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Sonic, whose earthly name is Pete Kember, has made the interminable musical trek from plucking simple blues riffs in a bedroom in Rugby, England, all the way to manipulating short-circuited Speak & Spell machines in his adventurous sound-collage works as E.A.R. In between, there was a project called Spacemen 3 that compressed the basic blues-based, three-chord rock song into one or two resonating chords, changing the way lots of people approached and listened to music.
"The music we really loved came out of those simple, hypnotic, one-chord, tribal sort of things, in the hands of blues artists," says Sonic Boom, who's current tour is a run through Spacemen 3 and early solo material that the world hasn't heard for the better part of a decade. "We felt that there was an essence there that we wanted to try and capture in what we did, and we didn't feel that we necessarily needed to have complex songs to do it, that we could somehow capture it within a simple format.
"It takes a real discipline to be able to just play something simple, but the same over and over again, and with build, and feeling, and emotion, and crescendos. It's much harder than having lots of chord changes, and verse-chorus--the more normal songwriting devices."
As his former bandmate Jason Pierce further refined those standard devices in Spiritualized, Sonic went deeper and deeper into space with a brand of retro-futuristic weirdness that produced such mad electronic documents as E.A.R.'s Data Rape and Spectrum's Forever Alien. The Spaceman's return to the terra firma of guitar, bass and drums now has him recharged and ready to rumble.
"I've not really been playing the guitar for six, seven years, so it's really been nice having a break from it," says Sonic Boom, who says his next album will be a return to the organic bliss of the early Spectrum outings. "Coming back to it, it's really fresh. It's such a versatile instrument. There's a good reason that it has such longevity and it's so popular."
As Sonic and his veteran band, which includes ex-Spacemen 3 bassist Will Carruthers, guitarist Rick Maymi and drummer Cliff Magreta (Lilys), bust out the classics on the bar circuit, Pierce's Spiritualized tours larger halls almost simultaneously (Spiritualized played Deep Ellum Live on November 17) for his latest, Let It Come Down, his most complete departure yet from S3 psychedelia. Since the acrimonious Spacemen 3 split after 1991's Recurring, Pierce has taken an altogether different route than Sonic, who lifted the pulsating drone of Spacemen 3 and carried it in new directions.
"I think the difference between me and Jason is that when I was indulged by record companies I tended to do experimental stuff, to try and push the parameters a little bit; see what I could do," says Sonic. "Jason, when he's been indulged by record companies, has gone for the sort of big production and big sounds type thing...polishing, if you know what I mean."
Downplaying the well-documented bitterness between the two that led to the breakup, Sonic sounds actually glad his tour and the Spiritualized tour are able to feed off each other, expressing an almost wishful attitude about an eventual reunion with Pierce.
"I'd like to think it's a possibility, but it doesn't seem that realistic at the moment. A lot of water's gone under the bridge...I'm not sure I really know [Pierce] like I thought I did, or understand him. I think it may just be that we've grown that far apart."
Though Sonic is playing many of the old songs for the first time since the early days just after the split, Pierce has been playing "Walking With Jesus" and select other Spacemen 3 songs for years now, which doesn't seem to faze his ex-comrade.
"I wrote the choruses of ["Walking With Jesus"], but he wrote the verses, the main story of that song," says Sonic. "So I feel he's quite entitled to do that. He's entitled to do what he likes. I wouldn't totally rule out covering one of his songs, even a Spiritualized song."
Sonic's attitude is unsurprising, given his penchant for wearing his influences on his sleeve, naming and styling S3 songs after Lou Reed ("Ode to Street Hassle") and NYC first-wave electro-punks Suicide (the song of the same name), as well as producing a handful of cover tunes stunning in their complete assimilation into the band's blissed-out world of extended drone-jams.
The Spacemen cover of Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators classic "Rollercoaster" may have been the ultimate realization of the band's sound. Pierce and Sonic took the five-minute drug trip of the original, boiling it down to a pair of essential riffs, and slow-roasted it over 17 joyous minutes of hypnotic perfection. The twin guitars meld into a wall of fuzz that breaks down the barriers between rock and roll, sacred Eastern drone ragas and the sweet ecstasy of the drug trip that made up S3's enduring Perfect Prescription album and their mantra of Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To.
"It's tough territory to go to songs like that and try and redo them and better them," says Sonic. "If people do better an original song, it's usually because they started it with their own approach, and said, 'OK, we're going to treat this like it's our song; we're going to do it our way.'"
The Spacemen not only nailed the 13th Floor Elevators, they also nailed fellow underground Texas psychedelic favorites Red Krayola, whose leader Mayo Thompson gushed to Sonic about the Spacemen cover of "Transparent Radiation."
"About three or four years ago, he said he thought we'd done to the song what it should have always had done to it," says Sonic. "We actually regressed it from four chords to three. And he said, 'When I heard how you did it, I realized that's how it was meant to be.'"
Sonic's ties to Texas psychedelia and his role as a primary influence on a generation of drone rockers and noise mavens led him to a starring role in the first Melodica Festival, held at the Argo in Denton in 1996. The banner lineup included Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, Magnog and a plethora of adventurous local outfits such as Mazinga Phaser and Comet, who stood at the forefront of a North Texas space-rock renaissance that won't be soon forgotten. In addition to a set of tonal exploration as E.A.R., Sonic also added an array of improvised electronics to Tortoise's set for the ages in one of the coolest spontaneous collaborations ever seen in these parts.
"That was one of the best things I've ever played at," says Sonic, who has quite a history to draw from. "It was just the most amazing thing. That was one of those special events that people tell their grandchildren about. Even the bands that musically weren't that great were so weird and mad that it was just a great event."
Now, five years later, Sonic Boom gives his fans a rare chance to experience a piece of the legendary Spacemen 3 live show. You can be sure some of the same characters from the first Melodica will be there in the crowd, reveling in the unbroken circle of song that connects the dots between Roky Erickson and Light Bright Highway. It's a sound that loops back over itself until past, present and future meld into one big ball of sound: the sound of confusion.