Spacemen 3 - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Spacemen 3 can rightfully be called one of the first post-modern psychedelic bands, in that they welded all the fuzz, distortion and dynamics of the first-wave psychedelic bands of the 1960's with a post-punk minimalism informed by such bands as The Velvet Underground, Suicide, Neu, and the Silver Apples. They also later introduced elements of blues and gospel into their sound. Though the band only released four proper studio albums, they have become one of the most influential psychedelic bands from the second wave of psychedelia that hit from the early 1980's into the early 1990's, and wielded a huge influence on the emerging genre often called 'shoegazing'.
The three founding members of Spacemen 3, vocalist/guitarist Pete Kember (aka Sonic Boom aka Peter Gunn aka The Mainliner), vocalist/guitarist Jason Pierce, (aka Jason Spaceman), and bassist Pete Bain, (aka Pete Bassman), all grew up in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, and all had a basically middle class upbringing. All three took early interest in music, with Pierce taking up guitar at age seven, and Kember starting at age thirteen. Bain was originally a drummer, but later switched to bass. All were big fans of music, and all gravitated towards bands that were often noisier and off the beaten path, groups like the Stooges, Devo, the Velvet Underground, and anything that was played on influential BBC DJ John Peel's show. The three eventually joined bands as teenagers, and eventually ran in to each other as their bands played around the Rugby area. It wasn't until Pierce and Kember both attended Rugby Art College that they started collaborating. Where Pierce was something of a prodigy on the guitar, Kember tended towards more noisy minimalism, a trait that would set the forming band apart from much of what was going on musically at the time. Pierce became friends with the musically like-minded Bain, and when Bain switched from drums to bass, the first incarnation of Spacemen 3, (initially without Kember), started jamming in drummer Tim Morris' attic in 1982. The trio started playing around the Rugby area and almost immediately attracted a following, but soon after Pierce left to attend college in another town. Bain and Morris then formed a short-lived garage band called The Push. When Pierce returned to Rugby in 1984, he again hooked up with Kember, and with new drummer Nicholas “Natty” Brooker, the Spacemen 3 were reborn. The group embarked on marathon jamming sessions and made a series of demos that would prove to be the foundation of the groups sound and aesthetic. Pierce and Kember were able to get Bain to rejoin the band to make it a four-piece, and soon were playing gigs and recorded another set of demo tapes in 1986. The tapes eventually got into the hands of the independent label Glass Records, who signed them to a two-record deal soon after.
The group traveled to a studio in Birmingham to record their first album, 1986's Sound Of Confusion (Glass/Taang), and completed the recording and mixing in just five days. Taking heavy influence from the likes of The Jesus And Mary Chain, the Stooges, Red Krayola, Suicide, and the 13th Floor Elevators, Sound Of Confusion was a noisy, dense statement of the band's minimalist take on psychedelia. The album included 3 cover songs by the Stooges, the 13th Floor Elevators and Juicy Lucy, as well as the band's own compositions that moved along on minimal rhythm and walls of distorted guitars and feedback. The group became known for their live shows which featured the band performing calmly while seated, unleashing a tidal wave of volume and distortion and crazy psychedelic light effects on unsuspecting crowds. The group also became know for their open admittance of taking drugs, and encouraged their listeners to take drugs when listening to their music. (Both Kember and Pierce would have later battles with heroin addiction, and their drug difficulties were later major contributing factors in the band's demise.) Before rehearsals started for a new album, the band replaced Brooker with new drummer Sterling “Rosco” Roswell. Wanting to back off some of the sturm und drang of their debut album, the group dug back deeper to some of their soul, blues and gospel influences, and released their second album, The Perfect Prescription (Glass/Taang) in 1987. Generally regarded as the band's best album, the record was something of a concept album, as the story line of the songs are supposed to trace the arc of a drug experience, from getting high, to peaking, to the eventual come-down. The group again referenced some of its heroes, with Lou Reed getting a nod in “Ode To Street Hassle” and the Red Krayola getting referenced in “Transparent Radiation”. The group drew mostly rave reviews for the album, and embarked on their first international touring, playing dates in Europe in 1988. Cracks in the band's foundation were already starting to show, however, and when the band returned to England, first Roswell, and then Bain, left the band. (Bain and Roswell went on to form the band the Darkside.)
Kember and Pierce carried on, and recruited bassist William “Willie” Carruthers and drummer John Mattock into the line-up, and the new four-piece recorded Spacemen 3's 1989 album, Playing With Fire (Fire/Taang). (Fire was a new independent label that had bought up Glass Records.) The release of the album was proceeded by the release of a new single, “Revolution”, which not only became an underground hit, but was one of the band's defining songs, a slow-burn call to musical arms that recalled elements of one of the band's heroes, the MC5. The rest of Playing With Fire was a further definition of many of the musical traits shown on the band's previous album, The Perfect Prescription. The group's mix of noise meltdowns with quietly contemplative and simple blues-based songs was unique, and it would go on to further their legend and make them one of the more influential bands of their time and genre. Though the group was at the height of their fame and influence, internally they were falling apart. A stylistic and personal split was becoming more and more evident between Kember and Pierce, no doubt fueled by both songwriters increased dependency on drugs. By the time the band was ready to work on a new album, relations between Kember and Pierce had gotten so bad, that each decided to take a side each of the new record, and recorded them in separate studios from each other. The resulting album, 1991's Recurring (BMG), was a necessarily schizophrenic album, with Kember's more electronically-based songs taking up the first part, or side, of the album, followed by a cover of Mudhoney's “When Tommorow Hits”, (the Spacemen 3 were returning the favor of Mudhoney covering the Spacemen's song “Revolution”), and then closing out the album with Pierce's more contemplative songs that fused quiet psychedelia with a gospel feel. The group added a third guitarist, Mark Refoy, briefly, for live appearances, but by the time Recurring was released in 1991, the group had announced it had broken up.
Kember went on to record a solo album under the name Sonic Boom called Spectrum (Silvertone), released in 1990, which actually included all of the members of Spacemen 3, and then went on to form the bands Spectrum, which was a continuation of the sound he started with his solo album and his work in Spacemen 3, and the loose collective Experimental Audio Research, which was a more experimental-minded conglomeration with a revolving cast of members, often including Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine, Eddie Prevost from AMM, and Kevin Martin from God and Techno-Animal. Pierce went on to found the highly successful Spiritualized with Carruthers and Mattock, and further refined his gospel and blues-based psychedelia over the course of several well-received albums. Since the break-up of Spacemen 3, there have been a number of re-issues and collections of the band's material, many reissued through Kember's Space Age Recordings. Some highlights include Dreamweapon: An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music (Fierce)(1990), Live In Europe 1989 (Space Age)(1995), For All The Fucked Up Children Of This World We Give You...(Sympathy For The Record Industry)(1995), Translucent Flashbacks (Fire)(1995), and Threebie 3 (Space Age)(2003), to name just a few.