Baptism Of Fire
Sonic Boom explains to Paul Oldfield how suicide, gospel and LSD helped to shape his band’s new album, ‘Playing With Fire’. Pics: Phil Nicholls
Late afternoon, that hour of the day when nothing is ever decided, settles on the somnolent road of terraced houses in Rugby. Indoors, we’re with Spacemen 3, who really are just three in number today. The rusty vermilion light of a bar fire, the arid breath of a fan heater, and the near-pure atmosphere of roll-up fumes and lighter fuel brings on a fabulous torpor. In the midst of this indolence, with my tape-recorded picking up lengthening stretches of silence and static, we suddenly notice that life is passing by. Time for the photo session.
Outside, in an almost unnoticed passageway that cuts between the houses, the Spacemen stand there, ready for the plainest, straightest backyard shots. They had been thinking of posing in front of a wall-hanging patterned all over with their swirly, spiral logo, but it’s truer to see them in this backwater of red-brick and wilted plants. They look like an old photograph already, some long-lost moment freed from time and space. Just right for pop from nowhere, ebb-tide pop, pop that’s swallowed up in contemplation, becalmed. Maybe I’m imagining all this (I’m sure the Spacemen suspect I am) but the mood just at this moment is just like that of their formidable new album. Dejected, wasted, lost, but almost unbearably clear-headed and transparent, illuminated. At the end of the trip.
Spacemen 3 don’t need that op-art backdrop. “Playing With Fire” comes after “psychedelia”. It’s either beyond or further into the acid daze. True, there’s still the incandescence of “Revolution”, the single, or the barbed mesh of attrition in “Suicide”. But “Playing With Fire” has little of the engulfing gravitational pull, the black hold of pop, that sometimes connected the Spacemen with Loop. There’s less of their monochrome, Suicide-style minimalism as well, just hints now of the cool drift through the airwaves on Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” or Martin Rev’s “Clouds Of Glory”. And there’s little of the dream-talk, diffusion and swooning gradients of the likes of My Bloody Valentine.
The enhanced, transcendent Sixties bliss that reached such a zenith in pop last year is hardly relevant to the Spacemen now. Instead, they’re like the after-birth of that era. Only House Of Love, maybe, approach anything like this. “Playing With Fire” is all distressed blues, under-the-breath vocals, and a feeling of coming down. There are a few moments in pop history that have reached a similar quiescence, reconciliation and cleansed vision – West-Coast acid rock (some of Love, Pearls Before Swine), Pink Floyd’s acoustic songs – but the Spacemen simply haven’t heard them.
It sounds as if they’ve reached insights or intensities so great that there’s no further to go. So how come such a meditational album is called “Playing With Fire”, the words written in flame on the sleeve?
“Because we’re playing with fire,” says Sonic Boom. “’Lord Can You Hear Me’ for instance. That might sound like just an attractive song, but when you listen to it carefully, you find it’s about suicide. And even today, just talking about that is playing with fire. Only a few months ago, suicide was more or less decriminalised in Holland. You can go to a doctor and arrange consultations about terminating your own life. But there was an incredible amount of flak aimed at the people who advocated that approach. We think that you ought to be able to contemplate suicide, whereas at the moment a suicide attempt is usually the first anybody knows about it.”
Contemplating suicide, being on that brink, is what your music feels like. Maybe you can tell me why such heightened consciousness, such an aching awareness of everything, always comes across best as a swan-song, a prelude to death.
“The chances are that death’s better than life, just because people always tell you that it’s worse, and everyone fears it. But no one can know it’s worse. And there are moments so beautiful that you wouldn’t want to live after them. If you’re separated from someone, or lose something you can’t do without, you don’t believe things can ever be as good again.
“All that’s worrying for us is that people might consider suicide just because music can beautify it.
“Back in the Thirties, there was a record by Bessie Smith so sad and so beautiful; that loads of people just killed themselves within hours of hearing it. Maybe you could make a record that had the same effect, with subliminal prompting perhaps. Or it could just be Bessie Smith’s voice. That might be the reason we’ve never been able to find that record.”
Certainly there are epidemics of suicide, especially among susceptible adolescents. And there tend to be panics about literature or music that deal with it, as if they incited people to self-murder. It’s like the attempts to suppress drug “abuse”: some altered states or heightened consciousness are seem as playing with fire, getting access to something so sacred and special that it threatens life itself.
The songs on “Playing With Fire” sounds reconciled with the world. If there’s a death wish, it’s because you feel utterly enlightened. You feel as if you’ve achieved perfect vision. It sounds nostalgic. I don’t mean that it looks back wishfully at other times, or that this is retro music. It’s nostalgic in the literal sense of the word: suffering home-sickness, wanting to be back where you belong. Wanting to be back in the paradisaical world that you lost just be growing up. Is that why you, the Spacemen, are so deeply into gospel music? On this LP alone there are “I Believe It”, “Lord Can You Hear Me”, “So Hot (Wash Away All Of My Tears)”, “Come Down Softly To My Soul”. It sounds as if you’re waiting for the sweet chariot to carry you home.
“What attracts us to gospel, and especially to the early Staples Singers, is the energy, the belief. When they sing ‘Jesus Is My Friend’, it sounds as if they live next door to him. When you’re listening to that, you have to believe. To understand it, you need to have sat outside a black gospel church where there’s one guy with an electric guitar with tremolo on it, and they’re all clapping their hands and singing. With us, it’s always been fuzz and feedback, guitar drones or whatever, but both reach the same destinations. Even our first album, ‘Sound Of Confusion’, is religious music, I think. It’s almost a religious experience playing it because it captures the belief, the self-belief, the search for purity that we’re about. It’s like a drug, and gospel can be too when it’s ecstatic and dream-like, when it’s elated.”
That’s it. Elated, carried off. Gospel really expects to find the Promised Land again. And if you do, you don’t want to come back to this life.
Do you think your music’s like gospel in that you’re taken over by it, released from yourself? Do you go from nostalgia to analgesia, from the pain of not being where you belong, the pain of living, to a state where all your pains are taken away? Your song title “How Does It Feel” reminds me of a slow-motion mid-Sixties dream-pop number by the Creation, “How Does It Feel to Feel?” And “Let Me Down Gently” and “Come Down Softly” make me think about anaesthesia. Are you numbed by enlightenment? To quote your sparring partners Loop, which you won’t like, is your trip “Too Real To Feel”?
“I never understood that ‘Too Real To Feel’. It sounds like someone who’s tried to write a song about drugs but hasn’t got a clue. Both LSD and schizophrenia, which you’ve been comparing it to, are about heightening of experience, living more intensely. As far as schizoids go, they’re very intense, they’re really there all the time. I should know, I’ve spent time with people like that in an institution. Our music’s really there, it’s nothing to do with not feeling.”
You want to turn on, but not drop out, not freefall into oblivion?
“No, giving yourself up altogether can be fatalism. And a lot of ‘Playing With Fire’ is about dissatisfaction. We feel alien, alienated. We write a lot about suicide, but we still want to see a world where suicide isn’t what people resort to. We want to change things for the better. What we’re saying isn’t surprising, isn’t staggeringly original. It’s as obvious as the words we put on the LP cover, “LOVE, PURITY, BELIEF, ACCURACY…’. But because you have people like Margaret Thatcher putting across their opinions very loud, you have to have people like Psychic TV, or The Shamen, or us speaking up to say things that wouldn’t have to be said at all if the world wasn’t so f***ed-up.”
Chris Roberts said that he thought people were attracted to alienation, to being f***ed-up, that people live through it…
“For Chris Roberts, the ‘f***ed-up children of the world’ is probably a really romantic notion. For us it isn’t. We want out of it.”
Which brings us to “Revolution”. Not a case of “take me to the river” this time, but a baptism of fire. “The time is right… a little… revolution.” Very like an MC5 song. The video didn’t make it look very incendiary, though.
“We were filmed quite straight. Still, we look cool, just sitting there, which is exactly what we do on stage. But it’s very MC5-like as well. People might have the wrong idea about them. They didn’t behave like Seventies New Wave. They didn’t move much at all – X marks the spot stuff – though they really got into it. We put in even more muscle power than them. We put it through our instruments, not our legs.”
MC5 and The Stooges sounded like an insurrection, though. Surely Spacemen 3 aren’t about that flash-point iconoclasm?
“Well, we do believe in revolution. But our dreams are attainable goals. We can’t make all the changes now, true, not even in our lifetime, maybe not before our civilisation collapses. You can only try to bring about changes every day.
“There is a revolution, a drug revolution, happening in this country, I’m convinced. When we first heard about Ecstasy last year, it wasn’t even known around these parts. Now it’s everywhere and is a socially acceptable drug. It’s compatible with work, which isn’t true of LSD. Ecstasy – a stupid name, better to call it MDMA – has an impact on people’s lives, but not adversely. It’s beneficial for people’s perceptions but not as dramatic or traumatic as acid. If you gave both drugs to 10 teenagers, all 10 would come back for more MDMA, and maybe two for more LSD.
“But as soon as something useful is discovered, it’s suppressed. MDMA was a drug developed for research psychologists, just as LSD was, but now it’s been made illegal. The difference with this drug is that it’s so manageable that many more people will use it and have their minds altered.”
If people use MDMA for recreation, as you said earlier, that’s not altering anything, just enhancing their nightlife a little. Should we want to fulfil ourselves just a bit more with responsible drug use, or should we be changing ourselves, abolishing reality altogether?
“There’s nothing wrong with fulfilling yourself. Anyone who doesn’t think they need to improve their life needs help. Fulfilling yourself is fine, as long as you don’t do it at anyone else’s expense. And anyway, I can’t imagine being happy until everyone else is as well.”
As their press release says, “They could be talking ‘Revolution’. They could be talking ‘Transparent Radiation’.” In fact, they’re talking both. Their revolution is almost a holy revolution that will achieve the impossible dream of heaven on earth for everyone. It’s a terrific enlightenment and lightness (they call their pop “levitation”) that’s almost unbearably, unlivably lucid. A window into heaven opening up in a Rugby backstreet.
Go through their baptism of fire and illumination, and hear an early contender for album of the year.