Billed as the Spaceman Reissue Program, the first four Spiritualized albums have been remastered, repackaged and re-released in glorious new vinyl and CD editions. Laid-back frontman Jason Pierce talks us through some of the most cosmic records of the last 30 years
The 2020s have become the decade of the Zoom call. Since Covid-19 hit in March of last year, virtually all professional interactions, including most media promotional activities, have been via frequently wary conversations with an equally self-conscious figure looming from the screen of your laptop.
Unless, that is, you are Jason Pierce.
In advance of our interview, my request to talk to Jason on Zoom is met with a flat refusal. He and I are not unacquainted. I’ve interviewed him many times over the years, the first one (gulp!) sitting on plastic chairs behind the Hammersmith Clarendon in London 34 years ago. But it seems that he doesn’t want to see my fizzog now. I’m offered phone contact only.
“Jason says he doesn’t even Zoom with his own kids!” explains his affable PR, Duncan. “When he does in-depth phone interviews, he likes to pace around the room, deep in thought about his answers. He can do it a lot easier without somebody watching him on a screen.”
OK – phone interview it is, then. Let’s make sure it’s in-depth.
We are talking because Jason Pierce is curating the Spaceman Reissue Program – the re-release of Spiritualized’s first four albums by Fat Possum Records, from 1992’s meticulous, serene ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ to 2001’s epic, audacious ‘Let It Come Down’. And they’re getting some serious TLC.
Issued sequentially throughout this year, each album comes on 180g double vinyl, mastered from a half-speed original lacquer, with a gatefold sleeve and updated artwork (they’re also available on CD, if you really have to). It’s a remarkable undertaking for an avowed non-nostalgist like Jason.
So why did he decide to do it?
“I suppose one reason is that it was a project we could actually do in lockdown,” says Jason, not on Zoom, in his perennial diffident mumble. “But there is a lot more to it than that. I want to rescue these albums. To say, ‘They are beautiful records and they shouldn’t just be thrown out like unwanted stock’.
“It’s a strange thing with music. If you sign to a label and don’t make the invested money back – and Spiritualized never did… I’ve never seen a royalty for these records – you sort of lose the albums. The label isn’t interested. They chuck out cheap reissues and don’t even tell you.
“I’m not normally a fan of reissues, of remixing tracks and redoing sleeves. I tend to think that albums are what they are – of their time. But with these four, it didn’t seem wrong to redesign them and to make sure the pressings are as good as they can possibly be.
“So the plan is to make them beautiful. I want to put out all four albums and then box them together, to have them as a set of records that mean something. Because I think they do.”
The first of the Spiritualized reissues, ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’, was initially released after a difficult time for Jason Pierce. The start of the 1990s saw the demise of Spacemen 3, the heavy-riffing, drone-driven psychedelic band that he’d formed in 1982 with fellow Rugby noise freak, Pete Kember.
Jason and Pete, aka J Spaceman and Sonic Boom, were famously born on the same day – 19 November 1965 – and appeared joined at the hip on colossal, cosmic, seismic Spacemen 3 albums such as ‘Sound Of Confusion’ and ‘The Perfect Prescription’ (as well as the legendary 1986 demo collection ‘Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To’). But there was trouble in paradise.
By 1990, the pair were at loggerheads. Spacemen 3 had effectively split, but the band still had a contractual obligation to deliver one last album. Unable to bear being in the studio together, they each recorded one side of 1991’s ‘Recurring’ and promoted it via separate interviews.
Three decades on, Jason has no interest in revisiting the causes of this ancient fall out.
“I can’t even remember. It’s one of those things that I’ve thrown out and never dwelt on.”
One memory still rankles, though.
“We’d shared the songwriting and everything from day one. We never said, ‘I wrote that’ or ‘You wrote that’, and suddenly Pete wanted to go back over our entire catalogue arguing about credits. And I was like, ‘OK – I’m done’.”
When the two Spacemen went their separate ways, nobody anticipated too much from Jason. The loquacious Pete Kember had dominated Spacemen 3 interviews, frequently itemising his prodigious narcotic intake, while Jason was a taciturn, near-mute presence. Initially, more was widely expected of Pete’s new band, Spectrum.
“Yeah, I know,” says Jason. “I didn’t have the most confidence in the world. I still don’t. I’m not the kind of person who tells everyone that I’m the best there is.
“Now I was going into the studio with most of Spacemen 3, who had come with me to Spiritualized, but without a co-writer and with nothing feeling at all settled. There was a sense of freedom, but also massive insecurity. I think I was feeling a lot of pressure.”
The pressure yielded extraordinary results. ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ is an exceptional album, a somehow simultaneously minimalist yet beatific maze of riffs, pulses, loops and drones. It’s a record that seems to manifest an exquisite sadness and yearning at its very core.
It was easy to read it as Jason Pierce, freed from the looming shadow of a dominating co-creator, able to finally pursue his own maverick yet also forensic musical vision. But that was only half the story.
“It’s true that it didn’t have to fit within somebody else’s world any more, like Spacemen 3 had,” he reflects. “That felt a bit like uncharted territory. But I think what really helped ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ was me becoming aware of more sonic possibilities.
“We’d made the Spacemen albums in a little studio in Rugby. Now I was signed to a major [RCA imprint Dedicated] and I could work in state-of-the-art studios in London, with people who actually knew how to balance stereo records. That was brilliant.
“I went down to London with my 16-track tapes and came back with this record that had such a depth of sound. It went from being sort of homespun to sounding deep and glorious. The bass was lower than anything we’d ever managed before.
“I love the way that, if you get the recording right, the reed of the saxophone turns into a voice, turns into a little guitar tremolo, turns into… whatever. It has a flow and a connectivity, and that’s what I was chasing. What I’m always chasing.”
One of the standout tracks, ‘Run’, references rock’s dual Cales – JJ Cale’s ‘Call Me The Breeze’ and John Cale’s riffing on The Velvet Underground’s ‘Run Run Run’. Was this an act of joint homage?
“It was, but it took a lot from The Who as well,” replies Jason. “I have never been shy of acknowledging my influences. Musicians pretend what they do is unique, that it dropped out of the sky into their hands. It’s not. It’s all about influences and evolution.”
The reissue retains the original album’s device of dividing its 12 songs and four sides of vinyl into four different colour-coded sections – Red, Green, Blue and Black. Was there any specific reason for this?
Jason pauses for such a long time before he answers this question that I fancifully imagine him pacing around the room, agonising over his response. I really needn’t have bothered.
“Do you mean, was there some deep meaning behind the colours?”
Guitars were still to the fore on ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’, their exquisite yet brutal simplicity recalling the dictum of the old Delta bluesman, Junior Kimbrough: “I use one chord for one song. If I get a second chord, I save it for a second song.”
“I always figure that I’ve only got my one chord, so I’ve got to try and stretch it, and if you pull it far enough you can turn it into a symphony,” says Jason, brilliantly summarising Spiritualized’s ethos.
‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ was not just about guitars, though. The hypnotic riffing was crucially augmented by the addition of Jason’s girlfriend, Kate Radley, on keyboards. Many critics also noted the enhanced motorik rhythms of the album.
“It was something that just happened in the studio, rather than being planned,” he says. “But I had been listening to Kraftwerk for years. That was a time when a lot of the stuff I was into suddenly became hip. In fact, I had forgotten until recently that…”
Only Jason could “forget” this anecdote, which for most musicians would be a career-illuminating highlight.
“… I met up with Ralf and Florian in Birmingham at the time to ask them to mix the album. My idea was for it to have the clarity of Kraftwerk but played on guitars and drums, so organically rather than on machines. And they seemed interested in doing it, but…”
There is a slight sigh down the phone line.
“… I never followed it up. It’s that confidence thing again. I couldn’t bear the thought that they might say no.”
Another consequence of “that confidence thing” was that, despite its evident quality, Jason was taken aback when ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ was greeted with critical hosannas. Writing in Melody Maker, the august Simon Reynolds called it “21st century gospel”.
“I was shocked by the response the album got,” he admits. “Everybody seemed to like it. It was way outside of my expectations for it.”
It even went into the Top 30, Jason.
“Did it? I didn’t know that!”
Buoyed by the reaction, Spiritualized toured the album in America, initially supporting The Jesus And Mary Chain. This venture was a very big deal for Jason.
“Spacemen 3 never got to America, so I’d never been there before,” he remembers. “And yet everything about rock ’n’ roll, the music I love, everything I’ve attached importance to, seems to come from the US. Everything has a lot of romance to it – even the place names. It was an amazing, amazing experience to go there.
“Our live shows weren’t just about replicating the records, which is what the Spacemen 3 gigs had turned into. The music was developing live and finding new paths. The shows were different from the records. There was an enormous freedom.
“We took horn players and all of our light show to America. We had huge bits of kit. All I could think about was, ‘Is there room for one more strobe on the bus? Just one more?’.”
There’s a sardonic laugh down the phone.
“No wonder I never managed to make any money from those records!”
The second stage of the Spaceman Reissue Program is 1995’s ‘Pure Phase’ album. Out this month, it’s available both on black and very limited edition glow-in-the-dark vinyl, its gatefold sleeve refreshed by noted designer Mark Farrow, who is a long-time Spiritualized collaborator.
When ‘Pure Phase’ first came out, everybody was immediately struck by the cover and the fact that Jason had seemingly changed the band’s name to Spiritualized Electric Mainline.
“I don’t think I did…” mumbles Jason down the line.
You did! It’s on the front of the album!
“Yes, but it was meant to be part of the title of the record, rather than actually renaming the band. I was thinking that the songs were electric main lines of the musical idea. I was listening to Steve Reich and Michael Nyman and John Adams, and there’s a main line where the contents don’t change but the whole thing develops.
“If you look at the waveforms of the songs on ‘Pure Phase’, they all started small, got bigger, bigger, bigger, and then there would be a fast fade at the end. Every one of them looked like a rocket.”
Even now, more than 25 years on, the forlorn poetry of the first line of ‘Medication’, the eight-minute opener, can stop you in your tracks. Over a tremulous, suitably wasted-sounding keyboard hum, a husky Jason details a highly imperfect prescription:
“Every day I wake up / And I take my medication / And I spend the rest of the day / Waiting for it to wear off…”
It’s a high-profile example of one particular Spiritualized hallmark – extremely overt lyrical drug references. It’s something that everybody always wants to ask Jason about.
“Yes, but I don’t talk about that at all,” he says. “In any case, that line was about Rowley Ford, a friend of mine in Rugby who had a script for Dexedrine. I dedicated the ‘Medication’ single to him for that reason.”
Isn’t it understandable that people wonder how much your personal narcotic intake has shaped Spiritualized? Surely it must infest your instincts, your thoughts, your consciousness, your world view?
In response, I get a version of the answer that Jason has given me ever since I first interviewed him 34 years ago. Spiritualized’s lyrical drug references may be transparent, but he is invariably opaque on the topic.
“It’s hard to tell, isn’t it?” he hedges. “There’s no control to measure it against in a scientific way. Would Beach Boys albums have been the same if Brian Wilson wasn’t taking LSD, having a breakdown, and playing in a sandpit in the studio? Nobody knows.”
Yet ‘Pure Phase’ tracks like the honeyed, blissed-out ‘Let It Flow’, with its visceral lyrics, ‘All I wanted was a taste / Just enough to waste the day / Just enough to make me sick’, surely that sounds like opiates feel?
“Well, I like my drones to sound like opiates,” says the wily Jason. “And, obviously, my taste in music veers that way. But I don’t think it’s because of my… personal entertainment habits. I think it’s just how I like my music.”
On Spiritualized albums, the oceans of anaesthetised serenity are always riven by ferocious rock ’n’ roll storms. ‘Electric Phase’ from ‘Pure Phase’ is a haemorrhaging of raw, feral Stooges thrash.
“Yes, it’s very ‘LA Blues’, isn’t it?” agrees Jason, referencing the uber-anarchic track on The Stooges’ ‘Fun House’ album.
The sleeve notes of ‘Pure Phase’ advise listeners to “play loud ’n’ drive fast”. Purely on a road safety level, speeding while listening to ‘Electric Phase’ sounds like a terrible idea.
“I don’t know,” he avers. “I remember listening to that driving to Cornwall on my own in heavy rain one night. It just sounded really beautiful.”
Jason says he can find the process of mixing and the multiplicity of options it creates intimidating (“You think the album is the best it can be, and then a thousand other options open up”). On ‘Pure Phase’, however, he was visited by a happy accident.
“We did two mixes of the album, but I wasn’t sure which I liked better. Neither of them sounded quite right, so I said, ‘Let’s have them both, let’s put them together’.
“It was a phenomenal amount of work because we didn’t have digital desks. We spent literally months cutting tape into eight-bar sections. But the end result was astonishing. I thought it sounded sublime and I still do. Of all these reissues, ‘Pure Phase’ is my favourite.”
‘Pure Phase’ may be Jason’s favourite early Spiritualized album, but he is ruefully aware that if a popular vote were to be held among less purist music fans, there would be only one victor.
Emerging in 1997, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ (which is due to be reissued in August) towered over the scratchy offerings of the arse-end of Britpop like a skyscraper in a desert. It was a gargantuan record, huge in both its conception and its execution. A monumental achievement.
To Spiritualized’s musical tropes of drones, repetition and thrash were added trace elements of blues, gospel and free jazz. The “minimal is maximal” ethos was no more. Yet the most stunning fresh element was raw, aching, yearning human emotion.
Which emotion? It sounded like all of them. Love. Fear. Bliss. Angst. And seemingly infinite reservoirs of sorrow.
“Yes, but there is a glory, as well,” counters Jason. “A glory and a joy. A great gospel swirl. It’s not a despairing record. It’s the same as when you listen to the blues. It doesn’t depress you – it lifts you up.”
While never talking it down, there is a sense that he can be a tad peeved at the regularity with which ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ is foregrounded over the rest of Spiritualized’s oeuvre. He was also not enamoured with the way it was received.
Jason had recently split from Kate Radley, who was now with Richard Ashcroft, and the music press fell on this indie soap opera with relish. Radley played on the record, which Jason, to his horror, had to endure being widely portrayed as his heartbreak album. His ‘Here, My Dear’.
“It was ridiculous,” he says, wryly. “The facts were so different. A lot of it was written way ahead of Kate and me splitting up, but the journalists just ignored me when I said that. They had their angle and nothing was going to change it.
“I wrote ‘Broken Heart’ two years before we split. That was my exercise in trying to write a song like Patsy Cline. She wrote about sad emotions, but it was never depressing because she did it so sublimely.”
In a way, though, wasn’t that (mis)interpretation a compliment? The heartbreak sounded so raw, so authentic, that everyone assumed it was grounded in reality. You captured the pain so perfectly that people thought you were going through it.
“But that’s the point of music, isn’t it? I don’t think Patsy Cline was a miserabilist! Surely the idea is to capture that essence in music?”
Yes. It is.
“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Nobody listens to that album now with the specifics of my personal life in their mind. They listen to it in the way that it relates to their own lives.”
Nor is ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ one long, anguished mope. The trademark Spiritualized interludes of thrash rock bedlam feature large – not least on the 17-minute discordant epic ‘Cop Shoot Cop…’, with brittle, nerves-end piano from Dr John.
“I was overjoyed when Dr John said he’d do it – not for the money, but because he loved the music,” says Jason. “He saw something in it. Maybe something that even I didn’t see.”
Why did that mean so much to you?
“It was incredible that what I was doing connected with him. I’m from a small town in the middle of England, a place largely owned by a public school, with none of the romance of American cities like Wichita or St Louis, yet I was making inroads into this music, into this world that I adore.
“I met Dr John in America and I was so starstruck. They say, ‘Don’t meet your heroes, they’ll only disappoint you’, but it should be, ‘Don’t meet your heroes, you’ll only disappoint yourself – by being struck dumb’. I just sat grinning and soaking up his stories.”
‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ famously pipped Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ and The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ in the NME album of the year poll for 1997, but it wasn’t just a cult hit. It reached Number Four in the UK charts too, going gold in the process.
I ask Jason if this excited him, rather suspecting what the answer would be.
“It passed me by,” he says, his shrug somehow audible down the phone line. “That’s meaningless, except in a dumb sense. It’s not something that would ever excite me.
“I remember more that it got to Number One in Ireland while we were on tour there. I was in the street outside a venue before a show with about 20 kids and they were thrilled, absolutely thrilled, that this band they loved had kicked everything else out of their chart. And that really moved me.”
Overcoming his initial reluctance, Jason even deigned to take ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ live again years later, playing the album in full. How was that experience?
“It was great,” he admits, simply. “We did it at the Barbican and it was like someone had taken the roof off the building. What’s that old saying – ‘God on feedback’? The music is all these small parts, and when they’re put together in a room, it becomes this magnificent thing…”
Those later live revisits of ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ may have been magnificent, but the original tour of the album was ill-starred. Tensions on the road led to Jason dismissing long-term Spiritualized members Sean Cook, Damon Reece and Michael Mooney when the dates ended.
“It got really miserable,” he recalls. “I’d walk onto the tour bus and they’d all get up and walk off. I’d just think, ‘What kind of band is this?’. But it meant I had to go into the next album auditioning musicians.”
This was stressful, as 2001’s ‘Let It Come Down’, the final album in the current Spaceman Reissue Program (due out in October), was vastly ambitious. It was far more orchestral than any previous Spiritualized project – and Jason had taken it upon himself to score it entirely from scratch.
“That was hard because I don’t write music,” he says, ever a master of understatement. “I spent a year at [former Spiritualized co-producer/mixer and Spring Heel Jack founder] John Coxon’s studio in east London, writing parts for horns and strings and flutes. I’d just hum the parts into a Dictaphone.”
Despite his lack of classical and compositional training, Jason ended up with more than 100 musicians on the album. Did you intend to be so grandiose?
“No! I just didn’t know what I was doing! Somebody would ask me, ‘How many trombones do you need?’, and I’d say, ‘I dunno… 10?’. It was all down to not having a clue, really.
“In the studio, I felt like an imposter. If an orchestra member asked me which bar they were meant to join in on, I was lost. I was coming to it in the abstract – like coming to a Mondrian with just the squares – but they could actually play.
“Part of me liked the fact that what I was doing was not quite right, though. It wasn’t formulaic or traditional. And that record is full of ideas. It really is. Where it works, at its high points, I think it’s astonishing.”
‘Let It Come Down’ burst out of the traps with ‘On Fire’ and its suitably portentous opening line, “This is how high we can fly / Before the sun melts the wax in our wings”. It was a Very Big Record indeed, but one stellar track was way more intimate.
‘The Straight And The Narrow’ finds a resigned-sounding Jason intoning, “The trouble with the straight and the narrow / Is it’s so thin, I keep sliding off to the side”, over a lopsided country twang. You can imagine Willie Nelson husking through the tune. It’s also very funny.
I tell Jason that I think Spiritualized’s sense of humour often gets missed.
“Yes, it does. I really think it passes people by. They always seem to find something more serious, but less important to focus on…”
Equally funny, to anybody who knows Jason at all, is the opening line of ‘I Didn’t Mean To Hurt You’ – “I love you like I love the sunrise in the morning”.
How do you know?! When did you last bounce out of bed at dawn? You keep very rock star hours, don’t you?
“Yeah, I get up at midday and I can hardly string a sentence together until three o’clock!” he says. “That lyric was, er, poetic licence.”
Jason brought it all back home by closing ‘Let It Come Down’ with a new version of ‘Lord Can You Hear Me?’ from Spacemen 3’s 1989 ‘Playing With Fire’ album, this time as a duet with Low’s Mimi Parker.
Why did you do that?
“Because I heard Mimi sing the song when Low were on an album of Spacemen 3 covers [1998’s ‘A Tribute To Spacemen 3’ compilation] and her voice was astonishing. It was so pure, it was like a sound wave. I just thought, ‘I want that voice on my records’.”
When you went back to the track, did it seem to be primitive? Another dry Jason Spaceman chuckle down the line.
“It’s no more or less primitive than anything else I do. It’s got three chords – and that makes it quite complex and expansive in my world!
“It probably sounds too self-deprecating when I say I’ve been writing the same song for 30 years, but that’s how it is. If the ideas start to get too complex, it seems unnecessary. It’s not a question of, ‘Do you remember how simple it used to be?’, because it’s still that simple.”
Yeah. Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the best. Jason Pierce says the Spaceman Reissue Program may be extended in the future to cover the later Spiritualized albums. For now, as we edge closer to the Covid-19 lockdown finally being lifted, he has more immediate business in mind.
“I’ve missed playing live so much,” he says. “I was joking the other day that when bands can tour again, it’s going to be like the Great American Land Rush. And Spiritualized are going to be there, with all the others, fighting to the death to get two square feet of stage.”
’Lazer Guided Melodies’, ‘Pure Phase’, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ and ‘Let It Come Down’ are out now on Fat Possum