Comm.”
FE: So when you started to play guitar you never learned chords and things?
SONIC: I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but most of what I play is the top three strings, all in A. The A string just rattles by itself and it’s very easy to form the other two into that A note, it’s like a chord all of A. Then I do another chord which is all E, but I don’t really use more than the top three strings on any one song. All the intricate and really groovy guitar bits are by Jason. He’s a much more qualified guitarist. I’ve never wanted to play guitar like that, I’ve been happy with the noise.
FE: What made you start in the first place?
SONIC: I always wanted to play bass because of that song by the Cars, “My Best Friend’s Girl”. When I was about thirteen, I heard that song and said, “I want to play bass” – I’ve never gotten around to it. I bought a guitar instead!
FE: What’s your favourite Cars record?
SONIC: Well I’ve only got two: “Just Want I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl”. They’re both classic.
FE: Is that how you got into Suicide? Via the Cars?
SONIC: No. It wasn’t actually [laughs]. My brother had that album when it came out in this country, basically because one of the guys he went to school with worked at a record distributor and he was into “Cheree”. He was into it for a couple of months, but it was a phase with him and he never noticed when I stole it a couple of months later.
FE: Why don’t Spacemen 3 do any Cars or Suicide covers?
SONIC: We do a song called “Suicide” which we dedicate to them every gig. It’s kind of like Suicide and the Stooges crossed. It’s got keyboards and the drummer drums like Martin Rev’s right hand. I’m proud to say that I feel we’re doing them justice by doing it. It’s an instrumental. We should get Alan Vega to do some vocals to make it complete. And we’ve done a guitar version of “Cheree” at gigs.
FE: But never “Candy-O”?
SONIC: A Cars song? No! Are you obsessed with the Cars?
FE: Well, they are local. And I kind of think about Suicide and the Cars as the Adam and Eve of the New Wave.
SONIC: Really? The Cars never really meant fuck-all over here.
FE: Too bad. You mentioned that you thought your version of “Starship” is more in the vein of Sun Ra than the MC5…
SONIC: I certainly think it owes more to Sun Ra than MC5, but it does definitely owe a fair bit to the MC5. When we do that song live, we tend to do it more like the MC5 version.
FE: I saw you at the Clarendon, the Living in Texas gig, and I thought, this is definitely MC5.
SONIC: Well we did “Starship” straight into “Black to Comm” that night if I remember. When we recorded, we decided to make it different, we decided to make it a guitar symphony – the drums are mixed down on that. They’re very prominent live. I think about the songs as a stream. A lot of the songs on that record haven’t got drums on them. I feel drums are a real anchor and when you’re trying to take off, elevate the music, lift off as it were, the drums always anchor it down, tie it down. If you can get away from that to an extent, you can take off with the guitars,
FE: I can’t exactly see you going down well at any disco clubs. Have you played any?
SONIC: We played by mistake at a funk club called the Moon Club in Bristol. They didn’t play anything but funk records all night so we knew we were going to be in for a bit of a gig. We did the first song, “Rollercoaster”, they were attentive but they didn’t really like it so we did a twenty-minute version of “O.D. Catastrophe”. I played the tremelo bar with my feet. I put the guitar on the floor and was getting into loads of feedback. I didn’t want to have to spend too much effort on these guys. We did the most disgusting wall of feedback and noise, as ugly as we could make it – but they really loved it!!! It was the most frightening thing that ever happened. You go out of your way to insult an audience and they love it. On the whole we steer clear… but we don’t always fare better at psychedelic clubs.
FE: You sound like you’re pretty much out there on your own…
SONIC: Well, there’s Loop of course… [pauses, chuckles loudly]
FE: What’s the deal with you guys and Loop?
SONIC: Well, basically, when we signed with Glass there was this little office boy working there. No, that’s not fair, he was just a couple of years younger than us. But basically he just acted like a… uh…
FE: Ass-kissing sycophant?
SONIC: I was trying to be a bit more diplomatic, but he was like, “Oh, it’s such a pleasure to meet you.” Anyway, to a certain extent we had the same tastes as this guy, but he was also into a lot of poppy shit like Syd Barrett, which I don’t dig. He used to come to all our early gigs around London and then he decided he was going to put a band together. He formed the band and you can see and hear the results.
He’s basically a quiet mild-mannered guy, but all his interviews are like, “We want to kick ass!” So I just can’t take him very seriously. The guy’s alright, I gave him acid before he formed Loop and… I dunno, I’m kinda confused by him in a lotta ways. I just think a lot of their stuff’s pretty narrow-minded. You’ve seen the sleeves.
FE: Yeah. So you’ve been going all of four or five years?
SONIC: Just gone five years now. Not always the same line-up. Jason and me have always been in the band. Originally we had a different drummer – and the Bassman, he left after six months and joined this other band for a year, then they split up and he came back. We went on for quite a time without any drums, the drummer left – our songs sound totally different when we do them without a drummer, we can get together and really build up this tension and noise – it still works without drums. Before Pete came back we went on with just two guitars and drums.
FE: You seem like you get a lot of work for such an uncompromising band.
SONIC: I suppose we’ve just got to know all the people who do all the psychedelic gigs. But for the first few years, we really played only every three months. We were all working at this and that. At the moment we’re playing a lot. We just got back from a tour, we’re playing London a few times in the next month, we’re starting a new tour on Friday. This year I think we’ll probably play a hundred gigs.
FE: Who does your lightshow?
SONIC: Different people. A girl called Suzi Creemcheese sometimes does it, but there’re about four or five different lightshows that we get to supplement ours as well. We don’t have a regular controller.
FE: So you have your own rig?
SONIC: We bought it ourselves. In fact, as far as I know, we were the first people to begin using them at gigs. Around ’84, I think. A few discos had instalments in leftover psychedelic clubs and things like that, but we bought them in junk shops ‘cause no one wanted them. They were like some hideous seventies or sixties relic. But they’re just absolutely fucking mindblowing when you’re tripping.
FE: Do you play tripping a lot?
SONIC: No. Never. We did it once where I was tripping and the rest of the band wasn’t, but I think if you play tripping you end up like Hawkwind or the Silver Apples’ bad stuff.
FE: How many demos did you record before your first record?
SONIC: We did one demo, I can’t remember exactly when, with “TV Eye” – or whatever we were calling it, a bluesy version of “2:35”, and “Walking With Jesus” and a version of “Fixing To Die” – and old Bob Dylan/traditional song. But it’s all really dreadful. It’s the first time any of us had gotten in the studio. The only one that’s bearable is “O.D. Catastrophe”.
FE: Was that done with the original drummer?
SONIC: No, the original drummer never recorded with us. Natty had literally joined about two days before we did that demo. You can really hear it in the drums. He couldn’t drum, but it kinda worked anyway.
FE: Who was the original drummer?
SONIC: A guy called Tim Morris. We used him to practice from 1982 ‘til about 1984. Then he left and joined a really bad sixties band called the Push. They were very corny. That was the same band that Bassman was in for a while.
FE: Did you guys play out in your early days?
SONIC: Yeah. The first gig we played was in Rockfield. We did one song, “O.D. Catastrophe” for about twenty minutes. All our friends came to see us and three-quarters of them walked out. The quarter that was left came up to us after and said they’d never been so insulted in their lives. It kind of worked.
FE: When was that?
SONIC: I guess in late ’82, but Jason is actually the official keeper of that information. He has a list of every gig we ever did.
FE: Did you stand up then or were you already sitting down?
SONIC: Well, I leaned against a one-armed bandit for that gig with my back to the audience. The one-armed bandit was right by the door that opened into the room. So I just leaned against that and everyone who came in had to step over my guitar lead. They knew we were there from just that.
FE: Do you stand up when you rehearse?
SONIC: No. We sit down all the time for playing. I don’t ever really get any guitar straps, but I bought a guitar about three months ago that’s impossible to sit down with. It’s an old Vox guitar and it has a shape that’s impossible to sit down with.
FE: So you’ll have to sell it?
SONIC: No, I bought a strap, but I still sit down. It’s more comfortable.
FE: How’ve you been getting on at the Groovy Fishtank in Sheffield?
SONIC: We like that. We did a gospel set, just organ, tremelo guitar and vocals. Like the Staple Singers – that kind of feeling. We made up all the words – it’s not exactly hard. You’ve just got to say “I believe it to my soul” about three times in the song and you’re well away. “Walking With Jesus” I think of as gospel sort of stuff.
FE: Any chance of you coming to the states?
SONIC: Yeah. I’m dead up for it, but the work permits are difficult to get. They’re quite strict. You’ve got to have a domestic release, and I think you’ve got to get it in the top forty of the independent charts. Plus, we’ve all got criminal records.
FE: Is that mostly for transvestism?
SONIC: Nearly all for drugs. Rosco’s left, so our fraudsters gone, but we all have various drug offences and that’s the sort of thing they’re pretty hairy about.
FE: Rosco’s gone? So you have a new drummer?
SONIC: Yeah, well we’ve got two drummers stanging in. We’ve got Jonatham from a band called the Weather Prophets and the Perfect Disaster. Then for the album, I think we’re going to use him and one from a band called the Hypnotics.
FE: How many drummers have you had?
SONIC: We sort of chew drummers up. We’re on drummer number four now.
FE: I guess drummers have bad attitudes.
SONIC: Yeah. We haven’t had a drummer yet who’s proud to be a drummer. They’ve all kind of wanted to be guitar players or something.
FE: What kind of audience does Spacemen 3 get?
SONIC: It’s quite a mixture – anything from old hippies to young punks. There’s like this little contingent in Rugby of acid punks – they look like punks but they paint all their clothes in swirls and the like. They’re really into us but are also into the Mission and Sisters of Mercy, which is quite frightening since I hate both those bands.
FE: Do your parents know you’re on the same label as the Space Negroes and David J?
SONIC: Oh shit. Um… I believe they do. Yah. They’ve got that compilation we’re all on.
FE: Are your parents into the Space Negroes?
SONIC: They think that whole album was made by very depressed people on drugs.
FE: Have you ever publicly knocked over the Jazz Butcher?
SONIC: No. He falls over himself all the time anyway. He’s a strange guy. He gets drunk a lot and falls about. He’s got a wife in New York who’s pretty like-minded, so they just really go out and fall about.
FE: How did you get hooked up with him in the first place?
SONIC: He came to one of our gigs. There was a pathetic venue in Northampton called the Black Lion and it was the sort of place where just anyone could get a fucking gig. You just took a tape and this hippie guy said, “Yeah, this is your night.” He popped in there to see us one night and then he got us the deal with Glass Records. He gave them the tape. I really hate a lot of his stuff, but we’ve got a lot of similar sorts of taste. He’s into that Velvets/Stooges kind of stuff. He likes stuff by Robyn Hitchcock as well, which I can’t get into, but… he wrote the first review of Spacemen 3 as well. In Zigzag.
FE: So then you just played on his last record to return the favour?
SONIC: Well, we rewrote “Walking With Jesus” for him. It was as a joke actually, since there was all the acoustic guitar and nice singing. But on the album he just uses a lot of people from different bands since he was without a band at the time. He’s a great guy though. He’s like an Oxford or Cambridge graduate, but really down-to-earth with a really good sense of humour.
FE: The “Ecstacy Symphony” puts me in mind of Terry Riley. Are you familiar with his stuff?
SONIC: No I’ve never heard the guy. I knew when we did the track we were going to get compared to a lot of people we weren’t expecting to.
FE: So it’s really more just the “adult version” of a freakout?
SONIC: Yeah, it is really. We got that sound and we called it The Ecstacy Sound. We got it by laying down about ten tracks of just a flat keyboard note, all exactly the same key with echo on one. Basically, “Ecstacy” is “O.D. Catastrophe” on a synthesizer. It’s a one chord song, one note on an organ, taped down, then put on to eight tracks separately. On one track there’s phaser, one track has tremolo, one track has a very fast autopan, then one track has a backwards tone on it. It’s all the same tone with a lot of different effects on it, then whack ‘em together. We did it all in A. Then we took all the violins – I shouldn’t be telling you all this – off “Transparent Radiation” and superimposed them over the top. It worked a treat. It took us about three days. Laurie Anderson was quite an influence on it, Big Science. What we were trying to do with that album and 12” was Sound Of Confusion for acoustic instruments. A lot of it’s electric, but it was about getting a very different feel out of the same instruments.
The deal was that we had unlimited time to make that album. We paid three grand and bought a machine and they gave us unlimited time in the studio. So we sat around and said, “Aw fuck…” I lost half an ounce of dope one day in the studio, it was that fucking crazy. We just sat around for days and days, often not doing anything except listening to stuff. There was a lot of experimentation. There were a lot more tracks recorded than we actually kept. Some of the songs sounded better with more tracks, but we could have never done them live and we didn’t want to be one of those bands that always has to use tapes when they play.
FE: How can you admit to being influenced by Laurie Anderson?
SONIC: Well, I really fucking loathed that “O Superman” song when it came out. It got a lot of airplay and really pissed me off. But the first time I had mushrooms the guy I had them with was having a bad trip and he put on this Laurie Anderson record and I just really got into the second side. That side reminds me of Berlin by Lou Reed. A cross between that and Kraftwerk.
FE: You’ve got a bit of “folk” influence too.
SONIC: We do the odd folk song. We do “Turn On” by the Godz – that’s sort of half blues/half folk. What we tried to do on this album was mix styles… We all love Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, I like the really old blues stuff, the twenties stuff. But The Perfect Prescription is kind of a concept album, it’s about our better and worse experiences with drugs. It goes from being right out of it to “Call The Doctor” which is about an overdose.”Things’ll Never Be The Same” is about having your first hit and realizing the change in consciousness and perception that comes about through it. Not all pleasant but…
FE: I got the impression that there was also a real lysergic acid flash to your music?
SONIC: Well LSD is certainly more of a dramatic drug than any other that I know of. I find all drugs inspiring, which is frightening in a way, and it’s the most overawingly, overwhelmingly inspiring. I don’t think you have to be tripping to get into our music, but it certainly brings out a few of those elements.
FE: Is sharing heroin with Nikki Sudden a cosmic experience?
SONIC: Ah… uh… why?
FE: All those scarves and stuff.
SONIC: I’ve never shot heroin with Nikki Sudden.
FE: You must be the only guy in England who hasn’t.
SONIC: Yeah, probably. I’ve smoked a few joints with Nikki Sudden, but Nikki Sudden and Dave Kusworth are the sorta guys who, if you’ve got beer or Jack Daniels or smack or dope, if they know you’ve got it you’ve none fucking left.
FE: Have you ever thrown mud at Hawkwind at any big rock festivals?
SONIC: No, I haven’t. But we get compared to Hawkwind a lot and I really don’t like Hawkwind. I like “Silver Machine” and “Orgone Accumulator”, but that’s about it. The only time I’ve seen them was a gig we did with them called Acid Days.
FE: You didn’t throw any mud?
SONIC: No, it was indoors unfortunately.
FE: Have you ever thrown any mud at the Mission?
SONIC: I’d like to throw some mud at the Mission, but I haven’t. The Mission? God, you don’t think I like the Mission? I’m sorta half insulted at that.
FE: Does it bother you when critics get lazy and say “Mary Chain”, “Velvets”?
SONIC: We were going for years before the Mary Chain even started. Mary Chain hit “Upside Down” and everybody says we sound like Jesus & Mary Chain – it’s quite infuriating after being ignored for so long. I didn’t quite listen to Psychocandy for at least a year after that – but since I played it, I do believe it’s one of the classic albums of the eighties, but I haven’t bought that many albums in the eighties.
FE: Tell me about Indian Summer.
SONIC: It was a one-off thing – I’ve got this thing, a saz, a Turkish instrument which has basically just got three strings – three pairs like a 12-string so it’s bang up my street for the sort of stuff I play. There are four strings that reverberate in A and then you’ve got one string to slide around on. Jase can practically pick up and stringed instrument and play it, he plays sitar, once again a very easy instrument to play. So we just used to jam about and it was something that was a different aspect of the band.
FE: I liked the way “Rollercoaster” sounded in the Indian Summer set.
SONIC: Well [laughs] those are the only runs I know. Those runs out of “Rollercoaster” were never recorded by the Elevators. People have said “Their best song is a 13th Floor Elevators song.” What they don’t say is that most of the stuff in that song is not the Elevators. Funnily enough there’s this album that just came out of unreleased stuff called Elevator Tracks, and there’s a live version of “Rollercoaster” and they do it similar to the way we do it – it’s uncanny. It’s got some of the riffs on it which I use and which aren’t actually on their records. They start it real slow and quite deep and low down which is how we do it. It was great to hear that after we tried to adapt it from their version – that they were doing it like that or pretty similar. It’s a great song.
FE: So what’s the ultimate goal of the band?
SONIC: Our goal, I suppose, is to make good records and be recognised for it to an extent. I’d like to change a few people’s points of view and ideas about life… people’s attitudes towards drugs and drug addiction. Say your grandma goes to the doctor and gets a bottle of valium every week and she’s addicted to them and has been since she was twenty-five – then that’s fine, nobody gives a shit and it doesn’t affect her life. However, if you’re out on the street and you’re buying that yourself and you’re known to be addicted to the same drug, because it’s not prescribed by the doctor, there’s some weird thing that it’s illegal.
One of the things that really gets me is the way that dope’s illegal – I think that’s an absolute farce! After I’ve spent a lot of time in Holland and a few other places, I just can’t see why it should be illegal. For example, this really wound me up – we had a review for the album in the NME, which was good but the guy slagged off “Come Down Easy” for having the line “In 1987 all I want to do is get stoned,” saying that it was inane and didn’t need to be said. This same guy came into our dressing room at the Psychic TV gig and was trying to scrounge some dope to roll a joint. I said to him “Why is it inane to say that, when we’re smoking dope every day and there’s obviously thousands and thousands of people who’re thinking this?”
Why do people feel that way about it? I find it all very strange. I was a heroin addict for just over two years and my parents didn’t even know for like twenty-two months of that time and they were fine. But the moment they knew, it was like some sort of curtain dropped down between us straightaway. Not particularly my parents, who were really good about it, but it sorted out my real friends from the others.
FE: Did you have treatment to kick it?
SONIC: Yeah, in the end. I don’t believe you ever quite kick it. It’s one of those things once you’ve tried it, it’s like experiencing something that you could never tell yourself you’re never going to experience again. That was one of the most frightening things about first taking it, how easy it was to take and how pleasant it was, though pleasant is an understatement… this was all about four years ago. At the time I wrote an essay saying that I believed the only “real” cure for hardened heroin addicts, people who’ve been using it for more than a few years, was to prescribe them with heroin. The only ways people die from it are “badly cut” heroin, dirty or re-used syringes or hepatitis – if those people were getting prescribed and given it as a normal prescription drug then they could live a perfectly normal life. There are numerous heroin addicts who’ve lived to a ripe old age. William Burroughs is an example. As far as I know he’s still attending his methadone clinic…
I’m incredibly dissatisfied with the political system in the country – I voted for the Labour Party at the last election and I fucking hate the Labour Party but not as much as I hate the Conservative Party. I feel that no party should be as radical as they are… any party should be made up of different factions. What gets me is that if one party opposes nuclear power, one has to be pro-it and vice versa. If one takes one side, the other automatically has got to take the other. They can’t both say “If you vote for us, we’ll get rid of nuclear missiles” and I can’t understand why. I think it would be a bit more credible if they would agree on a coupla things. I’m sick of this country and as soon as I can move out of it, I will. I never felt much affinity with my fellow countrymen.
FE: Where would you move?
SONIC: First of all, thinking of the budget I’d have to move on, Holland – mainly because it’s such an unrestrictive place to live. Then after that, I’d like to live somewhere like West Indies, or India, somewhere like that.
FE: Would you like to live off planet?
SONIC: Well, it depends. It depends on what drugs they’ve got on other planets. I’ll have to consult Sun Ra on that one.
[The article concludes with a discography up to that point, which includes the following items that are listed as yet to be released;
- “Walkin’ With Jesus (Jazz Butcher version)” on What A Nice Way To Turn 17 #7 comp LP
- Sonic & Jason produced a track by the Sirens of Seventh Avenue that appears on the Want A Nice Way… comp
The album was never released.]