Sonic Boom Returns From 20-Year Hiatus With Inspiring and Vibey New Record

Songwriter and producer Peter Kember has made a tremendous impact on experimental, electronic indie music. In 1982, he co-founded the seminal English neo-psychedelic band Spacemen 3, which went on to influence countless artists including My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and more. Then, in the 1990s Kember began to branch out, putting out emotive and imaginative electronic music with his solo project Sonic Boom. A few years after Sonic Boom debuted, Kember founded the experimental music collective Experimental Audio Research, or E.A.R. 

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However, what most modern listeners probably know him for is his work as a producer. MGMT’s Congratulations, Panda Bear’s Tomboy and Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper and Beach House’s 7 were all produced by Kember under his Sonic Boom moniker. The combination of these artists’s extraordinary writing talents with the decorations of Kember’s ingenious artistic sensibilities makes those records essential pillars of 2010’s indie. 

Now, 20 years after his last solo release as Sonic Boom, Kember is revisiting the project. On Friday June 5, Sonic Boom will be releasing a new album, All Things Being Equal via Carpark Records. The album is musically encaptivating and invigorating — its melodies and textures climb into your ears and set up shop in your brain, instilling you with a trance-like sense of aspiration, inspiration and… well, chillin. Thematically, the record tackles the specter of environmental degradation, which Kember cites as the result of hundreds of years of human folly being ingrained into international culture. The end result is a record that is conscious and relevant, yet entertaining and vibey. Kember has utterly perfected the art of making a tasteful, impactful and exciting call to action.

American Songwriter caught up with Kember in his home in Portugal last month via a phone call. With the sound of birds chirping on his end of the line, Kember told us about the creation of All Things Being Equal, his approach to electronic songwriting and the geopolitical and societal currents that inspired the record’s theme. 

This is your first solo album in over 20 years — why now?

I was trying to show off to myself with a couple of synths I had bought. I have a pretty nice selection of synths, so if I buy something new it’s usually for a good reason. I bought two new synthesizers. One was a Kickstarter thing — a Kilpatrick PHENOL — and one was an old classic — a Buchla 208. The Buchla had been massively cloned. Buchla made that model for some time but then a new company bought the Buchla name and everyone felt that model became unsatisfactory for some reason. That’s when these clones came about. I got a friend of mine to build me a couple of them. I can see why someone cloned it — the Buchla 208 is a stunning sounding synthesizer with a beautiful design.

So, I was trying to show off to myself a little bit. I wanted to try to use sequencers to make a monophonic synth voice run around a lot, and then pretend it was a whole track. I was really happy with the results I got. The mood and vibe I got from those core, monophonic synth jams were so good that I decided that I should use them. They could augment song lyrics, song lyrics could augment the vibe of the music. I wanted to use them in as focused of a way as possible.

Initially, some people — like Tim Gane of Stereolab — told me that I should just release them as they were, that they held their own ground. As tempting as it was to do that… instrumental music and songs have very, very different impacts. With instrumental music, it’s really hard to dial a vibe in the same way you can do with lyrics. Sometimes that simple communication element of the human voice is what songwriting is about — only the human voice can convey emotion and feelings.

Do you think you’ll ever release the original, monophonic jam versions of the songs? 

Well, all along I wanted to do that at some point. My plan is to do a remix EP of maybe like four of the songs, which I’ll remix myself. I like the old-school extended disco remixes and stuff from the late ‘70s where it was always done by the artists. Whoever mixed the original track did the disco remix. The remix for “Big City” by Spacemen 3 was the only remix we ever had and we did it ourselves. I’ve always liked that. I like exploring different possibilities in my own music. Once I release a version that I feel tells all the details of the story, sometimes it’s really nice to expose a few individual parts and really let them breathe. So, I’ll probably do that, remix all the singles. The other side will be the best five or six of those monophonic jams.

Writing a song with the backbone of monophonic synth parts is certainly different than writing a song with, say, an acoustic guitar. Yet, both methods merit the same outcome: a song that is, ultimately, a human expression. What is it like to forge that expression via the ‘synth method?’ Do you find it to be an exploratory process?

My songwriting — whether I’ve done it with guitar or synthesizers — has always been centered around the same premise. I have this thing where I fall in love with songs by other people, and I figured out why I like them: usually, it’s because there’s only one, two, three or maybe four chords and there’s one note that’s common to them all. I tripped over that phenomenon and realized early on that all of the songs that I loved had this quality. So, I started to play with that idea. I thought it would be something I could do for an LP or something, but as time went on I realized that I didn’t want to do anything that didn’t have that.

It’s the same with these jams. They were already locked into a key and a scale, so then it was just dialing in some of my trusty favorite chords to augment them. For some of them I just added vocals and percussion — the song “I Can See Light Bend” had enough in its basic jam form that it didn’t need any bass or keyboards, all I did was add a few sound effects, percussion and vocals. Whereas, some of the other tracks have bass and keyboards as well… still all that electronic stuff.

But I don’t think it’s much different — the difference between an acoustic guitar and a monophonic synthesizer is that when I hear a song with an acoustic guitar I immediately have an impression in my mind of it. Whereas, when I hear things that are created with electronics I find it really hard to summon a mental picture. The best electronic music defies that mental picture. It makes you imagine some crazy, organic being that’s creating the sound rather than a few chips and keys on a keyboard. That’s why I really like the electronic thing. That’s what I really wanted to fully explore with this record. 

But I also wanted to use synthesizers in a more organic way. They lend themselves to be a little cold-hearted, but they’re also perfectly capable of being very warm and emotive instruments with the right attention, so I really wanted to show that as well.

How do you feel that your experience producing for other artists — such as Beach House, MGMT, Panda Bear and more — has influenced your own work?

With every artist I’ve worked with, I try to find the way I need to work to be most useful for them. My role in production is to be maniable. Every band works, syncs, writes music, thinks about music, hears things and such in different ways. Everyone has slightly different focuses, which is always interesting to me. It’s never anything obvious. These artists — and we’re talking about some very talented people — all have slightly uncompromising idiosyncratic ways of doing things. There’s usually a lot to be learned from artists like that. They don’t just follow the rules.

I used to have this situation in the studio where I’d ask an engineer to do something and they’d say ‘oh, well I can’t do that’ and I’d ask ‘why not?’ They’d say ‘well, that’s not the way this piece of equipment is meant to be used’ and I’d go ‘well, I know that, but I still want to do it. Is it going to break it?’ Then they’d say ‘no, it shouldn’t, but I don’t know’ and I’d say ‘okay, well let’s do it. If it doesn’t break it, great. If it does break it, I’ll pay for it.’ Sometimes I would do this and create feedback matrices and stuff and people would look at me like I was from another planet. But, once they see the results they quite often have a different perspective on it.

I think that a big problem with humanity is that we always tell people ‘this is the way it is’ when that’s not necessarily true. Be smart, think for yourself. If it doesn’t have the ring of truth to it, it’s probably not true. Don’t just accept things without thinking about it. Whether that’s your politics or anything. Think about it for yourself, don’t accept dogma. 

Thematically, this record has a strong emphasis on environmental concerns. You describe the current cultural and political moment as a “critical crossroad” — what is that crossroad?

I personally don’t believe it, but the conversation is that humans are the only animals on the planet that are sentient enough to see all the problems we’ve created and actually deal with them. We can see everything on a macro scale, but be micro-incisive about, which is what I feel we need to be. No other animal has the capability to do that, even if they can recognize what’s going on — which I’m sure they do. I’m sure the tuna with all the mercury flowing through their bodies are probably feeling a little odd. They can’t do anything about it, but we can.

My main thing with this album was to try to show people that life is actually better when you do that. Everything’s better when you do that. We’ve become distracted and seduced by commercialism and what we perceive to be luxury. It’s luxury at the expense of the planet. The critical signs of that have been indicated for decades now — 50 years ago people were already indicating that we could see this. It’s proved to be very, very accurate what they could see. Things have just gotten worse and worse. It’s at the point where no politician is going to be able to sort this out for us. My dream is that we could have actual politics and start to think of this as one planet with one people. Stop all this nonsense with ‘sovereign’ territories claiming ownership over their citizens and determining who can come in and who can’t come in — its absolute nonsense.

In that regard, do you see the people, the general population, as being the source of change? 

I don’t think we can rely on politicians to sort this out — they don’t legislate in the right ways to stop these things. They’re too interested in money, business and commercialism. But I keep telling people… I think we can do it. We created this problem. I created this problem. You created this problem. Everyone I know created this problem. But, if you’re aware of that and you don’t do anything about it… I don’t know what you call that. We mock lemmings because we believe that they commit mass suicide — which is not true — but we mock them for that lemming mentality while we have something even worse. There’s a slow toxification of everything around us. The only people who can deal with it is all of us. We need to address what we consume, how we consume and how we deal with it. We have to all stand up for that. Macro-comprehensive, micro-incisive. 

Nature will recover without humanity, there’s no question of that. But, will it be at the expense of the human race? Probably. At the moment we’re just digging ourselves into a hole and no one can get it. It’s sad. But, I think a lot of people are beginning to reevaluate the things in their lives and what goes on around them. Education is going to be the main part. We’ve got to let kids know and understand — and I think this stuff resonates with kids anyways — that we are nothing without the plants and ecosystems of this planet. Every breath we take, everything we eat and every resource we use comes from them. It’s insane that we have this devil-may-care attitude about it. This is the last time to act before we’re sentenced to a future of wondering ‘what if we had done something about it?’

$1 from every album sold will be donated to environmental advocacy organization Earth Island?

The vote that counts to me is the one that I make every day through my way of life. Thinking I could turn up once every four years and vote for whatever muppet is going to help my bank balance or whatever… that’s just not cutting it. So, I felt like I would be part of the problem if I just made some record promoting my music because I think I have good dunes that you can dance to. I really needed it to be about something.

Even from those original monophonic jams, there’s something really organic about them. Then, I moved to Portugal just after finishing those and I started recognizing a lot of echoes, shapes and patterns that I use in my music in plants and in nature. I noticed a symbiosis between plants, just by gardening and learning to recycle plants. A lot of the things that grow here like the agave, cacti, bananas, all sorts of yuccas and other semi-tropical things, they all reroot quite easily. I started to notice that the plants were almost always happier when I mixed a larger variety of them together. They set up for each other. I can observe the give and take — they give each other shade, when it’s dry the ones with water back off so the ones without water can have more.

So, the COVID-19 pandemic and the environment aren’t quite the same issue, but they certainly stem from the same source. How does it feel to listen to this record now?

I wanted to make something to show that my life has improved by thinking like this, by applying these ideas to my life in a micro, local way. That’s why I wanted the album to be ecologically offset. Producing vinyl is a petrochemical thing, which wasn’t really my preference. Everything that has an impact on the environment needs to be offset. This is getting critical now. When we have warnings that we can’t eat tuna more than once a week because of the mercury level… I mean, I can’t even believe that we can say those words without doing more about it.

The record’s really resonating with people. It was entirely intended for this kind of situation. It’s meant to be a vibey record for people to vibey about change. I want it to be aspirational. Humanity is usually governed by two things: incentive and punishment. That’s a real shame, we’ve got to dethrone it. Aspiration and inspiration are two really wonderfully beautiful things. The pinnacle of what humanity can do is when it imagines something and goes out and does it.

Watch the music video for Sonic Boom’s single “Tawkin Techno” below:

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