For the uninitiated, Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff, including a notable appearance in the album charts as the producer of MGMT’s second album, 2010’s cult classic Congratulations. It’s partly due to the worldwide success of that album that Kember has been able to move from the dour, urban sprawl of Rugby in the midlands of the UK, to the idyllic town of Sintra in Portugal. In a free-ranging conversation with PopMatters, Kember touched on animism, modular synthesis, Zen Buddhism, Portuguese landlords, and playing in bars in Dudley, UK, on a Tuesday night to an audience of no-one. All while exotic birds chirped prettily in the background. What a long strange trip it’s been for him.
When he’s not re-stocking the bird feeder or re-calibrating his Moogs, Kember is promoting his new album All Things Being Equal: the first record to bear the Sonic Boom name since 1990’s Spectrum. It’s up to you to decide whether it’s a case of terrible timing or an incredibly fortuitous happenstance that an album with the central theme of “conspicuous consumption is destroying the world and we have to do something about it now” is being released, when a large part of the world is confined to their living rooms for their safety.
All Things Being Equal has been a long time coming. Started back in Rugby in 2015, it was finished earlier this year, in a studio, just walking distance from Kember’s new home. The project had a typically organic genesis. “I didn’t intentionally start to make an album,” he says, “I just had an idea to do something with modular, monophonic synthesizers. I started to create the pieces and mess around, and I was very happy with what happened. I can’t explain it, but it came together really well, and I was really happy with what I had.”
So when did All Things Being Equal start to be a real record?
I decided that I’d send the basic, instrumental tracks to some friends and see if they wanted to contribute some bits and pieces. One of the people I sent it to was Tim Gaines from Stereolab. He got back to me and said, “this stuff’s awesome, but I wouldn’t add anything to it”, [then] I’d release it as it is. I think these are really cool pieces, and I think they stand on their own, anyway.” For a while, I thought, “OK, maybe he’s right, maybe I should put them out as instrumental things.” I’ve done loads of instrumental records as E.A.R. and stuff, and it’s a very different market place in general — some people love it, but it’s on a whole different level. Songs with words connect with people in a much stronger way. Anyway, I decided to start adding to the tracks: I didn’t want to add too much as I didn’t want to disguise what the backing track was, so I added drum machine percussion stuff, organ, bass, and vocals.
Where did you record these additional elements?
I did that when I got to Portugal. Unfortunately, it turned out that our landlord was renting us a house which had been foreclosed on by the bank about a year before. But the bank hadn’t shown up yet. They can take a while to do that in Portugal. So, one day, the police and the bailiffs arrived and said, “What the fuck are you doing here?” We told them that we were trying to buy the place from the landlord, but we felt he wanted too much money. They said, “OK. Well, the bank owns it now, and they want to sell it quickly, so it might be your lucky day.”
That’s what you need when you’re trying to do a creative project: an extra layer of stress.
There was no creativity going on for a couple of years through all that! Fortunately, I get the luxury of it being able to pick the timescale for my own projects. I like to work on something instinctively and then step away until I have almost forgotten what I did. Then I’ll go back to it a month or two later and hear it exactly for what I did, with no preconceptions or thinking, “Did I do something good? Did I do something bad?” When we were settled here a bit more solidly, I started going into the studio, just down the road here and doing a little more: four or five days every two or three months.
The album is centered around your Animist philosophy.
Animism is one of the precepts of Zen Buddhism and is the concept of everything having a personality, soul, and character. Animals have them. Vegetables have them. Minerals have them. It’s a gnostic thing. I very much believe that we, in many ways, still think like cavemen. We still talk about sunrise and sunset, when we’ve known for hundreds of years that the sun neither rises nor sets. Five hundred years after we’ve figured out that we live on a perfectly spherical planet, people still talk about the four corners of the earth.
I think that something like trees, for example, are sentient beings. We’re discovering more and more about them and the way they interact and communicate with each and have a symbiosis that we just don’t perceive because it happens on a different timescale to our very fast metabolism. We’ve had thousands of years of religious dogma and bullshit, and people start to repeat that and believe it because that’s what they’ve always been told. I think if people think about those things in any depth, they’ll see that it doesn’t make sense — it’s just not true. There’s a lot of things that don’t make sense, but we still believe them.
Photo: Ian Witchell / Courtesy of Motormouth Media
This is your first solo album for 30 years. How is this different from a Spectrum or an E.A.R. Record?
Well, E.A.R. was always meant to be more experimental most of the time, and with Spectrum, I work with other people. With this project, I knew it was just going to be me. Spectrum records have also been guitar-based, and I knew this was going to be different. I just felt that it was time to wheel out the moniker again and do it as Sonic Boom. Sonic Boom is also better known than Spectrum because of the Spacemen 3 thing, and I started noticing over the last few years when I was doing shows as Spectrum that sometimes, they were billed as Sonic Boom. I’d say, “Hey, it should be Spectrum!” and they’d go, “Yeah, I know, but more people know about Sonic Boom — whatever gets people to the show.” So, thinking about it, I decided to do this record as a Sonic Boom release.
You’re also gearing up for a tour. Will all those fragile synthesizers stand the rigors of the road?
You would need a lot of people and a lot of equipment, but it could be done. If I were U2, that’s the way I’d do it, but as I’m Sonic Boom, I’ll be doing it with my little suitcase and my knapsack on my back! Because of the complexities of programming modular synthesizers, it’s impossible to replicate it all consistently, so I use some loops and samples of my original modular synthesizer stuff.
I’ve played two shows so far: one in Santiago in Chile and one in Utrecht, Holland. For all the gigs, I’ll be playing the full album — the first time I’ve done that, but it’s the first time I’ve ever felt that I’ve got a whole album where it made a nice live show. The reactions to the gigs so far have been really good.
That’s a huge step from playing JB’s in Dudley with Spacemen 3.
[laughs] Spacemen 3 did a gig there with The Scientists, I remember. It was like a big, brick warehouse. I don’t think anyone came to that show. So, we went back and played again, and no-one came to that show either! Mid-week at JBs wasn’t really a hot-spot.
All Things Being Equal is being released in a strange and uncertain time for the planet. How do you feel about that?
Something good must come from this situation. The sociopaths amongst us will be trying to accelerate into the apocalypse. I’m sure, but a lot of people realize that things need to be different. I try to be as positive as I can. Some of the tracks on the record like “Just Imagine”, “The Way That You Live”, and the next single “Things Like This” were all meant to be positive, vibey things. They’re meant to have a message. Most of the things that I’m talking about in humanity are motivated by two things: punishment and incentive — those are the two things which almost everything comes down to. There are two other forces that I like to invoke: inspiration and aspirations.
In the era of streaming and downloads, it’s interesting to see that you still make a big deal out of the presentation of the physical product.
The limited-edition version of All Things Being Equal is on transparent red, glow in the dark vinyl and has a mirror board sleeve with the artwork printed in transparent inks. It’s pretty nice. The label is a 3D optical illusion, too. I’ve tried to put the same sort of effort into the design as I do with the recording when a label lets me go that far. Even down to the download card: I didn’t want it to be just some disposable, white piece of paper you take the information off and screw up. I wanted something that would be a part of the whole thing, something that you could keep with the record. It takes a massive amount of effort to do things like this. Everyone involved knows that the result is worth it, but that’s why these things stand out: everyone would do it if it were easy.
You sound really pleased with the record.
I like All Things Being Equal, and I know finally that I can stand by it forever. In my lifetime at least — my forever.
Photo: Ian Witchell / Courtesy of Motormouth Media