A Walk with the Spaceman

cover of 'Ladies and Gentlemen...'

Jason 'Spaceman' Pierce of Spiritualized

Interview by Darren Gawle

[Editor's Note: we'll be adding a few more images, here, including more photo's from the band's recent live show in Vancouver, in January...]

Seems like we're in for a trying afternoon. I show up at Richard's on Richards in time for an interview with Jason Pierce of Rugby, England's Spiritualized, only to hear that Jason walked off the bus and down the street, and hasn't been seen for twenty minutes. When he does show up, I get my time slot bumped back twenty minutes to fit in a live radio interview with (wait for it) Nardwuar the Human Serviette. No, Jason doesn't know what he's in for. Oh lordy...

But he survives, and, due to soundcheck for tonight's show, we relocate to the cafe on Nelson St. next to the Bulldog and the interview is under way. Far from being the reticent interview nightmare the British music press would make him out to be, Jason is actually something of a chatterbox -- but get just about anyone onto a subject they like to talk about (i.e., music, in his case) and it's the same thing, really.

You get the impression that he's just a guy who's taking a justifiable amount of pride in a job well done -- a sentiment shared by the music press back in the UK. Don't, however, think that Jason really gives a shit about what the NME thinks...

Jason Pierce: Yeah, well at any one time in England there's about six or eight 'albums of the decade'. That's just how the press works over there.

Darren Gawle: So you don't necessarily feel validated by any acclaim?

JP: No. I suppose that when we put the album out, I felt validated by the fact that the album was as good as it was gonna get, that I felt it was finished, working to my own personal ambitions. Whatever. I don't need eleven people telling me it's a great record to feel good about it. It's a kind of pyramid effect -- you can get so many people who say 'this is great' that it gets harder for others to say 'hang on, this isn't all it's written up to be'. Emperor's new clothes sort of thing, y'know?

DG: Do you think, then, that the press is just building you up so that they can knock you down later?

JP: Not necessarily, it's just the way the English press works. It's a kind of English disease where a lot of people go 'oh, we're the best band in the world!', and there's so many bands that say that -- as if that's important, as if that's even possible. You can't compare drum n' bass to guitar music or jazz to classical.

So, to answer your question, no I don't the press to validate what I do. Pure Phase [from 1995] got no response at all -- in fact it got a 5 out of 10 in the NME, and unfortunately the NME is a great arbiter of taste for kids. I don't think Pure Phase was inferior to Ladies and Gentlemen [their latest release] in any way, and I've no interest in making albums to please the press.

DG: Does this practice of playing bands off each other (e.g. the Blur vs. Oasis 'rivalry') prevent any sort of community spirit amongst British bands?

JP: Yes and no. I think that sort of attitude helps people fall into that trap, but there's still bands that will bond together. Any sort of grouping together tends to be a press thing in England, in a way that if you can lump all the electronic acts together you've got a marketing image that's makes things easier than trying to sell the Chemical Brothers alone.

But then, there are bands we get on with. I do a lot of work with Spring Heel Jack, and we're touring with Acetone at the moment. But I'm not into climbing the ladders that a lot of people are talked into climbing in England, because most of what you see is investment and return, not a case of Oasis or The Verve genuinely capturing the imagination of the world's youth. It's a cynical business.

DG: Listen to a Spiritualized or Spacemen 3 [his previous band, with Sonic Boom] album and, despite the way the music often sounds, you can still hear a strong blues and gospel influence -- to an extent that hasn't been heard in British music since the mid-1960's.

JP: Yeah, well there's just so much stuff out there from way back that I'd rather just find the 'original chord' or the original sound of a piece of music rather than some tenth-generation dilution of that idea.

Some of the earliest bands I got into were bands like the Cramps or the Gun Club or the Fleshtones. They informed people about music, they said 'check out the Count Five, check out Hazel Adkins and Ronnie Hawkins, check out all this wigged-out rockabilly nonsense, have a look at this whole whacked-out world of music.' And the Gun Club also, y'know, reading between the lines of their songs they were saying to check out Robert Johnson and all this primitive blues stuff.

I hated the idea that bands kind of stood up and said 'this is our music, we wrote it in a vacuum, it's just us.' No music ever happens like that -- everything's evolutionary, everybody gets to hear everything else. And bands still say this, or they come up with dumb lines like 'we don't listen to other people's music when we're in the studio because we don't wanna be influenced' and you can spot every influence straight away.

DG: With so many influences at work, do you find that you have to keep on top of making everything sound homogeneous, or do you find that the Spiritualized sound just happens?

JP: Oh, it just happens. If anything, when we did Pure Phase we tried to remove anything we considered to be 'blueprint Spiritualized,' so we took out all the drones, tremolo, phasing, anything people could identify as 'instant Spiritualized' and started from scratch again.

But with Ladies and Gentlemen, there really is no reason why twelve songs that different from each other in style or arrangement should sound like the same band. It just happened. I did the Lamont Young benefit with a thirty-piece chamber orchestra, and it sounded like Spiritualized, but I was the only one from the band up there.

DG: With all the extra musicians on Ladies and Gentlemen, did it pose a problem re-arranging the music to get it to a point where you could perform it live as a six-piece?

JP: Well, we do that anyways. We don't do faithful renditions of the album because people who come see us will have the album, and there's no need to pay money to go see us do that live, which is so easy to do. We could have all the album on samplers. We could mime it. Rearranging our material is not a problem -- in fact, it's more liberating not to do faithful renditions of the album.

On Ladies and Gentlemen, there's over twenty additional musicians, and the more people you add to it, the more it becomes like cabaret -- where you have to write the music down, where you have to give people cues, where you have to tell people what to do in certain places. Like, when we play as a six-piece as we are tonight it's more free-form. We don't need cues and we don't have to count the bars.

The last big show we played was at the Royal Albert Hall with a gospel choir, and a string section and a horn section, and I found that most of my time was spent counting, which I never do during a show. Counting bars, counting intros, stuff like that. I felt it was an odd way to make music -- it was still an event, and it still worked and I still felt proud doing it, but it wasn't what I'm used to doing live.

DG: The last time you played Vancouver, you opened with "Cop Shoot Cop." Did you envision a piano for it at the time [as it appeared on Ladies and Gentlemen], and how did the Dr. John collaboration come about?

JP: I was trying to get a piano player to play in his style and it just seemed stupid not to ask him when he was only just playing down the road at Ronnie Scott's. And I've always been of the opinion that all you have to do is just say no, so it doesn't do any harm to ask. So he came back to the studio and he was blown away by it, so excited about the idea, which I wasn't expecting at all.

DG: Do you see Ladies and Gentlemen as a kind of concept album?

JP: Well, they all are, in a way. They're not just collections of tracks, or four good tracks with a collection of other ideas that we had. I guess that's why we split Lazer Guided Melodies [from 1992] into four blocks, the kind of blocks you'd get if you bought it on vinyl; and the same with Ladies and Gentlemen in that it's laid out so that you get some kind of trip out of it.

Way back to Spacemen 3 we were involved with it, really, because I didn't know anyone at the time who'd put anything overt on the side of an album -- when you're sitting around playing music at home it takes too much effort to keep dropping the needle in on the tracks you like. I only ever knew people who'd play the whole side of an album, so I guess it's followed through that of there's a concept, it's that the whole thing is meant to be listened to in one take. It's been arranged in that way, and so "Broken Heart" can sound more extreme because it's surrounded by "The Individual" and "No God Only Religion" and it works better there than on any other part of the album."

DG: What I meant was that there seems to be common themes or at least lyrical 'vibes' that you get from the songs on the album. What you write lyrically tends to be very succinct -- how much effort do you spend on lyrics?

JP: I'm more interested in words and language. If nothing else it's an antidote to what's going on in music now where people are writing songs from a sort of Penguin Rhyming Book of Words. I love it when you get a great book or read someone who really knows how to use the language, you can't substitute words, you can't say 'oh, if only I could rhyme this with that.' I think on "Broken Heart" or "I Think I'm In Love" I just can't find better words to put in there than those words, and the songs are crafted in that way.

"People always ask me if they're autobiographical, and I guess if I wanted to write anything autobiographical I'd write an autobiography. But I'm not. They're written larger than life. I've always wanted to deal with extremes, with high highs and low lows. I'm not writing little vignettes of life -- not that that's a bad thing, I mean Luna write that kind of stuff with little pockets of life going on. But I'm not interested in doing that.

DG: It just seemed that you were very disappointed in something when you wrote the lyrics.

JP: No, I was really happy making that record! I was really proud of what we were doing, and right from the outset people were trying to tell me how I was feeling during the making of the record, assuming that I must have been in some kind of state. No, it was the exact opposite. For the past two years I've felt on top of everything. Because I write things like "Broken Heart"... I'm not so cynical as to say it was only an exercise in literature, but there's a certain amount of pride that comes from being able to say 'yeah, that's it!'

What I want to convey are the sort of feelings that I think everyone's felt in their life, where there is no redemption, that this is an endless thing which is never gonna go. That line which goes 'I've been told it will end, but I don't believe it' -- writing that made me extremely happy. But that's how everybody pictures me, as being this tortured genius tearing these bits out of my soul.

I was actually on a roll, I was traveling for two years using somebody else's money to travel and meet people like Jim Dickinson and do the things I wanted to do.

DG: It's a bit uncommon, though, to listen to lyrics that express such a volume of emotion but are to the point and don't take up a lot of room on the album, don't you think?

JP: I don't think it's through any great talent, I think it's through contrast with other people not trying that hard. I mean, we're not talking William Blake here! It's not that difficult to write song lyrics -- it's there, but it appears that way in contrast with writing like 'what's another rhyme for groove, man?... move...' That's how you write your dance records.

DG: So is it still a valid thing for someone to have the wrong impression about your work, but still have it mean a lot to them?

JP: Well, a lot of people listen to our stuff in that way, and I would feel that it had been a wasted album if people thought that about me. But then, I've always felt that you should listen to an album in a way that relates to you. If I listen to a Lou Reed song, I don't think 'this is a song Lou Reed wrote about a moment in his life,' I listen to it in terms of how it affects me and how it relates to my life.

Again, back to "Broken Heart" -- this is a song Jason wrote about being in that way at that time -- no, it's not written that way, it's written larger than life, so that people can relate it to their own lives. It's not that difficult. That song was written in the tradition of old country classics like Patsy Cline or Lee Hazelwood or Tammy Wynette -- some of it was so succinct you'd know 'yeah, that's how that was going down.' But I don't believe for a minute that Tammy Wynette was living on the edge of... whatever, y'know?

And also, the thing that proves that the most to me is when artists do songs by other writers. Elvis did a lot of professional songwriters' material, or when Sinead O'Connor did "Nothing Compares 2 U," which is a song Prince wrote. It's not a song about Sinead O'Connor -- it just relates to your life the way you want it."

First published in Drop-D Magazine on December 22, 1997

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