SPACEMEN 3 - THE SONIC BOOM INTERVIEW
|PT: At what point in your life did you discover you could actually travel around the world, playing on stages, taping down keys, turning your amp. up high as opposed to being “some musician” who does this on weekends around their menial 9 to 5 day job?|
SB: I knew from the age of 14 that that’s what I wanted to do, and I don’t think people really entertain it as a serious proposition. You certainly can’t reply to your parents when they ask “What are you going to do?”, say “I’m gonna be a musician” or anything like that. I just worked at it. I worked at it hard - I did 9 to 5 jobs and I tried to work 9 to 5 jobs where I had access to a ’phone and a photo-copier so it could help the band. My boss was quite understanding in that if I wanted to go on tour for three weeks he’d give me holiday time, so that made a big difference. I know a lot of people in bands who work as well have problems with their bosses, they won't let them have time off for touring and all that kind of stuff. When ‘Sound of Confusion’ came out, certainly my parents started to see that there was a possibility I was going to make a living out of it, and as things rolled on I hoped from very early on that it would work out like that. All you could do was work as hard as you could towards that and hope that things came together. And luckily they did in a fairly minor sort of way.
Did it surprise you when Spacemen 3 started becoming a cult success?
I think it was probably a regular smallish ‘indie’ success that grew into a cult success. Mainly when the band split up I think. It’s hard to perceive that really - I just knew that it was what I wanted to do and I felt there was something about it, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered with it.
So you never entertained the thought that it wouldn’t happen, and at art school you formed the band... what were the events leading up to Spacemen 3?
When I was about 14 I got my first guitar and started playing, and then I went to art college - hoping really to meet people to form bands with. It’s a semi-traditional way for people to form bands in England. You look at a lot of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who and the Clash or whoever and they all had people at art school. It worked for me in a roundabout sort of way; I didn’t meet many people there, there wasn’t a great deal of choice, but it did work out in that the one person who was into the same thing was Jason, and obviously we worked well together. I was also interested in art, I didn’t just go there. It also goes a little bit hand in hand in this country that people into music of a certain type tend to be into the arts in general - I was fascinated by modern art, in fact I found out about the Velvet Underground through their art connections before their music connections. I bought the first Velvets album in around 1980, having read about it in a book which came out called ‘Popism’, a sort of Andy Warhol diary of the Factory in the ’60s. I was interested to know why this artist that I really admired had wanted to get into music and what there was about this group and I hadn’t really expecteed it to be any good. Then when I heard it and realised there was a lot of depth below the cover, then it really opened some doors.
I heard the new rough cuts to the new Spectrum record and maybe it’s because it didn’t have vocals to it, but the distinction between E.A.R. and Spectrum seems to be blurred. What is the distinction between the two in your mind, and why did E.A.R. evolve?
Well, mainly I wanted to separate the more experimental, less melodic pieces - the pieces that were less verse/chorus. There were some people who liked both, but there were a lot who liked one or the other, so I thought it made sense to try and separate them a little bit and just concentrate on a purely experimental project and then a much more melodic, song-based project. From there really the new album came about, mainly through concentrating more on E.A.R. and a few little leaps and bounds in learning about sound and how it is processed and how to process it. Through learning a lot about that for E.A.R. purposes, I realised that I should also be applying a lot of that as Spectrum. In Spacemen 3 and in Spectrum there always was a strong experimental side to the melodic, but it just seemed to be the way to go with this new album. I think I’ve done enough records for the moment with guitars and organ and I just wanted to try and do similar things with other sounds, and hopefully do something a little bit different.
The new Spectrum seems to have a ‘Forbidden Planet’ or ’50s sci-fi soundtrack thing in there; where did that come from?
Mainly through listening to experimental music from the ’50s and early ’60s - having an interest in musique concret and electronic music. I think the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were also very influential - it’s still going, but it started in the ’50s to make soundtrack music for radio and T.V. and was very experimental: tape manipulation and a lot of early electronics, very interesting to me. The sounds that they were generating were very influential and still is influential.
Do you have any interest in composing soundtracks?
Yeah, I would like to do it - it’s something I hope, through being involved with Warners, to get an in-road into, although I suspect it’ll be quite a different discipline. The “mood music” that I do is very suited to that for emphasising and underlining moods and feelings. Hopefully something will come along.
So the new Spectrum is signed to Warners, although E.A.R. isn’t?
It’s Reprise, but yeah - it’s just Spectrum.
What impressed me about your last Spectrum tour was, it seems most bands these days have managers, drivers, merchandisers and booking agents etc. but on your last U.S. tour you did it all yourself - how did you manage to do that and appear so relaxed at the same time?
I don’t mind driving and I’d certainly rather drive than fly and not be able to smoke. It wasn’t too bad. I don’t think I was particularly cool when I had to do the merchandising because I was getting massively hassled - doing merchandising is an incredibly mind-numbing thing anyway, people ask the same questions hudreds of times - they want to look at everything, don’t just choose this and that. It’s just a nightmare, y’know? I even had people stealing stuff.
And you made all the hotel arrangements and rental car agreements yourself?
Yeah, I did the whole lot. Some of the gig booking was done by someone else - I did some of it and then someone else filled in some gigs for us and different people helped out in different places. It was either do that or don’t do it. I would’ve rather done it like that than not done it at all.
How did the ‘Texas Space Fest’ go?
Really, really good! It was amazing actually, it was really nicely organised. Friendly. I was amazed at how many good bands there were - Magnog, a new Kranky label band, they’re really good - very much in the Jessamine / La Bradford vein. And I played with Tortoise on the last couple of songs in their set. Yeah, it was really good. I suspected it would either be brilliant or terrible, and it was amazing.
What are your future plans with E.A.R.?
Right, there’s some new records coming out over the next year - the third L.P. is out in August or so, this is actually a compilation of the ‘Man’s Ruin’ single, the ‘Sympathy’ eight-inch with different mixes and there’s an album’s worth of new material as well, forty to fifty minutes of new stuff. There’s different players on different tracks, effectively the same line-up though of Kevin Martin, Tom Prentiss and Pete Bassman.
Plus the home studio... are you searching for the “ultimate board”?
It’s something I’m going to be getting together in the next six months hopefully - I’ve been buying equipment steadily over the last few years. Really I need to buy a board and a decent tape machine. Getting my own studio up and running is something I plan to get all sorted out this year, mainly for my own stuff but also to work with other people and have a studio that’s more rooted in a lot of things that people were doing more in the ’50s and ’60s than now. Certainly it won’t be a MIDI-digital studio, it’ll be analogue tape. I’m going to build the studio around quite esoteric analogue equipment that you don’t get in very many studios at all; I’m specialising in what I know about.
Your new record label ‘Space Age Records’ - what was the purpose of that, was it just to get bands that you like heard?
Well no, a lot of Spacemen releases that have come out over the last 4 or 5 years - the demos and live records - haven’t been out in England, and it was really to put out my new stuff with other like-minded bands along with some reissues. The reasons behind it were a little more complicated than that, but that was basically it, to find an outlet where I could pretty much do what I wanted within a budget. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I had my own label very briefly about six years ago called ‘Bop-A-Sonic’. ‘Space Age’ is a lot to do with Gerald Palmer who runs the label with me and for me. One thing that we’ve planned to do later this year is called ‘Forged Prescriptions’, a title that Greg came up with, which is going to be demos and out-takes from ‘Perfect Prescription’ and I certainly wouldn’t want to put that out without being involved with Gerald Palmer as he owns some of the rights to do with it. Reissues and demos are going to be a very small part of what the label does though; it’ll be 80% or 90% new stuff. I’ve also been talking to a couple of different composers and experimenters from the ’50s and ’60s who I’m trying to put out some recordings of as well. One piece of equipment I use at the moment is a Synthi VCS3, it was the first portable synth from 1968 and was designed by two composers and an electronics guy. The two composers were Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff and they did some really ground-breaking experimental music in that era. It’s not available now and hasn’t been for some time, but this company they owned put out a lot of analogue equipment and they were the first to put out a commercial digital sequencer which of course everybody has now in their studio inside a computer, although in those days it was a very big deal. A lot of the music they made is influential on me and I’d really just like to see it available en masse. I think people are interested in that stuff now - people like Morton Subotnick, things like that being reissued.
It sounds interesting - are they being responsive?
Cary lives in Australia which is a bit of a drag; he has been semi-responsive, but I’ve had a letter from Peter Zinovieff and he’s totally up for it. I can go out and check out some tapes and stuff, so yeah - they’ve been fairly responsive. They’re a little bit surprised I think that after all this time someone wants to put something out by them. It’s coming together though.
What’s your response to the die-hard fans who say “enough reissues already”?
Yeah, that’s fair enough. We certainly won’t be putting anything out that’s just been out like that before. Anything we put out will have more stuff on it. You can’t please all of the people all of the time unfortunately and I know there are these die-hard fans... they don’t have to buy these things though and there’s a lot of people who do want to buy them who can’t afford £75 for the original release. I am a little sensitive to people’s thoughts on that one. I know a lot of people didn’t like the ‘For Fucked Up Children’ record, but it is what it is, y’know? It says on the front “first ever recordings”, it was demos, it was a very early thing that we did and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it and be interested by it. I don’t think it should not come out because other people don’t like it or whatever. I really don’t expect everyone who likes Spacemen 3 to like that kind of thing - it’s different, y’know? It was a formative thing. If we don’t put it out other people will, that’s the way it is. There are people approaching you the whole time about putting bootlegs out. The only reissues we’ve done so far on Space Age are the ‘Dreamweapon’ record and the live album, which has never been out in the UK and never out on vinyl in the USA. ‘Dreamweapon’ hasn’t been out in the UK since 1990, and even then if you bought the CD you didn’t get what was on the vinyl and vice versa. So we put the whole programme on both formats and made it available again. They wouldn’t sell if nobody wanted them, that’s all I can say. If people buy every variation of something I think they’re fools to themselves - I’m a record collector to a certain extent and I haven’t bought every Velvet Underground bootleg that ever came out, or every Stooges bootleg. I buy the ones I think are worth buying.
How about the obligatory name dropping? Who are your favourite bands or artists these days?
Jessamine. Tortoise I prefer on record. Magnog, La Bradford... all the Kranky label bands, I do like those. Bardo Pond. That type of thing. There’s a whole load of interesting bands out there.
The line-ups of Spectrum and E.A.R. are always changing, is that because variety is the spice of life, because you’re open to playing with everyone or are you just difficult to work with?
Probably a mixture of the former two with a bit of the latter one. There’s some people that I just couldn’t work with, who I’ve sacked y’know? I’ve had some pain in the arse people in the band before, that’s for sure. Drummers are usually a pain and often want to become guitarists and leave to form their own band.
If I can’t ask who the worst were, who are your favourite musician co-workers?
I really enjoy working with Eddie Prevost and I enjoy working with Kevin Martin in the studio to a certain extent. People like Richard Formby and Jason Scott Riley have all been good to work with in their own way.
You’ve toured with Stereolab. How did you hook up with them?
About three years ago we were going to do a tour together, we were going to give a single away and all this sorta stuff and then I had a collapsed lung and we had to cancel it. I really got in touch with them through that, I used to go out and see them live and one night they said to me, “We’ve got a spare guitar, do you want to come up and play on the last song?”. So I went up there and they gave me a guitar and I proceeded to start playing - it was dreadfully out of tune though so I basically phased myself down, just crouched down and hid. The next night they were playing somewhere else nearby and invited me along so I asked if I could bring my VCS3, and they really liked what I did so I’ve been playing with them live since and doing the odd radio and T.V. sessions. Stereolab are very nice people to play with and I really like their music - they give me quite a lot of freedom to do what I want to do. It’s all been good fun.
Do you ever get any creative blocks when you do your own music? How does it work - what inspires you?
It very much comes in waves. You can’t just sit down and find it’ll come every time you want to write. Sometimes it comes unexpectedly, sometimes you have to work at it. I find the E.A.R. stuff flows a lot easier than actually having to write songs. Sound can be a great thing within itself but actually good songwriting is a much harder thing to do. There are people who can write great songs who can’t write mood music, but for me, I find it easier to do the E.A.R. stuff. Although I still enjoy doing the songs, it takes a lot more work.
So what does the future hold for you? Say, ten or twenty years down the line?
I don’t know... this is what I’ve been doing now for the last 13 years, it’s been 10 years since the first record came out and I hope in another 10 years to still be doing it. I don’t know what else I would do. If I’m not actually making music I’ll perhaps be producing it or something like that. I can’t see why I won’t be doing this in ten years time, it’s all I can do really, but I enjoy doing it and I don’t feel I’ve come to the end of my creative span or anything. Just more of the same, just rolling along.
Sonic Boom was interviewed by Carrie Hourihan. Transcription: Steve Pescott. Produced and directed by McMuff. © Ptolemaic Terrascope, 1996.