Photo: Alex Kress, Agata Xavier and Nick Kramer
Interview: Nick Kramer
Nick Kramer is a NYC-based musician, music expert, and longtime friend of Sonic Boom’s; in fact, this conversation continues a conversation Nick and Pete Kember began via fax machine in the early ‘90s. With the ease of a comfortable rapport, the two old friends delve into what Sonic Boom has gleaned from his three decade-long tenure in the music business.
Right from the mic check, Sonic Boom and Nick are philosophizing (about mic checks!), and the discourse doesn’t dip from there. The usual “what are some of your influences” garbage is replaced with Sonic Boom explaining how often people make lazy assumptions about his influences — it’s a very entertaining interview.
If you’re reading the interview, it’s a safe bet you’re already aware that Sonic Boom was a member of Spacemen 3, the foundational transportive sonic experimenters from Rugby. Sonic Boom has since left full time residence in Rugby for other points – including Portugal’s sunny shores, and pursued an acclaimed solo career with Spectrum, and brought his musical aesthetic to a number of records he produced, including MGMT’s Congratulations and two albums from fellow Portugal transplant Panda Bear.
Your editors have left the conversation pretty dense to respect the granularity of the conversation. The dialog gets detailed about the different ways feedback is used. They get general on the question of whether context matters. Sonic talks about the formative days of Spacemen 3, and also what he’s getting into now. Plus they talked way more about Bo Diddley than you were probably expecting.
To capture the vibe between Nick and Sonic (and also of coastal Portugal), we’ve also included some photos Nick took around the time that the two got together for the interview.
Pour yourself a glass of vinho tinto, and settle in for a read.
Pete Kember: I wonder who was the first man who ever said, “testing 1,2,” was it Marconi or someone?
Nick Kramer: That’s a good question, I mean, you know, and that’s a cool thing too—that whole idea of like parallel evolution. You had Edison in the states, and Tesla, and Marconi. I think there are parallels in that in music too, right?
Pete: Yeah, I think there’s certain times when things happen at the same time through the sort of synchronicity of technology or effects or you know maybe it’s like that with auto-tune or granulization or some of these more recent you know sort of effects that have been fashionable in some different music.
Nick: But even we were talking before, the concept album and production styles and if you look at Joe Meek and Phil Spector, and those experiments, they were almost concurrent without hearing each other.
Pete: Mmm, yeah, pretty much.
Nick: And then, I remember we were talking a long time ago about Jesus and Mary Chain: “Psychocandy”, and I remember how you were telling me how you didn’t listen to “Psychocandy” for years because you’d read all those articles where it said you were influenced by them or they were of the same type.
Pete: They were one of the most obvious comparisons for you to go, “Yeah, you guys and Jesus and Mary Chain, I mean, you’re basically the same, right? I mean, you’re doing the same music.”
Nick: Well and you both used feedback—like as an instrument.
Pete: The way the Mary Chain used feedback was way more hardcore than the way we used it and much more of an assault and a different thing. You get bursts of feedback on the Odd Record in the 60’s. But to have that squealy feedback all the way through your song, that was quite—that was a bold step.
Nick: Yeah, but you never heard them, before you guys were kind of when you really listen to it, it doesn’t sound the same. And you guys, you talk about the assault and the Jesus and Mary Chain like in the early concerts and everything, there was much more sort of aggression it seemed like, than what Spacemen 3 was all about.
Pete: Yeah. I think Alan McGee particularly was very of the school of the mouth and that a little hype will go a long way with getting things rolling, and we were just from a totally different thing , they were more sort of savvy with that sort of stuff I suppose. But I remember I bought the “You Trip Me Up” single, I don’t know where that falls—one of their first singles right? I bought that and I guess that must be in late 85. I really liked it and the next things I really remember…I’m trying to think when “Psychocandy” came out?
Nick: That was later in ’85—really late ’85.
Pete: Right. I guess that was what set the tone for when our records starting coming out in ’86. People were like, “This is just like Psychocandy.” So yeah, I went out of my way not to listen to that record for two or three years after that. Just cause I didn’t want it to make me do something or make me not do something.
Nick: Yeah. But it’s interesting though. That was almost an example of that co-evolution.
Pete: Yeah, we were sort of on the parallel course.
Nick: It would be so much harder for you, for this sort of co-evolution of Spacemen 3 and Jesus and Mary Chain or Joe Meek and Phil Spector, or what have you, today because like almost—You hear you know those barriers have just disappeared whether it’s oceans or whether it’s just—
Pete: I feel that Spacemen 3 would not have been in this kind of climate now where you find a song by Otis Redding or Johnny Otis or Bo Diddley ….. You can find everything and listen to everything instantly for free or mainly everything, and there was something really magical about having to dig through record stores, go through the process of you know looking through the sleeves. And most people tend to gravitate towards things which are sort of, they feel relate to them. Sure enough. You know that’s sort of human nature and I think that’s what a part of that process is and then of course you’re able to listen to a certain amount in a record store, but not endlessly. There was never endless time for it. But once you establish the relationship with the guy in the record store, it was better than “Amazon recommends” because you bought this or that.
Nick: Right, they could curate it for you.
Pete: Yeah, they could sort of point you at stuff and then you could filter it after that and say, “No I don’t like that” or “Oh my god, I so like that.” But I feel that as a band it was better for us too. Cause we were a severely influenced band and I think if we’d have had that much access to all music I don’t know where it would have led. Hypothetical of course but—
Nick: And then at the same time what I wonder too is I mean, you know, I mean, I find it hard to believe that there aren’t these people, that there aren’t these subcultures that we don’t know about. Right, that are as small or maybe they’re spread around the world but they’re as small as the same things that we grew up with.
Pete: I mean, a lot of the music I listen to now ….and I feel a lot of the coolest stuff that people of our generation listen to is things that existed when we were eighteen but the chances of finding Fela Kuti or some of these African or more obscure sort of culturally disengaged from the culture that we were growing up in. And unless you sort of trip over them or point yourself in a specialized direction…… I think yeah, it’s kind of—I think for me that’s been one of the great things, via the CD’s and the internet, is if people put out records which at the time probably didn’t really find their audience necessarily.
Nick: So, I mean one of the things you just touched on was, you know, these artists like Fela Kuti, and people who are hard to discover. And it reminds me of something that you said over dinner last night, which was, you know the process of how something is made or who made it or where it comes from is kind of like interesting if you like it. But all you really care about is how it sounds.
Pete: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Initially, I think it pulls you in musically and sometimes it’s really intriguing to find out that they lived in some weird cult, on a farm in Venezuela or whatever. You know, it adds some sort of contextual richness to it. But essentially, you know Big Pink wouldn’t be a great record just cause it was made on a farm or something. But maybe the fact that it was made in a farmhouse would add a big contribution to the way that it sounds and feels. So, sometimes these things, I feel have more play in than others. And also with Joe Meek, maybe the fascination in some ways with that dude is like he did all that with nothing, he literally had cobbled together nothing, but a bit of chewing gum and a garden gate spring. Or Lee Perry even—they just didn’t have access to the fancy studios. Particularly early on, later on, I’m sure.
Nick: But yeah, back when there was like three bass players on every record and five guitar players. I mean yeah it’s amazing what people did with limited resources—or because of their constraints, right? And Delia was like that too right? Delia Derbyshire with the tapes. I mean remarkable, the passion that it took to like actually make it worth doing.
Pete: Yeah it is. But essentially that’s kind of what keeps it fresh and redefines things and makes it interesting and makes something magical and the next higher layer possible. And I don’t know—I really would like to see—the sort of the more tribal thing where punk or goth or these tribal things could really become such big social movements for periods, but i think it is finished. I guess it was partly through the media being saturated with particular things too. And partly through it just jibing with people at that particular time.
It doesn’t seem to be happening anymore. And I think a lot of people are looking at that, wanting to see some kids with the vim to say what they’re thinking.
It’s not like it has to be super deep – the Stooges or someone – they didn’t come up with anything philosophically great, you couldn’t really form a religion around the precepts of the Stooges but you know, no one could deliver a song about being bored or not having fun and making it into something really relatable to other people in a way that resonates with teens everywhere, that sort of punk ethos.
There is not enough money in the world to make you work on something that you don’t enjoy. And no money is almost enough when you really love the music.
Nick: You touched on the influence of your environment and like I was talking about listening to Love in Southern California I understood it better. And so, you’re spending time in Portugal in Sintra and have continued making music, do you see it influencing your sound or is it something for others to hear?
Pete: I kind of feel I got into a rut where I was in Rugby all the time and I needed a big change. I do feel environment is key —it mostly dawned through working with MGMT I guess. We were doing that stuff for Congratulations in a spot in Malibu, you know with real instant access to the environment . windows to the studio , cause of course it wasn’t a studio it was a big house that they rented the studio gear in for , with beautiful gardens and views of the national park. So, it was just, I felt there was a lot of magic that it brought to it. And then working with you in MGMT’s Blanker Unsinn spot in Brooklyn Heights working on Panda Bear’s Tomboy LP …… That winter it snowed so heavily and i was snowed in for I don’t know how many weeks it was so great .
Nick: The bottles of Cristalino were chilling in the snow. [laughing]
Pete: Yeah …..they delivered…..But somehow it really, Tomboy really resonated in that environment. There was something really pure sounding because the city had been covered in this beautiful whiteness everywhere which seemed to last forever .it was a good storm at that point. So, then I guess I was working with Peaking Lights in California, in Lucian Heights, and it just sort of started dawning on me that I had spent so many years making records that – you know in theory the best summers of my young life, my young years – in rooms with no windows…. and summer always seemed like the time for bands to go to the studio and work and I just really felt that it wasn’t—you know conducive ….I could get more into the music by actually having some environmental input into it. I remember talking to Noah about it and he was really into the idea of getting some sunshine into records. And I started to realise that if it felt good in that situation it was a really, really, good sign. Sort of like the Beach Boys thing where this California Sunshine seems to ooze out of the records because of the environment that they made them in, and they were living in and it’s kind of uh—I started to realize it was important. Then with the Panda Bear Grim Reaper album I tried to do mixing in totally different places to bring in as much environmental magic as possible. It was 20 songs, and a lot of work but I was totally down for it. Anything we could do to find the right magic in each thing as much possible was obviously for the benefit of everyone and through working with Noah on those two records, I was here in Portugal a lot and I was just kind of stunned really. I mean Lisbon is a stunning, beautiful city. But when you get out of Lisbon into the Portuguese countryside at first, we were driving to one off shows here and there you slowly get a picture of it, I just really loved it. I came here as a child and I have memories of it, from then even, tiled buildings always really stand out and then we started looking for somewhere to try to live outside of the UK for a while.
Nick: And always looking for sun, would you say?
Pete: Mhm, yeah, we were definitely looking for better weather. The way the weather has changed in the UK in the last 30 years has been just depressing. Sunny days almost don’t exist, just a gray clouded over—Maybe you get the odd week or two here or there in August…… I just realized life’s kind of too short, I wanted to have a bit more environmental magic in my life. I think that I mean, the older you get, illness is almost an inevitability of old age whether it’s cancer or whatever, and I really think it’s important—being in a sweet environment is really important. They got a lot of it in Portugal, and Sam and I both kind of fell in love really. We started looking into it….
Nick: I guess similar to different environments as you’ve been doing more and more producing, I mean different bands have come into it with their own thing. And yet someone who comes to you is looking for you to bring you know Sonic Boom to the table. So, how do you balance that, hearing what a band is in and of itself, and then also as a producer, adding the flavors and the seasonings and the point of view that is uniquely yours?
Pete: I think that as a band, certainly Spacemen 3 always hoped to find someone, and never really could find anyone, or couldn’t afford it really, I guess is the reality. If you have a big budget you can take things in a better direction. But at the time we were—and I’m sure that Mary Chain suffered from the same thing, they were speaking in a language that most studios and most people in the music business didn’t understand. And it’s a whole different post-modern, educated world now where people know a little bit about a lot of things with music. It didn’t used to be like that and some people had luck finding people who understood what they were talking about in the studio most people just had to struggle by and do what they did.
Nick: Yeah, and the Mary Chain tell stories about being looked at like they were completely out of their mind.
Pete: I believe it, I believe it, I absolutely believe it. And I have to say even sometimes within bands themselves and certainly in Spacemen 3, they were some of the things that became fairly trademark in terms of say, feedback. For example. In Spacemen 3, there were members of the band who were not—who thought this was a crazy thing. This was destruction to put feedback on something. I found it not so…
Nick: I had the same experience in my old band, like I remember sitting in an interview and I said I thought pretty much every piece of music in the world would sound better with a layer of feedback on it. And you know, one of my bandmates, was just aghast at the notion [laughing]
Pete: Sometimes when you know that you’re onto something really good, I think, it’s always good to have everyone down with it, and everyone like “hooray this is great.” But sometimes you do something and there’s somebody who’s like I don’t know about that. Whenever that happens, I look at something hard and most of the time something makes me realize that it will be a bit divisive but for people who like it, it’ll be really strong. Sometimes it can be delivered with a certain amount of commitment or a certain amount of you know difficult language, difficult subject matter, some people are gonna be like “I don’t know why you would say that, I don’t know why you would do that”
Nick: So, challenging the listener with maybe sounds or lyrics or what have you.
Pete: Yeah, lyrics as well. I know the track “Forever Alien,” from that record has some pretty introspective, dark-thought kind of lyrics, in a way it’s difficult to do that on a record but because it’s difficult to say, in a way, it’s gonna hit hard with the people who have a difficulty saying it but who feel it. So sometimes it’s pretty weird how those things work out. So sometimes maybe Spacemen 3 were a bit bloody minded like that, I think Jason and myself have a little bit of that….. if someone tells you that you shouldn’t really be doing that……. You should think about why and reevaluate that but sometimes it’s a sure sign you should be doing it more. [laughing]
It’s a whole different post-modern, educated world now where people know a little bit about a lot of things with music. It didn’t used to be like that, and some people had luck finding people who understood what they were talking about in the studio; most people just had to struggle by and do what they did
Nick: Talking about Forever Alien, and you sent me tracks that you’re working on now. “Forever Alien,” you know, that song in particular but even songs like, “Like,” for instance, you certainly seem to at the time have felt disconnected from the world or alien from the mainstream.
Pete: Yeah, I did and I did before and I feel in many ways I do now. It’s funny sometimes , with every album title, pretty much, of anything I’ve ever worked on, there was some point – it wasn’t always obvious at the start , it would have some other working title – but there’s a certain point at the end where it’s like “Oh my god,” when I look at this at the end it actually paints a certain picture and this is one of the phrases that I think sums it up. And yeah, I guess “Forever Alien” was again, reaffirming the thing that I guess often i still feel.
Nick: Again maybe this is being colored from being a friend and knowing you over the years but even musically, listening to your new stuff, it seems like now in a way, whether it’s being at peace with yourself and contentedness but now it seems like you feel much more integrated with the world than perhaps you did then.
Pete: Yeah I think that’s been a sort of thing with age and just being conscious of some sort of self-improvement program without being totally—I got to a certain point in my life , and the life and world I’d created mostly for myself—I think you’d have to say that everyone’s in some part, responsible for what—and I was very much responsible for what I did—it would have been much easier to take other paths in life . I found myself with a decision where I never…. it’s a weird thing in the music business because people assume as soon as you’re in a band or something you want to be famous, your life should be a matter of public record and all this but I never really wanted that, and I don’t think anyone in Spacemen 3 ever did either. I mean recognition from your peers and all that sort of stuff, it’s all good but Spacemen 3 initially had zero recognition from our peers and in fact our peers, while our other friends in bands in Rugby all looked at us like is this some sort of idiot put-on. Which goes back to the thing of “if people don’t like you maybe you should be doing it more.” But yeah, I don’t know.
Nick: Was there a point where you just sort of realized that making music was just for yourself? The joy that you got out of that piece of it, whether it was the spare moments that you actually got to do—
Pete: Right from the start, and I still have some lucid memories of the first Spacemen 3 years, the first jam I guess you call it …. we were all just really a little bit gob-smacked, flabbergasted by how easily we managed to put something together with minimal—for most of the band only having, speaking for myself definitely – a minimal ability – but knowing what we wanted it to feel like …..and what we wanted to project and if we could only do it in one, two, or three chords, or what have you, so be it – We’d channel everything we could into that. But yeah, I think, being from where we were from, like a small town, the chances of it ever being a successful thing, I don’t think was really high. All the people in the band, it was never really any of their MO’s to be super attuned to that.
Nick: There’s the famous Brian Eno quote that “everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album formed a band” For me personally the band that did that was Spacemen 3, where I heard a band that it’s like okay, one chord, if you play that and you mean it enough then you can make good music. So, what was the band or moment or what was the if there’s anything trigger that made you pick up a guitar?
Pete: Goddamnit Brian!! You stole my thunder! You stole my thunder! Well, you know with the Velvet Underground thing I was in school. I was like 14, ’early ’80. It might have been 1981. Summer ’80 would be my guess, and I was starting to realize that I probably was more interested in art than actually in most of the curriculum and I don’t remember exactly how, I’m sure it was a book in the art school library. But there was a book on pop art and I dug it instantly. And of course, Warhol was one of the people involved, so….. and I remember going into a music store, and one of the only Velvet albums—there were only two Velvet albums that you could find back then – but one of them was Squeeze, believe it or not, which no one ever wants to talk about or mention that – And the other one was their first album and I bought that, because it had the Warhol cover….. It was a classic case of the cover selling the record. And I kind of expected to be disappointed with the record. I’m trying to think if I ever bought another record so much for the cover, and sort of expecting to be disappointed by the record…. But I remember having that feeling and then putting the record on and just being blown away. By the pop songs but also by you know “European Son” and “Venus in Furs” and “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Heroin” of course. I was just sort of like, “Jesus what the fuck is this, what’s going on here.” It was real dumb luck I would say. I think when I met Jason, it was a similar thing where he somehow in the same dumb luck way tripped over the Stooges and in that time, pre-internet, the chances were slim, you know, but I suppose in that way that was sort of our parallel course and we had both slightly been the odd kids on the block and we were both somehow synced with these weirder things. So, when we met at art college, we both had different stuff to bring, that we equally resonated with. If you like Velvet Underground, there’s a chance you’re gonna see the good side of the Stooges, and vice versa.
Nick: So, you guys played each other records?
Pete: Yeah Jason used to have a hi-fi, he had a record player but he only had a cab for the speaker, a guitar cab, which I remember he painted with a sort of sandpaper coating , which destroyed anything this speaker even looked at….. But yeah ……. we listened to the Stooges records for quite a while through this cab. And it was months probably, or seemed like it was a year before I realized we were only listening to one mono side of the stereo record. Like just Ron Asheton, and drums or something, and half the vocals and then the bass and tambourine or something was all on the other side. I feel that might in some ways influenced us—listening to one side of the Stooges. Cause the Stooges albums have that hard panning of that era, which when it’s done well sounds really good.
Nick: And frankly it’s a testament to how great those records are. I mean every player on that record is just meaning it.
Nick: One of my favorite stories that I tell about you is that I played you Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man” one time, and you were asking what year it was from and you said I think it’s ’65, and you said “No, the reverb sounds more like ‘66” and sure enough we looked it up and it was ’66… And the interview is interrupted by a boy dog with a girl’s name.
Nick: I mean I think that that, it’s just one of those testaments to the way, and I mean the whole thing about one chord, and what you say about the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, listening through a mono guitar cab, the ‘razor story’ of hearing Jason’s brother shaving whilst playing acoustic —all of those are about like, there’s an understanding that you have or a way that you hear tones and sounds that maybe it’s like you don’t need to be Eddie Van Halen and play ten thousand notes because of the subtly in the sounds that you’re hearing.
Pete: I think I slowly realized that from early on—that whenever I would say “I really love this song” someone with more musical ability would say “Yeah, the dude only plays one chord.” I’d be like “Really?” And then this would keep happening….. it’d be one or two chords…… it’s what really stimulates my mind, that kind of repetition. And I have no idea where it came from or why but it’s been sort of an invisible, guiding thing. There’s a certain point—I think early on I thought, yeah, we can do this shit with one chord, super minimal, but how far could you go with that? It’s such a limiting format. And then we started to realize through experimentation with different instruments and stuff it actually was kind of endless. The more I’d find other songs by people I’d be like I love this song, so beautiful, seems so complicated, it was two chords. It’s just the way they deliver. Like Bo Diddley, its one chord or one or two chords all the way through but he modulates the vocals, there’s elements that modulate and make it sound like there’s chord changes, but when you analyze it, which of course is not what you’re generally going to do, but when you do—dude is just playing one chord, and singing beautiful, harmonic shit over the top of it.
Nick: And then he’s hitting the low strings harder, the high strings harder. I mean…
Pete: Yeah, I guess Bo Diddley is someone that really hits people or not—I was talking to Rippley from Moon Duo/Wooden Shjips about it the other day and he gets it on some level but maybe like on the same level I get Chuck Berry. But I see something way deeper and more complicated about Bo Diddley and even a whole range of different styles he pioneered and those things he did that were just so out of left field but he just nailed it. All those weird rumba rhythms
Nick: Yeah, the weird mutes. Some of it must be the recording but a lot of it is the playing. Some people have imitated it but it’s like I’ve never heard anyone really do that.
Pete: He puts so much vibe in between the drone, the shakers, and him, and the other thing I noticed listening to a lot of his stuff, which I never really realized about Bo Diddley is he very rarely has a bass player. There’s almost never a bass part, maybe a second guitar part sure, shakers, drums, kinda down low. But very rarely anything bass. It’s kind of interesting cause in Spacemen 3 we had a period where we were just two guitars and drums and we were just kind of shocked how what we did worked really well on that level of the guitar mesh and then you know the rhythmic element underneath it.
Nick: And Joy Division’s a little like that, too right? In a lot of ways, certainly, before you had New Order like adding the low tones—But a lot of my favorite stuff is like Peter Hook playing way high on the neck.
Pete: Yeah,creates a lot of tension on that side. It’s always nice to find that you can break the rules a little bit. Bo Diddley doesn’t sound like he’s breaking the rules until you really analyze it.
Nick: Yeah totally, when you were starting, who among your peers or not necessarily your peers but among your contemporaries—there was The Smiths there were New Order, there was Nick Cave, all sorts of stuff happening. Who were—
Pete: None of those people really, there’s odd bits by them like I always loved the Smiths track “How Soon is Now.” I thought that was like their greatest song. Anyone who locks the tremolo on that hard and that deep for the whole song, that got me straight away. But a lot of that stuff never really hit me that hard and then “Birthday Party.” I wasn’t super exposed to it. You know, I liked it, it didn’t hit me as hard as the Troggs or The Stooges or the Who or some of those people. I guess I always liked—one that I always liked was when it was quite a minimal arrangement of this stuff , when it was you know , there was something about the reductiveness… that was very simple, it’s essentially the riff, everything else is just sort of fill behind that riff. But if you have a riff like that you don’t need that much more. The bands that I really like from that era were the Gun Club, the Cramps, the Scientists …and there was an English band I really liked called the Folk Devils, another band we really liked , this little weird band called the Sid Presley experience. Sort of Elvis, Sex Pistols, Jimmy Hendrix influenced band.
But contemporaries, until bands like My Bloody Valentine came along, there wasn’t many bands that we’d—The Shamen, early on, who, in their early incarnation would play some electric prunes-esque stuff—totally different to the sort of proto-rave thing they became. We did shows with them in Rugby.
Nick: So, getting back to producing now. When a band—so MGMT and Panda bear,I mean they’re really all remarkably different if you really listen to them. Similar to what we were just talking about you could very easily see someone loving Panda Bear but not being into MGMT and vice versa. Like what is the—
Pete: I have quite a wide taste, I guess, and I can see the awesomeness in MGMT and Panda Bear. But I agree that a lot of the people who are fans of Spacemen 3 or Sonic Boom or Spectrum or whatever aren’t necessarily fans of Panda Bear or MGMT. I guess noise translates or I guess that’s just the way it is or whatever.
Nick: But there are, did most of them come to you because they’re fans of you or what you’ve done as a musician?
Pete: I think, yeah. There’s the common, mutual fan club shit going on with all these people. There is not enough money in the world to make you work on something that you don’t enjoy. And no money is almost enough when you really love the music. So, you know I’ve always found a balance. Some of those people—I mean Panda Bear was a case where I approached him. He had name checked Spacemen 3 on Person Pitch cover. And I wrote him initially you know saying “Dude, what a great record. Jesus Christ. You’re on fire. If you ever want to do anything I’d be really into it.” I think he was at that point where…. I think that he was in a locked loop of it being such a successful record , and also that there were loads of kind of imitators and I think his response to me at that time was like “I don’t really plan to do another Panda Bear record.” Which in some ways I admire it because I think with fame and success—
Nick: It’s a lonely thing.
Pete: What everyone thinks is that’s a fantastic thing and how wonderful it’d be but I feel, But I wouldn’t like to be Justin Bieber that’s for sure. And maybe a lot of people would chop off an arm to be Justin Bieber. Me, I think in some respects that’s a life ruined. I’m sure—I wouldn’t expect him to say that, but I don’t think it’s an easy life being super famous like that. A loss of most real freedoms & lottsa bullshit ….
Nick: But what I also find interesting now that you mention it, is all of those artists that I know you’ve produced, tend to be fans of each other.
Pete: It’s true. Yeah, I think MGMT for example or Panda Bear, there’s just a strength of quality in what they do that, you know, it sticks out. You know, I think it’s—I try to work on stuff that really resonates with me. I feel like if it resonates with me it’ll probably resonate with other people , at some point . Stuff like MGMT for example there’s just no question—when they are at their best , like any great artist at their best, it’s what rock gods are made of.
Nick: Yeah, and how envious are you of what great singers they are?
Pete: Oh I don’t know…. I autotune…To someone with a great voice which Andrew or you know Ben have —in MGMT, it’s a classic case all those people can all sing but you know with Panda Bear or MGMT , they got a really great voice, really great delivery , but they’re all convincing people you know…… it’s pretty easy at that point. They’re doing some searching….
Nick: It seems like the conviction with everything they do is really the unifying theme in all of them. Looking through these questions, so, there’s two interesting questions here that we didn’t talk about. So, you worked with Jim Dickinson, a legendary producer who worked with Big Star, Dylan, Replacements, etc. What producers would you say—I mean we talked about Joe Meek and Phil Spector but what producers would you say really influenced your sound historically but like what producers, I mean are there any producers now that excite you with what they do?
Pete: Yeah, wow. Producers. It’s such a nebulous thing – whenever I mix something I get credit as producer, if i ‘produce’ , people will say I ‘mixed’ ….. Yeah, it’s a weird one, producers, hmm, that are still alive. Hmmm. Who are still a viable source now.
Nick: Yeah, it’s a tough one cause it’s like what does that mean? Is it a sound?
Pete: There are people not necessarily super contemporary like Andrew Weatherall who I would love to work with and love to do stuff with, is it production is it mixing? When I mix I get into production sometimes? I don’t know. Sometimes—I
Nick: I guess the big question is—when you hear a record you like, do you say did Lee Perry work on this or did King Tubby mix this, cause it sounds like it. Did Ben Lee work on this cause it sounds like it. You know, you mentioned Andy Weatherall. Like these are, there are some people who seem to—like Kevin Shields is another one, where you know regardless of whether they appreciate the music and let it live in its own right there’s a certain consistency of quality of sound that they bring to it
Pete: Yeah let me just think. They both have interesting ways of looking at it, Andy Weatherall and Kevin Shields. But I don’t know, Jim Dickinson said , and I’m gonna misquote him I’m sure , that essentially the root of it is that the greatest songs can never be recorded.
yes they can physically be recorded, like anything can be recorded – but you will never capture the best song at its greatest in an acoustic environment. We still can’t capture it easily in a recording. We have to find ways to get the best out of it in a studio scenario with a red light going, in that ‘recording mode’ . not just feeling it…. sometimes it just happens to come out that way because of the kind of day you had, or what have you. But essentially , capturing the raw spirit is gone as soon as you’re able to analyse it thru repeated listening & other factors that leave you chasing ‘it’ like a ghost .
And I think he’s sort of right that in a way I’ve—you know, some people call it demo-syndrome where people aren’t worried about the recording or the quality and all the rest of it, they just want to lay down a feeling, inspired by the emotion. And what they capture is something that is essential, in that it’s the essence of what they were trying to do , and it’s really strong and they’re like okay I’m gonna go and sensibly sit down and do that in a really clean way, really good recording, expensive studio…… and sure enough at the end it’s like yeah, it sounds like you spent a lot more money on it but it doesn’t sound like I have the same soul, it doesn’t have the same vibe and sometimes those things are hard beasts to catch, you know, so it’s always interesting with different artists trying to get the best rep of what they’re trying to do .
Nick: Yeah and you’ve done a lot of improvisational stuff in the studio too. Is it that moment where an idea becomes something more than just an idea or is it—
Pete: I feel like Brian Eno in some ways is one of the guys —gets a lot of credit for letting people run studio time and a lot of trying out weird stuff, whether it’s with Bowie or whoever. But essentially that get distilled and edited down like “Heroes” for example and you can just sense in that record Brian Eno’s hand.
Nick: Cause it’s a shitty song.
Pete: There’s something about it , yeah it’s just there’s something super weightily delivered. And I feel the same about “Sound & Vision,” that that song is a perfect soul song and such a perfect pop song, but I feel that it came out of improvisational jamming and someone saying “that riff,” …..someone just hearing it and saying, “Oh my god, okay, now we start to build on that.”
Nick: It’s almost like the studio is instrument and “Heroes” is a great example because there are enough covers of it, that for me I realize it’s like Oasis covered that—
Pete: Did they really?
Nick: Yeah, and it’s like wow, when you strip it down it’s a really bad pub rock song, basically. It’s just that that recording—
Pete: It’s delivered with some kind of transcendental magic.
Nick: It really is magic.
Pete: And sometimes that time spent in the studio playing around with effects, usually I have an idea of stuff, what’s gonna work with the thing. I feel with Lee Perry it was the same, I feel he instinctively knew when he got some new box. There’s a bunch of things that are so so, but , oh my god but ‘this’, this is ridiculous, this I can use for an album or you know…..
Nick: I remember one time I was at one of these audio engineering shows, one of these trade shows and I remember like testing out a compressor at a stand and the guy who made it walked up to me and said “you know you’re the first person who actually is testing this stuff the way I would test it” which is you turn everything up to 10 and see what happens, and it’s like I feel like that’s what Lee Perry did. And it’s shocking how many people actually never turn stuff up to 10.
Pete: There used to be a weird sort of vibe , people used to use equipment in a certain way or in the prescribed way with limiters and compressors and stuff and there’s a lot you can do beyond what’s considered the polite way and correct way. But beyond that it actually becomes some much stronger effect.
There used to be a thing where and it used to kind of a make or break for me with engineers where I’d say Okay I wanna set this up now I wanna bring up four of the effects on the auxiliaries but I want them all to be able to be fed back to themselves and be able to create basically a sort of matrix where I can feedback effects to each other which is how a lot of ‘Soul Kiss’ stuff – all that weird noise stuff all over it is all done like that – and some people would be just like you can’t do that, that’s not the way it’s meant to be used….
And I’d be like how do you know? have you ever done that? what’s the problem with doing that—
Nick: Right like, if you can use it that way then that’s the way it’s meant to be used.
Pete: I used to get into this sort of…… to break the impasse I’d be like ‘what’s the chances you think it’s gonna break the thing.’ And they’d be like ‘uuuh it probably won’t break it’. And I’d be like , so let’s try it ! Or occasionally I’d get ‘I don’t know ,I think it might break’ and I’d go, ‘ok if it breaks how much is it gonna cost ‘? [laughing]
Pete: And if you’re recording it as it breaks it could be the best thing ever. Some things like old eventide harmonizers where just turning them on makes them go [musical noise] just turning them on is sometimes the most really magical thing it does…… just its brain turning on. I used to do artwork when they used to do stuff in CMYK and then they’d have to translate it to RGB, or whatever format it was gonna be, and there was a split moment where Photoshop used to have a brain freeze, and it’d do this awesome effect, which I’m sure you can probably dial up now…….And this was before screenshots. It used to do this thing before it was going from what you were looking at and what was going to be, inevitably the downgraded translation that you were gonna have to use, but in between it would do this really awesome brain freeze effect and I remember every time it did it I’d be like “That’s what I want!! The brain freeze!” And it was like there was then no way to capture….. that and some of the sleeves they did around that era …was trying to use Photoshop tweaks just to try and make it look like what it looked like during the brain freeze.
Nick: So, what do you think of the partnership between producer and artist? So, we talked about Eno and David Bowie. You have David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and you know you did Tomboy and Panda Bear vs. Grim Reaper with Panda Bear. And then at the same time you could see why an artist will want to make sure that they work with different people?
Pete: You have to assume that in this day and age people are quite musically educated and it’s also easier now to find good people than it was before. Not even just to find them but to contact them. Most people are accessible through some sort of media. So yeah and then you just sort of expect if you’re working with an artist of certain dimensions the chance that they’ll not want to keep making records with the same person or just use the same studio you know…. most people like to change stuff out. I feel that way myself to some degree. It’s kind of part of it. It’s also things are very weird in the whirlwind, in the moment….But I feel, I really hope I’m not wrong, you know….But I feel that both those records……the greatest records aren’t always recognized in their own time. And with Tomboy I was sort of stunned how that didn’t—I guess it was a successful record but when you’re comparing it to a previous, bigger success, it seems like a failure. And I was like you know, he’s so delivered on that record, unbelievable, just you know really dialed in.
Nick: Yeah, I mean, every song is unbelievable.
Pete: Maybe this is where I’m just out of touch but I’ve not had people come up to me and go “Oh, My, God. Tomboy, or Oh. My. God Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.” But who else is making records of that breadth and depth, I mean consistent depth but also awesome breadth.
Nick: And let’s face it, neither MGMT nor Panda Bear—I mean, they hit on a moment—but neither of them ever intended to do it
Pete: But both of them realize the mixed blessing that it enabled them to do what they wanted for the foreseeable future.
Nick: It becomes its own bounds.
Pete: Yeah, and both of those artists are people who are not likely to repeat themselves but then you know…
Nick: Whether you want them to or not.
Pete: You know some bands are able to churn out variations that are equally appealing or that work well but these things are usually magical moments that don’t last that long. And sometimes they’re recognized instantly in the moment and other times it takes decades maybe and then people realize, “Jesus Christ.”
Nick: Oh yeah I’m still convinced—I mean “Congratulations” to me is an album that’ll stand the test of time. Better and better
Pete: That’s one that more people come up to me and go, ”What the fuck ,that record is insane , that is so fucking good.” Cause I mean sure enough they were totally on fire at that point.
Nick: I mean yeah, they were pooping out songs, great songs.
Pete: If “Congratulations” itself the song had somehow been a sort of like whimsical freak hit which everyone I think sort of thought it might well—
Nick: it deserved to be.
Pete: I guess perspective gets twisted I mean yeah. . The version on the final record is I think, I’d safely say 90% the original if not 95% the original recording demo that they did. Which they probably had to do to get Columbia to sign off and let them go in the studio to record an album. They were like yeah, okay.
Nick: Whereas most of it was really worked out in the studio.
Pete: Yeah certainly, all the lyrics and stuff were all written afterwards. They seemed to have pretty good ideas about the structure of the songs – i mean stuff like “Siberian breaks .” – that stuff doesn’t fall out of the sky. You know those guys , they’re incredibly talented people. Stunningly talented really. I guess that’s one of the real pleasure of production is you get to meet all these different people. And they all invariably work in totally different ways. And maybe that’s the defining thing of all the people I’ve worked with is that they’re all people who kind of made it work for them rather than necessarily toed the line. I mean Panda Bear if you analyze it, a subway train going through a station and a loop from a Cat Stevens song and choir boy over the top. It doesn’t sound like it would be the center of spiritual magic that actually it does create. And I think that’s his thing. He brings this off kilter thing to it that somehow maybe it makes the sweetness of it sweeter for having , like you were saying, there’s no song that couldn’t be improved by feedback – I think Noah would say there’s no song that couldn’t be improved by having some concret sound effects….
Nick: The last question, how does it feel to have a Spacemen 3 song in a Simpsons episode?
Pete: Yeah, that’s a trip. That’s the classic story of Spacemen 3, it’s like the little band that wished they could, or something, and by some weird freak… things happening. I mean Spacemen 3 should never have been synced with the Simpsons. But someone working on the show used it as an edit, to edit to, before they locked it down, and I guess it worked so well that they managed to sell it to their boss. So, that was one of those freak blips.
Nick: Bet that felt good, cause you are a fan of the show too.
Pete: Yeah. It did feel good. And also to be synced with essentially…. a trip scene….. I think we can safely say. In the original script it was a GHB trip, in the actual show I think they played it down where they took several over the counter medication and it had an adverse effects when mixed with alcohol. The original script that they sent us, that we said you could use it for that, it was a GHB trip….
Nick: Oh wow.
Pete: But I think they essentially kept all the same footage and stuff. Yeah
Nick: Alright, shall we wrap it?
Pete: Question one done.
Nick: Question one complete in an hour, now question two, how did it all begin Bob?