Dean Wareham interviews Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom

The Luna/Galaxie 500 singer chats with his old friend, Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 and Spectrum.

Dean Wareham and Pete Kember were both part of elemental, influential bands that started in the 1980s but stretched well beyond. Wareham was one-third of Galaxie 500 before forming Luna, and he’s also released solo material and records with Britta Phillips. Kember — aka Sonic Boom — was part of the core of Spacemen 3, and later released records as Spectrum and E.A.R. The two have known each other for a long time, and the occasion for this conversation is the release of All Things Being Equal, Kember’s first album under the Sonic Boom moniker in 20 years, out now on Carpark.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

Dean Wareham: How are things in Portugal today? The last time we saw each other was two years ago when Luna and Spectrum played the same little festival in Madrid — you did it as a two-piece, with Jason Holt on guitar, and it was really great. So last time I saw you and Sam, you were waving goodbye to us from a hotel room on the 10th floor.  

Pete Kember: This morning we went for a drive into the Serra, and it’s quiet. People are going out to do their bits and pieces, and some people have to work, but Portugal has a really aging population and this area is full of older people who are keeping their heads down. We were heading for a spot that we like to go, feels a bit like Joshua Tree, sort of rocky. And the road — which is usually a little treacherous with tourists — was just dead, just amazing. And then we drove up to the park that’s part of the Pena Palace, which looks almost like the Disneyland castle, and belonged to the Portuguese Royal family way back. And they built this awesome little chalet and it has carved cork bark trees on the corners of the building, and it looks like it’s grown out of the landscape and has amazing, beautiful, mature gardens, full of tree ferns and palms, just an amazing mix. And there was no one there, it was beautiful.

We went to Lisbon the other day to see Noah [Lennox] and Fern [Perreira]; I’ve never seen Lisbon quieter and I have to say, I really liked it. It was just beautiful to see the place without tourists clambering all over it and endless big vehicles everywhere. And it looks like it probably would have looked a hundred years ago. It’s an interesting contrast. And it’s really showing people finally that we might have pushed it all a bit far.

Dean: I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine, a medical student, in 1986, during the AIDS crisis, and he said well this is terrible of course but humanity is long overdue for an airborne plague. The scientists have known — it’s sort of like how they talk about the earthquake issue in California — it’s not a question of if, but when.

Pete: There was a show in the UK in the mid-‘70s called Survivor. And in it, essentially some guy from China got on a plane with his illness, you know, they sort of can trace the movement of the disease back to one person at a certain point. And then this sort of bifurcation and this splitting spread of it slowly. I guess people have long known this was a possibility, but it’s been long enough that everyone forgot about the Spanish flu.

Dean: There was also the Hong Kong flu in 1968 that killed about a million people.

Pete: It doesn’t surprise me. And I’ve had flus before or things from traveling. I survived it of course, but I couldn’t walk and breathe, just like the most horrendous chest infection type things. The day after you get off a long haul flight from somewhere and something just descends on you. Flying exacerbates the spread of these things. It kind of enables pandemics.

Dean: Can you imagine getting on a plane right now? Here we are, early May, Britta and I had plans to visit you there at the end of our European tour. And you had your own shows scheduled I know.

Pete: We were going to have a few shows over the summer and we were just sort of building up and working out when exactly, and how we were going to tour in the States. We were talking about going on tour with DIIV. 

Dean: My friend Dave was on tour as their sound engineer. He had just finished some Luna shows in February and flew directly to England to do that tour. I kept checking with him as that tour progressed, and so did the virus, asking well, what’s it like in Germany? And at first he said, we had a packed show in Hamburg last night, no trouble at all! But then two days later, it was over, and they were scrambling to get home. There was the one day when Angela Merkel made some comment that she thought that 60 percent of Germans might be infected. And then country by country we started to realize the European tour was going to be impossible. The UK was the last to cancel. I kept hearing, it’s business as usual here, and I said, just give it one more week, it will not be business as usual, I promise!

Pete: My personal feeling is that Boris Johnson, Trump as well, the way they reacted to it early on was just kind of criminal. And I’m sure a lot of people will die as a result of their telling everyone, “Oh, it’s OK. I’m going to shake hands with people in hospital. It’s nothing to worry about.” There’s no accountability with these clowns.

Dean: I read a good piece by Patrick Cockburn at Counterpunch, who said that Johnson and Trump are both inept, nativist demagogues who are really only good at winning elections. And he thought maybe they’ll muddle their way through, unless something catastrophic happens, a real crisis, instead of the fictional ones they invent. Of course this is exactly what has happened; the pandemic has revealed their character flaws to be literally lethal to thousands of people.

Pete: That was one of my initial thoughts , if people can’t see what fucking idiots these guys are through this, then it doesn’t really matter. Maybe the sooner the human race is gone from this planet, the better off it will be. And these guys are gonna help us do it double quick time. 

Even in my family, during the Brexit thing — and Boris Johnson is definitely part of it — 6yit started getting to be a lot of name calling and it started to feel a bit like being in the playground again. If you wanted to remain, they called you a “remoaner” —  that’s if you don’t want to leave. And the Brexit lobby had all sorts of interesting names. It really got down to name calling, a downgrading of any kind of intelligent, socio-political interaction. 

Dean: Well on the other side, I think there’s a tendency to maybe view anybody who voted for Brexit as an anti-immigrant racist. I’m sure that was part of the Brexit vote, but it seems a bit easy. There are also left arguments for opposing the European Union; you can make the case that there is this unelected bureaucracy that serves the interest of big capital and favors Germany and France over the smaller nations, and that it’s inherently undemocratic. 

Pete: Honestly these days I go out of my way to avoid reading about these guys. I just feel that there’s nothing I can do about it. Sam reads more than I do so I hear about it from her. But I do remember the first time I saw Trump in those primaries you have — that long run up to the election —  I thought, this dude will win; there’s no question he’s totally going to get in. And it’s the most depressing thought I’ve ever had. And then I saw a documentary on Charles Manson where they’re interviewing him in the 1980s I think, and he was on quite good form, and at one point he started talking about the ecology and about the planet and stuff. And I thought, if Charles Manson was up for president against Donald Trump, I’m sorry, I’m voting for Manson.

Dean: You went to the Rugby school, right? I assume that’s a Church of England school?

Pete: Yes, but my parents were Catholic. That’s how we grow up, isn’t it? Your parents are Catholic, so you’re expected to be Catholic. Tick the “I accept” box without really thinking deeply about it. I think sometimes at school that intelligence is, well, not beaten out of people, but bored out of people. And there’s this thing about dogma, and if you can repeat this and you know that, then that’s all you need to know, but clearly real intelligence is not just repeating and taking for granted what someone else told us; science and all these things are evolving. Buckminster Fuller is an interesting case in this way. Apparently he was so shortsighted, so myopic that he couldn’t really see anything. And he said that one day the teacher came in and gave all the kids, I don’t know, half a dozen straws and corks or some way to connect them to make a shape. And all the kids made a cube out of the things together. But not him, he made a pyramid, because he couldn’t see what the other kids, who were clearly all looking at each others’ work. So he credits not being able to see properly for making him start to think in a different way and realized that there was some sort of real benefit to that. And his teacher was amazed, he said you’re the only one who didn’t make a cube. He was kicked out of your alma mater, Harvard, I believe for questioning things too much.

I think it is your very limitations that actually make you interesting as an artist. I’m a pretty limited player, but it works for me. 

Pete: Yeah, sometimes when people have too much knowledge about music, they don’t really understand the magic of music so much. It’s more about a gymnastics kind of thing, where this is perfection to it — but sometimes at the expense of any emotional connection. 

Dean: I read an interview with Eno recently, and he was talking about how he creates his ambient music and about the role of accident. So he might put musical elements together that were not intended to be together in one piece of music — but yet it works. 

Pete:  I guess that’s kind of what art is really — arranging things. Music, at its lowest level, is organized sound. Once sound becomes organized, even if it’s coming out of a waterfall, it starts to sound like music. I think that’s probably the thing I feel with all art. Organizing shape and color. 

Dean: I’m kind of amazed with this new record that you did it all all by yourself, right? I find it hard to finish anything without bouncing ideas off people.

Pete: Well I had an engineer of course, for doing the vocals and stuff; he’s the king of the Auto-Tune. He fixes all my vocals for me.

Dean: I’ve watched you mix, and I find it interesting that you’ll work on one song for a couple of hours, and then when you’re tired of that, you’ll pull up another song. You sorta jump around, which is unusual. Most people work on the same mix all day.

Pete: I’m sort of bouncing ideas of different me’s the whole time and I have to, depending on what stage of it I’m doing, totally walk away from it for a while and come back with a different head on, to be the mix guy or the production guy or “we’re doing bass today” guy.

But I think I had the confidence to do some stuff from working and learning with other people — we’re back to the education thing now, there is education that you can get fairly quickly at schools, depending on how good your teachers are. But most of the education you truly get is out there in the real world. And maybe real world skills are worth more than degrees. 

Dean: Or the thing that you thought you were just pursuing on the side, it becomes your life.

Pete: Yeah. I don’t think any of us when we started doing music really believed that — I mean, we might hope — but I don’t think anyone really thought that was how we were gonna make our living. 

Dean: I feel sorry for people who go into music expecting a career. I feel like I just got a little bit lucky. 

Pete: I don’t know. It’s a mixture of luck but also the luck you make, and I guess the luck you find as well, and the way you interact with other people. And a lot of the really cool things in life aren’t things that you expected to happen. Like when we went up to the chalet of the Countess of Edla today, it wasn’t what I got up today to do. Usually my favorite things that I ever do are things that just happened, that weren’t particularly planned. 

Dean: I’ve heard you say that you learn from the people you work with; every time you work with a new producer or a new band or something.

Pete: Yeah. And if you can’t learn something from them, steal something from them! Speaking of that, did I tell you that I read Steve Jones’ autobiography? I was laughing on almost every page. My favorite guilty pleasure in that book is that he goes through every band that he loves, well he’s sort of like the most nightmarish groupie that you can have, because if he likes your band, he’s going to steal your equipment! He’ll say about the Bollocks recording sessions “Yeah , I had Roxy Music’s tuner that I stole when I saw them at the Hammersmith Odeon.” And he talks about Bowie’s famous last Spiders from Mars show; apparently the night before Steve stole all of their expensive Neumann and AKG microphones. He remarks he’s surprised the recording for the filming came out so good, as he’d “nicked all the clobber.”

Dean: I do follow Steve Jones on Instagram — Jonesy’s Jukebox. He’s got a nice tiled bathroom and has been singing from in there during the pandemic, and he’s actually got a nice voice too. 

Pete: Yeah on the Rock N Roll Swindle album, I like the songs he sings. “Lonely Boy.” I guess he wrote, too.

Dean:did you have any thoughts on the passing of Florian Schneider? Did you ever see Kraftwerk live?

Pete: I did, but not with him. It was about a year ago and we didn’t stay to the end. It was at a fancy place, sort of like a polo club. No one was dancing, except us, we’d taken MDMA. Some of the visuals were great but some of it was not — like some dreadful animation of them arriving to the festival in a UFO. 

Dean: I saw them in about 2002, and it was one of the best shows I have ever seen, but I can understand why he quit some years back; it must be sorta boring to stand up there for two hours with films behind you, and as audience members you don’t even know what the hell they’re doing up there. It looks like they’re singing live at least, but their hands are sorta hidden so you’re not sure what they’re playing.

Pete: I have a bootleg CD of Kraftwerk, from 1975 in Cologne, and the recording is awesome, it has some awesome compressor over the whole thing that just makes it really organic sounding and alive. But it’s interesting because slowly but surely it sort of falls apart. They keep it going, but different bits of it sort of crap out. But it’s kinda cool. You can hear the whole thing sort of collapse or disassemble, like a cable starts to go or some channels start to crap out.

Dean: It must be very difficult given the finicky nature of that equipment to reproduce what they did in the studio live. Until like twenty years later, when the technology made it easier.

Pete: I dunno with Kraftwerk though; I think they were slick. I really do. I think a lot of the live recordings are really impressive. The day after Florian died, I saw an interview, in Brazil I think, and he was just a total dick with the woman interviewing him. He really made her job tough, really monosyllabic, the whole thing. And it was funny cause I’d never seen him even speak before. So I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of psychedelic. Kranky Florian.”

Dean: When I saw them, I thought, well they really did sort of invent the future. I sort of feel that way about Suicide, too.

Pete: Well I think Suicide probably were paying attention to Kraftwerk and Silver Apples and stuff like that. I’m pretty sure that would have stood out to them. I remember when I met Alan Vega, I asked him about the Silver Apples. He told me that they they loved them. At first he said it in a slightly defensive mode, as if I was a journalist or something. Maybe he realized I had recognized a little bit of the source of the font. I feel like “A Pox On You” is almost a Suicide blueprint. Anyway, Alan sort of looked at me, he gave me a slightly weird look and then broke into a big smile . He said they did a lot of acid to their LPs .

Dean:  I think the first time I heard about Silver Apples was probably from you. 

Pete: It was one of those word of mouth things back then. Same way I heard about them.

Dean: When I think about Spacemen 3, that’s a band with so many imitators, you guys were another band who you synthesized something amazing from sources like Kraftwerk, Suicide, Beach Boys, Velvets —  but so many things spun off of what you did. You have a lot of imitators, every psych-fest has bands working from the Spacemen 3 template. But bizarrely, it’s very hard to find your music online. It’s on Apple music perhaps but it’s not on Spotify. 

Pete: Yeah. I’m not even sure if it’s on Apple Music, because our ex-manager Gerald Palmer, we have this ongoing, long running and still in progress legal pursuit of him. There is another massive lawsuit against him, and against Apple, by the estate of Harold Arlen, who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So yeah, Gerald’s been out there stealing the rainbows apparently, and there’s a lawsuit against him. He was our manager who snatched a load of our catalogue on the way .

Dean: how old were you when you signed with him?

Pete: About 7 years old.

Dean: That sounds about right. I read Richard Hell’s memoir and he just talks about how, when you’re that age, you’re in your twenties and you’re broke, and some label comes along and offers you a record deal, you don’t care what it says, you’re just like, “Yes, yes, let me sign that!”

Pete: That was your dream. Just to have the records. You never thought there’d be any money or anything like that. 

Dean: We had an offer early in Galaxie 500 days, a label offered us a three-record deal, but they wanted our publishing too, which we did not understand is a red flag. We said, “Yes, let’s sign it!” But our lawyer, Richard Grabel, said just wait a second, he kept stalling. We were like, “What’s wrong with you? We need to get this done now!” Thank God we had a lawyer. 

Pete: And in many ways the record industry is still working in this way. They know morally they’re on really thin ice, but legally it’s okay. So unfortunately, morality and legality don’t always meet up in these things. And these contracts can be long and complicated. What they give away on the front page in the large print might be hacked up, taken away, could be deducted in the small print, on page 63. You know how it goes. You trust in lawyers if you can afford them. We thought we had one back then, but it turns out he was working for our manager. The record and film industries operate in a horrible area where older knowledgeable men and women take advantage of naïve and optimistic boys and girls. Taking their copyrights for life in many cases. Although they hide that , like most things in the contracts that are on thin ground under terms like “In Perpetuity.”

Dean: I just bought an old vinyl copy of Recurring on Ebay. I bought one of those limited editions with the gold embossed cover.

Pete: They did that after we sold a million copies and we went gold. 

Dean: I think that’s a joke?  

Pete: Yes. But I did see on Discogs recently that there have been something like 38 pressings of Playing With Fire. It has been re-pressed so many places. There were six or seven different versions of that as soon as it came out, in like Scandinavia and France and you know, back in the day when they used to do all this local pressed stuff.

Dean: Well the thing that the thing that pisses me off for you is that I know, with Galaxie 500, we own our recordings and they’re on Spotify and we make — well, we’re not getting rich off it — but it contributes to my income substantially. And Spacemen 3 are big enough that you should be making it. So that is just kinda criminal. I know everyone bitches about Spotify, but if you own the recordings, you can make money there. 

Pete: The new record is available through Spotify because I have partners in this, and Carpark tell me that most of the income comes from digital. I have  relentlessly slagged off Spotify and I still feel the same way — I disagree with what they do. Maybe I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face, but I’m just trying to vote a little bit with my actions. If  I was living a miserable life somewhere and was on the dole and asking people for handouts, it would be different, but I sort of arranged my life to not be reliant on any one of these things. Because Gerald Palmer was withholding all my Spacemen 3 royalties, I decided to build my life and income to be not based on that as it’s clearly being shredded. 

Dean: Well Spotify doesn’t pay songwriters well, but they do pay the owner of the master — whether that’s the label or the artist. It’s the opposite of radio, where historically they paid songwriters but not artists or labels.

Pete: The music industry is based on old and tired, often inappropriate methods and practices. It needs to change. The model I’m trying with Carpark is towards that.

Dean: Did you study design at school? Your album art has always been so good.

Pete: I did art stuff when I was at school and then I left school at 16 and went to art college, and design was part of my foundation course. My mum recently gave me a Buddy Holly record cover that I’d made when I must’ve been, I don’t know, 10 or 11. I’d make an album sleeve for this Buddy Holly album that had lost its cover. I saw it and thought, “Wow obviously I was always interested in record sleeves.” I definitely always paid attention to that stuff.

Dean: I remember the first time I picked up a Spacemen 3 record, and maybe I had read about it, but I was visually struck by the cover for The Perfect Prescription before I ever heard it.

Pete: I feel the same way. Back then, unless you had endless time and the dude in the record store was endlessly tolerant, you had to make a lot of your decision based on the way a record looked. I have this thing with the first Velvet Underground LP, I mostly took that home because of the way it looked. And I didn’t think the record would be good. I sort of came to it from more of a pop art sort of thing. It was like, this is just such an awesome Warhol sleeve, let’s take a risk. And then I was kind of blown away. I remember particularly “Sunday Morning” and some of the sort of really instant pop stuff like “Femme Fatale” hit me immediately. I never heard anything like it really. And it’s quite a dynamic record in volumes as well. I remember when Lou Reed died, I put on an original copy of the album at a friend’s house, and I remember noticing with my modern mastering ears how much the volume differences were between the tracks.

Dean: Did you see that just a couple of weeks ago, somebody put up this video of your first New York gig, at Sideshows by the Seashore, on the boardwalk in Coney Island? This is 1992; it was a great place for summer evening shows. It’s still there, but not as a music venue.

Pete: Yeah, that same guy put up a lot of my shows from the early 1990s and they are pretty good quality as well for that time period.

Dean: I remember that night — it actually turned into the Luna song “Sideshow by the Seashore” — there was an electrical storm that figures in the song. So last week I looked up the weather report for that night in New York. And there it was: A big storm blew in at about 8 p.m. and we were all huddled inside the club. The storm was actually related to Hurricane Andrew that had happened a couple days earlier. I’m in the video too, I played guitar with you that night, all totally unrehearsed, but I can’t remember how it happened. I must have known I was going to play as I had a guitar with me, so somehow it must have been worked out beforehand, but I can’t remember.

Pete: I have the worst memory ever, but I do remember this. Mike McGonigal had come to interview me at a midtown hotel and he said, you know what? I got a real problem. I’ve got this band tomorrow night that just called me today and said they can’t make it tomorrow. So I’ve got this show, but no band. Would you play? But he of course knew you and, and I’m pretty sure maybe he suggested it. I said to him, look if I can use the amps and guitars from the opening band…

Dean: That’s how you always do it.

Pete: If I can borrow the equipment, I’ll always do it. You have to be a little adaptable, which I’ve sort of learned to be.

Dean: I watched the video, and I can only say that I overplayed — too many notes! You later advised me that I should play to the spaces, play with the space. I can hear the birds outside your window. We have the same thing in LA, every morning there is one bird sitting on the Jacaranda tree outside my bedroom, making a racket at 6:30 in the morning. The Jacaranda is in bloom in LA.

Pete: The Jacaranda trees are in flower all over Lisbon, too. And it’s the most beautiful time for me in Lisbon, and to be experiencing it with no one around us is rather refreshing. I feel that the Newton thing — for every action an equal and opposite reaction is at play, there’s so much good that people are seeing right now. It’s amazing how many people I’ve talked to in my family and beyond who’ve had minor to major epiphanies about their lives and about different elements of it. Though sadly, not everyone’s taking something good away from it. 

Dean: Those of us who are fortunate enough… Of course the virus has laid bare the class divide, and the divide between white collar and blue collar workers. Some of us can work from home or enjoy the quiet, but others have to go drive a bus or work in supermarkets. More than a hundred subway workers have died in New York City.

Pete: Yeah, those blue collar workers, very few of them have a reserve to live off. So when they’re just laid off at the drop of a hat, when something like this happens, they’re absolutely fucked. But again, as miserable as all this is, there has to be at least as much good come out of it. And I sort of feel that there will be, if people can keep the focus on this thing — unless people want to do this every spring — I think we have to just back things down and change things to a more sensible level. My whole feeling is that most of the problems on this planet, everyone has some involvement in some of them, and it’s us that create all of them and it’s only us as a race that can solve them.  I think the potential for humanity to do it right is massive. It just needs a little pushing in that direction.

Dean Wareham is a musician (Galaxie 500, Luna, Dean & Britta) and a writer. His memoir, Black Postcards, was published by Penguin. You can follow him here.