Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Questions with Sonic Boom

Spacemen 3 was one of those bands that just floored me the first time I heard them. I'm not sure what it is about their work, but in addition to becoming one of my favorite bands, they really had a big impact on the way I think about music and the connections I draw between early electronica, psychedelic, avant garde, garage and punk, and how you can do all those things at the same time.

We were lucky enough to get founding Spacemen 3 member Sonic Boom on the phone to answer some questions about his old band, as well as his work as Spectrum and Experimental Audio Research. Much of the conversation evolved into a discussion of his relationship with Spacemen 3 partner Jason Pierce (now of Spiritualized), and he had some pretty interesting things to say. Poor phone reception forced me to cut out a couple questions at the end, but we got a lot of good stuff recorded for you:

So are you on a full fledged tour right now?

Yes, we're three quarters of the way through it.

What was the occasion for the tour?

We've got a new album coming out next year and a new EP coming out at the end of the year, and we haven't done any Spectrum shows for a while, so I wanted to warm up a little bit. I often tour between albums anyway, and the last Spectrum album was like ten years ago.

What was it that made you wait so long between Spectrum releases?

Just timing, alignment of planets and shit like that. It just didn't seem worth it the past few years. It was tough when we released the last album because what people were listening to wasn't in synch with what I was doing, and I've never been one to put what I'm doing in sync with what people are listening to. And there were other things I wanted to do with EAR and playing with other bands and stuff. I didn't stop writing songs, so I've ended up with ten years of material to pick and choose from, so it's really nice.

It's interesting that you say that you held off partially because what you were doing wasn't in synch with what people were listening to.

Yeah, I'm not really one to drag myself about, if people don't give a shit there's no point really. But anyway, there's always a really great hardcore following for us, the fans are very loyal and it's much appreciated. But ultimately, to do large tours, you need to be able to get some of their bodies to come along too basically, and often that happens around album releases. Luckily, there's enough of an audience anyway to be with us.

I saw you in Austin few months ago, and I remember you covered Kraftwerk's "House of Mirrors." Have you been playing that song for a while on tour?

Yeah, nice show, yeah. I've been doing that song for a while, for the past couple years here and there, and I'm doing it at the moment too. I've done some one off Spectrum shows the past couple years in New York and the west coast, and I was doing it then too. Kraftwerk has always been a big influence on Spacemen 3 and all the stuff I've done, and that's one of their more esoteric tracks.

That was the first time I'd seen you live, but I understand that when you play live, you often alternate between playing Spacemen 3 material, EAR material and Spectrum material. Do you like to mix all those up in one set, or do you often decide to play songs from one incarnation of your career in one set and stick with it the whole way?

It's all really Spacemen and Spectrum stuff, but I do a little EAR stuff. It's just more instrumental drone based stuff, and it's more incorporated in between tracks. It's the sort of stuff that doesn't appeal to all the audience, so it's predominantly Spectrum and Spacemen 3 songs.

I was on the Spacemen 3 All Music page the other day, and I read a quote that you wrote in reference to the release of Playing with Fire. You said something to the effect that minimalism was maximalism, and I wonder if you could expound upon that a little more because that is something that interests me too, the way space in music can have an effect on a piece of music.

Yeah, I still believe that. Kraftwerk is probably the classic example of that. There's rarely more than four elements in any of their songs at any one time, and they're all perfectly placed tonally, harmonically and logically for the maximum effect. It's all a matter of elements you can use to get over what you're trying to get over to have a more direct effect.

Who were some of the main influences that inspired you to start playing music in the first place?

You know, Kraftwerk, Suicide, Stooges, Velvet Underground, 13th Floor Elevators, mostly people that are now recognized as being classic, I hope. And that's one of the great things with the internet, it plugs people into the great stuff more easily. In my day, if you came across a 13th Floor Elevators record, you'd have to risk the money to buy it to see what it sounded like, and then you'd have to spend ten years trying to find anything else by them. And now it's all internet, and it's great in some ways.

Yeah, I guess back in the day, finding records by bands like Suicide required a combination of work and luck, and you don't really need that anymore. So it's interesting, on the one hand so many more people can hear that music and be inspired by it, but on the other, some of it may be more disposable to some people than it would have been to the people who found that music 15 years ago.

Well I think that might have a bit more to do with their character rather than the internet. I think you'll always find people who are shallow and happy to be shallow, and you'll always find people who are more interested in delving a bit deeper.

That's true. So I was interested to know how you and Jason Pierce met.

We went to the same art college, and we met in September of 1982.

How did you guys develop a friendship and start playing together?

It was just one of those things, sometimes people click and sometimes they don't. We were both interested in forming a band, and we had some musical taste in common, and that's about as good a start as you can get I guess.

Obviously you guys had some similar taste in music, but there were certainly some different influences that you both brought to the table too.

No, that's not really true. It's just part of your imagination really. It's not actually a fact.

So there weren't a lot of different influences between both of you?

No at all, and in fact, that was one of the things that became very hard towards the end.

But you guys seemed to go in pretty different directions after you split up.

No, I don't know. Either way, one of the things that got really tough was that it seemed that Jason didn't really bring much else to the table. Since then, he's into really strange stuff. Like the drone thing. Somehow he decided to release an album of drone stuff at some point. And I covered a Daniel Johnston song, "Love Will Find You in the End," in my live set most of the time since (Spacemen 3), and now Jason has decided to start doing that song as well in his live set recently. And that's kind of symptomatic of the way things were. I had long discussions with Jason where I told him it would be really cool if he went out and brought some songs with a different pace and other stuff into the mix, but it was always the exact same stuff.

So you kind of grew frustrated with the collaboration process and decided you needed to move on?

Well, the first few albums are written together, but on Playing with Fire, Jason didn't write any songs at all. And I told him, "start writing songs mate, or I'm not splitting the credit with you, that isn't the way it works. You need to write songs, you write great songs, but you're so fucking lazy." Of course, he didn't like that at all. In the end, I think he has two and a half songs that he is credited with on Playing with Fire, and the half credit on "Suicide" was me being nice to him to help him out because we wasn't writing anything. He was also withdrawing himself from the band at that time, and hanging out with his girlfriend the whole time.

So really you just figured you were doing most of it anyway, so why does the band exist?

I was doing most of it anyway, and I didn't mind being the manager and the fucking publicist and the record company liaison and everything else, but when it came to songwriting, I wasn't about to do it all because I liked his songs and I wanted him to write songs. But if I had to do it all, I wasn't about to just split the credit with him and say that he wrote them as well when he hadn't, which is actually what he wanted. It got even weirder than that. There was a lyric that I wrote at some point and decided not to use it, and five years later, Jason dragged it up, so I recognized it and (said something to him), and he was like "prove it, prove you wrote it." That was kind of the way things went. It was kind of why the whole record Recurring was split.

So do you ever talk with Jason Pierce?

I haven't spoken with him in 16 years. It's all really ancient history, but it keeps popping up, like last year with the Daniel Johnston song. I mean, Daniel Johnston has written 100 amazing fucking songs, and it really wouldn't be that hard for him to go out and find one. The Daniel Johnston record came out in 1990, and in 1991 I released a cover of it, and then suddenly, 16 years later, to cover the same song is a really weird thing.

Well if he's blatantly taking from you, don't you think--

Well he's often got away, like exactly what you were thinking, where people think that he must have come up with a larger percentage of it than he actually did. He wrote some great songs, but he was always interested in taking credit beyond that, and it wasn't done in a nice way. He would ask the guys in the studio, "How did you do this, how did you do that" and then go off and do it. Instead of asking them to help him out on a track, it was all very underhanded. None of it surprises me, for years he tired to pass of my ideas as his own, and he gets away with it enough of the time that I suppose he thinks it works.

Well I'm glad you're talking about this because I think you're right, a lot of people--

He even copied my signature. Before I was Sonic Boom I was Peter Gunn, and the way I signed it was a P with a question mark, I mean a P looks like a question mark, and it was the "P" from Peter Gunn with a question mark. And since Spacemen split, people started bringing me records he had signed and he had started signing the same way, making the question mark a "J." Really strange things. Why would you take half of someone else's signature, like you'd never notice that? And "Anyway that you Want Me," the first Spiritualized song, was a cover of a Troggs song that I brought to the band during Playing with Fire, and I was going to do it as one of my songs, and I had trouble singing it, and in the end, Jason sang it and we recorded, but it never made the album. And then with Spiritualized, the big headline in the press was that they needed to do their own thing and that I had too much stay and stuff, and then their first single they did the Troggs cover that I brought in for Spacemen 3 to do. And it's like yeah, you use my ideas, but I have so much say that it's bumming you out? It's ridiculous.

Yeah, I had actually read about that. So I guess you don't see Spacemen 3 coming together again?

It looks highly unlikely to me.

Well that's a shame.

It is a shame, it's a real shame. It's very sad I think. There's a lot about it that's really sad. What sort of personality does it take to do that? Someone who can be perfectly creative in his own right. He's really most creative in a competitive sense, but even still, to steal ideas from other people, it's more than just buying some record that your friend has or something.

So I wanted to ask you about a more pleasant topic. In the past ten years or so, we've seen a lot of newer bands that reference you as a big influence on them, and I wonder how that feels on a personal level.

Yeah, there's been a whole slew of them, and it's really nice. Some are better than others, but there have been some really great ones, and it's nice to get some credit within that.

Any bands in particular that you really like?

I don't want to name any names, but there are a lot of them, yeah. Most of them are good on some level, and the ones which might be better than they are probably will be soon. Not everyones first album is their best album. When we did the Spacemen 3 records, we were writing for an audience that actually didn't exist, or clearly didn't exist where we were living (laughs). And it's weird the way things have evolved over the last 20 years, there are a large percentage of kids who have been tuned in to the stuff that we were doing, there are people in the audience that we always hoped would be out there for our stuff, and they all came out from the bushes somewhere, and it's a lot more visible.

Is it bittersweet for you that people are just now starting to catch up to what you were doing 15 years ago?

No, I wouldn't say people are catching up, there are just continuing waves of it, and this isn't just my job, it's my life, and it's nice that things turned out that way.

(Sonic Boom plays as Spectrum at the Wall of Sound Festival at LaGrave Field in Ft. Worth this Saturday.)