Transcript of interview with Pete Kember.
IC – First of all, Pete, thank you very much for the fantastic set you did last night. I hope that you guys caught it, it was an amazing set, really, really good. And we’re very thankful to Pete, Attrition and Wrangler who are supporting us in what we are trying to do, to get the whole thing kick started. We thought it would be interesting, obviously, electronic music, Coventry, Delia Derbyshire is a name that crops up time and time again. Pete is someone who is clearly influenced by that type of music, and is someone who worked with Delia before she died. We thought it would be interesting, having just watched Delian Mode, to talk to Pete about his influences, how he got into music, and ultimately how the collaboration came about with Delia, what that means to his music now, and where he’s going with that.
IC – Ok, Pete, we are very similar ages. We both grew up in the 70s.
PK – Grown up, what is that?
IC – …yeah, exactly, got older, slightly, in the 70s. I can remember being impressed as a small child watching the programmes where the soundtracks were done by the Radiophonic. What are your memories of that time, as a child in the Coventry area, how do you remember your first exposure to that type of music?
PK – Yeah, the Doctor Who theme, obviously. I wasn’t aware who was making it. I don’t think I really cared. It came a lot later to think who was actually making it, and how they were doing it. There was so much of it, it was pretty hard to avoid. Even if you didn’t listen to the radio so many other people did that it was impossible for it not to permeate somehow. I think we were really lucky to have had that. Now we’re appreciative of it, whereas at the time it was just the norm.
IC – It’s funny because I can remember thinking that every child growing up must have had something that magical in their lives, but that wasn’t the case. We were very fortunate to have that.
PK – I think that period in general, the space age sort of thing, Telstar, stuff like that…
IC – …Thunderbirds.
PK – The Japanese stuff, I think it was Japanese it might be Korean, a show called Marine Boy used to be on. It had great instrumental, ventures-sy, surf style stuff, heavily effected, heavy reverb effects, tremolo effects, and again the Doctor Who stuff, and I go back now and search on You Tube, and it’s amazing how my memories of the sounds are exact to what they were. Some of the Sea Devils episodes that I always remember from Doctor Who because of the sounds that were in them and maybe the setting for it as well. It permeated pretty strong. You know, Doctor Who was a pretty big show, like it is now again.
IC – Yeah, it’s amazing how it ever went away. But there was a time when the BBC just wasn’t…
PK – There was a time when it needed to go away. And look after itself, and come back fixed up a bit. You look at the early ones when there aren’t even any cut-aways or anything. It might as well be a film of a play, which is practically how they made it. It’s incredibly crude.
IC – But it was still magic, wasn’t it?
PK – It was magic because of that music at the start. The visuals and the music at the start, and then at the end. And of course they would always leave you hanging with that music. It was incredibly effective. I can’t think of anything that has been done as effectively since, actually. I think it really stands up there still as one of the great pieces of theme music, basically.
IC – It was also a great time because, I can remember the music for the programmes for Schools and Colleges, all of that was the Radiophonic…
PK – I’m not a big fan of a lot of that stuff. It makes me feel like I was on Prozac, or something. Weird electronics. I’m no particular fan of that stuff. But I do remember it, it was very evocative stuff. I guess these would show the Trade Test Transmission Card, and often they would have Radiophonic stuff while that was on. Electronic stuff. There’s some albums of that. I didn’t like a lot of the electronic stuff, I have to say from that period. The stuff that Delia was doing was the exception.
IC – And also Daphne Oram as well, and what she was doing was quite interesting.
PK – Yeah, in a very different way, I think. I guess it’s only fairly recently that you can even hear stuff like Daphne Oram, beyond very basic children’s records and stuff she did, which I don’t think particularly shows her and what she could do.
I know Delia certainly kept in touch with her until she died. Daphne Oram had been in hospital for years when Delia died. And Delia actually expected to outlive Daphne Oram by quite a long way, she was quite surprised with the turn around.
IC – I think Daphne Oram was first generation wasn’t she. She was there at the beginning.
PK – 5 years before, I think. Certainly 2 or 3 years at least. Delia was working at the BBC before she was in the Radiophonic Workshop. Some of the dates in this (Delian Mode) actually are a little out. Some of the electronic pieces that they’ve credited to ‘69 are from way before that. They’re from ‘65. Some of them are from a Cilla Black film, I forget what it’s called now, but there was a magic mushroom scene…
IC – There’s always a magic mushroom scene…
PK – …they were released later on, on a library label, and I think they’ve been stamped with that date. I think maybe the Hamlet thing that we saw come up as well, that they did at Stratford, was using stuff from that same period, very percussive stuff that she did.
AM – You were talking about how, as a kid, you were hearing these sounds and you didn’t really wonder or care where these sounds came from. But at what point did you start to think that that’s not a guitar, that’s not a drum, or it’s not a voice. But when did you start to think what is that?
PK – I never really thought anything like that. You can’t really picture what they are, which is what I love about it. If you hear a piano or a guitar everybody knows what that looks like, and there’s an immediate mind picture that comes with it. Someone playing it. Whereas with the Doctor Who theme it’s hard to imagine the band that’s playing that. Which is Ron Grainers’ thing. He thought you’d need a band to do it. And he was amazed that she could do it all.
AM – Just to expand a little bit, at what point did you think, because it wasn’t just wished into existence, there was some process that created it.
PK – I wasn’t that interested in things like that at that age…
AM – At a later date?
PK – In the 80s, probably, really. When I started playing the guitar, which is usually the first instrument most people get their hands on. It was kind of harder to find good ways to distort and treat stuff. It was a pretty limited pallet. It certainly wasn’t the incredible range of quite specific different effects and stuff that people make now. And a lot of the larger manufactures like Boss and people like that, made really weak stuff, in my opinion, their tremolos that didn’t do tremolo. There were some good pedals that they made, but a lot of their stock pedals that you’d find everywhere weren’t very good. They didn’t have a sound that would make you think “that sounds great”. So, it was just really trying to find something a little bit different, really. To try and find effects that weren’t used so much, or weren’t as “happened” I suppose, you know.
IC – When you started to produce music yourself it was largely guitar driven. Over the years there has become a more electronic element in what you do. Was that a conscious decision? Or was that something you just found yourself drifting towards?
PK – I think it was always quite electronic. As Peter Zinovieff said it’s arguable where music starts to become electronic music. The way that people consume it now. We didn’t have much equipment. Equipment was expensive back then. And I don’t think the 2nd hand market was the same as it is now. It’s much easier to find stuff. You’d come across stuff found randomly, or from using studios. And you come across something, like a Minimoog or something, and then you start to realise ‘oh, that’s what they were using to do that…’.
IC – So it became apparent from using similar equipment how sounds had been arrived at?
PK – Yeah. I think there were some sounds that I instinctively liked, but just never really thought about how they were made. And eventually started to realise that it’s filters, and LFOs and stuff…
IC – It is quite nice, isn’t it, when you flick a switch and something happens and you realise that’s that sound. I recognise that from…
PK – Yes, those eureka steps…
IC – So where do you feel you are today. There clearly is a more electronic element in your work. How would you classify yourself? I know people don’t like to classify themselves, but how would you? You’re not an electronic music artist, are you? You’re not a guitarist, are you?
PK – I don’t really think of things like that. I don’t really care where it comes from. If it’s a sample, if it’s digital or if it’s analogue. It’s just about if I really like the sound. It’s got to be something deep. If it has some soul in the sound, some quality about it. I feel if I respond to it other people will.
IC – It was quite nice talking to you last night because you do get people who everything has got to be analogue, you get people who by definition they only use digital, it was quite apparent talking to you that it’s not about that, it’s about the sound. How you arrive at that sound is just a mechanism. If it’s the right sound then the origins of it isn’t important. It’s all about the product.
PK – Some of the sounds that Peter and Delia did there were mostly based on a piece of software where you could turn a photo like this into sound. They were both really into. You could override some of the parameters in it, and refine it a little bit. It’s a free download. And I was talking to you about the patch box that for 40 quid you can basically programme this thing to be kind of anything you want. You can build your own distortion. And can think of a bunch of different ways to make distortion. Makes you use something in the way it wasn’t intended, and see what it sounds like. I know my Fenix has a comparator on it which if I use it in audio frequencies as distortion, it has awesome distortions. It doesn’t sound like anything else. It has really sweet qualities.
IC – And that’s a misuse of something…?
AM – Perhaps not an intended use.
PK – It used to be that I used to get into trouble a lot with engineers and not being able to work with engineers if they would constantly question stuff and say why do you want to do that. And I’m not sure that this piece of equipment was meant to do that. To which my question would always be will it break it. And if the answer was no then we should try it. And I soon found with some people they would question everything all the time, and they were just impossible for me to work with. And there were people who were excited and say ‘oh my god, yeah, let’s try that’.
IC – Will it break it? Yes. Will it sound good while it’s breaking? Yes.
PK – And if it breaks it, will it cost us much to fix it? If you had a Fairlight back in the day I’m sure you wouldn’t have approached it like that. Let’s see what we can do with this thing. See if we can get it to do anything useful.
IC – You mentioned in the film how you first made contact with Delia. Brilliantly simple, by the way. Just look her up in the telephone directory.
PK – No one’s actually really sure about that. I claim, Delia says this isn’t true, but, I claim that I looked her up in the phone book, in the Coventry phone book. While I was working in Cabin Studios here, doing a song named for her, and I said hell let’s see if she still lives here, let’s look in the phone book. I don’t think it was even a D Derbyshire. It was someone Derbyshire, and it was like ok I’ll call them and see. It’s probably a relative with that name. And my memory is that I called the phone number and it was a guy, and he said ‘no, no, the D Derbyshire you want lives in Northampton’. So, of course back in those days, you rang Directory Enquiries again and got the number in Northampton, and sure enough she lives there. And when I spoke to Delia she said there is no way there is anyone in Coventry, no relatives there, no one with my name, there’s no way… no one knows I live in Northampton. So she said this was impossible. By the time we tried to figure out how it happened it didn’t matter for sure, anyway.
IC – So, you made contact with her. You had a telephone conversation with her.
PK – She was very surprised to hear from anyone about music matters.
IC – Really?
PK – Yeah. It had been the first time, I guess, since ’73, the Workshop. I know she had a studio with Brian Hodgson for a while, and then they bought a house, electrophonic/Lightphonic whatever. That was like ’75. Then she just disappeared off…
AM – I guess this was before people received PPI claim phone calls every 10 minutes. So to receive a phone call from a number you didn’t know was perhaps not an unpleasant surprise.
PK – No, she actually talked about it a little bit in one of our phone conversations. One of the first things we talked about was that she’d been asked to come to a Doctor Who convention at the Leofric, and she didn’t want to go. And I said you should go, you’ll be surprised, you should go. Thinking there would be 100 people there, and they would want to talk to her and stuff, and she didn’t want to go. She didn’t go out much, didn’t really socialise. So I said I’ll go, and I’ll meet you there, and we can hang out and it’ll be easier, and you won’t have to freak out about it. So she went, and 100s of people were there, queuing all the way up the staircase to speak to her and get her autograph. So she was kind of blown away by it. So it came out of nowhere really.
IC – In a good way? Or, was she phased by it?
PK – It wasn’t that easy to find the information that she was even involved with the Doctor Who theme. I don’t think she’s credited on the records, the label and stuff, in any way. It’s just ‘by the Radiophonic Workshop’. It’s esoteric knowledge that’s passed on mouth to mouth.
IC – So, from your original discussions with her, at what point did it become apparent that you work with her? I mean, was it a battle to make that happen?
PK – She was pretty burnt on the whole thing with the BBC. She thought she’d been treated atrociously by them, which I think, with respect to them, was pretty fair. We were talking last night again about it, they wouldn’t acknowledgement in any way that she had been part of things. She was always positive saying this didn’t happen, the famous story that Ron Grainer had said ‘this is amazing’ and ‘did I write it’. No, of course, he hadn’t. The story is she said to him ‘well, most of it’ which is totally Delia. She was so super generous about that. And supposedly the story, I’ve heard from a couple of different people, that he thought that she should be credited for it, even though he has credit. But as an outside person of course it’s not possible to know what was said but for Bryan Hodgson to be given royalties for the Tardis noises and stuff that he’d done, within months and even years, that she didn’t, it’s kind of dreadful. She didn’t have a great much to say about the Radiophonic Workshop.
IC – I can imagine, yeah. So, there came to a point where you were going to work together.
PK – Yeah, she slowly you know, I think she’d heard that song done by us at that point and stuff, and like a lot of people the early myth was that the samplers were somehow stealing music and that was all they were about, somehow taking a recording and replaying it. And she didn’t really realise how much manipulation you could do with a sampler, and how much of the sort of stuff that she really struggled to do by semi-mechanical means to get the results could actually be done really easily. Of course, the editibility thing, the recall sort of stuff, with conventional things having to, every time you fucked up, having to make another tape. I’m sure it gets pretty much unbearable. She slowly realised that the stuff was where she dreamed it should be like. She was saying that when synths came out, I think she thought in the 70s that that shit should have happened. Also, through her knowing Daphne Oram and the Oramics stuff I think she was just so stunned at how slow progress had been. But when she realised what the possibilities would be with some of the modern pieces of software. She was really stimulated by it, and keen to do stuff. But she certainly didn’t do stuff easily, she needed to be sure about it.
IC – So, were you on an agenda then to…
PK – Yeah, of course.
IC – Yeah, I thought so.
PK – I really wanted her to start making music again, and the same with Peter Zinovieff as well, the same agenda with him. He is actually making music again, working on installations and recordings and stuff. I just thought it was really sad that they just hadn’t really got the credit. I feel now she is getting the credit for a lot of the things that she never had the credit for. It soon became obvious that she was really glad perhaps to have someone to talk to about it. It’s not really something you can chat with to someone while you are buying your cigarettes, or getting your supplies in. It’s a pretty esoteric thing.
IC – Clearly, back in the 60s and 70s there was a very mathematical element to the work that she did.
PK – Still to this day, the detail beyond musical notation I don’t think I have ever seen… I’ve never seen those scores and stuff. And she didn’t even remember she had that stuff. One of the things that she was very keen on was trying to find a slightly better way to notate electronic music. I know a few people have looked at this. But, I see that she has got it as exact as I’ve seen anyone do musical notation.
IC – I’ve tried it, and it’s really difficult.
PK – It was, trying to figure out what she was trying to work in, the extra information.
AM – Did you find that was still present when you were working with her? Did she still have that kind of attitude? Regimented?
PK – Yes, she could still stream through the fibanarchi sequence. She’d do the math in her head super quick, even when it gets quite big. And prime numbers, and all these things. She was really excited by the stream of prime numbers somewhere. That would really stimulate her.
IC – They are particularly cool.
PK – I have to say that at the time I didn’t know how much I really wanted to understand the harmonic series. And it wasn’t the easiest thing. But now it seems like a very basic thing to understand that. She spent a lot of time going through stuff from 3 different angles to gain an understanding, and we would talk about stuff.
AM – Leading on from that the next thing we wanted to ask you was that we understand The Radiophonic Workshop would often pair someone who was very technically minded with someone who was more creatively minded. You seem to be someone with a foot in both camps. So, how did you cope? Delegate? Did you find that you adopted certain roles, in that respect.
PK – I’ve never really thought about that. I’ve never really analysed that before.
IC – That’s kind of nice, as sometimes in a working group you find that people adopt certain roles. Whether they are allocated, or whether you just find yourself being the person who provides the rhythms, or you find yourself being the person…
PK – I don’t think she ever really worked with other people. I think she kind of liked working solo. On the Whitenoise record there’s 2 tracks on that that she was involved with that were done much earlier than the other stuff. Maybe a year or 2 before. The same with Peter Zinovieff, she did collaborate with people, but there’s not much from it where you can see, it was more of a collective than a collaboration. The Unit Delta Plus thing was certainly like that.
IC – It’s a difficult question but do you think you would have worked with her again. Was it something that was working?
PK – I don’t think we would have stopped working. It was kind of a minute long what we actually managed to achieve, like 59 seconds or something. She got ill out of nowhere. It wasn’t really out of nowhere, I suppose. She got ill very quickly, and was kind of incapacitated really. She had beaten cancer already at some point, in the 80s I think. She’d had a full mastectomy in the 80s. So she’d had breast cancer at some point. It was meant to be the start of a life long collaboration. Hence the title.
AM – Are there any elements, perhaps, that you have that are unfinished? And are they likely to remain unfinished. Would it be the right thing, do you think, to…
PK – No, not really. Key Sands, which we have, was put in a grab bag ready for later on.
AM – So you’re not gonna do a Dave Gilmour then? Do a “Pink Floyd” album?
PK – Just before she died Bob Stanley got in touch with her from St Etienne with a view to working with her, but she wasn’t keen to do it, I could tell. I think what a lot of people looked for in her she didn’t feel within herself anymore. She couldn’t find within herself. It was a long time before she’d had any contact from people, so it was understandable. She certainly wasn’t about to start trying out bits of cable. I think if she did something intentionally then she did it. But if it kind of fails as spectacularly in some ways as it did. I think over time that is changing, but I can why she felt that was a bit of a floor shaker.
IC – I suppose it’s difficult to get someone to go back and tackle that again.
PK – These things become stressful. If you did have these emotional attachments to music, as she did, and then you feel that you have screwed up, basically, it has an affect on you. Most people, most of the audience in that situation you just want to forget about it and walk away and do something else.
IC – Ok, we’ve covered the work that you did with Delia. What are you working on at present. I know you have done some production work recently. Do you have other things lined up?
PK – I do.
IC – Or have you just been building up to the gig last night?
PK – I think if you have, as I do, a fair amount of electronic stuff, it’s kind of a shame if it’s not used by as many people as possible. If you try to dial in stuff, and cherry pick sweet things for decades, just to sit looking at it I don’t think is really acceptable. So production is definitely a good way to do that. The less touring and shows that I have to do. It’s nice to do good shows, it was a nice show last night. But touring and travelling decade on decade on decade it gets very worrying. Sitting in studios is fine.
IC – I did see the interview you did in 2012 I think, where you pretty much said you’re not going to tour.
PK – No more touring. No more touring. No more touring. Please. It’s the dream. But the reality is that when people stop paying for music which, not everyone has, but, a lot of people have. It’s taken a massive hit. People can’t download t-shirts quite as easily.
IC – There will be some people here now who were at our synth meet earlier today. So for their sake what kit are you using at the moment? What toys do you have in the toy box? In case they are restless later thinking about it and trying to get to sleep.
PK – I have some Serge stuff. I have a couple of Fenix’s, generation Fenix’s. I have a couple of Synthi’s. I have some of the Comdyna Analogue Computer stuff. Some Computer Future Logic stuff. Things you can use for gates. I buy anything if you can get music out of it, whether or not it was made for that. Someone told me years ago that you can find nice filters, if you know what you are looking for, and they are used for analysis of stuff, car speakers and stuff. You can get different tones, you can filter things out, sort of sift, or try to zone in. This guy had a house full of incredible stuff and I don’t think he paid much for it. But you kind of need to have the knowledge to know what you are looking for, these things, like the analog computer things, really seem to appeal to kind of different people somehow.
AM – I think Silver Apples was a really a good example of that, with lab style oscillators.
PK – All that stuff, and the Radiophonic Workshop of course was test gear, and generators. I think most of the early electronic music was done using filters and oscillators designed for military use. Of course after the Second World War there were shed loads of that stuff around.
IC – I think we’ve got one on every step of our stairs at home. Because I work for an electronics company, so every time they are throwing something out I hot foot it to the skip.
IC – Does anyone in the audience have a question for Pete before we finish.
Audience – You did an album with Panda Bear. Do you enjoy the production side of things more now?
IC – It does sound like the type of thing you want to do more and more.
PK – I get to work with some incredibly talented people. It’s like going to the playground every day. I’m actually lucky that a large percentage of the time the type of work I do doesn’t even feel like work. Certain elements of production feel much closer to work, but there are a lot worse jobs.
Audience – Are you working on any of your own stuff alongside your production work. Is there going to be another Spectrum album for instance.
PK – I have some things to work out contractually, and it goes back to the Spacemen 3 days. But I’m still writing stuff.
AM – I know there is someone here who did their dissertation on Spacemen 3. Do you want to ask a question?
PK – It must have been a pretty short dissertation. Doesn’t it say something if somebody did their dissertation on Spacemen 3. It doesn’t put you in a great light.
Audience – I love the drones. Sometimes it seems like there’s definite rhythmic constant, is it a deliberate aesthetic that you chose to do. Or is it something that appears out of the gloom? An energetic flare that you’ve created almost?
PK – It’s partly from not knowing what you’re doing, but liking the result. If you have very long evolving filters opening and things like that you tend to go through harmonics to some degree, like, I forget if it’s the 7th or the 9th harmonic, and there’s one that really doesn’t sound good in anything. Suddenly it goes out of tune for a while, just from where the filter is. Mostly it just comes from screwing round and experimenting.