Jason Pierce brings the saddest album ever made to town.
Mon Jul 26 2010
“If you’d asked me a year ago if I would do these kind of shows, I would very definitely have said no,” Jason Pierce says on the phone from London. Talking frankly about his decision to tour Spritualized’s now-legendary album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space—and the current trend for reviving old albums in general—the singer says, “I always thought of it like battle reenactments, like those guys who dress up as Waterloo soldiers and fire fake cannons at each other. I never saw us as looking back.”
There’s another obvious reason why Pierce might avoid looking back: Ladies and Gentlemen is as close to a musical expression of heartbreak as you’re likely to find. The album was released in 1997, just after Pierce broke up with his long-term love Kate Radley, who married Verve singer Richard Ashcroft four days before Spritualized was due to join that band on tour—ouch. Unsurprisingly, it’s acknowledged by fans and critics alike as one of the saddest albums ever made; the grandly tragic title track turned up in the funeral scene of Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky.
So what changed Pierce’s mind? “I was talked into doing this at the top of Mount Buller in Australia,” he says. The band was there to play a one-off show for the Don’t Look Back series. “It’s 6,000 feet high, so I always had the line that it was a decision made at altitude, y’know?” He’s partly joking: Pierce has always made drug-related gags, from his early days with psych-rock outfit Spacemen 3 (“taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”) to the time when Spiritualized played the 114th floor of Toronto’s CN Tower, recognized by Guinness World Records as the highest gig ever.
But there are some excellent, serious reasons for playing the record now. Ladies and Gentlemen lends itself to being performed whole, because it’s constructed that way, Pierce explains. “It’s like a symphonic piece where the tracks are all relative to each other and the way they work.” And: “The band that made that record couldn’t have performed it like we’re doing it now.” Admittedly, this is partly because Pierce sacked most of Spiritualized’s original members over a pay dispute, but musically, you get the point. This tour features a six-piece rhythm section, strings, brass and a gospel choir from Queens.
The clincher, though, is the way people relate to it. “This album’s sat around for 13 years, so everyone’s got a take on it,” Pierce says. “They’ve already been moved by those songs, so they bring so much more to it. It’s not about doing an accurate rendition—it’s about finding the electricity in these songs, finding the places where the most energy is, and I think we’ve got better at doing that.”
In a way, the spirit of these shows resembles that of Leonard Cohen’s recent world tour; devoted fans, knowing exactly what the show would deliver, were still surprised by the emotional intensity of the encounter; how new those old emotions can feel. Is Pierce wary of this show becoming a big weepfest? “I think anything’s good if you’re moved by music,” he replies. “So much music isn’t particularly moving, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing however you take it. The mathematics of music is the same for everyone—it’s pushing air around to make things sound nice. But there’s something really special to be found, and the most beautiful bits are always the most elusive. It doesn’t really matter how people respond, as long as they do respond—and I think there’s a kind of glee that people bring to this, where they know where they’ve been with it.”
As far as pushing air goes, you couldn’t find a more perfect venue than the curvaceous, elegant Radio City Music Hall, where Spiritualized opened for Radiohead in 1998. “What I like about that place is it’s widescreen,” Pierce says. “The audience wraps itself around the stage.” He feels good about New York, and even lived in Manhattan, at 17th and Third, for a while. “It’s a city where the good hits the bad; whenever you’re in something good, you’re not so far away from the bad. It’s that energy you get from a city.” Perhaps inadvertently, Pierce has perfectly nailed the dynamic of Ladies and Gentlemen: a record on which great waves of heartbreak crash against waves of hope.
Fans would do well to note that this is the last time the group will play the album like this, according to Pierce, who is now working on a new Spiritualized record. “It’s been a short-lived thing and an amazing thing, but I’ve always thought we’re looking to the future.” He pauses and chuckles softly. “And I’m glad I sat at the top of the mountain and thought, If I don’t say yes to this, I’m gonna have to listen to them talk about it all night.”
Spiritualized plays Radio City Music Hall Fri 30.
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