Acid reign

Has Spiritualized emerged with its masterwork, or is it just the drugs?

When it comes to the complex machinery of the modern recording studio, it's hardly a stretch to suggest that Spiritualized auteur Jason Pierce is as much a master of his domain as Phil Spector, George Martin, and Brian Eno were of theirs. It's ironic, then, to find him stuck in the English countryside, grappling with something so simple as a cell phone that's lost its charge.

"Sometimes technology just conspires against you, you know?" he finally says when he manages to call on another phone, four hours late for an interview. Actually, I know all too well: It turned out that the batteries in my recorder were dying as I taped our interview, which I discovered when I started to transcribe it. Over the course of an hour-long conversation, Pierce starts to get slower and slower, until he's finally talking like Winnie the Pooh's pal Eeyore on downers. But it's strangely fitting to hear Pierce this way, the man who helped write a new chapter in the book on Quaalude rock with the hugely influential Spacemen 3, and the man whose current band is one of the most intoxicating and disorienting combos in popular music today--not to mention one of the most underappreciated.

"All the best things in life fuck you up the most, whether it's love sickness or drug sickness," Pierce once told New Musical Express, and he has spent a career making beautiful music out of the mess that results from both. Rarely has the concept of "love is the drug" been explored with such intensity as on Spiritualized's third album, Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space. The disc represents the culmination of everything Pierce has done to date, a trip that began some 12 years ago when Spacemen 3 first began peddling its hypnotizing, hallucinogenic drone.

S3 was formed by guitarists-vocalists Pierce (who was Jason Spaceman then) and Peter Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom) when they were both attending art school in their industrial hometown of Rugby back in the early '80s. To people who care about the line of musical invention that stretches from early Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground, and the 13th Floor Elevators through the Stooges and the MC5, Spacemen 3 were more than just a godhead rock band. They were the next step.

"By far the most important band of the 1980s, maybe one of the five essential bands of all time--they were one of the great psychedelic bands, capturing the essence of altered states of many varieties," wrote Bomp! publisher, label head, and L.A. underground legend Greg Shaw, who's certainly consumed enough psychedelics (musical and pharmaceutical) to be in the position to know.

After four proper albums and an armful of EPs, live discs, and assorted collections of odds and ends, Spacemen 3 came to a somewhat acrimonious end following 1991's Kraftwerk-obsessed Recurring. A lot of folks put their money on Kember after the split. But while some of the ambient earwash he's made with Spectrum and the more snooze-inducing Experimental Audio Research has been, um, intriguing, Kember's post-Spacemen work pales in comparison to Pierce's. And don't think the latter is above gloating.

"I've never had any interest in remaking Brian Eno's ambient stuff," Pierce says, without invoking his former partner by name. "I mean, it's been done, hasn't it?"

Pierce set out to do something different. Spiritualized was formed around the core of himself, second guitarist Mark Refoy (now fronting Slipstream), and Pierce's girlfriend, Kate Radley, the only member besides Mr. Spaceman to play on all three Spiritualized albums. (In fact, Radley's Vox Continental and Farfisa Compact organs are as big a part of the band's sound as Pierce's Fender Jaguar and Vox Starstreamer.) Pierce was determined to craft what he called "a modern soul music" that used a different musical language than the one in the Book of Otis Redding.

The band debuted in 1992 with Lazer Guided Melodies, a mesmerizing mix of vintage Pink Floyd psychedelia, John Coltrane-style free jazz, and the sort of fervent speaking-in-tongues gospel music that's played in revival tents. The group made its live bow in America a short time later as part of the Roller Coaster tour with Curve and the Jesus and Mary Chain. For a time around the release of its second album, 1995's Pure Phase, Spiritualized added "Electric Mainline" to its name. As if that didn't make Pierce's ongoing chemical fixation perfectly clear, the record's first single was titled "Medication."

Given that his first band had once titled an album Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, the whole narcotic trip seemed like old hat for Pierce. And while Phase's music went even further in exploring the free-jazz element of the first album, one suspected that he was running short on musical inspiration as well: The record's most notable sonic accomplishment was that it simultaneously offered two completely different mixes of each song--one in the left channel, the other in the right.

As the months and then the years ticked by while fans waited for another offering after Pure Phase--and as rumors of the follow-up's sluggish recording process began to circulate--Pierce started to develop a reputation for being a studio perfectionist who was unable to stop tinkering with his creations. Visions of My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields danced in journalists' heads. It's a rap he resents.

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