Two Into 3 Won’t Go
…or, we two were three. The Spacemen Three, that is. Peter and Jason, to be precise. But while this pair of space cadets were once the best of buddies (and at the height of underground credibility) they now seem separated by a black hole of indifference. The force was with Stephen Dalton as he set course for space-port Rugby…
Bright lights and cool people flash past as we pick our way out of London. The Spacemen 3’s startling 1986 debut Sound Of Confusion blasts out of the stereo: relentless tidal waves of gnarled, low-slung guitars lashed to a minimalist groove. All original compositions are credited jointly to the band’s founder members, Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember and Jason Pierce. Nowadays, Peter and Jason are not communicating.
We hit the motorway and 1987’s The Perfect Prescription growls into top gear. Still powered by an insistent psychedelic grind, the second Spacemen album nevertheless marks a clear departure towards mellower, gospel-flavoured ambience. Again the writing credits prove Peter and Jason were tuned into the same wavelength, still feeding off each other’s energy. So why haven’t they spoken for nearly a year? What went wrong?
“I don’t think anyone will be able to explain it properly,” muses Dave Bedford of the Spacemen’s record label, Fire. “They were very close friends – they started the band together, but musically and socially they drifted apart. There was never a specific incident – like in a lot of talented bands – there’s just a lot of friction between them.”
Fifty miles up the M1 and that creative friction vibrates from 1989’s breakthrough Playing With Fire. With only one shared composition present in its grooves, the widely-acclaimed third album split the schizophrenic Spacemen into two clear camps. While Peter was manning the barricades with dissonant flame-thrower throbs like ‘Revolution’, Jason was surrendering himself to the wide-screen melancholy of ‘Lord Can You Hear Me?’ Two extremes which almost come full circle and touch each other.
Almost, but not quite.
“I guess there could be some mileage in it, but we’ve never approached it that way,” sighs Dave Bedford, considering the publicity potential behind a Spacemen split. Some may see the rift as an archetypal rock scenario – Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, Eno and Ferry, Jagger and Richards, plus countless others – but Bedford is more pragmatic. “From my point of view, it’s just a bit of a problem.”
Recurring, the latest and – by all accounts – the last Spacemen album, severs the umbilical cord linking Peter and Jason for good. Recorded with little communication between the pair, each takes one side apiece to plough an isolated musical path. Peter veers into upbeat dance territory without ditching his trademark abrasiveness, and Jason dives further into subterranean gospel blues.
Approaching Rugby, birthplace and headquarters of both Peter and Jason, the massive mood swings of Recurring engulf our car – monumental, magnificent sounds from two estranged, possibly deranged individuals.
“All the musicians I’ve ever worked with that are any good, always tend to be off on their own,” insists Dave Bedford without irony. “It’s especially true of the Spacemen…”
Welcome to planet Sonic. Peter Kember, ex-Rugby public schoolboy, ex-heroin addict, reclines amid his huge collection of records and toys, rolling a joint. The scarlet-tinted bedroom suite, occupying one wing of his parents’ house on the outskirts of Rugby, screams psychedelic Sixties influences from every corner: Warhol, Velvets, Tav Falco, Beatles, Beach Boys.
Peter conducts most of his interviews here, and journalists generally paint the room as a gateway to several alternative dimensions. I must confess to being mildly disappointed.
“All these interviewers think I sit here in my red room, encased in my womb, with my records and my drugs, but I just don’t subscribe to that. The toys definitely point to me seeking back to my childhood where I just want to lie on my back going ‘goo goo goo’.”
But people always seek patterns in nothingness, structure out of chaos. The million column inches of critical probing have uncovered none of the Spacemen’s lingering mystery, for a good reason: the secret is, there is no secret. Most of Peter and Jason’s music is so soothingly simple and devoid of reference points that it becomes a blank canvas for virtually any interpretation, however preposterous or pretentious.
“However anyone relates a song to themselves is valid,” argues Peter diplomatically, “but I don’t think it’s valid to write about it and believe it’s the truth. Because it’s so minimal, it’s so easy to relate to, to take what you want and hear your own melodies in there. It’s something very fundamental and basic, you can almost put any emotion to a drone because it’s a speedless sound.”
This fascination with psychedelia and altered states is no superficial fashion statement but a way of life. Many Spacemen songs, including most of The Perfect Prescription, were inspired by drugs and Peter – a registered addicts currently on methadone – has made it his mission to correct public misconceptions about narcotics, claiming they have never hampered his creativity.
“Quite the opposite, if anything they’ve been inspiring. There are a lot of taboos about drugs; you’re supposed to be a certain way under the influence, crawling around gutters, all these stereotypes. Most people would say alcohol’s okay, speed’s all right and smack’s really bad for you, but a doctor would probably put alcohol and amphetamines at the top with heroin being the least damaging.”
It’s a song Peter has been singing consistently since the Spacemen made any kind of waves, but one that, allegedly, has caused tension with fellow band members, who’ve divorced themselves from his highly personal obsessions.
“There was a general resentment that people knew Sonic Boom was in Spacemen 3, but couldn’t name the drummer, the bass player… a million and one bands have had the same problem.”
Is this really why one of the most influential underground bands of the last decade disintegrated? How about “musical differences”?
“It certainly is musical differences, but to most people listening they would perhaps be imperceptible. That really gets my goat, I’ve gone out of my way to use different sounds and effects and particularly musicians, and Jason has just done exactly the same… one of the main reasons the band split was because I felt Jason was aping everything I was doing. Any direction I made towards something different, he would just follow.”
So Peter proved he could survive without the Spacemen on Spectrum – last year’s Sonic Boom solo album for Silvertone. Jason responded by forming Spiritualized, unleashing the highly-praised Troggs cover ‘Any Way That You Want Me’ and landing a deal with RCA subsidiary Dedicated.
For Peter, the final straw was seeing giant “Spacemen 3” logos on Spiritualized records and tour posters.
“I was pretty peeved because the whole thing was done in total secrecy, and everyone involved was told not to tell me about it, which is quite different from my solo project which was all done totally in the open.
“The other thing that riled me was when the manager we’d jointly sacked actually got back together with Jason…”
At last, some hard facts. Peter describes Gerald Palmer, who now manages Jason and Spiritualized, as “the most devious guy I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet”. As Palmer has engineered a deal with Dedicated for any future Spacemen albums, Peter rates the likelihood of further product under the group name as “less than zero”, and has already assembled his own spin-off band.
Meanwhile, Recurring, their contractual obligation for Fire, and finest Spacemen album yet, has been sitting on the shelf for almost a year. End of story? No, just the first half.
This town ain’t big enough for both of them. Or so it seems, as we trundle off into central Rugby for our separate interview with Jason Pierce. If anything, Jason’s sprawling low-rent pad is more rock ‘n’ roll than Peter’s psychedelic ivory tower, all amps and guitars and giant Iggy posers. But it’s more reserved, less self-conscious. As this is only Jason’s second Spacemen interview, his natural shyness is reinforced by deep suspicion of what could easily turn into a slagging contest, matching Peter “bitch for bitch… that kind of situation belittles what we had as a friendship and as a band”.
And this is where it gets spooky. Jason and Peter were born on the same day, November 19th 1965, and were as thick as thieves for six years before the rift. Seeking more patterns in the darkness, it is tempting to relate personalities to musical styles. While Peter will happily banter and bash away, flying off at bizarre tangents, Jason sinks into intense introspection and almost impenetrable melancholy, drowning in bittersweet memories of more innocent times.
“We could just sit in a room and play those songs. When we started it was just two guitars, bass and drums, and it seemed like this music was coming through the roof… it was like, what the f*** is this? It wasn’t making some massive statement, the music was all around us.”
Jason plays rough mixes from the forthcoming Spiritualized album Smiles, cathedral-sized slabs of echo-chamber elegance, and makes his direction clear. No more Spacemen records.
“There’s no need for Spacemen 3 to carry on as a band unless it was some kind of corporate logo, a business that could make someone a lot of money.” Noble, enough, but the Spacemen believe in old-fashioned virtues like integrity and sincerity.
“Half the reason why Spiritualized started was because Spacemen 3 was becoming a very safe live act – safe for myself, anyway. We were just playing the heavy, hard-core stuff like ‘Revolution’… there was no highest of highs, lowest of lows. I was fighting to get some quiet stuff into the set.” Did it bother you that Peter was very autocratic and often spoke on behalf of the whole band? “Pete never considered himself leader of anything until some bastard wrote “Sonic Boom, leader of Spacemen 3”… At the time I didn’t give a shit, but in a way I think Peter’s got a bigger safety net than most people as far as drugs are concerned. So saying in the press that heroin’s cool, that you can eat three square meals a day and still be an addict – it isn’t the same situation for other people. Most people think ‘Do I buy three square meals or do I get my next hit together?’.”
Warming to his theme, Jason revises Peter’s interpretation of the Spacemen as “the politics of life” into “the politics of a sheltered life”. He also defends Gerald Palmer for steering the band from unfashionable obscurity in 1987 to cult status today. But is he the most devious person Jason has ever met?
“No… but I do believe he’s the most devious person Pete’s ever met.”
Well, it started out as Heart Of Darkness and turned into Blind Date. Hope you enjoyed your day-trip into the endless void of human bitterness. Shucks, but will you two be seeing each other again?
Driving away from coal-black Rugby with Gulf war statistics screaming out of the radio, a tiff between two obscure pop musicians seems pretty insignificant. Metaphorically it probably speaks volumes for the human condition, but the human condition will have to sit this one out. Both Jason and Peter’s interviews were part off-the-record, but even clandestine revelations uncovered no missing links. Maybe there is no big picture, and behind all the suspicion and resentment lies a total blank.
Manager Gerald Palmer, “the most devious man in the world”, provides few clues but professes to being “totally disillusioned” with band business. “I’ve got better things to do than argue with children,” he remarks without venom. “I wish I had just bought the records. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Peter. He’s incredibly talented, I just don’t think he’s really focused. He’s very charismatic, knows what he wants, and it’s hard not to respect someone like that. But when they don’t have consideration for other people it gets out of hand.” Hardly unbiased, of course, but who can be?
Tearing down the motorway, heading home, the echoing words of Peter Kember’s mother, Mrs Sonic Boom, encapsulates the situation far more concisely than anyone else interviewed.
“Basically, Peter is just this driven person and Jason is more… laid-back,” she sighs, pouring out a round of tea. “Poor Jason.”