After the furore of ‘Revolution’ SPACEMEN 3 found serenity with this year’s ‘Playing With Fire’ album. Now their new single ‘Hypnotized’ presents an even more dazzling vision of paradise regained. Lead Spaceman Sonic gives Simon Reynolds the lowdown on their quest for the ultimate sonic narcotic. Pics: Phil Nicholls
“The sweetness of her smile was something quite unexpected and special. It was not the sly demon smile of remembered or promised ardour, but the exquisite human glow of happiness. All their passionate pump-joy exertions were nothing in comparison to this zaychik, this ‘sun blick’ of the smiling spirit… For yet another immortal moment they stood embraced in the hushed avenue, enjoying, as they have never enjoyed before, the ‘happy-forever’ feeling at the end of never-ending fairy tales.” – Vladimir Nobokov, “Ada”.
“It’s quite awesome,” wrote The Studs, “how every song they write sounds so blissfully final.” There’s more to that phrase than meets the eye. For Spacemen 3, finality is bliss. Their longing, their quest, is for the End: the end of all our wandering and wondering, all our travels and travails through the labyrinth of thought. The answer, the self-sufficient truth, the perfect prescription, the One. And that’s why the language of addiction, religion, suicide, love are all interwoven in their work, as they are in life: a braid of language whose purpose is to close and heal that would we call the heart. A hole that is nothing else but the lost possibility of being “whole”.
With “Playing With Fire” Spacemen 3 went from the sound of confusion to the sound of serenity, from mudhoney to milk-and-honey. Actually, there’d always been a mellower side to them (check “The Perfect Prescription”), but “Playing With Fire” is something else again. It’s a perfect sublimation of rock: beyond insurgency, beyond frustration, beyond desire itself. The sound of nirvana, of the lassitude of utter plenitude. The new EP is even more ethereal (ether is both an anaesthetic and the-heavens-above). “Hypnotized” and “Just To See You Smile” are hymns to the synaesthesia of love: light that caresses, touch that glows, a cocoon of certainty made incarnate. “It’s got everything and so much more… Don’t you ever change/Darling love you til the end of time”. They are the sound of time ending.
The Spacemen are slumped in my sitting room, well on their way to getting stoned out of their collective box. They’re an amiable bunch, but very far from the angels you visualise when listening to “Playing With Fire”. Sonic, at least, is kinda angelic. His slurred voice (the slightly weak “r” hinting at a disowned public school past) and frank willingness to talk about the Big Questions, add to the impression of someone whose inner cache of innate innocence has yet to be damaged and dried up (despite all the “experience” he’s undergone). His cohorts are happy to sit back and let their leader do the talking.
So what’s with all the religious imagery? Is it just metaphorical or are you on a genuine spiritual quest?
“I think we’re religious people, in a sense, but it’s not like organised religion. That can be really dangerous, as has been proved with the Muslims and all that shit.”
Is it like the difference between mysticism and organised religion?
“It’s not quite mysticism, but it’s more that than going to church, you know. It’s not mythical, it’s something that’s really there, a tangible thing. It’s how we feel in our lives, moments of inspiration, and that’s what we try to recreate in our music.”
What I like is the way you’ve taken Marx’s dictum – “religion is the opium of the people” – and reversed it. You’ve turned drugtaking into a holy sacrament, pointing out the link between getting high and the take me higher of gospel.
“I think being high is a very religious state. There was a case in the Sixties when 50 priests, some of whom had been ordained for 20 years all took LSD. And they unanimously said it was the most religious experience in their lives. Certain drugs can really help you find out what your potential is, what the capability of your mind is, what you really wanna do. They can help you really tap into your soul.
“A lot of things to do with drugs that are bad are actually the associated problems to do with supply, which are caused by law and taboos. All recreational drugs should be decriminalised. It’s the only way to get it out of the hangs of the people who cause the problems – the black market, the Mafia, the dealers who cut the drugs with all kinds of shit.”
As an ex-heroin user, maybe you can tell me its appeal. I’ve heard that it’s supposed to give you a feeling of utter invulnerability…
“Well, junkies don’t go out walking in front of cars, but yeah, there is a certain feeling of invulnerability. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Cocaine, amphetamines, they have a similar effect. There’s two sides to drugs – if you abuse anything you gotta pay the consequences. Alcohol is the same.”
Do you see love, drugs and religion as different facets of the same phenomenon: a feeling of lack?
“Being in love is an addiction and it’s also a drug. It generates chemicals in the body which are literally drugs. And yeah, I believe love is like religion to a certain extent.”
How did you come up with the new, mellower sound? It’s hard to think of many precedents for it, bar “Suicide”’s gentler side…
“Bits of that, yeah. Laurie Anderson… ‘Big Science’ is a classic album. Lots of things influenced us. The Staples Singers and old gospel stuff. Old blues. A lot of Stones stuff. Everything from the first records through to ‘Exile On Main Street’. A lot of the later albums, even ‘Emotional Rescue’, have got classic tracks on. ‘Honey/Just To See You Smile’ is really influenced by ‘Moonlight Mile’ off ‘Sticky Fingers’. A big influence on the mellow stuff was ‘Smile’-era Beach Boys. ‘Honey’ I wrote hoping that Brian Wilson would really like it and cover it. The ‘Smile’ album has just got this incredible feeling, so sad: it’s like a cross between ‘Pet Sounds’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’.”
During a hiatus in the conversation, Sonic picks up my question list and reads aloud: “’Just To See You Smile’ – poss. Influence of Ecstasy”.
“Oh yeah, that’s an Ecstasy track if there ever was. Actually our first song with an Ecstasy reference came out on ‘Perfect Prescription’, back in ’87. We always knew a lot of our music was suited to the Ecstasy mood. A lot more than Acid House, I must say. The first Suicide album is better psychedelic Ecstasy dance music than any Acid House record I’ve heard. The people who come closest now are Happy Mondays.”
The thing about Acid House is that the sound is really dry: it doesn’t evoke the soft-focus, super-tactile suffusion of the Ecstasy experience.
“My Bloody Valentine, I think, are much more right for Ecstasy than any Acid House.”
Can we expect any more insurrectionary anthems like “Revolution”?
“It’s turned into a bit of a problem for us, so many people come and expect a whole set of ‘Revolution’. We’ve got to fight for there to be a Spacemen 3 after ‘Revolution’. A lot of people come to our gigs for a dose of that… brash power. We’ve decided that there’s this Slade element that we’ve picked up on!”
I like it, like I like “Street Fighting Man”…
“Oh yeah, you can mime with your tennis racket. It’s so great to bash out, just one chord, so fucking simple. Did you know Mudhoney covered it? Elvis Costello did it at Glastonbury.”
The way I respond to it is: I like the seriousness you put into it, without necessarily believing there’s a revolution round the corner.
“We do mean it, ‘man’, as someone put it in MM…” (It was me, readers!) “…cos there is a drug revolution happening in Britain, through drugs like MDMA and Spectrum. We get these people at our gigs, the most horrendous, Heisel Stadium beerswilling types, but they’ve started cooling out, smoking dope, taking acid, and stopped being nasty, fighting bastards on 16 pints of ale.
“These people who really used to terrify me, and chase us round our home town because we were in a band, they’re actually cooling down a bit, finding that there are a lot more constructive drugs than alcohol.”
So it’s a quiet revolution…
“It’s not like grab your hand grenades and go to Tower Bridge. It’s more like ‘time to start thinking about a revolution’, thinking about change. It was a real toss-up between calling it ‘Resolution’ or ‘Revolution’. There needs to be both – and there is where the third track on the EP comes in – because it’s really sad what’s happening to this world. Some people think ‘The World is Dying’ is a really corny track, that it’s been said too much – but I don’t think it can be said too much. People talk about ‘compassion fatigue’, too many benefits, but what the f*** is ‘compassion fatigue’? There’s so much that needs to be f***ing done, we’re so f***ing unresponsive in this country. It can’t get said too much. If people are bored by it, but still have to listen to it, maybe they’ll think about it, do something about it.”