Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce talks ‘Floating,’ festivals and bad drugs

Spiritualized comes to the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay on Friday, April 12.
Annie Zaleski

The British band Spiritualized rose from the ashes of Spacemen 3, one of the most influential (and heavy) psych-rock bands of the 1980s. Since forming in 1990, Spiritualized, too, has grown into an influential musical outfit brimming with contrasts: Ambient electronic lullabies, gospel choirs and delicate acoustic rock crop up as frequently as noisy guitar distortion, crashing strings and hypnotic psych-pop drone.

Spiritualized’s best-known album is 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which the band has been performing live in concert in recent years. Still, frontman (and lone permanent member) Jason Pierce is always innovating; the act’s latest album, 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light, is a lovely collection of ’60s-inspired pop and rock.

The Details

April 12, 9 p.m., $25-$30.
House of Blues, 632-7600.

That the album sounds so vibrant is remarkable, considering Pierce was dealing with treatment for a serious liver disorder during its creation. Now recovered and ready to resume band life, Pierce checked in last week from Brooklyn, between rehearsals for the latest round of Spiritualized tour dates, which includes the band’s first-ever show in Las Vegas.

What is the configuration of the band for this tour? We’ve got [counts out loud] seven people. We’ve got the normal band configuration, and then we’ve got two girls from the Harlem Gospel Choir with us as well.

You told NME that you embraced poppier songs this time around on Sweet Heart Sweet Light. What drove you in that direction? There was no driving, I’m afraid; I just stole the songs. I had a song called “So Long You Pretty Thing,” which was half-okay, half-finished. It was kind of always going to go on the record like it stood, but then I heard my daughter [Poppy Spaceman] singing this weird little song and took advantage. It was too good to miss, you know? They were great words, and then she sings them and it kind of made my average song into something that’s kind of monumental now.

I had been listening a lot to Nico. She’s got a record with her son singing a track [“Le Petit Chevalier”], a French song. There’s something about children’s voices that is kind of impossibly moving anyway, because they’re untutored. I think all the best things are just kind of untutored. I think people hold too much sway on talent; people are easily impressed at how fast they can move their fingers on a fretboard or how many octaves their voice [has]. I think the best music is people hitting a chord as long and as loud as they can, or something that hasn’t gotten any learning to it.

How familiar is your daughter with your career? I’m always on the road, so she knows something’s happening, I guess. She knows I’ve got something out here that I do. But you know, kids, they have their own lives. I’m certainly not pushing her anywhere she didn’t want to go. She’s got better things to worry about than what I do with my time.

You made the record while you were trying to treat a degenerative liver disease that involved a lot of drugs and treatment. How did that affect your creative process? It really dislocated [me], to be honest. I can’t recommend those drugs to anybody, unless you want to get relieved of hepatitis, in which case I heavily, heavily recommend them. It was a really hard year. It’s kind of weird, because with most treatments you get very on it; you’re not going to be around unless you’re doing this treatment. But with that treatment [I did], you can kind of choose your time, and it was hard to choose a time.

It’s kind of odd, because people like that record, but … honestly, it was like I made somebody else’s record. And only now, playing the songs live … I knew the songs were good, but only now really playing them live it really seems like it makes a lot more sense.

I like that you have Icelandic string group Amiina on the record; I saw them open for Sigur Rós years ago. How did you come to work with them? We’d been playing acoustic shows with a gospel choir and a string quartet, and we couldn’t afford to travel with musicians, so we picked up musicians in every town we went to. We met musicians in the afternoon and rehearsed the shows for two or three hours and then did the show in the evening. We went all over the world, and we had different bands every night. When we got to Iceland we met Amiina, and they played unlike any of the string quartets we’ve had. They didn’t play like they had been trained in the classical world, although obviously to play that kind of music you gotta start somewhere. They played more like pop music, like Lee Hazlewood. But I kind of [knew] what I was up against making the record, so I figured I would go back to Iceland and hopefully see the Northern Lights while I was up there and meet with those girls. And I got both, so it worked out.

Seeing them live is bewitching. They’re amazing. You know, I’ve never seen them live. I mean, they played in our band. I think everything’s kind of like that in Iceland. They’re a strange people. Hildur [Ársælsdóttir], one of the players, plays the saw. Playing the saw, you kind of have to bend the blade—you have to bend it one way, and then right at the very tail you kind of have to bend it back on itself. It takes phenomenal strength just to do that.

Recently, you also went back and played the entire Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space album live during a series of shows. What struck you now about the record now, 15 or so years removed from it? It’s kind of weird, because time allows for lots of things. There’s almost this assumption that those records just came fully formed. But that record came out the same as all my records, with the same kind of hang-ups and the same kind of lack of confidence. It really didn’t seem that different from any record. To be honest, I did those [shows] ’cause I lost a bet, and I was good for my word, so I started doing these shows. But there’s something phenomenal about being able to do those kind of shows, with a full orchestra and a choir, that you don’t get the chance to do very often.

You’re playing the House of Blues in Vegas and then going right to Coachella. Is it a jarring thing for you as a musician, going from an intimate venue to a massive festival? There’s a little bit of compromise at festivals—everybody’s compromised a little, the band and the audience. Quite often at festivals, the first time you’re walking on that stage is when you play. Obviously, if you’re playing music, you want to set it up ahead of time. The festivals come with their own problems.

In an odd way, the smaller shows always end up being better; everybody has big expectations for festivals. I still think festivals aren’t really about the music, although the music is a selling point. You still go with the idea you’re going to see all these bands that are listed on the poster, but it seems like it’s more of a communal thing and more like seeing who you live in the world with and the little bit of freedom that allows. You can get out of the city and get f*cked up or do whatever you want to do for the weekend. It’s different. But I’ll play anywhere.

Spiritualized has been around for a long time now, maybe longer than you might have expected. Has it surprised you that you guys have endured and lasted as long as you have? I’ve gotta say yes to that, or otherwise I feel I’ve set the whole thing up. I think the motivation behind this has always been musical. You know, I’m losing money on this tour again, but it’s never been driven by anything other than this great sound we make. It’s important we get out there and play it and put that out in the world. If you’re true like that, true in that respect, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t stay around. The problem is, people go out for things that are really unrelated to what they do; the idea of fame or fortune, it has no real bearing on anything people do. You can be famous for the most awful stuff as you can for the greatest stuff.

Are there any other musical projects you’ve ever wanted to do that you haven’t yet? The key thing is that whatever you’re doing, it has to feel like the most important thing in the world. That’s the main thing I’ve felt with the side things, you know … I’m back to making these records. I’m not that excited to go over old ground. So I think the key is just that what you’re involved in right now is the most important thing in the world to you.

Anything else you want to add? I’m looking forward to going there. I’ve never played Las Vegas. I’ve been there a number of times, but I’ve never played. I’m looking forward to it.

Anything in particular you like doing in Vegas? It’s just got this weird energy. Even the casinos, they sound so amazing; they sound like drum ’n’ bass, this phenomenal sound. There are gambling cities the world over, but there’s nothing like that place.


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