Spiritualized (J. Spaceman): Interview
“It’s hard to write music when you have IVs in your arms.”
Thinking back to my musical awakening as a middle school skate punk in the mid-'80s, the sounds from the underground rocked my world and transformed me into the music-obsessed geek who's writing this today. Looking back over the past couple decades, there are many names that have come and gone from the heavy rotation of my stereo. Only a select few have continuously made impressions on me with each new release. Spiritualized's Jason Pierce, a.k.a. J. Spaceman, is one of them.
So, when a call from Mr P, the corporate tyrant who runs Tiny Mix Tapes, came in asking if I could do a phone interview with Jason Pierce the following afternoon, I nearly shit myself. Not to sound like a total fanboy, but Spaceman's music was the soundtrack to my first joint, as well as my graduation from high school. It was around when I met my first serious girlfriend, sticking with me throughout college and during the bicycle commutes to my first job. I think you get the point. Pierce has been more consistently in my life than any friend I can think of. So what sort of bullshit am I supposed to ask a guy like this about?
You know, I was asked to do this interview less than 24 hours ago, and admittedly have had a hell of a time trying to prepare in such short time. I was tempted to ask you a bunch of random questions from a survey found on a MySpace bulletin. Would you have appreciated that?
I don't know what a MySpace survey is? I guess it depends on how random you are talking about. I probably would have just thought it was normal though. I'm used to some pretty out-there conversations.
Are you looking forward to getting back out on the road?
Yes, certainly. It's been four years since we've toured, and plugging in is so electric. Good things happen, and we can just play and not have to worry about all of the other things. It's just really electric. It's what I love to do more than anything.
I'm happy that your health is back, and that you're back to work. Do you feel your hospitalization has had an impact your work?
Well, it definitely slowed it down. It's hard to write music when you have IVs in your arms.
"You can't play 15 notes in a certain order and have them make people emotionally react to them."
What can you tell me about the latest Spiritualized album?
Well, I'm happy it's finished. I'm glad it's in the space it's in now, and I can let it go and get down to the real business, which is playing live shows, you know, and fine-tune it, so, it's all good.
When I first heard you were collaborating with Harmony Korine, even though I only know either of you through your work, it instantly made sense to me. Care to talk about that relationship?
Yeah, you know, I think he's great. It's fortuitous for me that he came along when he did. He's this really beautiful and crazy guy, and he kind of got me back into working with music, you know? He came to me to ask me for music for his film, but he didn't direct, he didn't tell me “Look, this is the music I want”; he just wanted music. And that, at that time in my life, was hugely liberating to just sit in a studio all day writing pieces of music. What he didn't use I kind of found a way of working into my record. He still gave my record an environment to fit in as well. It stopped my record from just being what it was before, as here was like 11 or 12 old songs, and working on his film just put those songs into this space that they now inhabit that really work for them. He is just this amazing guy. He's got these thoughts coming in from other planets. I think I can put my whole life into perspective considering that record, because here's this crazy guy who's taking on the enormity of this film with all that that entails, and I've got a little album to put together.
I've read volumes about your creative process and how you go about writing songs. Care to share how you go about this?
Care to add to those volumes, eh? I don't know, I just like doing that; I like to try to get inside of the music. Everybody knows that music isn't an exact science. You can't play 15 notes in a certain order and have them make people emotionally react to them. You can't get the best musicians in the world to sit and play faithful covers of the Rolling Stones or Howlin' Wolf or Sly Stone and have it work. Everybody knows that doesn't work. So I just like to try to find a way inside of it and try, and as soon as the song is leaning too far into country music for me, then I'll put clarinets to it to try and drag it out a bit, or just try and find some way of saying things that makes it all seem right for me, that it all fits right. I don't know what else to say.
Your songs are often very personal and a somewhat voyeuristic look into your life. Many I know love your music due to the fact that they relate to something in your lyrics. Is it easy for you to be so personal in your songs?
I think it's important to write from some kind of perspective of truth, but I don't think the people who relate can really understand why; they can't be specific. People relate to music on their own terms and the way the lyrics hit them. These people have been in situations where they've sung along to songs for years, and then somebody tells them what the lyrics actually are, and it kind of changes their whole world because they didn't hear it like that. So, I think, in every single interview, I say that every time you hear Ray Charles singing "I Can't Stop Loving You," there isn't anybody who says who is it that Ray can't stop loving. You listen to it and the way that it hits upon your life. I think also as time goes on the music travels in some weird kind of time capsule, but the author and the circumstance and the story behind the music get less and less important. You can listen to 1930s blues music from America, and it doesn't really give you a sense of what it was like to be in 1930s America. It's traveled through time and you relate to it in the way it hits upon your life now.
"It's been four years since we've toured, and plugging in is so electric."
Many of your lyrics have a dualistic nature of the spiritual and the hedonistic. Is it tough to balance the two in your work?
Heh heh heh. Ahh... No? [Laughs] They're a bit wrapped up in the same. I don't know?
What are the biggest influences on your music?
Influences? I don't know, all kinds of stuff. Just everything I'm listening to, and also like I said, trying to find some weird sort of combination of things. Like trying to put French horns up against live guitars and transform music. In a way, the shape of the songs, especially on the new album, are quite traditional and are sort of like standards. It's trying to find a way of dealing with standards that isn't like trying to make an old-fashioned record.
I've always thought your albums have had the best titles. How do you come up with them?
There's not any one way; they just sort of happen -- they just work. I think quite often you get a title and then you want the album to live up to the title. It's not like you have a collection of songs and then you think, "What should we call our record to get this right?" With Songs In A&E, from the right off, it was like “That's it! Accidents and Emergencies!” I don't know how that translates in America, but over here it means accidents and emergencies in the UK. And that means, even if you ignore these songs, my whole life has been like that; it all seems to be a product of accidents or emergencies. It's life.
That's interesting to know, because when I first saw the name of the title, I thought it was all the songs were written in the key of A and E.
Well, kind of that's the pun. And kind of thankfully, some of them are. I don't really know, but I think the first one is actually in A. I play the chords A and E.
Where did the name Spaceman come from?
That's my name.
Yeah, how did you get that name?
From Spacemen, you know. It just came from Spacemen 3. I have a lot of close friends who called me Spaceman, and the name just sort of stuck. Part of the reason we never put my name first in any of the credits for Spacemen 3 was because people called me Spaceman. It was kind of needless to avoid the Jason and the Spacemen sort of scenario.
How about the name Spiritualized, where did that come from?
I guess, just trying to find a name that sat a little bit with what we were trying to do. I think also, at the time, the name came kind of loosely from the side of a bottle of Pernod Anise. It kind of distorts your view of the word "spirit" in French
When so many other musicians have come and gone, how have you managed to stay relevant for so long?
Because I'm doing it for me; it's not about success or trying to achieve anything. I just do it. I don't know the answer to that really; I should just say I don't know the answer. I just like doing that; it's just really fun. I think it's important for me to do it. So many people are so wrapped up in the business of music, you know; music is an industry, something you need to make for money or to travel or whatever, and that's not so easy to do.
"The whole idea of success in music is still based on the success of marketing music."
Aside from the creative brilliance in your music, I've also been a huge fan of some of the other creative ideas in the things you've done, such as performing a concert at the top of the CN Tower in Toronto for the Highest Show On Earth and the packaging for Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Do you have any new ideas of these sorts in the works?
The highest shows on earth! Heh heh. I wanted to do the highest planetary show, so we went up above the Arctic Circle and did a show. When you stand up there, it's a bit like you can really feel the planets. It's like if you live there you probably just kind of get used to it all, but it was really hard to just stand up there and not think about the universe and what's out there, because the sun isn't ever going down. It's weird; it's like being inside of the Wizard Of Oz film or something. So you know, all the time, little bits and pieces, you just try to throw them in.
From what I hear, you are much bigger in the UK than you are in the states. While you have always been critically praised here, the commercial aspect hasn't been on par as I feel it should be. Is commercial success something you want or do you prefer more of an underground status?
I don't really care; you-get-what-you-get kind of thing. And you can force it and try and put yourself in situations that you aren't comfortable and do all these things to try to force that kind of idea, but I'm not interested. I really couldn't care less about that kind of success. The whole idea of success in music is still based on the success of marketing music. The charts reflect sales. And the whole kind of awards things, you know, they award the people that manage the business of music, and I'm just not interested in that.
I'm kind of wondering what those MySpace questions would have been now.
I saw that Spiritualized is pretty heavily marketed on MySpace right now, and I'm sure it's your PR people who are doing it.
Yeah, I don't have a MySpace. There's some kid in, umm, I'm not so sure where he is, but he's been [pretending to be] me for awhile and was being identical and doing a good job.
Those surveys are sort of personal questions that people get from online somewhere that reveal somewhat asinine details of their lives. Like what did you have for lunch or who was the first person you kissed or do you have more than one best friend, and sometimes they are a bit more spicy or comical. They're usually pretty cheesey, but I'm sure it would be different than any other interview you've ever done.
Yes, I tend to get asked the same questions in interviews; it's sort of unavoidable I guess. This MySpace survey just might have been more fun. Where are you based? What is this area code I dialed to reach you?
It's for Portland Oregon.
Oh man, that's cool, we like Portland, Oregon; it seems like a good place to be. We're real big fans. That's the home of Mississippi Records, I really like their stuff. And people really get competitively fucked up in Portland Oregon, don't they?
Umm, yes, yes they do.
[Photo: Melanie Nyema]