“It’s a complicated subject,” says Peter Kember — a man more commonly known by his pseudonym, Sonic Boom — on the relationship between music and drugs. He is, after all, one of the foremost authorities on the matter. Exhibit A would be the lysergic legacy of Spaceman 3, the band he co-founded as a teenager, whose drone-tastic minimalism arguably invented shoegaze while operating under perhaps the greatest band motto ever: “Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.” Exhibit B would be the sonic maelstrom that is his solo project, Spectrum, who play the Middle East this Tuesday.
“When Spaceman 3 started,” he points out, “we were just being honest about what we were doing. I try not to regret too much — but that isn’t to say that that legacy isn’t a ball and chain sometimes.”
As opposed to the popular conception of Kember as a drugged-out psych-rocker, the real-life Sonic Boom is more like a scientist, investigating new ways to blow minds through sound. This is, after all, a man who not only put together a project called Experimental Audio Research (a long-running and loosely manned conglomerate that at times included My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields) but also spent years as a disciple of BBC experimental sound guru Delia Derbyshire (most famous for the eerie theme song to the original Doctor Who). “Delia taught me the precepts of sound, how sounds are made, the mathematics and the physics of sound.”
With Spectrum (who come to the Middle East on Tuesday), Kember achieves an Owsley-esque distillation of the purest attributes of rock, eschewing things like solos, breakdowns, and other tropes that might get in the way of a tune’s beeline to your cranium. Last year’s War Sucks EP is a particularly majestic slab of monolithic rock, its gentle melodicism hiding beneath grunting scuzz and oscillating weirdness. The EP was meant to be a stopgap until the next Spectrum full-length — tentatively titled On the Wings of Mercury. Then Kember was tapped for a totally different gig, working for nine months with MGMT as producer of what would become their polarizing new album, Congratulations.
“It was odd,” he recalls, “as I worked with them, I found myself able to sympathize with what I now call ‘MGMT Syndrome,’ where a band formed just to have fun and make music that they like, and then literally by mistake were incredibly successful doing it and had to deal with people they didn’t like and do things they didn’t want to do.” Spaceman 3 had a similar trajectory, having existed happily as a peculiar drug-rock oddity in the ’80s UK music scene until a left-field #1 hit — “Revolution,” from 1989’s Playing with Fire — thrust them into a limelight they were ill-prepared to enjoy. “We didn’t have the people skills, as they say. There aren’t many jobs where you might have to go away with your workmates for six months and spend every day and night with them, you know? So working with MGMT, I could see where they were coming from.”