Sonic Boom – Pete Kember on His First Sonic Boom Album in 30 Years | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, August 7th, 2022  

Sonic Boom – Pete Kember on His First Sonic Boom Album in 30 Years

Putting Out Vibes

Jun 08, 2020 Photography by Ian Witchell Web Exclusive
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Pete Kember needs no introduction. Having founded Spacemen 3 with Jason Pierce in 1982, the band went onto achieve widespread critical acclaim before tensions between the two eventually led to their demise by the turn of the decade.

Since then, Kember has embarked on a number of projects both under his stage name and solo guise Sonic Boom, or more collaboratively as E.A.R. (Experimental Audio Research) and Spectrum. He has also established himself as a respected producer, having overseen recordings from the likes of MGMT, Beach House, Panda Bear, and Moon Duo among a host of others.

However, Under the Radar is here to talk about his new solo album, All Things Being Equal. It’s his first record as Sonic Boom for 30 years, since debut LP Spectrum came out in 1990, and also his first for Carpark Records. The album was recorded over the space of five years, having initially started the project in his hometown of Rugby, before moving to Sintra on the Portuguese riviera where he finished the album.

All Things Being Equal represents Kember’s finest body of work to date post-Spacemen 3—something he’s only too proud to acknowledge. So, in a rare interview, Under the Radar got the lowdown on the background to the new record, Kember’s life in his new surroundings, and how the impact of COVID-19 has the potential to change the world for the better in the future.

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): All Things Being Equal is your first album as Sonic Boom for 30 years so why now?

Pete Kember: I felt it was something I wanted to do musically. I had some things I wanted to say. It isn’t like I stopped making music after the first Sonic Boom record. I’ve made records as Spectrum and E.A.R. as well as several Sonic Boom collaborations. So, I just felt it was time to put together a full album that I wanted to reflect what I was thinking and feeling. My thoughts were centering around what I believe is the approach we have to critical collapse in the planet for us. The other thing was aspiration. Inspiration and aspiration. I wanted to make something aspirational. I wanted to make something vibey. I wanted to show that I feel my quality of life has been improved the more I think about every element of recycling. The more I do that, my life just feels better from doing it. It really occurred to me what John Lennon and The Beatles in general did with the vibes they put out. Most of it was really positive and benign. I feel a lot of people who’ve taken psychedelic drugs arrive at this place quicker than most. They suddenly start to see everything in a much deeper perspective and I felt that was a fantastic thing. I know The Beatles aren’t the only people who’ve put out a super positive eco-lifestyle message. I know plenty of other musicians have done it too. But the more there is, the more it helps. It can be kind of cruel as well, but it’s better than trying to punish people. Incentivise them instead. Some of the medieval stuff we’re dealing with on this planet when we’re talking about sun rising and sunset. Yet, we’ve known for over five hundred 500 years the sun neither rises nor sets. We talk about the four corners of the earth even though we’ve known throughout history this is a globe that we’re on. There are no corners. That we keep using some of these phrases just suggests to me the repeated dogma of the situation that if people thought about it a little bit more—which I think is important—we could perhaps avoid doing some of the severe damage we’ve already done to the planet again in the future. We believe that we’re the only creatures on this planet that are sentient enough to have a total overview of everything. Yet, we actually have this pan view of everything, and it’’s only us that can really fix it. We broke it and we really need to fix it and I feel it’’s everyone’s responsibility to do it. We all created it, now we need to undo it, and as long as we’re relying on politicians it has to be aspirational for us to do it. It’s like drunk driving. It used to be acceptable, and it was through social pressures applied in the right sort of positive way. Sometimes you can stop these things and make people realize they’re wrong.

Was there a running theme throughout the 10 songs on the album?

A lot of it was to do with the original backing tracks. The core of each track is a monophonic synthesizer running around a lot. When I was doing it, I was thinking about plants and I started to realize I was creating something quite organic and plant-like. I started to recognize a lot of the shapes in nature and the patterns that are part of the overall DNA on this planet that can be summoned upon. I started to notice a lot of these interwoven, symbiotic relationship shades. So, it made me think I’d really like to make an album that’s really influenced by plants and pays them some due. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to make it tree huggy, hippy-dippy kind of stuff, and I don’t want it to be preachy. Preaching to people doesn’t really have a vision effect and people just have to get it or they don’t. Sometimes you can make people get things by the way you deliver them. Songs like “Just a Little Piece of Me” for example which says “Bury me beneath a tree, let its roots grow into me, let it grow and you might see just a little piece of me.” That was influenced by some of the most beautiful trees I see round here every day. There are avenues of them, and I think to myself, the person that planted them never saw the full beauty of those trees. He probably knew he wouldn’t, but he still planted them and I think we need a lot more of that kind of vibe in the world.

How old are the songs on the album? When did you first start writing for All Things Being Equal?

I did the electronic backings about five years ago. I had a couple of new pieces of equipment I was really psyched about. My favorite thing with any piece of equipment when I get it is to find out what I can make it do that is partly unique to that instrument, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Great songs aren’t really created. They’re born in a way. They happen. Whereas, I’m not sure they really happen to people who write things intentionally. So, they have to repeat it because it didn’t happen to start with in the way they intended it to. I had some luck with those, so initially I sent them to a few people. One of those was Tim Gane from Stereolab and I asked him if he was interested in doing some stuff with me. Then he came back and said I should release them as they are. I thought about that for a while and it did nearly happen. I was so into the vibe of them and I felt they could be really useful to underline the lyric; or even the lyric to underline the vibe of the song. I wanted to make something a bit more specific than instrumental music ever can be.

Was it initially intended to be an instrumental album?

I started doing it then decided to make an album, whereas a lot of people decide to make an album then go and do it. I like to work on stuff and when I think it’‘s something good. I’ll collect it together. There was a point really early on where I realized, I had a good cluster of songs. I also like to take my time with things, so when it came to making the second part of the record we’d just moved to Portugal and spent the first couple of years just getting on our feet pretty much and sorting out details. Then I started going into the studio here and doing sessions. Usually for two or three days at a time, then take a few weeks off, go in for two or three days and that’s how it continued. I’d like to sit and build up the energies and then go in. Just blast it, so it’s really emotionally exhausting, particularly when it gets to the lyrics stage. I felt really inspired in this environment and working in the garden. Stuff just started coming into my head and I guess I probably wrote more than 100 songs. Something where I got more than a verse, I’d call a song. A lot of them I’ll never use, I’m sure, but out of those I did, I managed to pull a theme though a lot of it that fitted together. I took what I felt were the really strong bits of it. The bits I knew I felt good about. Sometimes you can write things down but actually singing or vocalizing them is a different thing altogether. You don’t often realize how comfortable you are until you come to vocalize them. With some of the songs, I tried to delve in and pull out the guts a little bit, which is not always an easy process. But, I know from experience whenever I do something where I’m maybe exposing myself or my emotions or I’m unsure about it, the resonance it has with other people is really strong. So, I took that as a sign that if I’m finding it hard, it’’s probably going to resonate strong with people. Two of the more introspective songs on the album—“Spinning on Coins and Wishing on Clovers” and “My Echo, My Shadow and Me”—nearly didn’t make it onto the record. I wanted the album to have a depth of light and shade. Actually, as many depths as possible from the visuals to the sounds, the whole thing. So, I put those in there and I was a little unsure about it but then a bunch of people really dear to me—musicians and friends—came back and picked out those two songs as the ones they really identified with. Then when I sent it to Noah Lennox from Panda Bear, his question straight back was who wrote those two songs? When people ask me questions like that, I know it’s had an effect.

Do you approach the writing and recording process differently when making a Sonic Boom record to how you would with your other projects such as Spectrum or Experimental Audio Research?

Experimental Audio Research I’m totally thinking about sound rather than song-based pieces. I know almost certainly there’ll be no vocals on it. When I do Spectrum, it’’s normally a collaborative project on some levels. Even when I’m collaborating with other people as Sonic Boom, I might write most of the songs, but there are still other people involved as well, so I think of it as more of a band situation. Then if I do stuff that’s essentially a solo record where it’’s more or less just me and a few parts played by other people —I think of that as a Sonic Boom record. Or at least that’s happened twice!

Did moving from Rugby to Portugal have a big influence on how this record turned out? Do you think the record may have turned out differently had you stayed in the UK?

Yeah, I do. I lived in a little terraced house in Rugby, and with property prices in the town being good, there was a lot of value in the house. My wife also had a little terraced property when we met, so once we realized we could both exchange those houses and live somewhere we wanted to be, that’s what we did. I wake up every morning, look out the window and it’’s never the same. It changes every day, but it’’s stunning. It looks like somewhere in North Japan or Costa Rica. Portugal’s a really beautiful country and I felt I wasn’t really living my life to the full in the UK. So, I wanted to change it. I was happy to learn a new language. I was happy to move into a different culture. I just felt I’d done the first 50 years living one lifestyle so it would be nice doing something differently. Brexit also happened just after we moved here, so that made me even more reassured that I’d done the right thing.

In terms of playing the new material live, how will that work in practice? Will there be any other musicians playing with you as part of the Sonic Boom show?

The way I wanted to present this record—I’ve already done two shows at the back end of last year. One in Utrecht at Le Guess Who? Festival and then another in Chile during the protests in December—was as a full body of work. I played the whole album bar one song at both of those shows. But, I will add that song for when I next play live. I’ve been working the last couple of years with a guy here, my wife and also a video maker, making live visuals for the show. We’ve made an hour-long film of visuals that I use. So, of them are in the “Just Imagine” video, but there’s a whole show’s worth of stuff we created. It’s definitely a solo presentation, but as well as playing songs off the new record I also played a few others from my back catalogue. I’m a firm believer that when you play live you should play some songs that people know. If you had something that was close to becoming a hit, you probably should be doing that. It’s certainly part of the dialogue and I know from the reactions when we play them how much people want to hear those songs. I usually advise my friends against just going out and playing their new album before it’’s soaked in a while, but the reaction was really good from the two shows I did. I feel the songs are good enough, and in a live setting it’’s quite immersive. I wouldn’t be risking it if I didn’t feel this was the best record I’ve made outside of Spacemen 3. I’m as happy with it as I am with any of the Spacemen 3 records, so I just feel I’ve got to give it its own shot. I’m sure eventually I’ll be adding other stuff onto it as well but initially I just want people to hear it for what it is. I hope that will be enough.

You’ve always taken a very forward thinking, almost futuristic approach to making music. Not only with your own material but also when collaborating with or producing other artists’ work. Are there any previous collaborators you see yourself working with again in the future? Any that particularly stand out?

I would work with almost any of the people I’ve previously worked with! I really enjoy working with other people. I’ve been really lucky with the people I’ve got to work with. Sometimes I’m proactive about it. I don’t wait for these people to come to me. I’ll tell them I’m interested and sometimes that was all I needed to do. So, I am lucky in that respect, but then I would not be interested in being a full-time musician if I just had to deal with my own music doing the same old bullshit album after album. I really have to keep it fresh. I can’t make a record every two or three years just because of the income. I just can’t do it. I’m not really that interested in making a lot of money. I’d rather be poor and just make a few records I think are pretty good. I see people get into the situation where they’re just constantly releasing albums and I think people tune out. I think it’’s really good to focus your energies. There’s a lot of noise out there from people putting stuff out a little too easily sometimes. I find it hard and have done for the past couple of decades to find stuff that I really resonate with. I’m quite open minded about it. I don’t need it to be in any form or format that I ever saw before. I don’t care if it is in a form or format I ever saw if it’’s really great. I just feel this is happening a bit less at the moment and I’m often thinking why, wondering what the next musical movement will be that has something great about it. Every genre—even the most middle of the road genre—has something great about it. For example, I like Andy Williams who I’m sure falls under middle of the road. It’’s one of those questions people always ask. “What kind of music do you like?” And I feel the only answer I can give is also the most facetious one, which is good music. I’m lucky that I can hear a classical piece, or a jazz piece, or a blues piece, something from any genre that can really move me so I can instantly feel some connection or conversation with that. So, working with other people is usually a real treat and I don’t know who learns more in the process, but I suspect it might be me most of the time. Everyone works differently, and I like to work differently with everyone in a way that suits them and also suits the situation as much as possible. It’’s good. I really like it. I like symbiosis in general and I think it’s a very underappreciated concept. If you look at most of the successful things in our ecosystem or in general on this planet there’s usually some healthy symbiosis where everything benefits each other in a nice way and things are all looking out for one another.

Do you think the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic we’re currently facing will impact significant change in the way people behave and approach their lives in the future? What kind of impact do you think it will have on artists like yourself and the wider music community?

I think some people are already aware of this and therefore, semi-focusing on it more. It’’s been recorded as long as we’ve had global travel. Colombian exchange diseases, Spanish and Portuguese shit that’s gone around the world. We wiped out a lot of indigenous people just by spreading a really bad flu before. Millions and millions of people have died. It’’s probably not been accurately recorded anywhere. We’re also moving insects and animals, all sorts of things around. You’ll have a snake in the undercarriage of a plane then it comes out in a different place so its place in the ecosystem becomes out of balance. You have birds that lay eggs, then a bird dies and the whole ecosystem collapses just though something like that. We know this happens. The amount of global air travel that happens is frankly disgraceful and I’m always conscious of this when I work and try to reduce it as much as possible. I haven’t always been that way. I’ve been part of that problem as well. We have a bunch of airlines selling very cheap flights then seducing people of this very attractive thing by taking you to paradise. They may be getting rich out of it but we’re toxifying the planet. We’re toxifying the environment. Tourism invades on it in such massive numbers. You see the cruise ships coming to Lisbon now. It’s not a pretty sight and it has a horribly adverse, socially toxic effect in my mind. I just think we all have to consider these things and with my album, I wanted it to be offset for the toxicity and carbon footprints of it. For a start, every copy would have one dollar from it go to Earth Island. I didn’t want this to be an option. That shouldn’t be an option. The person that’s selling you a flight should have to be offsetting the top seeking impact we’re having with flying jets around and spraying petrochemicals into the air. I don’t think anyone can deny these things. My friend told me all the revolutions that happened throughout history only had a critical mass of around 20 perecent. It’s definitely below percent. So, I’d really love to see this happen where that 20 percent of people do it right that it’’s enough to make something happen. It’s a statistic that’s been studied by smarter people than me, which says every measurable, social revolution to happen in recorded history only achieved that sort of critical mass.

This pandemic has also highlighted the fundamental flaws of living in a capitalist society.

My hopes when this happened were; A) It would make people start to think about things like this; and B) that Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and their ilk would just totally undo themselves in this situation. They clearly have very few brain cells to rub together between them. I would say Boris Johnson is responsible for people’s deaths from his actions early on. People have died because of what he’s said and done so I hope he feels good about that. Trump is the same, but unfortunately governments don’t legislate to stop people from happily trashing the planet at any cost. Trump’s lost fortunes since this pandemic began. There are so many elements of it such as the whole offshore thing with the UK where they have tax avoidance. Apparently, even the Royal Family do not pay into the tax system. Their own sovereign state. Then next week if there’s a war they’ll be calling on us again saying your sovereign demands of you or you can go to jail. It’s another thing about the UK I find ridiculous. I don’t particularly dislike the Royal Family but I find the whole idea of sovereign states, countries and borders in this world, just ridiculous. We have to start thinking of everyone on the planet as one group of people. Why do we talk about stuff like going to Mars? If we went to Mars and we found a planet recognizable as having the same faults as the UK but with half the population practically starving. What would we think of that planet we went to? We’re happy to waste money on absolute nonsense like going to Mars while people are starving and dying through having no food or water. It has been refreshing to see that some people’s consciences have been pricked in this situation. Whereas the other ones are just showing themselves up to be pricks! I hope people remember who the ones were that tried to charge them seven euros for a face mask or wanted to lay off the ground staff rather than cut their shareholders benefits to the football club. It’s great that people are finally seeing these people for what they are. Realizing we can’t tolerate this in our day to day lives. We’re the ones who created this situation. We support them. Sometimes we don’t know we’re doing it. We just have to be informed and do everything we can. Capitalism and Communism. We’ve tried them both and it isn’t looking good. I don’t know what the answer is? I wish people like Buckminster Fuller were still around because I feel that guy had a very clear vision about this. He accurately predicted all the problems in the late ’60s. There are some visionary people who’ve been saying it for that long. I just feel we need someone to come up with a better solution for us now.

Do you not think the media also has to take its share of responsibility for allowing populism to dominate?

Those people own the media! I don’t read the media at all. My wife does and I get enough world views through her. I have absolutely no faith in the political system at all. I’ve seen it all my life and I just think they’re people who’ve set themselves out to line their own pockets. The best system I’ve ever heard of is in Iceland where you don’t put yourselves forward to be elected. You’re elected from your community for being a stand up, step up kind of citizen. It’s not all about people doing it as a career. Whereas in the UK, they always end up gilded. The Midas Touch always seems to touch them just as they’re stepping off the political conveyor so I just have absolutely zero faith. Which is why we have to pressurize our politicians until we have a better system. We have to try and get them to do what we want them to do because they are our elected officials. I know that seems a slightly psychedelic proposition once they actually get into power but that’s where it all started.

As someone who’s been making music for the best part of four decades now, what advice would you give an artist or band that’s just starting out?

Do it right. Just try and make it all feel good. The way you interact and treat other people around you and the way they treat you is really important. Only do what you’re doing because you want to do it. Don’t be steered by other people. Everyone is influenced by everything that happens to you in your life in some way. All behaviour is learned. You might not perceive it at the time but it is. Just do it because it’’s what you believe in and not because you think it’s going to make you rich, successful, and get laid. All the usual things. If you do that, you’ll have endless satisfaction from it.

Looking back through your career in music, if you had the benefit of hindsight is there anything you’d change or do differently?

Definitely. Spacemen 3 were a dysfunctional bunch. We were probably individually dysfunctional so were also partly dysfunctional as a group. Sometimes good music came out of that dysfunction which was maybe a little fucked up but definitely better than it not happening. There are things that I did in my life that I’d do again differently just from experience. It’’ss weird saying that now because there are so many schools that teach you about how to be in a band, but back then there was nothing. Which I’m kind of glad about, because I’m not sure even we were as serious about what we were doing as we were. When you’re a kid, the future seems a long way away. Mortality seems impossible. One of the songs on the new album (“Spinning Coins and Wishing On Clovers”) is partly inspired by me thinking when I was thirteen13 or fourteen14 about where I would be when I was thirty30 and what would I remember. It’s funny because that moment has stayed in my mind ever since. I’m always checking back and trying to keep in touch with who I was and maybe lose some of the bad corners. Try and make it a better, smoother finish.

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