Peter Kember arrived in the 1980s as Sonic Boom, the co-founder of English space-rock pioneers Spacemen 3, who snarled about heroin, suicide, and the benefits of LSD. In 2020, he lives in a national park in Sintra, Portugal, and makes synthesizer music inspired by the growth and behavior of plants. His last album under his old stage name came out 30 years ago.
“When I’m working in the garden here, my brain goes into a different state. The distractions and noise of everyday life stop coming in,” Kember explains to Vinyl Me, Please over a WhatsApp call during the coronavirus pandemic. “I wanted to channel as much of that as I could and try to put some positivity out there.” (Wild birds chatter noisily over the line.)
He’s talking about All Things Being Equal, the first Sonic Boom album since 1990’s Spectrum, which will be released June 5. In recent years, Kember has mostly produced outside artists like Beach House, MGMT, and Panda Bear. All Things Being Equal shows the artist refreshed: on highlights like “Just Imagine,” “On a Summer’s Day,” and “I Feel a Change Coming On,” Kember’s mossy voice intertwines with modular synthesizers, which flourish and snarl like climbing ivy.
Calmer and more reflective in his mid-50s, Kember is more likely to wax about the pollinating abilities of moths than about untethering from sanity and meeting his maker. Ahead of All Things Being Equal’s release, we caught up with Sonic Boom about “environmental” wellness, the DNA of trees, and whether he keeps in touch with the rest of Spacemen 3.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VMP: All Things Being Equal is your first album as Sonic Boom in 30 years. Why such a long wait?
I never wanted to release that many records. I just wanted to release good records when I did release them.
There was a long period when the internet was relatively new and everyone had gotten very much into this mode of “All music should be free!” and downloading without buying music. I couldn’t afford to put that much effort into something that people were going to essentially steal. So I avoided it. I didn’t want to be part of that market.
I’ve had a lot of not-great experiences. Some really quite bad experiences with record companies. So I wasn’t super happy to just do a record with any old person. I felt I needed to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
It’s hard to dredge up the motivation to create when there may not be a profit on the other side.
I have to make a living. I also like to refocus what I do and to do that, I feel I have to dam it up a little bit. I would just get sick of myself even more if I had to be working on my own music all the time and thinking about promoting my music, my record.
I like doing different things. I don’t like doing the same thing. And I don’t think it’s good for people to just put out a record for the sake of it. Because you will have to be behind it. You’ll have to talk about it endlessly, possibly for the rest of your life. So I think it’s important to do something when it feels like it’s worth doing.
Walk me through how you constructed these songs. Do I hear analog electronics in the mix?
Yes, the basis for all the tracks were monophonic analog modular synth patches that I created in Rugby, Warwickshire. At one point, I was even thinking to just release them as they were. I decided maybe I’d send it to some friends to see if anybody wants to do any bits on it. I sent it to Tim Gane from Stereolab and he said, “You should just release this as it is. You don’t need to add anything.”
But I really felt that the core vibe of those backings was so strong that I wanted to augment them. So I put percussion tracks and some other digital synthesizers on it. I wanted to get a wide contrast in sound on the record. So there’s digital and analog, which I think both equally have a function. But the core of it is monophonic modular synthesizers running around a lot.
I moved to Portugal about four years ago, and maybe six months before I moved here, I recorded analog jams and just sat on them and mulled on them for a little while. Moving here, I had plenty of other things I needed to sort out, then finally, I was listening to them and I was like, “I think I know where I can take these.” I just wanted to make something positive and vibey.
I think that humanity is mostly controlled by incentive and by law. Those are two things that many people live their lives by. The better thing, I think, is aspiration. I didn’t want to be overly preachy, but I didn’t feel like I could be part of what’s happening on the planet in general without trying to do something about it.
Would you say that the theme of the album is aspiration?
Yeah. Aspiration and change. The album is very influenced by plants and the way plants grow and interweave with each other. I felt that the sounds instantly had these very plantlike, organic attributes. I get a lot of inspiration from wildlife and plants and being around that sort of stuff.
When I’m working in the garden here, my brain goes into a different state. I’m doing simple, mindless things. While I’m weeding or planting things, I have nothing to think about. The distractions and noise of everyday life stop coming in. I wanted to channel as much of that as I could and try to put some positivity out there.
With different interweavings and the way I used the envelopes to modulate the way the sounds come and go, there’s something about it that I felt I saw in nature the whole time. It’s all based on one code, the DNA that everything living on the planet is based on, depending on what switches within that chain and turns on and off.
It depends on whether you become a plant or a tree, more or less. I mean, we were fish originally. We’ve evolved through many stages by different switches in our DNA being flicked.
A lot of the album is uplifting, but “Spinning Coins and Wishing on Clovers” is almost funereal. Where did that song come from?
When I was 13 or 14, I wondered what my life would be like in 10, 20, or 30 years’ time. It was always some borderline that I crossed over. That song was sort of inspired by that thought. When you die, supposedly, the last thing you see is thousands of things flashing through your memory bank.
I always wondered what would be the last things I see and what would be that snapshot of my life. I like the introspection of the whole thing. I wanted to show a breadth of things. I like records where they go somewhere a little deeper and darker at times.
So, how close is your current life to the future you envisaged?
I have no idea! I couldn’t even imagine being this old. When I was 14, I couldn’t even imagine being 55.
You probably didn’t see yourself on a beach in Portugal.
On a beach, picking up plastic.
What’s the natural landscape like where you live?
It’s on the same latitude as Northern California. I’m in a little mountain range about 20 miles outside of Lisbon, a couple of miles from the beach. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, that’s for sure. It’s a cluster of microclimates, so some of it’s tropical and some of it’s much more rainforest-y looking. There’s a lot of acacias and pines.
Portugal, in general, is a country of many different beautiful vibes. Every time you turn a corner, it’s strange how much it rearranges compared with most places. There’s a lot of organic beauty in the way things evolved here that’s been preserved, for whatever reason, better than it has in some other places.
My move here was mostly through working here with Panda Bear. I did two albums with him and he lives in Lisbon. We were spending a lot of time here and I really liked it. It can be considered old-fashioned. Consumerism isn’t as intense here. Chains and malls are minimal. There’s no perfect place, but it has an immense amount of environmental wellness.
What’s your relationship like with the Spacemen 3 guys these days?
I keep in touch with pretty much all of them. Some more than others. That’s changed over the years a little bit. I think everyone’s a little more mature these days.
What’s it like to listen to old Spacemen records? Is it jarring to hear a younger version of you?
No, I’ve always sweated a lot. I think long and hard about records I’m going to release or things I’m going to say on records. I’m still proud of the results considering that we were a little punk band from the middle of nowhere.
We did that in an environment where almost no one gave a shit — and we didn’t give a shit, really, that no one gave a shit. We always put our hearts on our sleeves and we were definitely open to a lot of criticism for our views, singing about heroin or suicide or death.
Those are tough subjects and you open yourself up massively when you do that sort of stuff. You’d better be able to stand behind it because people will crucify you otherwise. It’s one thing to write a lyric; it’s another thing to have it coming out of your mouth. To be able to say something and mean it, to deliver it with passion.
Give me a line on All Things Being Equal that is a direct transmission from you.
“Take me somewhere a little bit deeper / I don’t mind if the climb is steeper / Take me somewhere a little bit sweeter / I’m going to find the place, and I’m gonna meet you,” from “Things Like This (A Little Bit Deeper).” Right there. That’s maybe one I’d pick.
Or maybe this line on “Just a Little Piece of Me”: “Bury me beneath a tree / Let its roots grow into me / Let it grow and then you’ll see / Just a little piece of me.”
What are you conveying there?
I think our intrinsic reliance on and symbiosis with plants. I mean, they create all the air that we breathe and they create all the food that we eat. Everything that we eat comes from the plant source initially. Even if you eat insects, they live off plants.
Everything from a mosquito and fly on up is a pollinator. People think bees are the only pollinator. It’s not true. There are loads of others. Moths pollinate. They pollinate things which only flower at night. I think we’ve lost touch with this. We mistreat the planet and misunderstand its incredible magical ability to provide life where it really shouldn’t exist.
It’s the most incredible freak of the universe. And as far as we know, nothing else like it exists. To poison it in the way that we do in the name of getting rich. People think money makes you happy. In the area that we live, there’s a lot of rich people ripping around in their Mercedes, driving late, and they look like scared, unhappy people.
I appreciate these holistic thoughts from an artist known for singing about drugs and death.
There’s a Spacemen 3 song called “The World is Dying” that was on the B-side of [1989’s] “Hypnotized.” The second single we ever released, [1987’s] Transparent Radiation,” was originally meant to be with all the proceeds donated to Greenpeace. It wasn’t like we were unaware.
But [there’s been an] exacerbation. In the last twenty years, we’ve lost 80 percent of our insects. We have 20 percent of our insects left. In 20 years. So, things have gotten a lot worse. Everyone kind of hopes someone else will come up with decent solutions for this, but business and money have led the way. They don’t really care what the cost is to humanity or the planet.
I’ve just become more aware of it. I don’t have the same pigeonholing about drugs as other people do. I see a lot of the great developments of our time as being on the back of things like LSD. I think you’ll find the silicon chip is one of them.
I’m not saying everyone should be taking LSD every day. But most of the people I know who have done LSD are smarter, more conscious people than they were before. I think if it can be used in a sensible way, it has its place. I don’t think it’s a recreational drug, but it can change your perspective. Seeing everything from our own selfish perspective isn’t really getting us anywhere.
Paul McCartney is the most famous musician on the planet, and he publicly declared that LSD made him a better person.
What the Beatles did in music with LSD was beyond, next-level, warp factor. It ripped music a new hole. It’s just insane. [1967’s] Magical Mystery Tour and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” For my money, that’s one of the things that made the Beatles one of the most special bands.
They say it was John Lennon, but Paul McCartney was a very experimental dude in the mid-’60s. His interest in Stockhausen and electronic music advanced John Lennon. I think there’s a lot of utopian design that came out of psychedelic drugs.
I think you’re right in that lineage. Stockhausen and the Beatles and psychedelic art.
I never considered myself to just be a psychedelic musician. But I’ve been actively trying to make psychedelic art and I’ve been influenced by it since the get-go of Spacemen 3. I think it’s an important part of the conversation.
You said that you’re not interested in prolificacy for the sake of it. Will we have to wait 20 years for another solo album?
Nobody knows! I hope not. There’s a hell of a lot of energy [that goes into it]. It’s never an easy process for me. It’s a tough process the whole time. I like that it’s tough.
I saw an interview with David Bowie maybe a year ago and someone said to him, “David, how do you know when something really good is happening in the studio?” and he said [paraphrased] “Whenever I feel like I’m slightly out of my depth and my feet can’t touch the bottom and I’m frightened, I know that something good is happening.”
It made me realize that’s exactly how I feel. I feel a little bit terrified by the whole process and of not doing it right or living up to my own expectations. People think that if you’re a musician, you’re a public figure, and if you’re a public figure, you’re a potential target.
You’re exposing yourself, but I also feel that the more you expose yourself with your music, the more people resonate with it. Sometimes that’s when it hits you harder than anything else.