Ian Gittins talks to Spacemen 3’s leader, Sonic, about their kaleidoscopic new live album and how the constructive use of drugs has aided their voyage of discovery into the twilight zone. Astronautical shots by Phil Nicholls.
How do you annoy a Spaceman? It’s easy. I’ve just found out. As Sonic, main man in Spacemen 3, sits back smiling in his Rugby bedsit, finding ways to mellow out, what you do is this. Look him right in the eye and say, “Er, what you do is progressive rock, really, innit?” He shoots bolt upright and howls.
“Uuuuuuurrgh! GOD! That’s the opposite of what we want to do! All that King Crimson/Led Zep stuff, too many chord changes, over-elaborate, dull, arty for the sake of it, empty…”
He looks like he’s going to be ill.
Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend you.
Spacemen 3 first crawled out of the dirt in 1985. They got together and beat the shit out of guitars. They were alien in more ways than four and they still are. When they stitched together their debut LP, “Sound Of Confusion”, a year later, it was well Out There. In a culture still much defined by the punk ethics of energy and brevity, what they were doing was out of line. “Rollercoaster”, some kind of epic, was 21 minutes long, a mega-guitar wig-out. Even John Peel held them at arm’s length.
“Sound Of Confusion” is still a massive, looming, emphatic document of teen angst and panic. Set fair round the urge of making sense of the world, coupled with early flirtations with drugs, it reached into the mind and pulled out a plum. Not far from The Stooges, a bit further from tedium, it moved and stumbled around, shaped by a love for the Sixties and a big question mark. A few clues, and pieces out of time.
Get down to the crux and “Sound Of Confusion” was an hypnotic mantra against constant, fuzzy guitars and vocal chanted rhymes like “Let it happen to you” and “Open up your mind”. At the time, there weren’t so many theories about oblivion and trance-states before music, so it fell away. Weirdos doing big guitar solos, that sort of stuff. When Spacemen 3 made their first big mark we gazed into the hole and hurried away.
So they moved on, sort of. Last year’s “The Perfect Prescription” saw the Spacemen shine light into their dim corners of grind, breaking away from nihilism and paranoia. And now, as a way of escaping the frankly shoddy Glass label, comes a live LP, “Performance”.
It could be a strange choice. The Spacemen notion of a live gig is to lug four stools onstage to melt into and hit the chords. They hardly move. While this assists the notion of music as a giant, apart, mesmeric whole, it can be dead boring. Yet, if all the theory about loss of self in noise and erasing of boundaries belongs any place, it’s here. Spacemen music is a backtrack for mental shifts. All that and more. It’s a long, long way from the gruff anger and insistence of “Sound Of Confusion”.
“That first LP was very minimal, sure, and the sound’s changed. But the ideas have stayed with us. We can do it both ends of the scale, being minimal with fuzz and feedback or just acoustic guitar. When I met Alan Vega, I said we shared some things and he said, ‘Minimal is maximal’. The maximal effect in music is to have the fewest things making the sound. It’s more direct, even dense and textured. We try to do this.”
Spacemen 3 are keen to tie into a line of rock history from Fifties pioneers, with a special stop at people like Tav Falco who go back and change the hands on the clock. They want roots. It’s an unhip idea with this style of blessed-out, wandering, all-over-the-shop wanton blues. Eyes should be set on nirvana. But it’s what they want.
The Loop Bit
Is there a link between you and Loop? Sonic nods vigorously.
“Of course!” He pauses. “How can a band take another’s music, right down to their record sleeves and things they say in interviews, and not expect there to be a link? They’re different, sure, but not enough to matter. We gave them their first three gigs, supporting us, and what they do now is mix us with the Butthole Surfers and Mary Chain. What better influences can you take I s’pose? It would be nice to see them do something that hasn’t been done before. But that may be TOO much to hope for.”
The Spacemen sound is a giant, lush, ever-shifting kaleidoscope, where textures alter and blend. There’s a lot of altered states. It’s no surprise, then, that chats with them always seem to centre around drugs – chemical stimuli to alert the mind to the moment. It’s a bit like the Acid House blarney. You can enjoy slick techno-disco in your getting-thru-the-world mode but it’s a lot better on Ecstacy.
How much of an input are drugs, Sonic?
“Oh, massive, for sure. A lot of our songs are about drugs, and how they can affect your perceptions. It’s not always obvious but those who know can see what the songs are doing. Others may think they’re just nice songs.”
Is it like the Acid House link? As direct?
Sonic frowns: “Well, that’s bullshit, isn’t it? Most kids can’t afford Ecstasy. At £20 per head they can’t even get at it.”
A few media kids in London can.
“I suppose so, though it’s still not truly taken off here. But the point is you can take drugs constructively. There’s no reason why you can’t take drugs and eat meals as well, look after yourself. I was addicted to heroin for years, and my parents didn’t even know. Never suspected. The media stereotypes of the hapless druggie are absurd.” What kind of parallel runs from drugs to your music?
“The energy, electricity of both things is pretty similar. All the drugs I’ve tried – heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis – all give you nice feelings to a certain degree. So does the music. I’m very happy with how it transmits it. To that end, you don’t need to be on drugs to enjoy the music. But if you are, it will enhance it. It’s an option.”
He’s right. Chemical aids aren’t essential. The real trip is the Spacemen’s misty web of guitar patterns which start as distant, almost subliminal murmurs before emerging with a logic of their own. To listen to Spacemen 3, especially on the hymnal “Performance”, is surely to be rapt, submit.
“With our music, I think it’s a lot better to shut off all your senses apart from your ears. A lot of music I can happily listen to while I watch telly. But with us, you get the full benefit from concentration. The more you listen, the more you get out. Losing the self in it is the appeal to a lot of people.”
Do you see tangible proof of this?
“A lot of people come to our gigs, do some acid or dope, and get blissed out. You see them, with their eyes shut, doing these totally weird dances, shaking their heads. Totally getting off. Then as well as that, we get old Sixties hippy types, a bit of the indie crowd, a slight biker element. All sorts, really. Our crowd is very varied.”
At best, when it’s most outrageous, extreme, out there, your music carries itself and all else. You don’t need to even think in the face of the intense, spacious lament of fuzz guitar and crafty repetition, the notes and chords building their own lexicon of illogic. Like Loop, it’s a trip into the self, most likely one you don’t know. Is doing your thing just like taking an acid trip, reproducing the feeling?
“People have said ‘Perfect Prescription’ is a record for a psychedelic trip. But in 45 minutes you can’t do it, it’s just impossible. Six hours is getting a bit nearer. I’d like to do that, but it’d have to end up as a boxed set.”
And you’re shocked I called you prog rock?
“But yeah, we are documenting an age. When we started, around 1982, there was a massive surge of heroin addicts, which I s’pose we were part of. But all people were getting were the tabloids, giving one side of things which was basically wrong. The truths weren’t coming out, and a balance was needed. We’ve had friends who’ve died from it, and we’ve written about that, as well as the good side. People may even look back in 20 years and say: ‘Yeah, that’s what those guys were doing then!’ Who knows?”
Ultimately, the Spacemen mantra is a blank sheet on which to impose the self. Sonic talks of getting the “highest highs and lowest lows” caught in the grooves, but they all depend on our thrall. There’s no push or shove towards anywhere; this sleep-music only says Know Yourself. “Performance” is mighty, and there’s a new LP in October. The clips I’ve heard are more awake and primal than ever – like a barbed, tense New Age.
Sonic, “Sound Of Confusion” was an angst-ridden nightmare. Now you sound more at ease.
“Oh yeah. That record was just that – totally confused and not knowing what we were doing or where to go. Now we’re more contented, and I’ve been really happy with our progress. But not totally satisfied. It’s always there. Nobody’s ever totally content and happy with their lives…”
So they look deeper to find answers. With music like this. Don’t underestimate its flow, this white heat. It’s going down. There are worlds to come.
Spacemen 3 is searching.