Spiritualized in the next dimension

In time-worn tradition, Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce finds that there's nothing quite like dying to propel the artist's work into the public consciousness. So he did it, twice!

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 13 Aug 2008
  • J Spaceman

The Large Hadron Collider near the Franco-Swiss border is a particle accelerator designed specifically to test the limitations of current particle physics theory and unlock many mysteries regarding the origin and nature of the universe. It is a marvel of modern ingenuity and naturally, Jason Pierce, aka J Spaceman, figurehead (and the only ever-present member) of ‘space rock’ band Spiritualized, is a little bummed he won’t be playing a gig there.

Over a decade after playing ‘the Highest Show Ever’ in Toronto’s CN Tower, there was a strong possibility it might have actually happened, thus continuing to propagate the band’s sense of the extravagant. “Yep, another one of Spiritualized’s missed opportunities!” he says ruefully. “They came to the idea and asked us to play too close to the time when it was going to be switched on. Once they do that, there’s no going into that thing. Ah well!”

Back on safer, solid ground, Pierce is on board a tour bus, zipping down a highway in the USA when we catch up with him. He seems genuinely pleased that his latest album, Songs in A&E, has been received very favourably, though he is loathe to get carried away. “It’s nice to get good feedback, but you can’t pay much attention to it because you start believing the good and hating the bad. It does seem to be touching people, which is quite humbling actually.” There’s certainly no doubting Pierce’s humility these days, because the elephant in the room when discussing this new release is the stark fact that it may never have seen the light of day, such was the severity of the 'pneumonia with complications' he contracted in 2005. The man was technically dead…twice!

Laughing wryly at the notion of a post-posthumous release, Pierce is refreshingly open when discussing the ordeal. “Well, it was a long time ago for me, but I still feel like I can use my illness as the best possible excuse for my tardy behaviour in releasing the thing in the first place! I can say to people ‘Yeah, sorry the album’s late mate, but...”. The christening of the album too, makes playful reference to that time as he, in time-honoured Spiritualized fashion, weighs in with yet another drugs metaphor. “It was too good not to have Songs in A&E as the title, there are so many connotations. It’s a record that can go in pill boxes, medication for the soul.”

Video: Soul on Fire

Is this album best listened to in the context of what he experienced? “No way! Good records are like time capsules. As time passes they move further and further away from the author and the stories surrounding it become less relevant. In fifteen or twenty years time people won’t listen to it and say these are songs about certain circumstances, people will just listen to music in the way it refers to their own lives. For example, I listen to 1930s blues music but it doesn’t give me the sense of being in America in the 1930s. You don’t listen to music from the perspective of an historian, you just listen to it in the way it makes your heart feel.”

Whilst Pierce acknowledges the fact that the back story of the album may be playing an active role in how well it’s being received (“It’s definitely carried it to a point”), he is at pains to stress that it was mostly written before the illness, and that it is not “morbid”, much more “matter-of-fact”. “It’s not a record that dwells on [my illness], it’s certainly not even specifically about that. Yeah, I got ill when I was making it, I struggled to get back and that helps the songs find the space that they fit in today. A lot of music is borne of accident and it’s the same with a lot of things. I really think the accident and emergency line applies to most people’s lives, and what happens to us every day.”

Songs in A&E, whilst coloured by the monumental events in Pierce’s life, does not in fact deviate radically from the epic themes of life (and death), love, god and narcotics that the band have become renowned for. Musically, it shares the same space too, straighforward rock songs swept through with orchestral arrangements incorporating the blues, jazz, and uplifting choral ascensions. It is grandiose but from a personal, rather than worldly perspective, and begs the question as to whether Pierce’s thought processes are similarly affected. “Quite the opposite” he laughs. “I’m really simple. There’s a kind of dark humour to my writing that tends to get missed because of the seriousness of the story behind it. I try to hold on to the beautiful bits of everything that’s rushing by. It’s almost down to my innate ‘lack of talent’ whereby you go ‘Wow, that’s good, I better hold on to that and hold on really tight’, because they don’t come round that often.”

Video: You Lie, You Cheat

‘Lack of talent’ may be a step too far, but Pierce persists. “Yeah, I think music is a very simple thing. Everybody is playing the same notes, but you could play the same twelve notes as me and mine could be rubbish and yours could be the most amazing thing ever heard. So the magic is between those notes and what you do after is the elusive thing that makes it so special.” And then, to properly reinforce the point that perhaps this is a man who has oversimplified the notion of simplicity, he continues. “You can try to recreate the sound of, say, Phil Spector or the Beatles easily enough by going into the same studios and using the same microphones and find out where they all sat, but you don’t make those records. You make records that apply the same soundscapes but those records aren’t magic because of the microphone or whatever. It’s in these ghosts that hide between the notes. I think that’s what making great music is about. It’s like taking the ghosts of these songs that you love and trying to apply it to your own world.”

Whatever the world may be according to Jason Pierce, he'll bring his version of it to Scotland for the second year of the boutique Connect festival. Reminded of this fact, he laughs with the line “Oh yeah, I forgot this was one of those preview pieces.” At first struggling with the concept of thinking so far in advance, he responds with a glowing appraisal of the discerning Scottish music fan, a statement that could be trite were it not delivered with genuine enthusiasm and careful consideration. “I say it every time, but the people in Scotland watch shows on their front foot and are very enthusiastic. ‘Whatever you’re going to do, we’re up for it’. People in a lot of the world still watch shows on their back foot and are like ‘Yeah, show us what you can do, then we’ll let you know’. So we’re really excited about that. And we’ll be coming at the tail end of a lot of shows: we’re living on a bus now so every day we’re getting inside of this and working out where it can go. Hopefully it will be really good by the time we roll that way.”

Spiritualized play the Oyster Stage at Hydro Connect, Inveraray on Sat, 30 Aug