“Let me tell you about life/I got mine, you got yours” (Transparent Radiation)
My head is spinning. It’s ‘flu. But I’m not hallucinating. Pete Kember/Sonic Boom’s mum has met me at Rugby station. “Mr. Aston? Pete overslept so he asked me…” The words “Mrs. Boom” only form in my head. We chat, like you do. “I like Bryan Ferry, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys… fairly catholic tastes really… we love Pete’s music, but we’re biased… he’s so innovative, especially when you hear Mr Waterman (Mrs. Boom has been turned on!)… we didn’t like the noisy drones so much, but you can hear the progression… we try and see Pete play if we can… it’s very hypnotic music, the kind that’s good to listen to with lots of others… no, we haven’t heard The Velvet Underground… our older son Simon liked them too, I think… he’s a director of the family business…” And we’re here. The family mansion (Business Boom). Mrs Boom, I imagine myself asking, what’s it like having a Spaceman for a son? ….
Two hours later, Pete drops me at Jason’s flat. No answer from the bell. “Jason’s car isn’t here,” Pete notices. “He’ll probably be back in ten minutes.” Half an hour later, I take my ‘flu home early. A day later, Jason says he was in all day. Fire wonder if Pete had (purposely) taken me to the wrong flat (that level of mistrust?). He hadn’t. Jason and I have to talk on the phone.
Pete makes tea. A male, pale, pretty English rose with a mop of hair and translucent skin. Will happily admit to being a methadone addict. A red bedroom carpeted with paraphernalia; hordes of models, toys, records; Visual Artifacts Of Psychedelia on the wall, on the stereo. Aladdin’s smoking den. Jason, by comparison, is a nervous, disembodied voice down the phone. Says he’s feeling as ‘not-with-it’ as me but it’s not ‘flu. Won’t admit what… by this point, I’ve lost my National Enquirer bent. But it doesn’t sound like Jason’s got quite Sonic’s same drug-insulation. A faraway voice, but doubtful that his eyes match. I’m the third Spaceman for now.
Bizarre. Fire’s first Catalogue cover – having left Pinnacle for RT – is an epitaph for their most prominent muses Spacemen 3. Founder member Jason, drummer Mark and bassist Johnny, a.k.a. Spiritualized, are staying with Dedicated (who’d signed the pre-split Spacemen 3) who released their first single Anyway That You Want Me last year; founder member Pete/Sonic remains with Silvertone, who released his Spectrum album in 1989. Spacemen 3’s new single is Big City, a night-trip into an Acid House rave (“bright lights… cool people”) on the back of a gigantic electro-throb, part-Neu/Kraftwerk, part-Moroder/Heart Of Glass. It opens their fourth/last album Recurring. The irony is all-pervading. But then the Spacemen’s hypno-monotony will carry on long, long after their implosion – in fact, 1989’s Playing With Fire (their debut album on Fire, who’ve since re-released 1984’s The Sound Of Confusion and 1987’s The Perfect Prescription) was already pretending to be Spacemen 3 since Pete and Jason more or less recorded alone. This time, they didn’t even talk or leave notes for each other. Why is there a Spacemen 3 album under such pretences? Label manager Dave Bedford says, “it’s only a little less of a group than it was – it’s always been Pete and Jason. And the album was recorded before all that stuff in the papers. They just work slowly.” And Fire were due another Spacemen album. So play Pete, flip over for Jason. Aren’t bands just like love affairs? Every time. Spinal Tap to Spacemen 3. “Tell me, baby, what d’you think of me? …”
Was it money? Was it love? Was it drugs? Was it all of them (sounds like heaven…)? The fact remains that Spacemen 3have persistently refracted/reflected the irrefutable essence of psychedelia – the noise (rush/abandon) and the peace (bliss/touchdown) – and made the purest, most accurate portrayal of life-under/through-drugs (“I was wide awake in a dream”…) – the euphoria/serenity/detachment, the huge schism between that and this dimension, the DESIRE to stay there. Sonic would rather be a junkie making this music than anything else. A director of his family’s business? A butcher, a baker? I mean, what are you doing that’s so great? Spacemen 3 are the espousal of every fuck-them rejection of social order in the eighties (or any decade, no-thank-you). Do we have any ‘responsibility’ to try and master this world (routine/fear/self-doubt)? Political/social apathy (“here, more than anywhere, Spacemen 3 have a vested interest in absolutely nothing”, a S3 sleevenoter writes) is one thing, but can you take a moral standpoint? Self-determination, then.
Naturally, another set of casualties occur in the drug dimension. Like, who can remember the lat question? who said what? who’s lying? who’s the junkie, who’s the alcoholic, who’s life is it anyway? And baby, how do you feel… let me know when your life gets too real…” (“Things Will Never Be The Same”)
The Irrevocable Split
Jason: “Now that the band’s split into two halves, Pete can’t speak for us as a whole anymore, which is what he enjoyed doing.”
Pete: “Jason never wanted to contribute to interviews. This happens all the time – some one is picked up by the press, his photo is used more, the band gets jealous…”
Jason: “Pete and myself used to work as some kind of partnership – we complimented each other… no song was ever one person’s, whereas both of us now have a lot more in our heads as to how they should sound, so it’s hard for either to take input from the other. Or from anybody for that matter… I don’t know if I would blame it on the drugs. It was more complicated, a growing apart of ideas… my input was more noticeable on earlier stuff, up to The Perfect Prescription. We must have soaked up some of each other’s input because I don’t reckon we needed each other to produce the music anymore.”
Pete: “I’ve hardly heard some of Jason’s songs on the album. The initial reason why I didn’t play on his stuff, although I was asked, as he was on mine, was that the rough tape he gave me I can only describe as sounding like my pieces had already been played. There was nothing left to put on. He actually plays on a couple of my tracks like When Tomorrow Hits. I’m the only one who plays on Big City, but they were all asked to play on it.
“I had to give Jason a co-credit on Suicide even though I took it complete to the band to prevent him holding up Playing With Fire, even though the rest of the band told him he was dreaming… from then on, I had to write my songs totally away from him… this is one of my big narks with Jason – if I said I was listening to Mozart, Jason would but a Mozart record. If I found a new effect, or a new way to apply it, then he would, which is why our stuff always sounds so similar. Although he won’t admit it. Or maybe he will. I wouldn’t put anything past him.”
Heroes And Villains
Pete: “I wanted the laughter in I’ve Got The Key between all the tracks, which is a point of contention. I’ve always sequenced them and put the right gaps between songs but they cut the album behind my back. It’s been done it badly and seamed together wrong. That’s Gerald Palmer for you, who was our manager and is Jason’s manager to this day, who we both sacked over a year ago… he’s still trying to hold on to Spacemen 3. He’s even put that he’s manager and merchandiser on the sleeve because he’s a sneaky sonofabitch… he had a lot to do with the band’s split.
“The rest of the band had a large part in it too. They said ‘you’ve got to step down, have less say, less of your songs.’. They’d been in the group nine months compared to me forming the group eight years ago. Jason didn’t say anything but nodded at everything they said… I basically said, ‘OK, if you have these ideas, fuck off and do it…’ …it happens all the time – when someone in the band actually knows what they want to do… I knew the philosophy of the band, right down to the sleeves, the titles… it was a drug band as far as I was concerned. It might have been very base, limited stuff but I knew what I wanted…
“Jason hasn’t spoken to me in over six months, even when I’ve said hello, until the other day. I told a journalist we didn’t speak, and then Jason shouted at me for saying it. I didn’t even know these were separate interviews until the first one for this album! He reeled off a list of things that I’d done but I can think of five that he’s done to fuck me over for every one I’ve done.”
Jason: “The Melody Maker interviewer asked very loaded questions, and later on, she said Pete badmouthed me, so I knew what to expect from then on. I could match him bitch for bitch but to air it in the press is pretty messy, although it’ll probably make very humorous reading. But I never saw Spacemen 3 as a band about humour, not in that way. I don’t think we ever came across as very humorous in the press. I’ll leave it a while.”
Pete did say he’s got a big mouth on him.
“He does use it a lot, doesn’t he? But I never craved talking to people in the press. That’s getting easier the more I do them.”
Pete also said Recurring would have been a better record if his and your songs hadn’t been separated, but that you insisted.
“You’d have to ask Fire – I’d say it was Pete who insisted. Who’s got the most honest looking face?”
Hard to tell down the phone.
Did the formation of Spiritualized finally sever whatever connections remained?
Pete: “Yeah, and that they recorded The Troggs’ Anyway That You Want Me, which I’d suggested Spacemen 3 should cover. There didn’t seem to me any great need for them to show they could do it. Originally, we all knew we were going to split up after the album was recorded, so we agreed no-one would say anything about it, and then when the album was released, we’d say we would pursue for different projects, and then reconvene in a year’s time for another album.”
Jason: “We recorded Anyway That You Want Me for Playing With Fire but it was never finished. At the time, Spiritualized weren’t signed to Dedicated, but I finished it and told them they could put it out. Spacemen hadn’t been on tour for a year, and didn’t look likely to, so Spiritualized needed some product to go out on tour.”
Big City, Bright Lights, All Change Please
Pete: “I think most Spacemen fans will accept it, but it’s certainly nothing that they’ll have ever perceived as being Spacemen 3 before. It’s almost totally electronic as opposed to organic. The beat is still hypnotic, minimal, with next-to-no chord changes, I’m never gonna change from that. Everything will always be a drone, the lowest common denominator… the simplest way to describe the attraction is that drones seem to exaggerate the emotions. It can suddenly add a whole overwhelming euphoric dimension if the lyric is happy, or make something even sadder. I believe the more minimal something is, the more instant and maximal its effect, and the drone is the same. There’s no speed to a drone, and usually no pulse, no feel… to it, but there is, a massive feel somehow… I don’t totally understand it but it’s worked over four studio albums so far.”
Jason: “It wasn’t my choice. Fire weren’t opposed to it. I don’t actually care. Nothing hit me as an obvious choice – Pete’s track I Love You, not in its album form, could have been. I guess it’s a commercial track. I’ve never seen Spacemen 3 as a fashion oriented band and I guess there Big City must be fashion oriented to some extent.”
Pete: “I think it’s some of my best stuff yet, like Big City and the new version of Smile, the reprise of I’ve Got The Key, just the mood of it, which I wanted for the whole album. It’s a stupid mood – you hear people laughing on record, like The Beach Boy’s Party album, and it makes you laugh and snigger…”
Jason: “It doesn’t work as an album for me, because it’s split into two halves, but of my stuff, that’s the happiest I’ve been to date. I’ve since recorded an album with Spiritualized which I think is more resolved, in that both sides relate. I heard Recurring so much making it, so I put it away. I’ve only just got back to The Perfect Prescription. A month ago, I would have said Sound Of Confusion was our best album. They all work in different ways.”
Happy Death Men
Pete: “The overall mood of Playing With Fire had a mellower, sadder feel. Recurring is meant to be a different kind of record, though it has more the essence of The Perfect Prescription. I knew I wanted to make my side of this album to be very up and happy, and having more songs than I could put on the album, I decided to make a solo album. I didn’t want to mess this album up with some happy good-vibe songs and some sad songs, so I decided to exorcise those songs on Spectrum and make it a Berlin type record, although Pretty Baby and You’re The One stop the album becoming quite such a slash-the-wrists job.”
So opiates don’t just make you feel ‘high’?
“No they don’t. I would say it’s almost like a colour tint – you’re still experiencing everything, all the lows and highs through it, but maybe in slightly different ways. What was the question again?”
What feelings come up?
“Doubt, loneliness… that’s the most that people can relate to. Some people just like to think I’m a megalomaniac, doing totally what I want… some people do get very paranoid from drugs, and become very indecisive, but I don’t get that.”
Jason: “We weren’t working as a band, in the studio, together or separately. I guess it’s easier to work out those rock-out tracks, as you call them, as a band, with drums, bass, two guitars, so they weren’t written.”
Jason: “I guess we were writing about the things that were happening to us. But even if you’re doing quantities of drugs, that isn’t necessarily the most all-encompassing important thing in your life. It wasn’t the only thing injected into the music. I’ve never made drugs an issue. Who cares, really?”
Pete: “I enjoy the buzz… my favourite opiate is heroin but unfortunately you can’t get it free. Methadrone is a stronger drug so there’s a downside to it, but it’s pure, clean and on the National Health… I’m aware what effect it’s having. What I try and put in perspective is, I can do it every day, I’m talking reasonably coherently, I can drive my car, I can do gigs, make records, whereas an alcoholic couldn’t do that.
“I’ve always made some sort of definition between sensible drug use. You can take speed and stay up for a week and do a lot of damage, or go to bed that night. I smoke dope every day, and take my opiates. I’ve had them today, and it doesn’t stop me from doing anything. If anything, it can focus me… without drugs, I would never have made the music I have. Drugs have been very inspiring. They’ve helped me structure in my mind what I felt was good about my personality, what was bad about it, what I should do about it or what other people hint I should do…”
So you’re a happy addict?
“Oh yeah!… I could give it up any day I wanted. Not just like that, but the thing is, coming off methadrone is actually a lot more unpleasant, but coming off heroin is like having a very mild dose of the flu for about three days… I don’t like the thought of getting old, no-one does, but look at William Burroughs. He still takes his Methadrone every week. It hasn’t stopped him churning out literature.”
Is Jason happy?
“He’s an alcoholic.”
A quote attributed to you in Melody Maker…
“That I thought I could change the world? I never said that.”
‘Spacemen 3 have always been about the politics of life…’
‘…and in the nineties, we can really turn the world into what it should be…”
“I’m not so naïve as to believe that. What a misquote. ‘The politics of some peoples’ lives’ would be a fairer statement. Certainly, The Perfect Prescription and Sound Of Confusion were made for a section of society that weren’t having records made for them, records that related to their lives. Happy Mondays are another group who aim at the same group… people who enjoy using drugs in furthering themselves… not all the songs are about drugs. Love is part of the politics of life… maybe I was talking about what Happy Mondays and Spacemen 3 and other bands are doing, being honest about their drug use, and seeing the effect. I see 13/14 year old kids not getting pissed but trying Ecstasy or Acid, which will definitely improve the world. I don’t see anything beneficial that comes out of an alcohol psyche.”
Do you have a specific philosophy regarding the band, like Pete?
Jason: “Not in that way.”
What drives you?
“At the moment, I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t write songs for rewards. I write them in my head, so to speak, so it’s getting them out. God knows what the Spacemen world manifesto was, but I never saw it in that way for my part in it. I guess I don’t find it so easy to talk about it.”
You say your side of Recurring is happy/good-vibey – to me, it sounds sad, like a series of elegies. When you sing “let the good times roll” at the end of Big City, it sounds like a dying wish.
Pete: “Really? It’s not meant to be like that at all (but then that’s the difference – I’m on the outside of the methadrone world, Pete’s curled up inside).
“It starts with Big City, which is a really happy, up-vibe, together statement, Just To See You Smile and I Love You, what beautifully happy songs, Set Me Free/I Got The Key, there you go.”
Why did you choose Recurring for a title?
“I just liked the idea of Spacemen 3 recurring. You can only have three recurring, maybe six (and nine). The cover is very colourful. You wouldn’t really think it’s my epitaph. I think it’s a very happy, colourful record.”
The music is very… womb-like. It sounds cocooned, past pain. Your happiness sounds, blissfully resigned, “Blissfully final” as one writer put it.
“That’s something I can’t relate to at all (to Pete, things feel expansive, quite ‘normal’, like breathing – rather than having someone breathe for him). Having a bright red room just exaggerates people’s idea that I live in some secluded, womb-like situation. Once they come here, people always perceive me through the house more than the record… the first time I did acid to a Spacemen 3 album, I realised I was on the right track. What I like to listen to when I’m on acid is rock ‘n’ roll, Buddy Holly, drone stuff, R‘n’B, blues, music with a structure. I hate listening to Pink Floyd because, to me, they’re out there… There’s something quite reassuring about the repetitive, hypnotic thing. It’s like the Timothy Leary doctrine, ‘turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream’, for the parts in the Acid trip when you were feeling doubt or reverberation or whatever. In the same way, in an Acid trip, Spacemen 3 music is like a bannister on the stairs of the Acid trip… does that make any sense?”
Jason: “I’ve never felt it necessary to talk – making music is enough for me. Everyone just asks me about my side of the split. You’re the first person to ask about the content of the music.”
The Record Industry
Pete: “I’ve learnt a lot of things I didn’t want to, like the way the record industry works, the usual disillusions people get… Fire were really good to us until they knew this was the last album. They told my first interviewer that I was going to be really difficult, hard to deal with, a real pain-in-the-arse. I had to phone them up and tell them I can be like that but only when people do things behind my back that they know they should have told me about… they never get in touch now… like the single’s was put back three weeks without them saying… Big City was released in Spain on a compilation album nine months ago. The album could have been out a year ago if Fire hadn’t farted around…”
How about Silvertone?
“I’m very happy with them. I’ve always wanted to work with Andrew Lauder. He ran Radar, which is the only label I collect. Then look at Demon’s back catalogue. At United Artists, he signed Kraftwerk, Hawkwind, all the good stuff up to Buzzcocks and The Stranglers. You can’t find anyone in the industry to say a bad word about him, which is unique. When I finished Spectrum, he said I could do what I liked with the sleeve – there was no budget, I was just to have fun, like, ‘let’s have a sleeve that the label can be proud of’.”
Jason: “I thought Fire were alright. I was always consulted over record company concerns. So no complaints that I can think of. It’s all history if there was. And I wouldn’t do it via the press. We’re happy with Dedicated so far. Nothing’s deteriorated yet. Maybe the album will be called Frowns by the time it’s released.”
Life After Death
Pete: “I’ve got a new band. Richard Formby is the guitarist, he’s on the album too. He’s an old friend, he’s played for The Pale Saints. He’s actually a studio producer. The bassist and drummer are stand-ins but I’m looking for more permanent people. I’m writing with Richard as well.”
Jason: “There’s no point carrying on, especially working as two separate bands on one record. Some people will miss Spacemen 3, but only as some kind of corporate image label to market. I don’t see that it should be a full stop for Pete or myself.”
The working title for the Spiritualized album is Smiles. A Beach Boys reference?
“No, to Spiritualized… I guess the band returns to the way Spacemen 3 were a band, three or four years ago, but we’re not trying to recapture anything ‘up’ or ‘rock-out’ or whatever. Neither does it have any different band philosophy, to get any more ‘dance’ or whatever into it. It’ll be the same music.”
Dave Bedford, when pressed… “its very tempting not to worry about what I say because we’re not going to be involved with the band, but I like and get on with them. It’s been rewarding and difficult at times. Pulling my hair out and screaming. And elated when we did great things with them last year, as we will this year. A lot of bands are difficult to work with anyway, especially those who know what they want and they get it. Even at the beginning, they had two very strong, opposing personalities and opinions. When they were both adamant about something, that was tiring. I got used to it. But Spacemen were more difficult than most because of having two people not really working together or speaking. But that’s more than made up for by the fact they’re a great band and they sell records. It’s a great shame because they could have been potentially huge. But that won’t happen now.
But working with a junkie and an alcoholic?
“I don’t think Jason’s alcoholic… he’s been known to get drunk at times but so have I. Jason’s problem is he’s a little too laid back and won’t speak up for himself, but that’s changed over the last 18 months. He’s more willing to stand his ground, which has probably been responsible for some of the problems. As for Pete, I have to be careful here talking about addiction. He has very set ideas about what he wants. As for Gerald Palmer, we’ve lost count of the number of times he was sacked, or whether he ever was sacked. But we did the deal through his management company, so we’re responsible to him. If Gerald didn’t deliver the masters or administer the cut, it wouldn’t get done.”
“Baby let me know what you feel/Baby let me know when your life gets too real” (Things Will Never Be The Same)