On a summer’s day. Spring’s fading away as we travel to Ravenna to meet Sonic Boom. When we get to the venue he’s playing that night, I get the impression that I can smell the past in a precocious summer night. Pete’s sitting under the trees, enjoying his Spritz, the poise of a mossy statue of Buddha. I think about seaside holidays with my grandparents, for a moment. He gets up, he greets me, and he stretches his limbs in all their skinny liveliness – then we proceed to the backstage, and he sinks into a wretched leather sofa. He immediately starts chatting about Italian Space Age design from the 60s, of which he is a great connoisseur. A couple of hours later, my brain is melting as his colourful sermons soar through the air, transported by rays of laser light that I imagine reflecting against the vaulting of a byzantine cathedral, as they disintegrate in a mosaic of bronze and copper.
Since when I discovered that Transparent Radiation was a rework of the iconic The Red Krayola‘s track, I realised that you have a penchant for 60s culture. Can you pick one nugget and one movie or work of art from that period that you find particularly interesting?
It wasn’t that iconic! Red Krayola had one song that everyone liked which is “Hurricane Fighter Plane” and loads of bands covered that. Maybe only live, but they did it. The whole first album was really good.
And I know you have remastered it, right?
Yeah, the first two albums. They were really badly mastered, originally. The second album, which is “God Bless the Red Krayola” was ruined. If you put on the first track and set the volume, then the second track would just disappear. It was so quiet that you couldn’t experience the record, and once all the levels were evened down, it’s such a good record. With Spacemen3 we used to do “Victory Garden” from that album. Galaxie 500 did as well, I think. But if I had to pick a band that I don’t think gets enough love, it’s the Electric Prunes. The first two albums are great. The singles like “Get Me to the World on Time” and “I had too Much to Dream Last Night” are on the first Nuggets compilation, but I think in their day they were underrated as well. I saw them play live about 15 years ago in San Francisco, which was like the epicentre of psychedelic music from the 60s in California, while they were from Los Angeles. They had never played San Francisco in that era! And I was like, whaaaat? Really? I think they were very manipulated by their manager, who was David Hassenger – he was a producer but also a sort of a controller and owned them a little bit. He did some mid-period Rolling Stones stuff, like “Satisfaction”. He was an awesome producer. They sort of got screwed over a little bit, also being from L.A., it’s like a vacuous, Hollywood kind of vibe, and people thought they were manufactured, probably. And they weren’t, I think. They were one of the bands that influenced me the most – because they used tremolo a lot, and they used fuzz tones very awesomely. They had the whole Vox equipment, and in that era every band played Vox. I used to have some of the Vox newspapers, and they would list all the bands and everyone from Roy Orbison to… you name it, everyone would use Vox because the Beatles used AC15s and when they wanted to upgrade them, their manager went to Vox and said “Can you do us a deal? We’ll give you the 15s back, we want the big AC30s” and Vox said “Look, we’ll just give you the amps” – and Brian Epstein said “Ok, my boys will never use any other equipment”. But the best stuff in Vox is made in Italy, in Recanati. While all the English guitars from the 60s were not as good as American. Burns was a good company based in America, though. But I had a Burns on the first Spacemen3 record, a short scale Jazz guitar and it never used to stay in tune.
When you listen to the first Spacemen3 demo tapes up to your latest record as Sonic Boom, you can hear a lot of repetition. And that distinctive feature is such a trademark that contributes to putting what you’ve accomplished as an artist in the same league as CAN, The Fall, Suicide, among others. What is the meaning of repetition in music? How do you use it?
In both Spacemen3 and my own songs, the song is an illusion. When you analyse it, they’re all like two chords, there really is no song. But it’s the little tricks that you can use that make it seem like you have verses and choruses. There was a point when I realised that all the songs that I really liked were only two chords. Like my favourite Bo Diddley songs and stuff – he modulates with his vocals to make things seem like he’s shifting and… I don’t know why, I’ve always really liked that thing. I like building things up and I always did that, I’ve never stopped.
And what is the role of meditation in music? Have you ever considered any of the processes that revolve around your music as a means of meditation?
I find hypnotic, repetitive music to be meditative and transporting. I hardly ever play guitar these days… my guitar style is based on how I played when I was 15. I didn’t want it to be complicated or “good” – I can’t bend my fingers beyond strings, it’s impossible for me. So, my style was built around only fretting 2 strings, muting the G string with my fingers, and the other two I leave open. And I have this sort of chord I can modulate up and down the pentatonic scale – I’ve always been in love with that sound, I find it very meditative. I don’t use that for everything though. I use one shape where I play three As or sometimes I have the B and the E ring with it – but mostly just the 3 As. That was my thing – I was a rhythm guitar player – ehm, a bit less than a rhythm guitar player, really.
You’ve been an aural explorer both with guitars and feedbacks in Spacemen3 and electronics and modulars in your later works. Which is the most functional way to create forward-thinking music to you?
The guitar is such a beautiful, evolved instrument. I’m not a master of it, but it’s a joy of an instrument. I like keyboards in that it’s a very linear thing and the same shape repeats the same chord in five octaves, whereas with the guitar there’s many ways with the chords that you can swap the strings around and which string plays which note and… just within the range of dynamics you can get with just a plectrum and strings and where you play it on the neck. When we were in Spacemen3, effect pedals weren’t the thing they are now – Jason only had a wah-wah, and I had a fuzz. Affording pedals was really expensive for kids like us, and if you bought a tremolo pedal back then, chances where that it wouldn’t even sound like tremolo… And then I asked myself why I couldn’t synchronise those things, and I realised that a possible answer were modular synths in particular. When I got into them in the early 90s, almost nobody made them. Before the internet, even knowledge about these things was scarce – if you knew, you were lucky. The fuzz pedal I had was this square thing that had a tube in it, it wasn’t a fashion, and I don’t know why they made it. But by luck, the little, tiny music shop in the town by us – that’s what they had! You just got lucky. And then, I ended up painting it black, because every band we played with, the next time I saw them they had that pedal! When Kevin Shields bought one, I was like “That’s it, I’m painting it white”. But he was the first dude I ever knew who had a lot of pedals. Not early on, but by the 90s he got crazy buying pedals – he might be the first dude I remember having a pedalboard in indie music and stuff. I mean, if you’re in ZZ Top you have a rack of stuff backstage and someone pressing all the buttons for you. I once played on a Jools Holland thing, and ZZ Top were on as well. They had an Orange amp and it was upside down, so I figured I’d help them out and turn it over – I went to turn it over, and it was a polystyrene Hollywood prop of an Orange amp. His guitar went directly into a rack backstage!
Do you know Sam Knee, the author of A Scene in Between? If you have a look at his online archive, there are pics of you all over the place. I think he’s doing a nice job at passing on to a younger audience the kind of music and subculture you are associated with. What was it like to be part of the British Indie Scene in the 80s?
Yeah, he does a cool job, and yes, I have that book. He said we were the best of the bands, but I was like “where was he back then?”. Anyway, there were many good bands back in the day. Douglas Hart from the Jesus and Mary Chain used to run a club in London called Speed – it was cool, and everyone used to go there with the dudes from the Creation (Label) bands. Loads of interesting bands played there, and we did with Spacemen3, for sure.
You have also been associated a lot with psychedelic culture, which I think has been a continuous source of inspiration throughout your career. What is the weight of psychedelic visuals in what you do as a creator? Can the aesthetics of your latest record be regarded as a testimony of your artistic vision?
DMT was a big influence on “All Things Being Equal”. I don’t like the 6-8 hours acid trip stuff, it’s too much of a comedown. The interesting thing with psychedelics is that it works the same with your eyes shut – your brain can generate stuff and with DMT I always shut my eyes to trip. It’s amazingly visual, just stunning – it’s your brain showing off what it can do. Every time it’s showing you the world in chrome and within seconds it’s showing you in velvet or different textures and colours – it makes me laugh when I do it, because I’m just amazed at the capabilities of my brain. Sometimes I see stuff I’m amazed by, and I try to analyse it to put it in the visuals I do. For this record, I was very influenced by a trip I did in Joshua Tree: I felt beyond freaky, and I decided I’d try and make a film for this album from organic sources. It’s video synthesis, but a lot of it it’s filming bubbles or foam in water, things being modulated by the wind and then treating them so that they become hyper-coloured and looking a bit like plastic.
What is the work in which you feel you have accomplished the most as a producer?
They’re all so different, it’s like choosing between your children. When I worked with Moon Duo I said: “What do you want for this record? Let’s try and do something different” and they said: “We’d quite like to go stoner disco” and I was like: “Ok, I’m in! That’s a great concept, why not?”. My job is to help people record the best record they can and to encourage them in the best way to do what they want, not what I want. MGMT was a lot of fun working with, and I also love Panda Bear. I have a new record out with him, and it’s very influenced by doo-wop from the 50s and 60s, but with electronics – it’s very much future-retro. The record is called “Reset” and it’s coming out later this year. In the lockdown we both felt the same way about the Planet and the sociological problems we have, and we wanted to make something really upbeat. I always really liked the Jamaican ska and rocksteady from the late 60s, where they sing these super awesome up-tempo songs about depressing shit that’s happening. We took loops from a lot of my favourite intros – I thought that if the intros alone made me feel so good, maybe I should just use them to build on top of that. And it came out good. He’s very generous as a collaborator – he wants to trust people and he trusts them at the same time. I also feel that what I do now is influenced in a way by the people I’ve worked with. With Panda Bear, he’s really good with bass parts. So I started listening carefully to what he was doing, and it was so unobvious: he’s always looking for space in everything, that’s where he plays. And I’d never thought about that, it’s a really cool technique. With MGMT, instead, there was this thing in the studio that if we were doing something and it made us laugh, then we’d keep it. If you have that reaction, it needs to stay. We did a photo session for the new record the other day with Panda Bear. It was in a vandalised house in Sintra (Portugal) that had belonged to a very rich person. As the album is about resetting and recognising that we are on this very thin edge right close to collapse with civilisation and ecology, it was the perfect situation. When we had the photo taken, the guy showed me the result and I laughed. And because of my reaction he went like “If Pete laughs like that, that’s the photo”.
Do you feel that death is a means of purification?
We have a really weird relationship with death, we’re in denial of it mostly. We pretend it’s not gonna happen to us and people don’t remind themselves often enough that this isn’t the practice for anything. This is it, there’s no second time around. If there’s reincarnation, it exists in DNA, and if there’s a God, the only place he exists in is DNA. Everything that we recognise as being sentient has an equal right to exist on this planet, including plants – that I certainly recognise as being sentient. I think that the evolution of humanity is already past what it would be normal for a species, it’s basically over. But the weird relationship we have with death makes life hard for people. I think we do not educate our children in the right way. If you ask most children where honey comes from, most will tell you that it comes from bears, and the smarter kids would tell you that it comes from bees – but almost none of them would tell you that it comes from plants. That’s where the bees get it. Most people aren’t aware that every breath of air we breathe is only there because of plants. Many things we don’t recognise as being necessarily sentient like rocks were organic originally – from different animals and plants being compressed over millions of years. So, I think that the way we bring up kids is doomed, because within denial about death. The only guaranteed thing when you are born is that you will die, that’s the one thing that will definitely happen in life – and kids should have this understanding that we’re not some super being above everything else, controlling and manipulating and doing what we want. We thought that, and we fucked it up big style. If kids understood the importance of symbiosis with every other living creature, we’d start to have a chance. But at the moment, it’s too easy for people to just being in denial and consume and consume… because we were brought up to believe we are important, while we are absolutely insignificant. The only significant thing in our lives is how we interact with the Planet, and with other human beings. But when you say that, people perceive it as being all too crazy and hippy. Well, I’d rather hug a tree than many people I know! Actually, I’m not too sure if I answered your question (laughs).