The Devil Has All the Best Tunes. So, please meet Thee Lucifer Sams

Thee Lucifer Sams’ frontman, Ivan Thunders, kindly provided his thoughts on Syd Barrett, psychedelia, and spontaneity. The band is currently touring with Pete Bassman supporting.

Question: Hi Ivan, for those not in the know, please give us a potted history of Thee Lucifer Sams. 

Answer: Thee Lucifer Sams originally started as a one-off band back in 2013, with a totally different lineup – me and some friends, playing psychedelic songs at a psych night I put on in Liverpool, called Syd Barrett Was My Grandad. We just did one rehearsal the day before the gig, and did a few original songs plus an ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ cover. We liked it and planned a second gig, but we cancelled it on the day we were due to play, minutes before we were due onstage, because our drummer was a schizophrenic and the police came to venue to arrest him, as the doctors thought he was in danger of killing himself. 

The band split up and I only resurrected Thee Lucifer Sams five years later, with a new lineup and a new sound: no vocals, no songs, just improvised psych with me on guitar/keys/ theremin (sometimes), Richie on bass and Markhus on drums. Sometimes we invite guests to join us on stage… we’ve had extra harmonium, sitar, and KAOSS pad with Hawkwind-style noises.

Ivan, Markhus and Ritchie of Thee Lucifer Sams
Ivan, Markhus and Ritchie.

Our first gig with this lineup was at the Manchester Psych Weekender 2018, organised by fab promoters Astral Elevator. Once again, our idea was to exist as a band for just this one-off gig, but we loved it so much and so did the audience, so we decided to carry on and here we are. This time, no schizophrenics in the band. So far.

We don’t plan to make any proper recordings, write songs or make any albums anytime soon. We don’t want to sell you a product. We are not part of the music industry and don’t want to be. We are a real, live, psychedelic musical experience. 

Q: Were you all born in Liverpool?

A: None of us were. I was born in Rio de Janeiro and the others around the Liverpool area. I’m the only one who currently lives in Liverpool, where I’ve been for over 15 years. 

Q: Thee Lucifer Sams is named after a Syd Barrett track right? Tell us about that.

A: Well, we loved Syd, and that era of Pink Floyd, when they had all those improvised psych jams, which you can hear in live bootlegs, etc. Stuff like ‘Reaction in G’ and stuff like the live versions of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ (like in ‘Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London’) were a big inspiration to where I wanted us to go with our sound. But we don’t try to copy or anything… but we love the whole late 60s Ladbroke Grove scene, of which Syd was part, as well as Hawkwind, Pink Fairies and The Deviants. They were all outsiders doing their own shit, and so are we. We are not part of the current psych scene, really. We exist alongside it, and sometimes mix, I guess…

‘Lucifer Sam’ by Pink Floyd from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Q: To what extent do you agree with Julian Cope’s theory that Liverpool’s psychedelic tradition is because the city is sited, he says, on a ley line? 

A: I think it’s got more to do with scousers discovering acid and loving drugs more than in some other cities. Liverpool is much less psychedelic now, also. I love that late 70s and 80s scene in Liverpool, but now even though there are some pretty cool bands, most are not psychedelic and most people are not that bothered about it either. That’s why I created the Liverpool Psychedelic Society, to put on more psych gigs here and bring more bands to play… but our events in Manchester or London attract more people, so I can’t see that Liverpool is particularly more interested in psychedelia than anywhere else. Mind you, all the people who DID come to our events in Liverpool have loved it! It’s a scene that needs to grow… again.

Q: What does psychedelia mean to you?

A: Freedom. Freedom of the mind… that’s why my concept for Thee Lucifer Sams was to just improvise music… total freedom of expression… you never know where the music will go when you step on stage. What could be more psychedelic than a mental, psychological adventure? That’s how I see our music, anyway, when we play.

Psychedelia is an attitude, not just a musical style. That’s why lots of so-called psych bands today are not really psychedelic – just indie bands with fuzz, delay and wah. If they existed in 1995 they’d all want to sound like Oasis and call themselves Britpop or indie or whatever. Today, because psych is seen as ‘trendy’, those bands call themselves psych. 

But, if you try too hard to be something, you’re not real, just a fake, a poseur…

I guess I’ve always been naturally psychedelic in my head anyway, since I was a kid… staring at patterns on the floor and wondering what reality really was, just like Aldous Huxley but minus the peyote.

Q: You often tour with Pete Bassman (formerly of
Spacemen 3/The Darkside/Alpha Stone). Were you a fan of his previous bands?

A: I was into Spacemen 3 before I ever had a band. They are still a great inspiration and one of my fave bands ever. I think one of Pete Bassman’s old projects, Alpha Stone’s Stereophonic Pop Art Music is one of the best post-Spacemen 3 albums, up there with the best Spiritualized and better than any solo Sonic Boom. I love The Darkside too. 

Pete Bassman is very underrated, but he’s a very humble guy who just cares about music. He’s more important to Spacemen 3 history than Will Carruthers, for instance, who perhaps unintentionally ‘stole’ Pete’s identity and is the one most people remember as the “ex-Spacemen 3 bassist” when in fact Pete was in the first albums and was an absolutely great player (check the Paradiso Amsterdam live album!)

Pete Bassman (second from right).

I feel proud to call him a friend. We’ve hung out in Rugby, when he plays he crashes at mine and we talk about music, literature, architecture, etc., and I love his many, many stories… most of which I can’t tell but which he hopefully will publish in a book soon!

Every time I see Pete playing live, I have a smile on my face because he’s so good and trippy. I feel like I’m learning loads by watching him and how he create sounds… he’s the most “spacemen” out of all the former Spacemen 3 members, including Jason Pierce. I’d like to get him out there playing live more often, so whenever we feel we can book him, we get in touch.

Q: I understand, when on tour, your gigs can vary from night to night. When do you decide what direction a show will take for a particular concert?

A: We only improvise music. But it’s NOT a random mess – we have, let’s say, several segments, like catchy, very recognisable riffs, which we can play at any different moment on the set… but how and when we move from one to another is unpredictable, we go with the feel. I can and do play many guitar riffs at all of our sets, but never sounding quite the same… adding bits, playing in slight different ways each time, and often making mistakes and incorporating them to what I’m playing, jazz-style almost. The idea of doing like other bands and rehearsing songs and being tight and playing the same song perfectly, night after night, sounds incredibly boring to me, as a musician.

Thee Lucifer Sams in action.

And on top of that, there’s always new bits in between. It’s impossible for us to play the same set twice. 

The only thing we can decide before we go onstage is “let’s start loud and heavy” or “let’s start slow and quiet”.

Sometimes, it feels like the music can fall apart at any moment, and that’s edgy and exciting for us… we COULD fail and sound crap, but very rarely have done. But it is always a possibility. I’m OK with it. If it was easy and safe it wouldn’t be as interesting – for us or for the audience.

Thee Lucifer Sams, with Pete Bassman supporting, play the Hot Box in Chelmsford this Friday, 19 November.

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