Back to life
Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce has defied death and made a masterpiece. Nearly three years later, he explains how he did it to Eamon Sweeney
On Friday, June 13, 1997, two of the best albums of the 1990s were released on the very same day. Of these albums, one has been very well documented, frequently topping those endless polls deliberating over what is the best album of all time. It's called OK Computer and, of course, it's by Radiohead. The other one doesn't quite share the same illustrious profile, but it's still rightfully regarded as a modern classic.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was the third album by Jason Pierce's Spiritualized, completing a trilogy of near-perfect albums that began with Lazer Guided Melodies in 1992 and continued with Pure Phase in 1995.
Ladies and Gentlemen ... was a highly ambitious record and almost symphonic in its approach, enlisting the services of the London Community Gospel Choir, Romanian avant-garde group the Balanescu Quartet and blues legend Dr. John.
Its 2001 successor, Let it Come Down, featured more than 120 session musicians. While it boasted some sublime space-pop moments -- such as Out of Sight and the irresistibly moving string-laden single, Stop Your Crying -- it buckled under the weight of its lofty ambitions. Spiritualized's 2003 outing, Amazing Grace, saw Jason Pierce's ever-changing collective adopt a rawer, blues-orientated approach.
During the making of its follow-up, things got a bit scary. In June 2005, Jason Pierce visited his GP. He'd been feeling a little unwell for a while and had experienced some difficulties breathing. His doctor ordered him to go the nearest A&E immediately.
In The Royal London Hospital, Jason was diagnosed with double pneumonia, which prevented the flow of blood to his lungs and hampered the flow of oxygen to his body. A course of antibiotics and a spell in intensive care initially seemed to have little effect.
A few weeks afterwards on spiritualized.com, Jason's girlfriend, Juliette Larthe, posted some very relieving news.
"After nearly dying twice in the last two-and-a-half weeks, Jason has made an alarming and brilliant recovery and is due home today. He is still fragile and really weak, weighing in at maybe eight stone, but love and happiness are on his side."
Nearly three years later, a happy and healthy-sounding Jason Pierce is shooting the breeze and talking about the troubled times behind his new album.
"Part of the story behind this album is that I got ill," he begins. "Sometimes, people seem to think that this story is what I'm trying to sell this thing on, which is rubbish. It's just part of what happened and I can't remember if the title was there before that."
The album's title, Songs in A&E, and tracks like Death Take Your Fiddle, Sitting on Fire and Goodnight Goodnight all hint at a near-death experience, although Jason insists all these songs were written prior to his health scare.
"Songs in A&E doesn't just describe how I write songs, it sort of describes how I live my life," he continues. "Everybody seems to live their life in accidents and emergencies. Nobody seems to have a particular plan; it's like we're thrown into this great chaos."
Jason is also quick to point out that the experience wasn't always harrowing and bleak. "I know this might sound dumb, but parts of being there [in hospital] were really beautiful. I love that low-level energy; the low hum you get in places like hospitals. Under that veneer, all manners of chaos are kicking off. Something really important and heavy is going down, but you don't see it because it's all so calm. It's not specific to hospitals. You get something similar in museums. I thought that maybe I'll try to capture that in music. Around a week ago, I realised that I'd already done that with the Harmony pieces."
Six instrumental pieces, Harmony 1-6, punctuate the album and lend it a unique mood and atmosphere. "I think those pieces dictated how the album ended up sounding," he reflects. "It has its own sound and atmosphere. The songs link together and there is a thread going through it. It's the same with Amazing Grace, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space and Pure Phase.
"There was never a single-minded 'this is what I'm going to go after' approach to any album. It was the result of different kinds of work that found that space. I'd love to make records like Howlin' Wolf or Lee Perry in that you just press record. I pursue that all the time and I always fail. Gradually, they find their own space."
Songs in A&E definitely has its own unique space. It's also the most fully realised and breathtaking thing he's done since Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. It demands to be listened to from start to finish.
"I make albums, that's what I do," Pierce says. "Sometimes people ask me, 'What's the point? Everyone downloads tracks now'. I don't care. This is what I do. I make these spaces in time that hopefully speed up time, or maybe slow it down and warp time so that you lose yourself in it. I've no problem with people taking excerpts from that, but you can't deny it's from a whole, bigger piece. You can buy a postcard of the two fingers of Adam and God almost touching from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, but you can't deny that it's just a detail of something bigger."
Before today's release of the sixth Spiritualized album, Jason took a stripped-down line-up of the band on the road last summer for Acoustic Mainlines, an uplifting and very emotional performance of new and old songs and covers such as Daniel Johnston's True Love Will Find You in the End.
"I don't think anybody, myself included, was prepared for how simple and powerful the show was," Jason reflects. "We took out all the surplus information and just left the strings, which often you can't hear on the finished records. You're left with strings and voices and everyone knows how powerful that can be, but we were just playing two acoustic guitar chords, so it has this odd power.
"The show ran for a year but we never had to sell it to anyone. There was someone at the first show who booked it for Roskilde. Then somebody who was there did it in Barcelona and it just ran and ran. They went from very hushed and reverential shows to the equivalent of speaking in tongues, standing up and shouting. Some were mad, others were really hushed, but they were all really beautiful. This summer, we're plugging into the walls again. It's going to be a little bit more dangerous."
Jason has many happy memories of playing Ireland over the years. Unlike most international acts, Pierce made a point of playing Galway, Limerick and Cork on several occasions rather than only playing the capital.
"We figured that it was easier for us to make the distance than someone there making the distance to the next big city," he explains. "Sadly, we're not doing as many this time but we will again. We did our first-ever encore in Ireland. We never did encores. We didn't see any purpose in them. But at this show, we took all the equipment off the stage and we were packed up and ready to go. The kids wouldn't leave, so we had to set up again and play a few more songs. (Jason isn't sure, but I think he is referring to a legendary gig in the Tivoli.) I always think that people come and watch us on their front foot. They're not standing on their back foot going, 'C'mon, show us what you've got this time'."
Around 28 years after forming Spiritualized in Rugby, Warwickshire, Jason's band has become one of the most thrilling, yet under-acknowledged forces in modern rock. Jamie Reynolds of Klaxons recently gushed, "I can't think of any other contemporary artist willing to bare their souls and blow my ears in such a subtle manner. He is a hero."
"I wouldn't be going through any of this or be sitting here talking to you if I wasn't excited about it," Jason concludes. "I'm really excited about it. Duke Ellington said there are only two types of music -- good and bad. I've been thinking about that a lot lately and he's right. There are only two types of music -- music you like and music you don't. I'm doing this anyway, it's not like I'm out there asking people if they want to hear any requests! I just do it. I've no idea what's going happen in the future, or what we're going to do next. All I know is that I love doing this." n
Songs in A&E is out today. Spiritualized play TriPod, Dublin on May 28 and Mandela Hall, Belfast on May 29