Never let it be said that Jason “J. Spaceman” Pierce isn’t a funny guy. The name of the latest Spiritualized album, Songs in A&E, proves that he has a sense of humour, albeit a dark one. The letters in the title don’t indicate the key signatures of the disc’s tracks. Rather, they refer to Accidents & Emergencies, the ward at the Royal London Hospital where Pierce spent a few weeks in 2005 recovering from a bout of pneumonia that almost killed him. With that in mind, it’s hard not to hear a reflection of the singer’s near-death experience in certain of the album’s songs, such as “Death Take Your Fiddle”, which contains the lines “So death take your fiddle/Play a song and I will sing along” and “Think I’d like to take myself to heaven”. “Sitting on Fire” seems even more direct: “It’s so hard to fight when you’re losing/I got a little tear in my soul/In my own time I am dying/Can’t even hold what I own.”
The fact is, however, that Pierce penned all of the lyrics for Songs in A&E before his hospital stay, and he says they are not autobiographical. Reached by telephone at a Toronto tour stop, the Spiritualized front man admits that it’s tempting to read the record as a foreshadowing of his own brush with mortality. “All the songs were really harrowing to listen to after the event, because it seemed like they prophesized the event,” he says. “But I don’t believe in such things. You can make anything fit with hindsight. You can say, ”˜You know, I’m really glad I put my left shoe on first instead of my right this morning, because it meant I wasn’t hit by the train later in the day.’ You can make anything work.”
The songs, Pierce has said, are actually about the travails of a fictitious family—apparently a royally fucked-up one. Spaceman’s plan was to take a different approach to writing a record by stepping away from the strictly personal. Interesting, then, that Songs in A&E makes a more immediate connection with the listener than any previous entry in the Spiritualized canon. Chalk it up to how the tunes came to be: Pierce sat down with an acoustic guitar (a 1929 Gibson he found in Cincinnati, to be precise) and started playing. While that hardly sounds revolutionary, it’s a new way of working for the former Spacemen 3 member, who usually composes by singing his musical ideas into a tape recorder. The result is far from an “unplugged” collection—witness the elegant chamber strings that decorate “Sitting on Fire” and the feedback that slices through “Yeah Yeah”—but these songs hew closer to rock standards than Pierce’s usual productions.
In + out
Jason Pierce sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.
On his own musical deficiencies: “I’m not particularly talented. So much music is people showing their talent—like, ”˜Hey, look at my fingers move fast on this one,’ and ”˜Hey, I can do this with my voice.’ I think great music isn’t about talent, it’s about just this feeling, this kind of primal thing that you can tap into. I never wanted to be limited by my lack of ability to write.”
On whether he contemplated his own death while laid up: “If you’re inside of it, you don’t think like that. You can only picture loss if it’s someone else’s loss. It’s really hard to picture your own loss. On the unit I was on, everyone else died, and I kind of figured that made my chances a little bit better. Somebody had to get out of that room alive. Otherwise, nobody’s going to use that hospital again.”
On how getting sick helped him procrastinate: “My illness is a good excuse for my tardiness. All the records have been hard to finish. They’ve all been difficult. This one just comes with a good excuse.”
“I figured it’s not so bad for me to start with that, as long as I didn’t stay there,” he says. “As long as I didn’t make a traditional-sounding album, it didn’t seem like such a bad place to start. And as the album started to get finished, the more abstract stuff kind of just didn’t make any sense to it. When we really put it together at the end of making it, and started to work on running orders and stuff, a lot of the stranger stuff just didn’t make any sense to it.”
The record’s cohesive sound is a remarkable show of restraint from an artist who has indulged his taste for free-form jazz, full-blown gospel, and squalling white noise on various Spiritualized recordings since launching the band in 1990. Spaceman has been the only constant member over the years, with more than a dozen players passing through the ranks, but he insists that Spiritualized is far from a solo effort. Each change in personnel, Pierce insists, has made the project stronger, and he’s only too happy to weed out strivers who are in it for the wrong reasons.
“So many bands are just industry,” he says. “And they’re going after sales and marketing and the whole part of music that rewards that. It’s all about the commerce of music. And Spiritualized has always been about the music bit. It’s just about that, and that’s the only bit I find important. So I’m not about to change that. I’m not going after the money. I think what’s great about this band is they know it. I’ve said it enough times for it to sink in that that’s where it’s at. What happened with earlier incarnations is people thought ”˜Hey, we can cash this in now. We’ve got a chance. We can cash it in and make some money.’ But what do you want to cash it in for? You can only cash something in once, you know. Then it’s all over.”
Spiritualized is clearly far from over. It’ll keep going as long as Pierce’s health holds up. Speaking of which, don’t expect the follow-up to Songs in A&E to be a firsthand recounting of life at the Royal London Hospital. Pierce insists he’s moved on and has no intention of dwelling on his bedridden weeks any longer than he has to.
“The further you get away from an experience like that, the more you forget the details of it,” he says. “Music’s weird. I think it’s really hard to tap into an experience like that and put it into another form. The further you move away from those moments, the less important they become in your life. There’s a great line in the hospital where the nurses say, ”˜You can tell when people are getting well, because they start moaning again.’ I love the idea of that—that they’re with these people all the time, and they’re silent. When they’re really fuckin’ ill and dying, they’re really silent. And when they start getting well, they just start moaning about how their socks don’t fit right and their tea’s too cold or whatever. And I think that’s a good analogy for life.” -
As part of the Straight Series, Spiritualized plays the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday (September 13).