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Spiritualized Went To Space And Made Their American Death Trip Classic

We Talk To Jason Pierce About His Band’s 1997 Breakthrough For Its New VMP Reissue

On August 27, 2020

Britpop might be perceived as peaking during the years 1994-1995, but 1997 stands out as particularly auspicious for British bands releasing their legacy-making third albums. (No offense to Blur, who released their masterful and messy self-titled fifth album that same year.) The Verve released the sublime Urban Hymns while Oasis dropped the fun if overblown Be Here Now. But no date stands out like June 16, 1997. On that day, Radiohead released OK Computer into the world, while Spiritualized released Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. They both sounded like classics upon arrival, and the intervening decades have only borne that sonic truth out, though they took different routes to get there.

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OK Computer looked out on our fraught, harrowing, and isolating technological future. But for Ladies and Gentlemen, Spiritualized frontman and lone constant Jason Pierce turned inward to explore the fraught, harrowing, and isolating interiority of his own present. And part of the genius of his songs are how the album soundtracks, amplifies, and provides succor to his own audience. And whether that present is 1997 or 2020, those by-turns hopeless-yet-hopeful sensations of Ladies and Gentlemen can still feel all too real for its creator.

“It’s a nightmare, isn’t it?” Pierce says by phone from his home in London, on lockdown during the pandemic just like everyone else. “I’m pretty isolated anyway, to be honest. A lot of musicians have been in training for this.” It’s a situation made more acute by Pierce’s own frightening near brush with death from double pneumonia back in 2005. Even before his illness and the appearance of COVID-19, Pierce admits he was fascinated by the 1918 flu that killed millions, admitting that he even read all the World Health Organization writing on that pandemic. So when news of the coronavirus began to spread, Pierce “felt a little bit like one of the guys with the sandwich board saying, ‘The End is Nigh,’” he says, with a dry chuckle. “It’s hard to convince people that it’s serious when it’s other peoples’ lives.” He admits he shivers at the sight of young men standing on the streets of London drinking plastic pints of lager without a mask in sight. Quite the statement from a man who once deadpanned on “Home of the Brave”: “Sometimes I have my breakfast right off a mirror / and sometimes I’ll have it right out of a bottle.”

The eloquent title of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space comes from Jostein Gaarder’s 1991 fantastical philosophical novel Sophie's World, but the gnarly hedonism of rock ’n’ roll and its attendant lifestyle is never far from the surface. Not surprising for Pierce, whose first band Spacemen 3 were downright Burroughs-ian when it came to talking openly about their drug intake. Or as one album summarized this philosophy: Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To. After Spacemen 3 disbanded, Pierce further refined that psychedelic sound with Spiritualized. New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones noted: “Ladies and Gentlemen is some sort of peak in the art of playing simple songs as epically as possible, an attempt to unite music, drugs, and a sense of the spiritual.”

“It’s as autobiographical as you like. It’s important to tell the truth, but it’s poetry as well. It’s a given in music that the listener doesn’t necessarily relate to the specifics of the story, they relate it to their own lives, their own experiences.”
Jason Pierce

So while Thom Yorke and band drew from the heady, complex songforms of British progressive rock in sculpting their masterpiece, Pierce’s simple epic songs looked over the pond instead, to where despair, ecstasy, neglect, and the Holy Spirit all tussle. Meditating on the pain of heartbreak (his longtime girlfriend, Kate Radley, dumped him shortly before the recording sessions, marrying the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft instead) and the pleasure of drug use, Pierce blurs the lines between love, loneliness, happiness, and death on a scale he had never attained previously. “It’s as autobiographical as you like,” he says. “It’s important to tell the truth, but it’s poetry as well. It’s a given in music that the listener doesn’t necessarily relate to the specifics of the story, they relate it to their own lives, their own experiences.” So the highs and lows on Ladies and Gentlemen are dizzying: a little smile fills the sky, a vodka bottle holds the ocean in it, a vein runs as deep as the Grand Canyon. A pill can contain the blackness of space. So as if to capture that expansiveness, Pierce went to America.

“I loved America,” Pierce says unabashedly. “It’s been hard watching America from here. It feels like it’s been abandoned by people who should know better.” Listening to Spacemen 3 is to hear the root of Pierce’s lifelong obsession with American music, equally obsessed with the Stooges, Sun Ra, the MC5, the 13th Floor Elevators, John Lee Hooker, the Staple Singers, and La Monte Young. Spiritualized further synthesized these influences, drilling down into the bedrock of American popular music and absorbing its many mutations until they arrived at the source, African-American gospel.

Much like the Stones did in 1969, or Primal Scream would do in 1991 (or even Blur, who penned their own homage to American alternative-rock that same year), Ladies and Gentlemen is a love letter to our mucky, mysterious, wondrous land. “I was able to explore all these things that I had never been able to before,” Pierce says. Spiritualized’s second album, Pure Phase, was painstakingly assembled in London, with Pierce cutting the tape every eight bars so that the phasing effects of the album would remain intact. But with Spiritualized’s third album, he was finally able to create the American album he had always imagined, recording in New York, Los Angeles, and Memphis to realize it. (A pity that an interpolation of Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling Love” on the title track didn’t clear the lawyers until the 2009 reissue, as it would have added another intriguing flavor to the stew. It’s here on the VMP Reissue.)

At the time, the album’s sleek, clinical Farrow Design packaging — presenting the music as a prescription “for aural administration only” — was a bit cheeky and totally genius. It was also eerily prescient. The year before, Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin to the American market. “A legitimate painkiller with no addiction problems?” Pierce asks with a laugh. “Yeah, shocking, innit? Who would’ve thought?” Soon after, a prescription opioid and heroin epidemic would ensnare a generation of Americans. Which wasn’t exactly Pierce’s intent, only “the idea of music that felt like that. Music takes you outside of yourself.” From the vantage of a few decades though, the album art eerily amplifies that theme of loneliness and seeking solace in numbness, one that continues to engulf this country.

Ladies and Gentlemen was more expansive, full of America in a way that I had never been able to do before or since,” Pierce explains about the album, summarized in the album’s finale. “Part of ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ was this continental trip that starts in New York and ends in L.A. It felt infused with that and it still feels like that when I go back to listen to it. It starts in Chinatown — somewhere deep in Manhattan — and then ends out in Joshua Tree.” The saddest, sweetest ballads drew from a broad range of American artists. “As much as I listened to the Staple Singers, maybe the choir thing came from Dennis Wilson,” Pierce says of the star-crossed Beach Boy that inspired “Cool Waves.” “I love that Dennis Wilson record and the choirs on that album felt beyond human.” For the tearjerker “Broken Heart,” Pierce says “it was very much a song written in homage to Patsy Cline.”

And Pierce credits an unlikely source for the album’s longevity and success, his major label. “That album succeeded on a commercial level because of the label,” he says of Arista, who released the album in the United States and promoted it for over a year and a half. “The whole industry of making records is very smash and grab: you run out of time, you run out of money, that’s it. But if you allow yourself the time to get things resolved, you can get them as good as you possibly can.” The label seemingly said yes to every suggestion, like when Pierce imagined working with Jim Dickinson and Dr. John. “You can only ask and if they say yes, you’re on a plane,” he says of how he got the two figureheads of swampy ’60s American psychedelia to go on this trip with him.

For those more familiar with his sons in North Mississippi Allstars, James Luther Dickinson was a legendary figure in American roots music. As a member of the session band the Dixie Flyers, Dickinson added spit and grease to the music of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. He became a close collaborator with the likes of Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan in his later years, but he was just as iconic as a producer, capturing the exquisite sound of disintegration on Big Star’s 3rd and the ramshackle thump of Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, not to mention the Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me.

“There’s a fine line between Link Wray and the Shadows, or Cliff Richard and the Beatles, but those lines are really fuckin’ important if you want to make rock ’n’ roll albums,” Pierce recalls of his time with the man. “And Jim had some of that ammunition, some of the sense of where to go to get that.” So while Dickinson wound up without a credit on the final album, Pierce insists the album wouldn’t sound the same without his presence: “I don’t think there’s a ton of those sessions in the finished album, but they’re all over it, if that makes sense. He was somebody who had already got the handle on the mystery.”

It all leads to the album’s massive finale, “Cop Shoot Cop,” which pays homage to the scuzzy New York industrial rock band with the title and quotes John Prine’s “Sam Stone” on its way to gospel-noise godhead. “Jim said rock ’n’ roll is brown and fuzzy and ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ wasn’t finished until it became that,” Pierce says. Hence the presence of Dr. John on the piano bench, the result of the whim of asking and his label making it happen. “I couldn’t quite believe Dr. John said ‘Yes’ and that he was a huge fan of what we were doing with that track,” he says. Dr. John may best be remembered now as being the ambassador of New Orleans (and uh… the voice of Popeye’s), but in his earliest incarnation, he was the swampland shaman conjuring voodoo vibes on haunted albums like Gris-Gris. Having his piano centered in the eye of the noise hurricane of “Cop Shoot Cop” gave it a gravity and spiritual stability it needed. “Just the stories that Dr. John could impart, I couldn't quite believe I was there, even at my own session!” Pierce says now. “I actually came across some photographs of that session recently and I couldn’t stop grinning, my face hurting from smiling so big.”

Happy as that moment is, Pierce isn’t one to meditate for long on the past, even for a critical and commercial smash like Ladies and Gentlemen. “It feels a little bit like it’s something from then,” he confesses, but he’s quick to add that he doesn’t often look back. “It doesn’t feel like a pinnacle, or some kind of place where it was right then or we have to go back to that. It was just part of the journey that’s still moving… quite fast.” Pierce’s decades-long trip — melancholic and rapturous, serene and wasted — is perfectly encapsulated in Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, a 70-minute dose that takes you to the loneliest, darkest, greatest parts of Pierce’s mind, as well as America’s, and back.

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Andy Beta

Andy Beta is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, NPR, Texas Monthly, Bandcamp and Washington Post.

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