Spiritualized beat the reaper

by David Hickey

Jason Pierce almost died in July 2005. Hooked up to a ventilator and suffering from double pneumonia, Pierce — aka J Spaceman — shrank to 45 kg and spent two weeks in intensive care in a London hospital. Things looked so bad that his girlfriend was offered grief counseling.

That the 42-year-old came close to meeting his maker might not have been a surprise to followers of Pierce’s group Spiritualized, familiar with lyrics such as “The only time I’m drink and drugs free is when I get my drink and drugs for free.” What is surprising is that instead of seeking solace in the one thing he has always held most dear, he almost turned his back on it completely.

“I couldn’t even make a connection with the thing I like most, which is music,” says a revitalized Pierce over the phone from his London home, looking back on that time three summers ago. “I couldn’t finish my record. I had no sense of what I was doing or why I was doing it.”

The record Pierce is talking about is “Songs in A&E,” released earlier this month. Spiritualized’s sixth album and their best since 1997’s career-high “Ladies and Gentleman We are Floating in Space,” “Songs in A&E” adds spooked countryish laments to Spiritualized’s garage ‘n’ gospel base.

Pierce’s illness came when most of the songs for what would become “Songs in A&E” were already written. Once he’d recovered and it came to completing the album, Pierce says he found it hard to reattach himself to the music.

Salvation came from an unlikely source in U.S. art-house filmmaker Harmony Korine. The two met at a Daniel Johnston concert in London two years ago, at which Korine asked Pierce to supply songs for his movie “Mister Lonely,” a warped look at the life of a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (played by Samantha Morton). Identifying with the “misfitedness” of the characters in the movie and eyeing a kindred spirit in Korine, Pierce signed up to the project. And in the process he found the impetus to finish his own album.

“He’s a fellow f*cked-up child,” says Pierce of Korine. “He came for me at a time when I was at my lowest. He didn’t come at me with, ‘Here’s the scene; this is the kind of music I want.’ He just wanted my music. He filled me with a huge amount of confidence. Somebody had confidence in me.”

Next month will see Spiritualized — a five-piece band plus two gospel singers — play in Tokyo and Osaka at the Summer Sonic festival. With a re-formed Jesus and Mary Chain also playing at the festival, and a back-together-again My Bloody Valentine on the bill at this weekend’s Fuji Rock, it’s a golden summer for fans of feedback- drenched drone and schizoid freakout. But Pierce, who has reportedly turned down offers to re-form Spacemen 3, the mind-bending pre-Spiritualized band he started as a teenager, won’t align himself with any psych revival.

“People always seem to be nostalgic: ‘The mid-’80s, what a great time for music,’ ” Pierce says. “But every time is a great time for music.

“It’s hard to make a comment about Jesus and Mary Chain — I love their second album (“Darklands”) — and My Bloody Valentine because it’s not contemporary. I wish ’em luck. It’s very, very strange to have bands around when we started and putting themselves together again and then playing what they were doing when they started. It’s like being lost in space. The motivation is always financial; somebody’s always made an offer you can’t refuse. And that never seems to be anybody’s dream before. Nobody starts a band to become rich.”

One re-formation gets the Pierce nod, however — that of Detroit’s MC5. The counterculture punks (manifesto: “Dope, guns and f*cking in the streets”) played at the Massive Attack-curated Meltdown Festival in London last month. Pierce got to share a stage with his heroes when MC5 and their opening band for the night, Primal Scream, played a set together.

“I wound up on stage with them doing ‘Black to Comm’ and I couldn’t believe where I was,” gushes Pierce. “To be on stage with those guys playing that song was a weird trip because that’s where I kind of started. ‘Black to Comm’ was the basic backing for ‘Revolution’ (a No. 1 on the U.K. indie chart for Spacemen 3 in 1989).”

Pierce invests almost as much attention into the artwork of his albums as the music itself. The special edition of “Ladies and Gentleman . . . ” featured the CD wrapped in a push-out pillbox; the packaging to “Songs in A&E” is similarly lavish and includes a 32-page booklet of images of intensive-care paraphernalia and photos taken by Anton Corbijn.

Despite this being the download age, Pierce is confident there’s a future for great music packaging.

“The download age to me means nothing,” says Pierce, almost spitting the word out. “You can take bits and pieces of these things, but I make albums. I make these things that are like time capsules, and if you make them right they travel and other people will get them and hold them and touch them and hear them. If people wanna take little bits of that, that’s fine, but it’s come from a bigger piece.”

Asked if he thinks music fans are still willing to fork out for a CD, Pierce responds, “I don’t care.” He adds: “It’s a beautiful thing, music. I believe if you put it in a beautiful package it retains value. I don’t mean monetary value. With our records, we tend not to put the barcode on them; it’s like the dumbest thing in the world. You might as well print the price on it.”

Having collaborated with the likes of punk poetess Patti Smith, New York avant-jazz pianist Matthew Shipp and English drum ‘n’ bass-turned-improv duo Spring Heel Jack, does Pierce ever feel like throwing his lot in with this pop lark?

“I’d love to. (The pop and experimental sides) kind of fight each other. I didn’t really want ‘Soul on Fire’ on the album — it’s like a pop thing — but the reason I got into that state was because I’d done a tour with Matthew Shipp and William Parker and Han Bennink and all these amazing freeform improvisational musicians, and at the end of it I wrote ‘Soul on Fire’ and I was like, ‘F*ck, what happened?’ I’m in both worlds, and sometimes they collide beautifully, sometimes they seem like polar opposites.

“The last time I played on stage with Patti Smith, we hit one chord for 10 minutes. But it became the single most important thing in our lives.”

Summer Sonic takes place simultaneously Aug. 9-10 at Chiba Marine Stadium and Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture, and Maishima in Osaka. For details and ticket prices, visit