Interviewing Peter Kember can be quite intimidating. In the early 80s, the eccentric English musician formed Spacemen 3 with Jason Pierce (now Spiritualized), gaining a cult following and the reputation for being a drug band: “a band that does drugs to make music to do drugs to.” On the cusp of their breakup in the late 80s/early 90s, Kember went on to pursue other musical projects such as Spectrum and Sonic Boom, but he’s always had that no-bullshit attitude when talking about substances and other things. For instance, the first thing he told me when we sat down was how he thinks VICE Magazine is childish rubbish and that the last arsehole who tried to interview him for VICE was “some 20 year old kid who thinks he’s all hipper than that.” He wasn’t even sure how the interview went because he ended up taking loads of drugs with him afterwards. All I could think at this point was, ‘Oh God, I haven’t even started this interview yet and he already hates me.’
Glad to say, I think Peter and I got along pretty well (though not well enough to trip on acid together, I guess). We discussed his smartass teenage years back when he still had non music-related day jobs and spent most of his time trying to beat the system. Somehow everything he’s done – from interior designing to selling real estate – has led him closer to his musical career, making him the Peter Kember we know today: multi-instrumentalist, producer, and father of underground drug music.
VICE: Hey Peter! I heard you haven’t had a day job since 1987!
Peter: That is true, though I guess not really because music is my day job. I work on it every day of the week.
That’s amazing, because that’s the level most musicians want to achieve now.
I never wanted to be very famous. The constriction of fame doesn’t appeal to me.
I can sort of tell. You seem like an elusive character.
Yeah, you’re a bit mysterious.
That’s because nobody writes about me [laughs].
So what were you doing in ’87?
I used to do the interior designing for a chain of stores – part of it was mathematical, part of it was design. The only schooling I did was in design and art, and that was only until I was 18.
Do you still do any designing?
Well, I’ve done the sleeves for Spacemen 3 and Spectrum and some friends of mine. I haven’t done any painting for ages, but I still make logos and sleeves. They’re pretty unique – opti-kinetic, transparent, kinetic… yeah, I mean pretty much every sleeve we did had something unusual about it.
Kember took the stage as Sonic Boom at Knitting Factory last Friday.
I was at your Spectrum show last year. I know you play with a full band for Spectrum but for Sonic Boom you perform alone. Is it just a different mode of creativity for you?
Yeah, I don’t have to interact with other musicians. I’m all four parts to the band myself and I play six instruments. I figure out all the arrangements by feel. I can suddenly decide to do something else when I play by myself, which I couldn’t do if I were playing with a band. I mean, we could, but there would have to be signaling and rehearsing. I love doing both, though.
And I love seeing both! What other jobs have you had besides designing and making music?
I only had two jobs. The other job was working as an estate agent. I got paid 25 pounds (about 40 dollars) a week. It was a way for the government to juggle figures and make it seem like less people were unemployed. Instead of paying you unemployment benefits, they would pay you less money to be employed so you could go do an apprenticeship or whatever.
And you took an apprenticeship at a real estate agency?
Yeah, I was there for a year. I abused my position as much as I could. I had access to the phone, so I tried to book shows. Remember, this is long before email. It was difficult to catch the guy at the venue on the right day at the right time.
Even then you were secretly working on music!
Absolutely. I used their photocopier to make posters and do artwork. Also, I found out that none of the other people who worked there wanted to do viewings of buildings. So they used to send me to show people houses, unlock the door, let them in, walk them around. I mean, I was 17 so I wasn’t expected to overly sell the thing, and I didn’t. I was very honest with them.
Well, that’s refreshing. I usually don’t trust real estate agents.
The other cool thing was, some properties were 25 miles away from where I worked and if I ended up doing viewings there late enough in the day, I wouldn’t have to come back to work. So, I would get my buddies to call in and be like “We want to go look at this house” and of course, they’d be like “Peter! Go do this viewing!” and I would get to leave work early.
Ha! Did you guys actually go to this house and fake view it, just to fool around?
No, we didn’t even go! Since they don’t hear back from most people who view houses anyway, they never suspected a thing.
You were a bit of a smartass back in the day!
Oh, absolutely! I totally abused the system as much as I was being abused by the system.
Nice. Did you ever get caught though?
No, but my co-worker, who was in a punk band, got caught photocopying band badges. And the badges were brilliant – they said things like “I SNIFF GLUE” and whatnot. They fired him on the spot!
Well, I know you are very open about talking about drug use in interviews. I guess my question is, where did you find that audacity?
[Laughs] It does take audacity to be honest, that’s true. I just think it’s bullshit for people to deny it. If everyone was honest about their drug use, it would be a totally different situation. I think there are a lot more people out there on drugs, but it’s something they keep to themselves because of the law. My vague philosophy is that if a drug is God-given, like the opium poppy or cannabis plant, in that natural state it should be legal globally. I just think people should be more honest.
Well, there can be consequences for being so public about things like that.
Yeah, I have to be more careful for immigration into this fine country. One of the questions you have to answer along with “Have you ever been a member of the Nazi party?” is “Have you ever been addicted to any drugs?” So, every non-US citizen has to answer that before entering the country.
I didn’t know that. You must work with a lot of American bands, right? When you’re working as a producer?
Yes, recently I’ve been working with a great Brooklyn-based band called TEEN. I’m also doing some mixing work for Panda Bear, remixes for Sun Araw, Lightships… I’m getting some really nice work at the moment. I’m very happy.
Is there a band that has recently come into your radar that you would love to work with?
Yes, I’d like to work with that Danish punk band Iceage. Funny story – when I saw them in Holland, the sound guy was playing Spacemen 3’s Sound of Confusion album before the show. Like, one whole side of the LP. It was pretty embarrassing for me.
Yet flattering I bet! How did you like Iceage?
They were a little disappointing live. The production element, which I think they could extend even further, was missing. No doubt, they’re great performers though. It was cool.
I think part of it is how young they are. They’ll grow into it – maybe under your wings. They’d probably love to work with you.
Ha, who knows?
Previously - DJing Apples With Oberhofer
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