By Jim Schutze
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"It's ironic that in some ways, when I needed music the most, making this record really fucked it up for me."
So explains Jason Pierce, the mastermind behind English band Spiritualized and the newly released Sweet Heart Sweet Light, their sixth studio album. He's juggling phone interviews and rehearsals on the first date of an American tour, which will bring him to Dallas for the first time since 2008's Songs in A&E.
He's also commonly known as J. Spaceman, from his days in Spacemen 3, the band he formed in the late '80s in his hometown of Rugby. But Pierce is very much grounded these days. Twenty-odd years of "taking drugs to make music to take drugs to," the title of a 1990 Spacemen 3 release, took a nearly fatal toll on Pierce. Given a diagnosis of chronic liver failure in 2011, he elected to try an experimental drug treatment that could repair the damage relatively quickly. It would be brutal, debilitating chemotherapy, and an end to that lifestyle.
"In an odd way, I was making a record as a distraction to being ill," Pierce says, "but when I start a record and I listen to music I love, I can only hear it in terms of how it was produced. I want to try and make music that has the highest highs and the most drama, and is also intimate and with fragile sounds, all in the same five seconds." He sighs.
"It just gets more and more frustrating."
Pierce hates making records, even for therapy, a surprising reveal by the creator of 1997's drug-hazed masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. That album is so dense and layered, a series of performances of the entire album last fall in London required 50 musicians on stage, including the band, singers and orchestra.
When it came to this record, he had a different objective. "I wanted to make a kind of pop record that wasn't hiding behind the sonics of the recording, hiding in distortion or other distractions," he explains. And while the record still embraces many Spiritualized trademarks — gospel choirs, long songs, layers of guitars — it's hardly pop.
In addition to the five core musicians he's toured with for years, three L.A.-based backup singers appear on the new album. "They aren't gospel singers," Pierce explains. "They are more into pop harmonics, and what they bring to the older songs is new and really nice.
"I was worn out from making the record, and to listen to it really reminds me of being ill," he reflects. "Performing it is a completely different thing, because it's not at all about replicating the record, it's about finding the energy you get from playing the music live."
The tour holds the promise of restoring Pierce to even better health.
"This morning on the bus I was playing The Cramps and it was like it's the best thing I've ever heard. I feel so free again."