If you're interviewing Pete Kember, you have to ask, even if you already know the answer.
Any chance Spacemen 3 will get back together?
“Can't see that happening,” he says.
Kember, who favors Oxford shirts, wears his hair school-boy short and goes by the moniker Sonic Boom, is too polite to admit he's been asked this far too often. “I don't think it's something on his agenda,” he says.Kember is referring to Jason Pierce. The two, born on the same day and in same year (Nov. 19, 1965), met at art school in Rugby, England, and went on to form the influential drone-rock band Spacemen 3 in 1982. Without Spacemen 3, there'd be no Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, no Black Angels, no Brian Jonestown Massacre. Probably no My Bloody Valentine, Ride and a host of other bands that came later.
Kember and Pierce parted ways in 1991, but not before putting out one of the classic albums of the '90s shoegaze / Britpop scene: Recurring. One half of the album would be the foundation for Pierce's next project, Spiritualized, the other half for Kember's Spectrum. After opening a handful of shows for My Bloody Valentine last fall, Spectrum's currently on a solo U.S. tour.
Neither man has strayed far from the sound that defined Spacemen 3, one that grew out of Kember and Pierce's affinity for minimalist post-punk bands like Suicide, the psychedelia of 13th Floor Elevators and rock legends like Bo Diddley.
“I set very strong precepts for what I did early on,” Kember says, “that I want to have stuff that was basically based around drones, the whole ‘three chord good, two chord better, one chord best' philosophy.”
What may sound simple is actually far more complex than average listeners realize, Kember says.
“When you don't change key in a piece, it takes a whole different discipline, and to be able to convey emotion and feeling and dynamics through that is harder than in other music,” he explains.
Kember's integrity of vision has translated into music with limited mainstream appeal, but likewise a body of work that's cohesive and, more importantly, authentic. For the last two decades, he's collaborated with folks like My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and Dean Wareham from Galaxie 500 and Luna. For a recent project, he worked with Jim Dickinson, a fellow under-the-radar icon whose career includes recording gigs with The Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin to production work with Big Star, Alex Chilton and Mudhoney. (Spacemen 3 covered the Dickinson-produced song “When Tomorrow Hits.”). And, this summer, Kember will work with MGMT on their new record.
“They had a hit list of people they wanted to work with, and I guess I ended up on the list,” he says. “I like their music, and I think I can hear where I can be of use. Some people you just click with and you just know you're on the same wavelength.”
A new Spectrum album is slated for release later this year, and an EP, War Sucks, came out in April on Mind Expansion. The EP's title song is a cover of Red Crayola's 1967 recording. Whereas Red Crayola's “War Sucks” is a psychedelic, free-form protest song, the Spectrum version is an angry aural assault. Behind Kember's signature droning guitar and vintage organ is the sound of nebelwerfers—German World War II rocket launchers, “made to deliver as much screaming and terrifying noise and smoke and flame and fear before the warhead even hit,” Kember explains. For the EP's cover, he worked with a Swiss design company to recreate a type of geometric camouflage, known as “Razzle Dazzle,” used on ships during World War I to distort their shape, making them harder to target.
A question about what motivated Kember to go with a warfare theme leads to a discussion about the duality of human nature and the technological innovations that evolve during wartime. Kember brings up Gulliver's Travels and the immortal-yet-miserable struldbrugs—then forgets momentarily where he's going with that point. It makes sense to ask him to reflect on a music career that's spanned more than two decades.
“It's very gratifying and beautiful to be able to turn people on to music,” he says, the laughs: “That's as philanthropic as I can get on my budget.”Spectrum plays Monday, May 11, at The Casbah with Crocodiles and Spirit Photography. www.sonic-boom.info.