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.
"I don't think it's not letting it go," he says. "I think it's getting it right. You see so many bands that release their records and at the time say, 'Yeah, this is our new record, and we're really proud of it.' But then with subsequent releases, you find out they're maybe not so proud of it. They say things like, 'We've got the right producer this time.' Or, 'We've reinvented ourselves.' I don't know, none of my friends reinvent themselves every couple of years.
"I want to get it right," Pierce continues. "I want to get it 100 percent, so that this record can't be any better than it is. I can't find any fault with any of the records we've put out because of that reason: I allow myself the time to get it right."
The resulting album exceedingly justifies his meticulousness. Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space--recorded at seven different studios in Bath, London, Memphis, New York, and L.A., with engineering help from the likes of John Leckie and Jim Dickinson--is a breathtaking musical and lyrical catharsis. And it came at a cost.
Always gossipy, the English music weeklies have characterized Ladies and Gentlemen as an album chronicling the unraveling of Pierce's soul-mate relationship with Radley, who remains in the band, if not in his bed. "All I want in life's a little bit of love to take the pain away," Pierce sings in the symphonic title track that opens the album. He finds his ideal romantic union in such tunes as the orgasmic, Detroit-flavored "Come Together" and the idyllic "I Think I'm in Love," which is augmented by a horn section and the lulling strings of the Balanescu Quartet.
But the lyrics get rockier--and the music noisier--as the album progresses. In "The Individual" and "Broken Heart," love is lost, and the pain is worse than any drug withdrawal. "I don't even miss you/But that's 'cause I'm fucked up/I'm sure when it wears off/Then I will be hurting," Pierce declares on the latter. Nevertheless, he moves on: The album comes to a gut-wrenching close with the jarring, 16-minute "Cop Shoot Cop," an epic collaboration with legendary voodoo pianist Dr. John that stands as Pierce's answer to "Sister Ray." By the end of it all, nothing is resolved, because there are no easy answers for Pierce. But you're left with the impression that the music has seen him through, just as it always has in the past.
Pierce deftly wiggles out of questions about the English press' take on the autobiographical elements of the record: "I don't read it," he says. "I'm not interested in that kind of press." He doesn't mind talking about the album's other controversy, though.
Advance cassettes of Ladies and Gentlemen that were sent to press and radio included a different version of the title track, one on which Spiritualized covered part of the verse and chorus of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" and folded it into the middle of the group's own tune. That brief snippet set the tone for everything that followed: Only fools rush in, but like an addict, Pierce just can't help himself. The choice becomes even more appropriate if you're aware, as Pierce reminded me, that a tape of Elvis' version was packed on the Voyager Space Probe before it was launched into the cosmos. Unfortunately, the Presley estate threatened legal action and forced the band to remove the Elvis portion of "Ladies and Gentlemen..." only weeks before the album's release.
"If I had wanted to re-title the song 'I Can't Help Falling In Love With You' and given him the songwriting credit, then I could have done that, but it wasn't that big a part of the song," Pierce says. "I actually prefer the new version of it. It actually sounds now like a pop song written by a madman, whereas before it had this kind of familiarity to it--a safety net--because it revolved around this Elvis track."
In truth, the version with the ghost of Elvis was a near-perfect pop moment, but in 1998, you have to admire any rock visionary who is so consistently willing to work without that safety net.
"That's what I've held out for; I've always tried not to compromise," he says. "Too many people are compromising massively, whereas my idea of success is putting out records that capture what we want to capture. We wanted to make a record that would fit alongside Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Going On, Captain Beefheart's Clear Spot, and Elvis' Sun Sessions rather than something that fits alongside the glut of contemporary music."
And damned if he hasn't succeeded.
Spiritualized opens for Radiohead March 29 at the Music Hall in Fair Park.
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