Spirits in the Sky

Jason Pierce is still floating in space, but he's got his feet in the orchestra pit

Given the blissfully strung-out nature of the records he makes as Spiritualized--grandiose affairs in which the space-rock cosmos are studded with swirls of free-jazz skronk and warm gusts of gospel-music presence--you wouldn't expect Jason Pierce to be an amped-up conversationalist, breathlessly regaling you with tales of rock-star debauchery (though they no doubt exist) and gleefully cutting you off at every pass (though deep into his third interview today, he'd probably like to). But you also wouldn't expect him to be an understatedly charming fellow, quietly and deliberately explaining to you what it's like to lead an enormous orchestra of seasoned classical-music veterans through arrangements you pretty much fudged since you can't actually read music and don't really even think that's the point anyway.

Nonetheless, that's the guy talking on the phone this afternoon, as Pierce is in Chicago resting up for the Halloween-night show he'll play in a few hours at the packed Windy City club Metro. It's a week into Spiritualized's latest U.S. tour, an extravagant outing in support of new album Let It Come Down that will conclude this week at Deep Ellum Live, and already Pierce sounds weary. It's not surprising: A few days earlier, I caught Pierce's show at the Riverside Cathedral in New York City, an outrageously beautiful landmark on the Columbia University campus in the tree-lined zone separating the Upper West Side and Harlem. The night consisted of no opening band, two-plus hours of music, a 13-piece band (including a five-piece brass section) and a blanket of echo as thick as the still-potent anxiety outside the church's protective walls. Not easy work for a band like the Strokes, whose flimsy but effective NYC-punk pastiche is as reproducible onstage as a chain smoker's habit, but for an enterprise like Pierce's? A cause for extra rest and plenty of fluids, to be sure.

Of course, it's a problem with which Pierce has saddled himself. Let It Come Down is the biggest record in a discography already notable for big statements--most prominently Live at Royal Albert Hall, the bombastic 1998 double-disc live album that proved the drugs Spiritualized took weren't the kind that made you wanna sit around and watch Nick at Nite. Or maybe the previous year's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, the much-loved album that made up most of the live disc's set list and featured guest shots from blues-soul luminaries Dr. John and Jim Dickinson. Or maybe the band's legendary gig atop Toronto's CN Tower (the world's tallest building, depending on your definition).

Still, none boasts Let It Come Down's trump card: more than 100 musicians actualizing Pierce's vision of orchestral space-rock, with strings and brass and gospel choirs weaving their way between guitars and drums and keyboards, all meshing to guarantee the answer to the question Pierce poses at the close of the album: "Lord, can you hear me?" Pierce's old band Spacemen 3 (sort of the crack-house version of Spiritualized's opium-den fever dream) once performed a song by that name; if nothing else, his appropriation of it now demonstrates how outsized this guy's ambitions have become. Still, his resolve is nothing less than that of a true believer.

"To be honest, it doesn't matter how many rehearsals you do," he says in his polite English lilt. "It just starts when you play. People have this idea that I dictate what goes on, but it's really about getting people comfortable so they can contribute to the music. To get people to play music is the opposite of the idea of saying, 'That's wrong!' If you do that, then you don't get people playing; you get people operating to your ideas. It's about getting people comfortable to make mistakes."

Indeed, the mood inside the Riverside in New York was amazingly relaxed, at least for an ensemble whose potential for missed notes and flubbed entrances is exponentially larger than the average rock band's. The outfit shambled out from backstage (which, in this case, must be the altar), plugging in over the low ambient hum that had been filling the room since the doors opened. When they were all ready, the group slid easily into an extended run through "Cop Shoot Cop," the lysergic drawl that ends Floating in Space. And it was as effortless as you wouldn't expect, the three guitar players doodling over each other's airspace, the brass underlining the groove with an occasional sunburst of noise and the smoke machine clearly violating the church's no-smoking regulations.

Throughout the performance, the mood was far from the studied exactitude Let It Come Down's elaborate arrangements would seem to suggest; instead, group members entered the fray more like experienced jazz players contributing to a slow-building piece being constructed on the spot. Yet the tunes still retained their essential rock-ness; Pierce sang his lyrics--mostly first-person descriptions of a search for redemption that never comes--over the elegantly roiling din with the shaggy precision of a veteran front man.

"Really, the records are just a means to an end," Pierce says about playing the music live. "It's completely different. The records are totally objective, but playing live, you're making changes to the music within the music. You can be overwhelmed."

How, then, do those changes take shape?

"Well, you obviously can't bring all the instruments on tour, so you're losing some of the arrangements," he explains. "But it's not an idea of scaling down. There's no point in bringing one or two violins, because it's not about the individual expression of instruments--I wanted the sound of French horns and the sound of violins. But you can get the energy of a 30-part string section on the guitar if you play it right: It's not about learning it; it's about expressing it. The parts vary constantly; the arrangements exist, but now the songs exist in their own right, so it's about listening to what's going down."

What was clear from the band's performance in New York and from the sound of Pierce's voice on the phone is that what's going down is the product of an exhaustive, exhausting vision. Don't expect Pierce and his enablers to scale the walls at the close of their tour in town, but don't be surprised if the walls come tumbling down anyway.

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