With Spiritualized about to make a big appearance in New York to perform their 1997 masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in its entirety, with a full orchestra and choir, I thought it would be high time to share an interview I conducted with the mastermind behind Spiz, Jason Pierce, a.k.a. J. Spaceman. The– what should be– historic concert is scheduled for Friday, July 30, and thanks to “Spin Magazine”, you can watch it live on-line via Facebook. Accept their RSVP to make sure you do not miss it.

Now, on to my story, which first appeared in edited form in “Goldmine Magazine” in October of 1997*, with a then up-to-date and comprehensive US and UK discography of both the band’s CD and vinyl releases. Those were the days of print pages to spare! Though it was painstaking work to gather those catalog numbers and formats organized in chronological order, I shan’t share those here, unless several fans request it, as it is quite dated information and poses a pain to re-format for the web.

Without further, ado, here is an extended version of the profile I wrote back in the day, revised by yours truly, the author himself. It’s long, so I’m breaking it up into a 2-part series of posts, as I broke up my archival Tony Levin interview, also first published by “Goldmine”…

As the main mind behind the elaborate and haunting music of Spiritualized, Jason Pierce has often had to dodge tags of the tortured artiste and shoot down misconceptions as a perfectionist.  “I like doing it,” Pierce bluntly states from the New York offices of his US label, Arista.  The music of melancholic strings, sighing vocals, shimmering guitars, weightless drums and ambient synthesizers, coupled with lyrics of desire, transcendence, despair and rapture is all in good fun for Pierce, who wants to push music’s boundaries over the edge and find beauty beyond chaos.

The music that the Spiritualized name has come to define, through the 7-year course of four LPs and a multitude of EPs, can sometimes be wonderfully harmonic and other times jarringly dissonant, but, to Pierce, it all reaches its purpose, otherwise he would not bother having it realized.  Pierce’s explorations of the harmonic spectrum have often left fans in tears at performances and critics blabbering superlatives.  Pierce just smiles with interested content that his little trick worked.  “I have a lot of fun doing it,” Pierce affirms.  “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.  People say I took two years out of my life making this record, but that’s not so.  It’s two years in my life.”

The new album, entitled Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, indeed took two years to follow-up the last record, Pure Phase, which, discounting the live, mail-order-only Fucked Up Inside, itself took three years to see the light of day after Spiritualized’s debut, Lazer Guided Melodies.  Pierce composes all of Spiritualized’s music under the moniker J. Spaceman.  His compatriots on the current aural journey that is Ladies and Gentlemen, include a core group of four, which consists of Pierce on vocals, guitars and keyboards, Sean Cook on bass and harmonica, and Damon Reece on drums and percussion.  The fourth regular member of the band, Kate Radley, Pierce’s girlfriend up until the album’s release and organist/back-up vocalist of Spiritualized since 1992, “temporarily” left after the dissolution of her relationship with Pierce.  She has since married Richard Ashcroft of the Verve, but has yet to return to Spiritualized, though Pierce says she is welcome to return when ready.

Adding a special flavor to the mix are a variety of guest artists.  The Russian avant-garde  string quartet lead by Alexander Balanescu returns after making an appearance on Pure Phase.  New Orleans pianist Dr. John adds vocals and lends his keyboard wizardry to several tracks. Not to mention, the London Community Gospel Choir, which fill up the record with a soulful sound. Then there are a variety of horn players adding another dimension to the songs.

Considering this eclectic mix of instrumentation and players, it is no wonder Pierce does not believe he fits the perfectionist label.  “I don’t think I am a perfectionist, and, if I am, it’s definitely not in the recording stage,” he explains, pointing out that the aforementioned mix of elements could never easily be directed to reach a preconceived musical ideal.  “Most of the album is first take stuff.  It’s not labored over.  It’s no like, ‘Hey, that would be better if we changed the fuzzy sound a little.’  A lot of the drums are recorded before we even get the mics set-up to record them well.  The immediate take tends to be the best take, no matter how many times we try and do it better or cleaner or whatever.  We never get there again.  Once we’ve recorded something special on those tapes, then you have to do it justice.”

It is once he has everything on tape when Pierce admits to having some sort of quality that might be understood as perfectionism.  “You can’t mix them in any other way than the right way,” he continues, “and I guess that’s what takes time– trying to retain the original feeling that went into it, which, obviously, gets harder to do the further you get away from that, in time, so, two years later, trying to remember what was exciting about this stuff gets kind of difficult to do, but it’s important to get that back into it, otherwise you end up with a record that sounds like it was recorded two years ago and mixed two years later.  I don’t think this one does.  I don’t think any of our records do.”

Though his mixing can be very exacting**, Pierce explains that his desire to make his music sound transcendent does not fit into the popular definition of perfectionism.  It’s more of an exploration of some hidden truth within the music that even he does not understand.  “I’m very ambitious, musically,” he says.  “I think, if you aim really high, even if you don’t get to the height you aim for, you still get way, way higher than you thought you were able.”  It’s the mystery of the beauty that makes him seek, not what he thinks would be the “perfect” song.

As for the opening title track of the album, Pierce does not care to explain why a subtly placed beep among an electronically muffled violin that melts into the sound of a harmonica can chime along with the quavering sound of a bombastic guitar chord to move someone to empathize with the protagonist’s words of love and devotion, which are presented in four different lines of lyrics, sung by four differently modified voices, layered atop each other and delivered simultaneously.  But, when listening to the title track of Ladies and Gentlemen one realizes the whole thing works.  Even to Pierce, the creator of the above mentioned song, the mixture of elements is a mystery.  “They just work, don’t they?  It’s just integral, isn’t it?  But I don’t think music is anymore important than the lyrics or the other way around.  I don’t really know how that works,” he says.  “It just does.  I guess it has to do with the sort of intangible thing about recording, or writing of a song.”

Sometimes Pierce’s explorations lead him down subconscious familiar roads. The strings on “Broken Heart” seem to recall a relatively obscure track by Brain Eno, “Three variations on the Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel,” which Eno tagged to the end of his 1975 album Discreet Music, an early album of ambient music. Pierce admits that someone else pointed that out to him, though he had not heard it, but had grown interested in obtaining a copy of the album. Though, Pierce admits he goes out of his way to keep his music sounding original.  “If we start to get stuff within our recording that starts to sound like other people’s music, we abandon it,” he says.  “I’m not interested in just saying stuff that’s been said before.  I’m more into the idea of music being evolutionary.  I’m not into music that dilutes the original ideas, which a lot of music, and especially a lot of music in England, tends to be about.  They’re using someone else’s blueprint, whether it’s Nirvana or the Beatles or David Bowie, and then just diluting the source.  I’d rather go back to the source.”

Despite his efforts, Pierce still finds it difficult to completely extinguish his influences from the Spiritualized sound.  “We’ve arrived at places that other people have arrived at, but as a kind of convergence, rather than robbery.  I’ve found, since ‘Electric Mainline,’ that Don Cherry has got a track called ‘Brown Rice,’ and there’s a track on one of the Cluster albums (the album with the kind of yellow rainbow with the stars around it) that sounds just like ‘Electric Mainline,’ but these weren’t starting points for us.  They were just something we arrived at, and, I guess, with everybody using the same musical scales, you’re always going to end up hitting some of the same notes, in the same order.”

Like a lot of the more daring musicians that came before him, like Eno, Pierce uses unusual sources of inspiration that lead him to his finalized songs.  This is how he explains the conception of “200 Bars,” the finale of Lazer Guided Melodies:  “I wanted to get that kind of feeling of when you’re given anesthetics in a hospital, and they do the count down, and, by the time they get to 10 you’re meant to be completely out of it, and I kind of like the idea of making that kind of stuff, within ‘200 Bars,’ anyway, that you could get to 200 and still be with it.”

This brings up the question of the possible role drugs play in Pierce’s music.  Ever since his early days in the seminal eighties space-rock group Spacemen 3, drugs have been a reference point for Pierce.  One sonic concept for Spacemen 3 came from the idea to create the sound one might hear before passing out, similar to “200 Bars.”  Then there are titles like Taking Drugs (To Make Music To Take Drugs To), a compilation of Spacemen 3 demos.  But before the question can be finished about the influence of drugs on Pierce’s musical ideas, he interrupts saying, “No, no.  I don’t think drugs play any role, actually.  The thing I keep saying is, the only way to prove that, is if you do a random control trial where you get 200 non-creative people, and you give a hundred of them drugs and a hundred of them placebos, and see who comes out with the most creative stuff, and I would imagine you’d find no kind of extra creativity in the drug side of the experiment.”

As far as drugs in his personal and recreational life, Pierce feels it would be an irrelevant question.  The truth, or the reality, might destroy a myth, perpetuated by his lyrics, which would, ultimately, weaken the power behind the music.  Take a line from “Come Together”:  “Little Jason/fucked up boy/who dulled the pain/but killed the joy.”  Then, on “I Think I’m In Love,” Pierce sings, “Love in the middle of an afternoon/Just me and my spike in my arm and my spoon.”

Pierce says that knowing more about the personal lives of the musicians that have moved him in his life has not brought any better appreciation of their music to him.  “I think it comes through in those kinds of musics,” he says.  “It comes through whether it’s the Stooges or Stravinsky or Hendrix or Captain Beefheart, or whatever.  It’s all honest to those people, and you don’t need to hear the stories behind the music.  You don’t need to hear about where those people were or what they were doing.  You hear it within their music, anyway.”

The story continues in part 2 here.

*The interview was conducted in August of 1997.

**Pure Phase was actually mixed twice, with the separate mixes laid atop each other, in synchronization, creating the sound of two copies of the album playing simultaneously. Pierce called it a “nightmare” to synch.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


MGMT Congratulations vinyl

Like I said in an earlier posting, when MGMT released the preview track “Flash Delirium” for their sophomore effort Congratulations, I had feared they had bitten off more than they could chew. With the release of that one song, the band told the music media it was diving into psychedelic surf rock and warned fans they were turning a new corner away from the baroque alt-rock disco stylings of Oracular Spectacular, the debut album that brought them mass acclaim and popularity.

What at first seemed to have had the potential to become a divisive work that would prove the devotion of MGMT’s fans, has debuted in the number two spot on Billboard’s album chart.

Critics have also embraced the album, and as they stumble over themselves to figure out how Congratulations fits into MGMT’s already colorful two-album canon, I am going to say that the band has not strayed too far from their signature sound to write this up as a re-invention. The popularity on the charts and even among critics proves this. I would not go as far as to say the album shows stagnation in the band’s sound. As a matter of fact, I think it indeed bodes well for the creative growth for MGMT.

When I first heard Congratulations, I wondered where had the hooks of Oracular gone? But then I learned Congratulations rewards repeated listens, and there are indeed some heart-stopping moments of musical loop d’ loops that rival some moments from the first album.

The Songs

One of the genius instances comes early in the album with “Song for Dan Treacy,” during the refrains of “He made his mind up,” which take up the last half of the song. Each refrain comes back with more layers of vocals and longer echo effects, by the end riding shimmering washes of electronics. It provides a luscious contrast to the dinky but driving high-pitched honking synths that open the song.

A similar effect occurs within “Someone’s Missing.” The song opens hushed and reflective with a soft beat and sporadic little strums of electric guitars and humming organs. Then come little distant sparkles that grow after a reverberating guitar strike that covers the song as Andrew VanWyngarden sings the mantra “It feels like someone’s missing” among glittering effects until the song simply fades out. The moment recalls the luscious but too brief refrain that closes “Weekend Wars” from Oracular: “I’m a curse and I’m a sound/When I open up my mouth/There’s a reason I don’t win/I don’t know how to begin.”

These early examples of extreme and layered dynamics are testament to the growth of MGMT. You might recall that MGMT made an auspicious if not ho-hum debut with their “Time to Pretend” EP in 2007, but when a couple of the tracks (the title track and “Kids”) re-emerged on their debut full-length with more up-beat pacing and more effects, the songs caught fire in the clubs and on alternative radio. Dare I say, “Song for Dan Treacy” and “Someone’s Missing” are now the superior pop songs in MGMT’s repertoire because of their more masterful yet still playful use of vibrant effects and repetition.

MGMT go into more complex territory as the album spins on. “Flash Delirium” marks the album’s craziest experiences in dynamics. According to the band on a recent appearance on NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” The BBC decided to, in my opinion, ruin the song by removing the flute solo that provides the amazing bridge to quite possibly the loudest, most chaotic moment on the album. “Flash Delirium” ends up as a daring, if not ingenious experiment in musical juxtaposition. It already proved a brilliant, if confounding introduction to the new album when the band released it as a free MP3 a couple of months prior to the album’s official release. I put it aside after one listen and lowered my expectations, until I heard the album in its entirety, about a month later.

Going back to the strengths of Congratulations, the album continues with the 12-minute track “Siberian Breaks,” which actually echoes such musical references as the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and good old space rock. The song does develop as much as it takes left turns into new rhythms and melodies, something the Beatles popularized a long time ago. There is a moment early in the track where the vocals sound like a mellow Syd Barret, as the song shifts into 3-4 time while (what sounds like) a swinging harpsichord carries the melody (it may be the electric sitar mentioned in the credits). Then a large thud opens the way for a dreamier portion that recalls the mellow bombast of the Beach Boys.

Before anyone takes these comparisons of MGMT to legends like Pink Floyd and the Beatles too seriously, let me say that while the Floyd and Beatles do inform this music, Congratulations is not the revolutionary work of say Sgt. Pepper’s or Dark Side of the Moon. What is true about Congratulations is that it offers just one more in a long line of expertly crafted children to these early, revolutionary rock albums, which had already opened the door to the more exaggerated sounds of prog rock and Kraut rock not too soon afterward and continued to evolve through the work of bands like Spacemen 3 (founding member Sonic Boom fittingly produced Congratulations) in the 80s and into the world of noise pop pioneered by such varied groups as Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips. Indeed, bands have been doing this kind of music for decades already, to only slightly different effect. It appeals to a certain aesthetic of rock aficionado who likes dynamics in their music and creative juxtapositions in melodies and even the musicality of noise. Congratulations certainly delivers on that.

Going back to “Siberian Breaks,” after about four or five major shifts in tones, rhythms and melodies the song melts into a chilly swirl of interstellar waves of synthesizers, not all too different from the Steve Miller Band’s “Space into” that opens his legendary Fly Like and Eagle album from 1976. As the sounds of space rock fades away, the album has a tough act to follow, and actually proceeds with a trio of the simplest songs on the album.

The punk-rock corniness of “Brian Eno” follows. It proves a fun listen for fans of Eno with references to oblique strategies and even a pronouncement of Eno’s entire name. It also proves a fitting, if too obvious tribute, as there is a very close connection between the music of Brian Eno and MGMT, beyond this loopy song. Anyone familiar with Eno’s early 70s avant-pop forays Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) will hear similarities in music stylings. Eno’s early surreal lyrics filled with smart-ass delivery certainly pre-dates MGMT’s ironic style, and dare I say, some of Eno’s musical constructs blow away the simple, albeit effective, song structures of MGMT. As MGMT sing on “Brian Eno”: “We’re always one step behind him, he’s Brian Eno.” The band truly show they know their Eno, even if they cannot create something as insane, colorful and still catchy as “Mother Whale Eyeless.”

Up next is the album’s sole instrumental. Despite its deceptive title, “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” has no direct reference to Lady Gaga or the early 20th century art movement made famous by Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. With its melancholy piano and distant howls and screams, the track actually sounds more like the backing track to the Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.” The plodding melody and cheap sonic electronic effects also sound like something off the soundtrack from a 70s horror movie… maybe in a scene that shows the heroine reaching heaven after suffering a grisly death.

There are more songs. The driving opener “It’s Working”is probably the most definitive surf song on the record. The mellow, dreamy “I Found a Whistle” captures the essence of hippie psychedelics. Finally, the title-track closer, is another mellow tune that is probably the most straight-up song on the album, driven by bass, guitar, drums and vocals and the occasional noodling keyboard for mere decorative effect.

The Vinyl

After hearing some warnings about the quality of Oracular Spectacular on vinyl, I was pleasantly surprised with the amazing sonics of the 2-disc, 180 gram version of Congratulations. Clearly, Columbia made sure not to make any missteps in sound on this album. As loud and chaotic as this record gets, there is an amazing separation of the instrumentation. Things do not blur and distort as easy as they can when blasting the CD. The vinyl version, therefore, does special justice to the shifts in tones within these complex songs, making the vinyl format the one to truly appreciate this album in its fullest.

I picked up the CD first, and then took a chance on the vinyl. It revealed more layers of complexity, as well as highlighted the dynamics of the album. Upon first hearing the vinyl, one could hear that the electronic effects that build up in “Song for Dean Treacy” actually start at the beginning of the first “He made his mind up” in “Dean Treacy,” and there’s a small piano run just before the last refrain that I never heard on the CD.

Vinyl always shines when capturing the complex dynamic range of organic drumbeats. The thud that starts the first shift in tone in “Siberian Breaks” reverberates with so much color compared with the dull thump I heard on the CD. In fact, all the noises that herald a shift in style throughout the song resonate so much better on the vinyl version. No wonder the band released this track as a 12-inch single on Record Store Day. Of all the songs on this album, this is the most delightful to experience on vinyl.

Finally, as far as the packaging of the LP set, it was a shame the label scrimped to avoid a gatefold album, where we at least could have had the band picture that comes in the middle of the CD, but more important, it could have provided a stronger home for the heavy vinyl that just barely fits into the single jacket it actually comes with. The vinyl also has a download code for the album, so you can listen to it on your portable audio devices or burn a CD of it. A truly original aspect of the vinyl version is that it also comes with a scratch off cover art that actually reveals the photo collage on the reverse side of the lyric sheet enclosed on the CD version. I’ll leave you with that image…

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)