March 1989 – OffBEAT 7

Spacemen 3 make mind boggling music that’s perfect for tripping to. Not lost in space, they say, just travellers in time. Helen Togneri scrapes them off the ceiling.

Spacemen 3 are a band who once lived by the maxim “taking drugs to make music”. They’re a band who make music that sometimes jars nerves, sometimes soothes and always takes the listener away, whether it be a crashing guitar blast that shoots you through a mental hole in the ceiling, or a wafting shimmer of keyboards and sparkling strings that gently uplift.

Most recently, it was the power-out buzzing of their Revolution 12 inch, a call to arms to all those complacent people who “can’t get off their arses to help themselves, to change this government and better the society…”. Maybe an ineffectual protest, but at least saying something other than the ‘it’s just entertainment’ school of musical thought.

Integrity and inner strength are also ingredients evident on the Spacemen’s upcoming new album Playing With Fire (out on Fire, naturally, and released at the end of February). It has its themes boldly embossed on its sleeves with five key words – Purity, Innocence, Accuracy, Revolution and Love.

The Spacemen 3, who hail from Rugby, Warwickshire, have something of a history. Sonic (guitar, vocals, keyboards, and most of the talking, because the others, namely guitarist and vocalist Jason, bassist Willie and drummer John are “shy”) takes up the story.

“We’re really proud of our history, definitely,” he insists. “There’s a lot of back catalogue; we’ve been going for about seven years. On Glass there are three LPs and three 12 inchers, two of which are actually album length. On Fire there’s the Revolution 12 inch and now the new album.”

Your music is far from derivative, but what about influences?

“A lot of old stuff, nothing that hasn’t happened yet anyway. Specifically, Panther Burns, Suicide, Electric Prunes, John Lee Hooker… loads of stuff.”

What’s your favourite waste of time?

“I think some of the things a lot of people would consider wasting your time we wouldn’t consider as such. Like? Well, expanding your consciousness, listening to music which I think is consciousness expanding, reading (James Bond is a favourite). Stuff like that.”

What work do you do outside the band?

“None of us work at the moment. Some of us are signing on and some of us are on what are called Business Enterprise Schemes, whereby you don’t have to sign on and you get more money.”

“A good way to reduce the dole queue,” says Willie.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice a piece of moulded white plastic attached to Sonic’s wrist, a watch, complete with little spaceman figure on the casing and stars and the space shuttle illustrated on the face. Tacky!

“Ah, yes,” says Sonic, noticing my admiring gaze. “Willie bought me that from a petrol garage.”

That figures. Is this what being a Spaceman is all about?

Sonic: “Spacemen 3 isn’t about being a joke. It’s not like we have pictures of rockets and satellites on our sleeves or anything. I think we’re self explanatory really – we’re just Spacemen. People who are alien or feel a bit alien.”

Alienation from what, specifically? Society?

“I think we feel alienated from a society that we’ve never actually lived in, if you know what I mean. No? Well, we’re here, right, and this is where we are alien. We’re alien from somewhere else.”

What about new technology?

Sonic: “Was that last bit about space, then?”

Well, vaguely.

“We’re not big on technology in the studio, we use a lot of old equipment – amps and stuff. I think technology has got its place. We’re not luddite sampler smashers. Some bands are just consumed by technology, though, aren’t they? They have to have the latest effect or sample.”

What do you hope to achieve with your guitars, bass, drums, keyboards formula?

“I see you’ve got ‘trippy’ written down,” says Sonic. “Yeah, it is trippy. One reviewer described our Perfect Prescription album as the perfect soundtrack for a trip. We thought, well, we’ve never heard of a 45 minute trip yet, but if you could put all our catalogue together, about nine hours’ worth, then you’d be getting nearer the mark.

“It isn’t just trippy, though. People listen to it, I think, who aren’t tripping. Some are, but there are a lot of straight people who listen to it, too. There are specific tacks aimed at different levels of consciousness, really. Trippy’s a dangerous word, though. People think of big flares and stuff. We saw some good shoes down the road, though, didn’t we?” he adds. “Oorgh! Suede beetle crushers with a big clog upper and a massive sole, in rainbow colours – trippy shoes!”

As the giggling dies down, he continues: “Not all the songs are trippy or about drugs. Some of them are about love, or are depressing. Up and down music.”

“All the songs are written in an ambiguous way,” adds Jason. “People can relate to them to their own circumstances.”

Sonic: “The songs aren’t actually about specific moments, but they’re inspired by that moment. They’re about a massive moment that loads of people can relate to, hopefully.”

Spacemen 3 have a rather fragile relationship with the band they share this spread with, Loop.

“Can I just make it clear that I didn’t bring the subject up?” comments Sonic. But we have heard that Robert of Loop used to be a teaboy at Glass when you were on that label. When we asked Loop about this they said they “didn’t want to get into a slanging match”.

“What could they say? It’s like a big standing joke with us.”

Specific allegations?

“What do you mean? They ripped off ideas and styles and the rest,” says Sonic, among laughter. “But they’ve changed now, they’re different. We haven’t seen them for about two years.”

And while we’re on touchy ground, what about your stance on drugs?

“We’re an anti anti-drugs band. We always get this question… Whether I’ve been working or whatever, there have been plenty of times when I’ve been stoned out of my head with straight people, and they don’t perceive you differently if they don’t know. If they do know, then they perceive you differently. It may seem like we have a disproportionate amount of drug songs, but we’re writing about our everyday life experiences.”

Everyday life experiences that they share on Playing With Fire. Music that’s mellow – the reverbed, ethereal Honey; the pleading vocals of Wash Away All My Tears; or spherical hum (if that’s possible) of Let Me Down Gently. Music that burns, nine songs that make a perfectly balanced whole.

Spacemen 3, meanwhile, are off to prepare for a string of live dates that will take them across the UK from February 23, moving on to Europe afterwards. So, any last thoughts for the music press?

Sonic: “If we get another ‘Lost In Space’ headline, I’ll scream!”

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