Hydro Connect Festival - Spiritualized
Malcolm Jack speaks to the leader of spectral psych-rock gods Spiritualized Jason Pierce, a man back from the brink after pneumonia, rock reformations and a cursed guitar
Technically dying twice is, needless to say, not an experience you want to relive too often. But because of its intrinsic link to Spiritualized’s sixth studio album Songs in A&E, Jason Pierce’s two times trip to the Pearly Gates and back (one for each strain of the double pneumonia which struck him down in June 2005) is, much to his vexation, the first thing on every journalist’s mind today, as he fields interviews over the phone. ‘It’s so weird to be still talking about it,’ he says, with a weary laugh. ‘If I had friends who still talked about things that happened to me so many years ago I think I’d spend less and less time in their company.’
He’s reluctant to speak of any direct connection that the record – which was written before he fell ill – might have to his spell in intensive care. ‘I just like to think of it as an excuse for late delivery of the album,’ he jokes, dryly, adding that he’s had the title knocking about in his head for years.
There’s no denying that a deathly pall hangs heavily over Songs in A&E though. Spiritualized have never been the most upbeat of bands, but the sparse, raw arrangements and rakish, morbid tone of Pierce’s voice on many of the new songs is harrowing, even by his own standards. The artwork features plastic IV drip catheters, arranged to look like rows of tiny crosses.
Mind you, many Spiritualized releases since 1997’s seminal LP Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space . . . which originally came packaged in a foil blister pack together with a sheet of ‘dosage advice’ – have played around with medical imagery. Does Pierce think such visual similes might have tempted fate a bit, particularly considering his rumoured-to-be-Herculean intake of medicines definitely not available on the NHS over the last 26 years (his first band Spacemen 3’s oft-quoted motto was ‘taking drugs to make music to take drugs to’)? ‘Yes!’ he replies, with surprising haste. ‘I’m joking a bit, I don’t think I prophesised it. Someone asked me if I thought the guitar I bought that I wrote the record on was cursed, which I thought was cool.’
A major part of Pierce’s recovery was the Acoustic Mainlines shows of 2006-7, which saw him tour Spiritualized’s rich oeuvre in a stripped down format. ‘I didn’t have the strength or confidence to play acoustically on my own,’ he explains, ‘so I got a bunch of gospel singers and a string quartet as kind of heavy guns to sit behind me, while I was at the front line. I didn’t realise just how moving those shows were going to be.’ Some elements of that set-up have been carried over into Spiritualized’s latest full band incarnation, which will wind up a summer of festival appearances in Inveraray at Hydro Connect.
It all could have been a very different proposition had Pierce not knocked back the lucrative deal a promoter offered him earlier in the year to reform Spacemen 3 to play at festivals. ‘I’m not motivated by money,’ he says, adding, ‘it’s a weird, very odd business’, on the recent trend of bands getting back together, in what may be a pop at some of his born again 90s contemporaries such as The Verve and My Bloody Valentine. ‘A lot of people are doing it. I think that music is great at any period in time. You don’t need to revisit it.’
Besides, going through the motions would never suit Pierce after so many years of playing with Spiritualized – a band whose live shows have always been spontaneous, unpredictable affairs. ‘Anybody can do a show where the lights flash in the right place and the music’s beautiful,’ says Pierce. ‘But music becomes strongest under pressure, when things aren’t right.’
Spiritualized play the Oyster Stage, Sat 30 Aug.