Sonic Boom :: The AD Interview

Sonic Boom, or Peter Kember as he’s known in real life, has been pursuing the ideal drone since his teenaged years. He made his first mark in the legendary Spacemen 3, which pioneered space rock, shoegaze and a heavy psychedelic vibe founded on one note repeated ad infinitum.  Through his Spectrum project, named after a solo album from 1989, he launched an affair with modular synthesizers, which has persisted through projects including E.A.R. and his latest recording All Things Being Equal.  He’s also become a much sought after producer, having worked with Panda Bear, Beach House and Moon Duo, among others. 

Inspired in equal parts by some simple, monophonic jams on modular synths and his passion for living in harmony with the natural world, All Things Being Equal, is a brightly colored, buoyantly upbeat meditation on simplicity, tranquility and living lightly on the planet.  Here Kember talks about his love of electronic instruments and ancient drones, his gorgeous natural surroundings in Sintra, Portugal, his long friendship with synthesizer pioneer Delia Darbyshire and his hopes for inspiring humanity for the steep climb ahead if we are to continue to live on a healthy planet earth. words / j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: It’s been 30 years since your last solo album, and I know you’ve been busy with other projects and producing, but why was it time to make another solo album?

Peter Kember: I never really planned to make a lot of records. I never really had an urge to make lots of records, but I did want to be happy and solid in all the records that I put out.

It was a symbiosis of two things really. It was partly some electronic synthesizer jams that I started off working on. I found that simple monophonic, one note synthesizer parts tended to be the best part of the song. I sort of did that as an experiment, and I was very happy with what happened and how it came out. I felt it had a sort of organic-ness. I was trying to make it sound organic, and I sort of felt I had a lot of luck with that. I got really lucky with it.

The other thing was that when I moved here to Portugal and I knew that I had these strong vibes and felt that I wanted to turn them into songs. I just started noticing changes in my life. My feelings, my interactions with the planet and my feelings about that.

I felt that if I was going to make another record, it had to be something useful. I didn’t want to just make some self-aggrandizing promo for myself, Sonic Boom. I wanted to make a record that might be useful to people.

We have a steep climb ahead if we’re to sort out the problems that we have on this planet… or a quick descent. One or the other. I felt that we should probably try for the steep climb. I wanted to show people that, at least in my life, it really makes me happy trying to do something about that. It just improves my life on so many levels when I feel I have a proper interaction with the planet rather than just using and abusing it in some sort of get rich scheme for my generation and me.

I also had this overriding feeling that politicians will not fix any problems and no one’s going to sort it out, and I think the people who created the problems are the people who should sort it out. And that’s you and that’s me and that’s all of us. We’ve all been seduced in some ways by consumerism, obsolescence, toxic products, toxic goods that we didn’t even realize were toxics. We became ensnared in a plastic world before we even knew how toxic these things are. Though I’m sure the people making them knew that plastics leeched toxic chemicals into our environment, into our houses, all of their life. So yeah, that was what happened. A few different reasons all collided.

AD: I can hear the birds in the background.

Peter Kember: Yeah, they had a say, I’m outside.

AD: Can you tell me about where you are and what’s it’s like and how it’s driven you to make the music that you make?

Peter Kember: My perception of it is all I can really give you. It’s a little mountain range out on the West Coast of Europe. On the Iberian Coast. It’s a little mountain range just by the beach. It has a really beautiful interaction with the weather coming in from the Atlantic. It’s very hot here. Today it’s 30.9 degrees right now, which is …20 degrees is room temperature. It’s seriously warm. But it has a really high humidity and it’s very beautiful, verdant valley that I live in here.

It’s mixed planting of all different trees and originally these little mountains here. They’re only just big enough to be called a mountain, but they are mountains. They were originally just rocky barren mountains, and they were planted out by the Portuguese royal family to create hunting estates. A couple of hundred years ago. And it created this …they were building idyllic paradise. For themselves. No question. And I think they succeeded.

And it also has changed the weather around here. The planting on the mountain has changed the way the ecosystem and the weather systems interact with the area. The reason they came out here from Lisbon where the royal family had all their main palaces was in the summer and the very hot months it’s usually five or ten degrees out here. And just sort of perfect summer days every day. Which is why they came out here. Portugal in general is a cluster of micro-climates, but this area particularly, I mean, all this, the West Coast goes all the way down to South Africa, it has such an interaction with the Atlantic. It’s very hot in the day and cool at night.

AD: I’ve never been to Sintra, but I’ve been to Cascais.

Peter Kember: That’s just the other side of the mountains. We’re the more rural place. That’s the high falutin’ dudes. That’s the posh place in Portugal. We’re in the woods in the boonies here. It’s all palm trees and flowers and stuff.

AD: I know you’ve been thinking a lot climate change and the environment, and I’m hearing you in “Just Imagine” asking people to imagine themselves in nature? Why is it important to change our mindsets?

Peter Kember: If you ask most American children, if you ask where honey comes from, they’ll tell you it comes from a bear.

AD: That’s not right.

Peter Kember: It’s definitely not right. But if you say to most people where does wax from, and they go, natural wax, that comes from bees, doesn’t it? Actually, no it doesn’t come from bees. It comes from plants. Bees purely collect it from the surface of the leaves of plants, that’s where wax comes from. And everything we breathe, everything we eat comes from plants. Everything. Even if it isn’t plant based itself it ate plants or ate something that ate plants to get to us, and every tiny bit of oxygen that we have is replenished endlessly in a perpetual no-loss system by the planet and gives us the air we breathe.

I think if you ask most adults about that, they never thought about it. We don’t have a good synergistic relationship with the planet. I see a synergy in nature where the outcome of the whole thing isn’t predicted by any of the parts. It’s only in their symbiotic relation with each other that they improve each other’s lives and create this whole amazing system. We tend to not see it because it happens in a way that’s not smacking us round the face the whole time. But in nature plants and animals are very adaptive and interactive and reactive to each other. They look after each other. I notice in gardening and dealing with different plants how they share with each other and how they benefit each other. You can take two plants that individual grow okay, and you put them together, and they’ll thrive. I think we need to have this relationship with the planet.

We’re still in early days about these things. We’ve been burning up fossil fuels, the fuel reserves of the planet that as far as we know will never be replenished or certainly not without millions of years of time passing and yet we have perpetual energy system that’s fully replenished every day with no cost, all we have to do is harvest it. It comes from the sun and the interaction with the moon, with the waves and all.

We really should be pushing this a lot harder. A lot of people have been working on this and working at this for decades and doing stuff in their life, but clearly we haven’t been doing it enough or we haven’t been influencing people enough to do the same. That goes back to the album again. I really feel that humanity is mostly motivated by two things: punishment and incentive. Those two things modulate most people’s lives. I think there’s something better than that. I think it’s aspiration. I mean, human inspiration has an infinite power. Whenever we tap into it, we just astound ourselves with what we can do. So, I really wanted the record to be vibe-y and I wanted to make it aspirational to people. So that people could be like fuck yeah!

AD: I was noticing that even though you’re dealing with some scary issues, the album itself seems very hopeful and positive. Do you feel that way?

Peter Kember: Buckminster Fuller was a big inspiration to me. He figured this all out 50 years or more ago. He thought the individual was the answer. Lots of people doing the things in their own way. His idea was to be a macro observer and look at the whole, but also deal with things locally being micro-incisive. He had it all figured it out.  

AD: All right. I wanted to ask you about the instruments on this. Are you working entirely with synthesizers on this album?

Peter Kember: I used some analog instruments, mostly percussion instruments like the guiro, that thing we sort of scrape rhythmically and shakers and maracas. Everything else is electronic and synthesized.

AD: Can you tell me about those electronic and synthesized instruments you used and how they spoke to you?

Peter Kember: The core of each track and on some tracks “I Can See Light Bend” for example, it has three real main elements. First, a monophonic synthesizer being chased around by a sequencer to appear to be a slightly bigger animal than it really is. And percussion and vocals. Just those three elements was all I used.

The body, the music of that track is one monophonic synthesizer just having a lot of fun. For nearly all the tracks, I used either a Buchla or a Kilpatrick PHENOL monophonic modular synthesizer. And I used a Teenage Engineering OP-1 mk1 for a lot of the digital synthesized sounds on that.

I really wanted the contrast. The analog is warm. Everything is relative. When you put loud next to quiet, you have a true example of what is volume and what is quiet. I feel it’s the same with synthesizers. If everything is analog it has a certain aesthetic and sound to it. I wanted the aesthetic of this to be as wide as possible. I used instruments to try and get very fizzy sounds and very warm analogue.

With the sleeve as well, the same thing, I wanted a lot of depth and perspective, a lot of tonal modulation, the modulation of simple geometric forms. The essence in some ways of form and maybe the essence of sound.

I tried to use all my skills to bring a limited palette of instruments but ones which I knew had a lot of juice in them and could deliver for me what I was looking for. It’s always an experiment. No one goes into making a record knowing what they’ll come out with. It’s a really tough process for me. I feel I put myself through the wrangler to do it, but I ended up being happy about the results.

AD: It’s sort of interesting making a record about the natural world with electronic instsruments?

Peter Kember: Yeah, I wanted to show off a little bit to be honest. For musicians, showing off is part of the language. Some of the best show-offs in the world are people like Bo Diddley for example. The world would be a far better and far worse place without any showing off, that’s for sure. But in this case, to show off how a synthesizer can work. Because people are like “Oh, you’re not using guitars. You used to use guitars for records.” I wanted to show that these could have as much organic-ness to them as guitars. 

I found particularly with the Buchla 208 when I started working with it, that it had so much organic-ness to it. I needed to exploit that. I felt it hadn’t really been exploited. I felt no one had ever used synthesizers like that.

I like the idea of taking an electronic sound with a weird organic core so that you can’t really tell what the hell, what sort of machine even made that sound, and then making a pop song out of it. There’s something about the interaction between the soulfulness and human interaction that is songwriting and this solid machine, dependability exemplified by synthesizers.

AD: Did you do this entirely alone or did you have any collaborators?

Peter Kember: I have to credit my engineer [Guilherme Gonçalves], the guy who made me sing in tune, a collaborator for sure. Without him fixing me, it wouldn’t be very listenable. But essentially, it was a one-man thing. Panda Bear sings with me on one track.

AD: Which one?

Peter Kember: He sings with me on “Just a Little Piece of Me” He sings every other line with me in that sort of cosmic Everly Brothers…

AD: And you worked with him on …?

Peter Kember: Grim Reaper and Tomboy.

AD: Tomboy was great.

Peter Kember: Beautiful record. He was in top form.

AD: He lives in Portugal, too, right?

Peter Kember: He lives just down the road in Lisbon. We’re still tight hombres.

AD: And Britta Phillips?

Peter Kember: Yeah, who plays with Luna and is from Dean and Britta, she plays in the current version of Galaxie 500 as well. She does the bass. She’s an old friend. Well, they both are. They were one of the people I sent music to.  When I have a record that’s nearly finished, I like to send it to some of my musician friends, because they’re always the toughest critics. I sent it to a bunch of people to get feedback and see if what I was thinking was how it hit other people. And she came back on one track and she loved it. She said, “This track, I think there’s room for a bass in there.” So, I said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

AD: Which one does she play on?

Peter Kember: “I Feel a Change Coming On”

AD: I think maybe my favorite is “I Can See the Light Bend,” which has some of that drone and dissonance that I loved in Spacemen 3 and also this bright psychedelic quality that your current work has. What can you tell me about that track?

Peter Kember: Its working title was “Dr. Why” partly because that’s a question that I’ve asked many times and partly because it was my sort of homage to Dr. Who.

I had the great privilege to be dear friends with Delia Darbyshire, who created the theme music for Dr. Who. She was a visionary, way ahead of her time creator, who busted through sexual discrimination and everything to deliver this awesome, amazing work. That song has always been a touchstone for me. It’s one of the first pieces of music I really remember as a child. Every time I hear it, it just cuts straight through, which is why I sought her out, of course, back in the day, originally.

It turned out we grew up just round the corner from each other and still lived close enough together that it was easy for us to meet and work together. She was kind of a recluse, but she seemed happy to have someone to talk to about music, synthesizers and her thoughts on sound and the way that sound works and the things that really thrilled her about composition and sound and the harmonic series and stuff.

Then when I was doing these synthesized things, I came up with that piece, and I knew instinctively that it had a lot of Dr. Who power to it. So, the working title was “Dr. Y.”

I usually write music and lyrics separately, and then I go, “Oh my god, that’ll go really great with this one. That’ll really dial that in,” and I marry the things together. Sometimes I write lyrics to a song and other times I feel like I’m channelling it, and that one was the way it was. We used the first take, the  first time I ever sung it. I didn’t even know what I was going to sing yet, and it just came out like that. I said to Gui, all we have to do is fix it. But I just delivered it the way I wanted to deliver that song. Sometimes it’s the first time you ever sing it, you actually can voice it the way you want. And then I guess I tried doing a second vocal and in the process I got some of them out of sync with the things and I loved it, and I thought, oh my god, it’s starting to sound like the Yardbirds or Queen or something. It’s starting to happen. There’s a demonic intensity. So, I just got really lucky with that track. I was really happy. Some of the other songs I put bass parts on or keyboard parts, little two-chord keyboard parts to make it into a song, but with that one, it was just like, that was it. It was percussion, and I sung to it and that was it. I was really happy with that song as well.

AD: Do you have a favorite bit on this record?

Peter Kember: Oh my god, well, I think I kind of …another one that I totally channelled that’s probably the darkest one on the whole record is “My Echo, My Shadow and Me.” Again, I wanted to show breadth of stuff. I didn’t want it just to be all happy go lucky, la di dah, vibe-y. I wanted it to have some depth and intensity to it. Because I think humans have depth and intensity to them.

AD: Some of them do.

Peter Kember: With some of them, they don’t admit to it. Some of them don’t want to face up to it. But people say to me, sometimes friends admit to me that they get depressed, and I say, anyone with any intelligence who lives on this planet and doesn’t get depressed is probably a psychopath or a sociopath. So, don’t worry about being depressed. It’s a natural part of being human. If everything’s the same all the time, it would be miserable. It would just be like being depressed. You might as well be depressed all the time. It’s about contrasts. You know, every day is not going to be the perfect day, and if you walk out thinking that’s the way it is, perfect days will never happen. The best things in my life happen when I’m least expecting them. I like to go out in life with no purpose sometimes. But with a good head, a good mindset, and beautiful things happen more often than not. It depends on how you look at things. Everything’s down to perspective. If you put five people in a room and do something in front of them and ask them all afterwards what happened, you don’t always get one story from people. That’s perspective.

AD: So, I wanted to ask you about your career. You’ve done so many interesting things, Spacemen 3 and Spectrum and E.A.R. Are there common threads? Are there things that you’ve always been trying to do since you started making music?

Peter Kember: They’re pretty much all drone based, and one of the things I figured out early on was all the songs that I really loved had something in common, and it was usually one note that was constant to all the chords in it. Even when it’s not really dominant, I was always able to perceive it. I always really resonated with it. I started to realize that drone based music, music that can take one note all the way through, that was my path. That’s been the common thread really.

AD: What do you think it is about that that appeals to you so much?

Peter Kember: I just think it resonates with the human soul…I mean, I don’t think it. I know it does. If you look at ancient and indigenous music of pretty much every place in the planet, it’s based around a drone scale. The consolidated keyboard which lets you modulate around different keys was invented only a few centuries ago.  I’m not sure of the date, but around 1500 or maybe slightly earlier in medieval times, around 1300.  Though actually most medieval music is still pretty drone based. But they started to modulate stuff and they figured out the consolidated tuning keyboard where all the pitches are slightly adjusted off of where they should be in the Pythagorean scale to make it possible to modulate through different chords. Because otherwise you have to use just a small selection of chords.

But even in modern times, most music uses those chords, the ones that resonate with humans. Blues music, rock and roll music, soul, they all use chords that modulate around that and agree to the first people who invented a form of actual writing, where they could actually write down stories and information other than hieroglyphics. Pythagoras is always attributed with inventing everything almost. But I think they would just, the people that wrote it all down. Most cultures tend to try and claim everything for themselves, sadly. I’m sure these things go back way, way…there’s too much stuff that the Greeks recorded in a fairly short period. It was too dialed in. It looks like they figured everything out, and it’s not possible.  

AD: But the way we hear chords is built into the way our brain is structured, so every culture would discover that eventually.

Peter Kember: Just through whatever reasons, maybe even viruses, we have lost most of humanity before. Through war and stuff, we lose a lot of information. A lot of knowledge. I think that’s happened a lot. They always talk about the Fertile Crescent and the Assyrians being the birthplace of the first civilization. Well it’s the first one that we’ve recorded. These people had everything. They had accounting, they had a form of writing, it wasn’t a phonetic form like the Greeks, but they had a semi-hieroglyphic form of writing, a numerical system.  

You know, they only figured out that they could use zero in mathematics about 600 years ago in the Renaissance. Of course, that was why there was a Renaissance. It enabled all these people, Galileo and Copernicus, to use mathematics to figure out all these things.  Like that the sun doesn’t rise or set, but we spin around it.  That there are no four corners of the planet. These things they figured out were enabled by mathematical equations that used zero.

But this is recent history. I feel that we’re still very much making baby steps toward being civilized. We like to think of ourselves as being super civilized, but I don’t find it always to be so. But it’s early days. We just have to make smart moves.

Going back to education, it’s what we teach our kids. We tend to teach our kids to learn things by rote. To repeat dogma. To click “I accept.” Because your parents clicked “I accept.” Where really, kids have a natural curiosity and are endlessly smart. I think we just really need to concentrate on giving them the right information and showing the way to make smart decisions, and they’ll do the rest.

We have to stop telling people, “This is a scientific fact.” There’s no such fucking thing. It’s an evolutional thing. These things change the whole time. The knowledge 500 years ago is laughable to most people today. But until someone proves it different, they say “This is the way it is.” We have to change the way we think and interact. This is a tiny blip on the history of this planet, but what we do can make bigger resonances and echoes than really what we deserve to. That’s why we have these problems.  

AD: What are you working on now that this is done?

Peter Kember: I’ve just finished an intense period of work on it.  There was art work and different stuff for the recording and mixing of this record. I really wanted to get it all out to be able to release it in 2020. I needed the record to be out in 2020 because of the association of 2020 with having clear vision. I felt that it was useful to the whole thing and that’s why I did the announcement on 02/2/2020. And all the videos have been released on 03/03 and 04/04 and 05/05. I wanted to keep the numerology of it. It’s a kind of magical thing. It’s arbitrary because we’re using a fake system for dating anyway. We date this planet based on Jesus Christ, which is ridiculous.

AD: How are you doing in the pandemic and the lock down and all?

Peter Kember: Yeah. Good. I think quite a lot of musicians tend to be self-isolators when they get off the road. I tried to build my life anywhere where I’m very happy in the environment that I live in. I wanted live somewhere that really gave me environmental wellness and to have garden. All these things didn’t seem so important until recently, and then the amount of people who I know who have gardens has grown enormously.

AD: What do you have in your garden? Flowers or vegetables or both?

Peter Kember: Yeah, you know palm trees, bananas, cactus, agave, I like bromeliads a lot, , ferns, rubber plants, Swiss cheese plants, I like those a lot.

AD: It sounds tropical.

Peter Kember: Yeah, but I also have roses and lilies and bird of paradise and bougainvillea. It’s a magical spot here. There are spots in your garden where you can grow almost anything. People will say, oh, Sintra, it’s a microclimate, but my garden has microclimates in it. Depending on how much sun they get and how much they’re open to the elements, it will vary a lot in a small area, so it gives you a lot of scope to grow really beautiful mix of stuff like that and vibe-y things. Palm trees, they really just make you feel good. You walk out the door and you see a palm tree, it’s a good start to the day. photo: agata xavier

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