Interview: Sonic Boom on Peter Zinovieff, Delia Derbyshire and Analog Synths

The musician and producer known to his mother as Peter Kember chats about the impact of early UK synth pioneers on his work, past and present

Steven Perilloux

“I’ve always had an empathy with really simple music,” says Pete Kember. “Early on, when learning to play guitar, I began to realise that many of the songs I really loved were one or two chords, with maybe one more chord thrown in there something along the way. Back in those days, to say something was a drone was a huge put-down. But I often found, with the songs I liked, there was one note that would be constant in all the chords. I started to realise there was an unmined seam of music there. A seam other people had touched, a song here, or a song there – but something largely waiting to be discovered.”

I often found, with the songs I liked, there was one note that would be constant in all the chords. I started to realise there was an unmined seam of music there.

Kember, AKA Sonic Boom, is a scientist and a scholar of sound. He began his career as one-half of the songwriting nucleus of Spacemen 3, a drone rock group from the English market town of Rugby whose modus operandi was neatly summed up by the title of their official 1990 bootleg Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. Spacemen’s vision of psychedelia was loosely inherited from the hippyish 1960s model, but with a far broader frame of reference. Albums like 1987’s The Perfect Prescription and 1989’s Playing with Fire are dotted with signposts, pointing out to The Stooges and Muddy Waters, Suicide and The Red Krayola. But the Spacemen’s music wasn’t a dry record collection retread; rather, it’s an inducement to altered states in which religious ecstasy and narcotic bliss are bound up, one and the same.

Following Spacemen’s acrimonious split in 1991, his estranged songwriting partner Jason Pierce would go on to fame and fortune with his new group, Spiritualized. But if Kember has taken a more underground road to his former partner, he’s nonetheless created a deep and rich body of work, recording as Spectrum and the more improvisatory Experimental Audio Research (or EAR), working as a producer, mixing and mastering engineer (for the likes of MGMT, Panda Bear and Moon Duo) and collaborating with a new generation of musicians, many of whom attest to being switched on by his blissed-out drones.

“He’s an incredible dude that’s lived ten lives to your one, paints with sound, and replicates synth sounds by ear,” says Aaron Coyes of Peaking Lights, who enlisted Kember to remix their 2012 album Lucifer as Lucifer In Dub. “We’ve been working with him on projects since, and it’s been a constant learning experience.” Noah Lennox, AKA Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, contacted Kember to co-produce his 2011 album Tomboy, and played live shows with him throughout 2011 and 2012. “The Sonic Boom album titled Spectrum is one of my favourites,” says Lennox. “I’ve never met anyone quite like him. He likes to find his own ways of doing things with sound – I feel like he made the sounds come alive in a way that I would have been unable to do alone.”

Cameron Stallones, AKA Sun Araw, waxes lyrical about Kember’s music. “What I thought I might have seen in Spaceman’s most sideways moments was confirmed when I first heard EAR. The tunnel was no-nonsense direct and aimed at dead centre. But ‘Take Your Time’ [from a 2008 collaborative LP with Jim Dickinson] is the most roasted signifier of a whole other thing he does. I remember sitting in my friend’s car in an abandoned lot on Sunset Boulevard. He sort of lived in his car, and he was a heavy smoker so the whole thing was fogged from the inside. He lit up, put the song on, says ‘Have you heard this?’ and passed. I just remember compulsively reaching for the little lever to lean the seat back, having to look around and catch up with just how serene and glazed everything had gotten, the place was full out of nowhere with slow-rolling embers. But the real deal is that the things are not at all unrelated. The tunnel, and the embers – that one foot so deeply rooted on each side is an extremely rare thing, and that quality that shows up everywhere in Pete’s work, giving it a constant diamond edge.”

Kember is currently recording a new EAR record for the German label Dekorder, working on a new collaboration with Aaron of Peaking Lights and putting the finishing touches to a CD collection of music by the ’60s synth pioneer Peter Zinovieff. He spoke to us from his New Atlantis Studios in Rugby, Warwickshire.

Spectrum - Go To Sleep (1994)

What was your earliest exposure to music? Was it easy to get hold of records in Rugby?

I wasn’t interested in music until I was about 10 or 11. We were lucky in Rugby. A strange guy called Rollie ran a record shop called Vicky’s – he was a computer programmer, which in the ’70s was a very abstract concept. But he had great taste, and every Wednesday he’d go to London to visit the distributors – Beggars Banquet, Rough Trade, Small Wonder. He would bring back bootlegs they were stocking and then he used to open this store at four in the afternoon, when school came out. I always found that kind of amusing, but it was a smart call really. Through him a lot of Rough Trade acts – The Raincoats, The Red Krayola – came to play Rugby. An inordinately great record shop – it really shouldn’t have existed in this little town.

There’s a real undercurrent of blues and spiritual music in your music. Was that there in the beginning?

That was stuff that I found out about more in the mid-’80s, probably through bands like The Gun Club. Things were much more cliquey back then – you had your punks, your teds and never the twain will meet. I was into punk but I was also really into rock ‘n’ roll. I used to go to a rockabilly club, but they would play Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker – both white and black artists, that was their ethos. And I started to explore back – soul, Stax stuff, Eddie Floyd and William Bell. In that, you can hear echoes of gospel and blues. It made me want to explore further back.

Spacemen 3 – Suicide

From covers of songs by The Red Krayola and The Stooges to original Spacemen songs like “Suicide,” you always wore your influences on your sleeve.

It was a public service, in a way. People like The Red Krayola, Suicide, they hadn’t really been successful up to that point. So we said, you like this? Well try this, because we like it too. In the ’80s, The Stooges, The Velvets – they hadn’t soaked through into popular culture. They weren’t unknown, but their records weren’t available in stores. To find them you’d have to have the money to spend in collector stores, or it was dumb luck. I wouldn’t presume to call The Stooges or The Velvets contemporaries, but they were like contemporaries from another time… they were people who didn’t particularly fit into any scene, a blip on the radar. Spacemen 3 were like that, if you look at the early reviews. Even the good ones sit on the fence.

If the audience liked us we’d play for 40 minutes. If they didn’t we’d play for a couple of hours.

You got a reputation for playing long shows. You’d play “Suicide” for 40 minutes…

If the audience liked us we’d play for 40 minutes. If they didn’t we’d play for a couple of hours. A song like “Suicide” gives a lot of scope for bloody-mindedness. We used to disappear in a haze of smoke and leave the stage one by one with instruments playing feedback, keys taped down. Then the drummer would stop, the smoke would dissipate, and people would realise that everyone had gone. We’d hang out in the dressing room for half an hour. There was one show in Geneva where we disappeared for 20 minutes, came back and instead of winding down, we went into it again from the start. Someone’s come up with a really good quality tape of that show, which might see the light of day.

With Spectrum, you started to work with analogue synths. The sleeve of 1997’s Forever Alien is like a love letter to synth technology.

The VCS3 [early analogue synthesizer, pictured on the cover] is kind of a love letter to synth technology. With guitar, you had quite a limited palette. There was phasing, flanging, echo and delay. There was reverb, tremelo – vibrato was hard to do well. If you knew the right people, there were ring modulators, wah wahs. But with modular synthesis, you can do all those effects, but you can control it with great detail and link things. I’d messed around with synths in Spacemen, but I didn’t really understand the way it worked. The VCS3 seemed to me to be a very elegant study in limited resources. I always liked very slow modulations, very slow changes, and most people didn’t build that into their equipment. A lot of equipment never lets you get dangerous. You just get this narrow band of what’s considered usable. I like stuff with the safety locks all taken off. I was always interested in sounds that were not really of this world. I very much believe in animism. Inanimate objects and sounds can have real personalities.

You can certainly hear that in an analogue synth...

Yes, they’re very ergonomic. Once you’ve learned the machine, you can say “this is what I want to do – I want it to do X, then Y, and when X stops Z will happen.” You can programme long process pieces. They’re basically analogue computers. You can push them through an exact order that is predetermined, and when that’s done right – well, it sounds a lot better than it does explaining it.

For a while, you played shows using circuit-bent equipment. What was your entry point with that?

I guess that was around the late ’90s. There’s a guy called Reed Ghazala from Cincinnati – he’s an old school dude who started dong circuit bending in the 60s by mistake. He discovered that by short-circuiting a radio with his finger, it made all kinds of crazy sounds. He took this principle and designed a bunch of instruments based on sound-generating apparatus. One of his claims to fame is the Speak & Spell. Texas Instruments spent millions creating this voice synthesis which wasn’t useful for anything apart from children’s toys. They’re made for kids so they’re basically indestructible. But the sound generating chips are incredibly sophisticated. Actually, EMS who made the VCS3 – a lot of their work had to do with speech synthesis. I have a CD out soon on Space Age collecting work by Peter Zinovieff, using the very first mini-computers they used back then.

Delia Derbyshire taught me pretty much everything I know about the physics of sound.

You also worked with Delia Derbyshire…

Who also worked with Zinovieff! She was connected to EMS, although I didn’t know that when I contacted her. I got in touch with her during the recording of Forever Alien. We were messing around in the studio, and I was looking at my buddy’s Radiophonic Workshop record. It had a blurb on the back about Delia, and it said she was born in Coventry. I said, “Pass me the phone book.” I knew her for the last few years of her life. She felt she was very poorly treated by the BBC, who denied her a credit on the Dr Who theme, even though [composer] Ron Grainer wanted to share it with her. While her male colleagues at the BBC received money every time the Tardis door sound goes. We spent a lot of time talking on the phone, three or four hours a night. She taught me pretty much everything I know about the physics of sound. The basis of modular synthesis I taught myself, but stuff like the harmonic series, she’d spend endless hours helping me get it into my thick head. We made a one-minute piece together, called “Synchrondipity Machine (An Unfinished Dream).” She had some quite grandiose ideas of things she wanted to do. But she got ill and died quite suddenly. A real shame. She was a very special person.

By Louis Pattison on September 19, 2013

On a different note