INTERVIEW EXCLUSIVE Sonic Boom

In which the Spacemen
3/Spectrum guitarist talks about his collaboration with Jim Dickinson, the MBV
reunion, pot busts and more.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

It’s the musical gift that just keeps, ahem, giving.

 

Indian Giver,
released earlier this year by the very fine folks at the Birdman label, is a
project mounted by Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember and legendary producer/sideman Jim
Dickinson. It’s billed under the slightly unwieldy, but still spot-on, moniker
Spectrum Meets Captain Memphis — a sonic cage match of oddball roots-diggin’
and sike-o-delia wranglin’ like you ain’t heard no place else.

 

 

By way of background: Some time back I was interviewing Kember
about his long and storied career — Spacemen 3, Spectrum, E.A.R., etc. — and
when we got into the area of influences his enthusiasm was palpable as he
talked about vintage delta blues, Memphis-brand R&B and all things
roots/American. Coming from a man who made his name purveying some of the most
cranium-uncorking psychedelia and drone-pop to hit the underground in the past
two decades, I was initially perplexed, but then it occurred to me that perhaps
he’d simply begun moving past his more overt influences (Velvets, Stooges,
Elevators, Red Krayola, Suicide) in order to, as the saying goes, tap the source.

 

 

So it came as no surprise to subsequently learn, about three
years ago, that Kember journeyed to Dickinson’s
Zebra Ranch studio in upper Mississippi
to cut tracks. Kember would get to snatch some of the Dickinson mojo; Dickinson
would get to work with yet another musical savant, the kind of left-field artist
that he seems attracted to; a solid bargain for both gentlemen.

 

 

Things turned out more collaborative for the pair than they
expected, however, as evidenced on the finally-issued Indian Giver. Witness twang-noir psychedelic epic “The Lonesome
Death of Johnny Ace”: as Kember and Fuxa’s Randall Nieman cook up an ominous
synth-guitar stew, Dickinson
intones the sorrowful tale of the titular R&B legend’s demise for an
utterly spine-chilling listen. Spacemen 3 also gets exhumed: S3’s “Hey Man
(Amen)” is a-fuzz in gnarly axes and glorious gospel exhortations, while a
filthy, dirgelike version of Mudhoney’s (by way of S3) “When Tomorrow Hits”
heads out the other direction in search of some serious sinning. This
deliciously strange album winds down over the course of two psychedelic
instrumentals, the Kember-Dickinson-penned “Confederate Dead” (cinematic, with
a martial beat underpinning a hypnotically-repeating chord progression) and “Mary”
(classic Spectrum, all shimmery drones and throbbing motorik beats).

 

 

Bottom line: if you ever wondered what Spacemen 3 might
sound like reincarnated as a swamp-rock band, this platter’s for you, bubba.
Color me impressed, too: I tracked down Kember via my trusty DSL interface to
get the scoop on the record and on what else he’s been up to — which, as it
turns out, includes opening for My Bloody Valentine last month in London and Manchester.

 

 

 

BLURT: A long time ago
when I interviewed you, you indicated you had an appreciation for Americana roots-type
music. What kinds  – blues, folk,
country, swamp, gospel, etcetera – do you listen to?

 

 

SONIC BOOM: I love stuff like Ali Farka Touré, Konono No.1,
the Fra-Fra Tribesmen, Otha Turner, Jesse Mae Hemphill/Shewolf and the
Tate County Singers — essentially the roots via Africa and Outer Hebridean
plain-song of the real American blues and gospel. In my opinion — backcountry
style! None of that soul-less city church crap. I prefer the one chord shuffles
and haircut-and-shave of Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Jesse Mae Hemphill and a
thousand others equally valid and ultimately unrecognized.

 

 

[On the album] Jim Dickinson played a 1 string instrument
called a Low Bow after its maker, a Mr. Low. It’s basically a tea-chest bass
principle, but with guitar proportions — the body is a cigar box, the neck a
broomstick, the nut & bridge were hose-pipe clips, and the pick-up was nuts,
bolts and I forget what else. It’s the logical successor to the “diddley bow” I
guess: two nails hammered in an upright of a doorframe, played with a bottle or
slide and a pick of some kind. The hypnotic sound and limitation of the
instrument making it essence-ial immediately. Dickinson
played it like an extension of his soul and body. Perfectly, beautifully and
effortlessly. Both Jim and myself are “mood dudes” rather than flash-o-technics
types, but he is peerless in my opinion. And unbelievably under-credited and
underrated.

 

 

Speaking of Dickinson, you also had
told me that you’d been wanting to work with him. What about Jim appeals to
you, and are there any projects in particular he’s been involved with that
interested you?

 

 

Yeah. Tons. Mudboy & the Neutrons – when they avoid the
bar room faves [they] are unparalleled in my mind. The Stones’ blues pale, even
in their greatness, to Jim’s Mudboy work. His versions of “Codeine,” I Can’t
Feel at Home in This World,” “Brownsville” and
“Down in Mississippi”
are some of my favorite recordings ever. Ditto his work on the best Big Star
stuff like “Kangaroo” or “Holocaust.” Ditto his killer Jesters sides for Sun
Records, like “Cadillac
Man.”

 

 

I also think his work with Panther Burns to be seminal. It
heavily influenced Spacemen 3 during The
Perfect Prescription
. Then there’s
the Delta experimental music LPs he did – soundtrack style, but a wondrous
journey. He has real soul, blues and  r
‘n’ r  running thru his veins. His own James
Luther Dickinson solo LP for Atlantic [Dixie Fried, 1972] is unique and
priceless too.

 

 

I also liked it that he derided Spiritualized. As Jim told
me [about Jason Pierce]: “He just told me he wanted the whole track to go thru
a fuzz box, the jerk… It was so dumb that I obliged him, hehehe… for $20k and a
silver disc.” He recognized that Jason missed the value that Jim can bring to a
track. Dylan, the Stones and Aretha certainly did not.

 

 

 

                                     

So how did the
Spectrum Meets Captain Memphis project get underway?

 

 

It was through [David] Katznelson at Birdman. I think I
turned him on to J.D. a ways back and he sought him out, worked with him and
came up with this plan. Jim was up for it, collaborating, etcetera, especially
– not just producing. I think he recognized in me some sort of the naïve
understanding and connection he likes in music. I’m not sure he knew why he dug
it, but he recognized it was good to maybe pass on some of his talent to us
young whippersnappers.

 

 

Randall Nieman and him were both big wrestling fans, so they
connected there. Otherwise, Jim brought in all the players: old-time Memphis greats, Sid Selvedge and Jimmy Crosthwaite,
longtime J.D. cohorts from Dixie Fried (and also artists in their own amazing right), plus Memphis horn players old and new, and the
amazing Tate County Singers.

 

 

How were tracks
selected for the project? I’m curious in particular about “Johnny Ace” and your
decision to remake the two Spacemen 3 songs.

 

 

It had to be done in five days, so the re-recording of some
tracks was expedient in getting a number of tracks down. J.D. had worked with Mudhoney
too, so it made sense to do “When Tomorrow Hits.”  I like the re-recordings of the two older
tracks. His voice on “Hey Man” adds a nice edge.

 

 

“Johnny Ace,” however, was very different. A total
collaboration. We tried to come up with a track a la “Oh How She Dances” [Dickinson
song from Dixie Fried, also famously
covered by Panther Burns] and Jim came up, seemingly out of nowhere, with this
great story of the last moments of Memphis
soul crooner Johnny Ace. He’s a tough old dog to work with and he had me in
tears at one point, but I went into it hoping to get just one piece of
greatness. That came in “Johnny Ace”  – a
true tale, recorded in Mississippi
as Johnny Cash shuffled his immortal coil.  The rest was a surprising and enthralling bonus, but “The Lonesome Death
of Johnny Ace” is one of those special rare moments for me.

 

 

Most memorable
anecdotes about working with Dickinson?
I understand he’s got a lot of stories to tell when people record with him…

 

 

He’s a living legend. He should be doing talk tours, but
he’s too cool for that. He’s happy knowing he’s done some great shit. What a
tombstone, eh? Stories about him are probably better than his stories of other
folk, but my lips remain sealed in print, if a little looser in life.

 

 

 

Working at Zebra
Ranch in the bowels of the South: I’m a N.C. boy by birth, so I’m always
curious to get outsiders’ opinions of the region, including your take on Mississippi, Tennessee
and the like. Did you make any pilgrimages to landmarks?

 

 

Yeah, my new best Memphis
friend, [journalist] Andria Lisle, took me to MLK’s assassination spot, the
motel. And we went to Easley Sound, now burned down, Hi Studio where I heard
the new Al Green LP with Willie Mitchell Jr., who had [worked] with him. We
drove by Stax and Ardent.

 

 

The South is a tough place for a faggy looking white boy
with no mullet and a funny accent, but on the whole, Memphis itself is killer. Tate County, Mississippi,
where we recorded, was a dry county, so we had to make 20 mile booze runs for
my vodka! There’s much I love and despise about the south. The good guys are
the best. The little bigots and inbreds are fucked up as bad as you could wish
against, but that’s not unique to the Southern states. Strange fruit has hung
from many countries’ trees.

 

 

And you got nailed by
the cops for weed during a Spectrum tour of the Southeast a few years ago – in
my home state, in fact.

 

 

Yeah, in N.C. — it’s an occupational hazard I guess. We try and
use all the false coke-cans, etcetera, but to be honest, in 10,000 days of smoking,
I been busted four times, plus one for morphine. Two times in the U.K., one time in the U.S.A and one time in Copenhagen. Yeah –it IS
possible!

 

 

I don’t travel with over an ounce, and if a bust comes down
I put my hands up to it immediately, and stating the other people present just
walked in right before the cops did and had no idea I was smoking illegal
drugs there…. Lie, lie, lie, and stick to your story! Ultimately, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime — right?
Throwing shit on the van floor implicates everyone and helps no one. It’s just
taxation really. It always comes down to bread.

 

 

I did learn [something], though, from the North Carolina bust – you can grow stalagmites
of chew-tabaccy spit! There was one to the right of the door, right there in Burlington where every
cop sputumed their load on the way into the station. NICE. They nearly wet
themselves to have got my Cali
medical marijuana — it was some of the best I’ve ever had, just sweet as a nut.
They’d been smoking it before they did the “paperwork” with us. That’s the
reality of it.

 

 

 

What do you have
coming up in terms of projects, records and touring?

 

 

I’ve been touring solo all around the world which has been
killer — Japan, New Zealand, Australia — trippy shit. Really
fucking ace, but I’m now trying to do everything I possibly can as a band. I
just did 4 shows with My Bloody Valentine, and I’ve got a great band together [Rupert Bowkett – lead guitar; Randall Nieman – Rhythm guitar;Nolan Watkinson – bass]. People freak to hear “Suicide,” “When Tomorrow Hits,” “Transparent Radiation” et al, as well as new and old Spectrum
fare. It’s been cool doing solo shows [but] I want to keep the full dynamic in
the upcoming Spectrum shows.

 

 

The recording is going well. Some cool new tracks – back to
guitar-based stuff. It’s great after my sabbatical doing other stuff.

 

 

How about a quick
summary of the MBV shows for our readers?

 

 

I have been buddies with the Valentines since 1986 and saw
them develop into the band they became – often as support to us. They
generously credited Spacemen 3 with inspiring their change some time back,
though it’s only partly true — but respect for Kevin saying that. Some bands
would deny thrice this sort of thing. I’m a big fan of the stuff from “You
Made Me Realise” onwards. They’ve longtime been good, true friends, but I have
told them often I hate them for being
so fucking good!

 

 

Our shows went great. I’ve got the full band together and
our half-hour set went down great. It’s sounding the best it has since S3 days.
My new guitarist, 24-year old Rupert Bowkett, is really sounding great and we’ve
yet to reach our full potential, which should be pretty amazing.

 

 

The MBV shows at the [London]
Roundhouse started off very loud but
still amazing. The best they’ve sounded ever. I lay against the side of the
massive speaker wall during “You Made Me Realise” and watched bottles of water
displaying the massive sound-waves going thru the room. But then, over
successive days when they got things tuned in, it got clearer, and better and
better. I think they’re the real logical extension of the early Who and the
Yardbirds’ best period. Crashing power chords, highly tuned drum engine, superb
bass underpinning. Just perfect.

 

 

I was rushing like a teenager on speed. The two hour set
covers the whole of their best period and is delivered amazingly. If you saw them 18 years ago you’ll be blown away. If
you didn’t – you will remember this for the rest of your lives. I guarantee
that. I can’t say that about too many things, especially shows. Forget the
hype about MBV — it’s eating
reality’s dust.

 

[Pictured above: Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember (L); and Captain
Memphis, a/k/a Jim Dickinson]

 

Leave a Reply