Three years ago, Spiritualized's Jason Pierce lay so close to death that his girlfriend was offered grief counselling. Andy Capper hears about his near-miraculous comeback
Sunday March 16, 2008
In June 2005, Jason Pierce was on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank, hammering out a D-chord over and over again, while Patti Smith and Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine played next to him. All three, like the crowd, were lost in the sound, enthralled by the beautiful, chaotic squall. These were high times, happy times. But just around the corner, the bad times were coming.
Two days after the show, Pierce - aka J Spaceman - called up his friend, musician John Coxon, to tell him some scary news. He had been feeling unwell for a while and unable to breathe properly, he said, but that day he'd grown much worse. He had just been to visit his GP who told him to get to the A&E department of the nearest hospital as soon as possible.
Coxon rushed out of his east London flat, near the home Pierce shared with his girlfriend and two children, to find the singer ashen-faced, sitting on the steps of the GP's surgery, bewildered and barely able to breathe.
Within hours, Pierce was hooked up to drips and a ventilator in the intensive care ward of the Royal London hospital. He had double pneumonia and was having to take a breath every second. The illness causes the lungs' alveoli to fill with fluid, preventing oxygen from reaching the blood.
As his girlfriend, film-maker Juliette Larthe, rushed back from America, the life support machines bleeped and buzzed around the Spaceman, sounding, as he later said, 'oddly beautiful, like music'. There was little beautiful about the situation for Pierce's family and close friends. On his son Hank's third birthday, Larthe was offered grief counselling and friends showed Pierce photographs of his children in an effort to raise him out of what seemed like a terminal decline. 'It was terrifying,' recalls Coxon, 'really touch and go. He could just about communicate with us by scrawling words on a piece of paper. At one point I just thought that this was it. I was pretty sure he was going to die. The problem was that the bug wasn't responding to antibiotics - it was getting worse and worse. We thought he was a goner.'
Today, sipping a pint of coke upstairs at the bar of the Royal Oak pub on east London's Columbia Road, the 42-year old Pierce looks like a combination of Keith Richards and Rupert Everett. His voice is soft, and, although famously evasive in interviews (he once spent hours with the NME arguing that the line 'love in the middle of the afternoon / Just me, my spike and my arm and my spoon' from the song 'I Think I'm in Love' isn't necessarily about drugs), he's relaxed, cracking jokes the whole time. He also says the word 'beautiful' a lot.
Friends talk of the Spaceman being happier and more relaxed after his brush with death, but when I ask if the experience changed him, he shrugs it off and grins: 'It'd be nice to say so. I mean... hmmm, I don't know.
'Being in intensive care was actually OK for me. You just have to surrender yourself to the doctor. It's hard to think about your own death so the concern is invested in the people around you, not your own kind of thing, 'cause you're lying there thinking, "This is all right. Well, not all right but... I've been here before."
'In intensive care wards there's five or six of you in the same room,' he continues, 'and everyone's got optics and life support machines and they're all bleeping at different times and different frequencies. The only things I can remember are the noises around me. The not-really-true memories, you forget all that kind of shit. One by one, everybody else in the room died and I remember thinking, "Well, somebody's got to get out of here alive."'
After a month, he hobbled out of hospital weighing six stone (which, considering he's 5ft 10 in his silver shoes, made him very thin indeed). Pierce 'did what any sane person would do' after nearly dying from double pneumonia - went out and 'tested his body to see if it still worked like it used to'. While his new year's resolution to start smoking again didn't work out quite as he envisaged, he's still prepared to give it another try.
Spiritualized might just be the most undervalued band of their generation and Pierce something of a lost rock messiah. 'He's not obsessed by celebrity culture,' says Alan McGee, the former Creation Records boss, 'but for me he's as important to British culture as Neil Young is to American culture.' Representing a younger generation, Jamie Reynolds from Klaxons says: 'I can't think of any other contemporary artist willing to bare their souls and blow my ears in such a subtle manner. He is a hero.'
Pierce recently remixed a track for Yoko Ono, 'Walking On Thin Ice', and she tells me 'nothing prepared me for what he did, which somehow managed to keep the power of the original but also radically altered the track. I feel that we are kindred spirits.'
Spiritualized were formed out of the ashes of Spacemen 3, the group Pierce started as a teenager in the mid-Eighties with his friend Pete Kember - aka Sonic Boom. The two had been born on the same day, 19 November 1965, in Rugby, Warwickshire, and shared a fascination with old jazz, psychedelia and Stooges records.
Their shows would consist of them playing in the dark, sat down on chairs with their backs to the audience while intense strobe lights caused less hardy members of the audience to faint.
With each record, Spacemen 3 developed their sound beyond simple garage rock drone and blended in free jazz, orchestral arrangements and spirituals. Sonic's work increasingly went towards the experimental but Pierce started emerging as the stronger songwriter of the two.
On their last album, Recurring (1991), Pierce and Kember each had one side of songs. The two, it was said, could no longer stand to be in the same room any more. To promote its release they conducted interviews separately. In one, Kember said: 'One of the main reasons the band split was because I felt Jason was aping everything I was doing. Any direction I made towards something different, he would just follow.'
Within months of the two going their own ways, Pierce had formed Spiritualized, who took their name from the label on a bottle of absinthe. His girlfriend, Kate Radley, joined on keyboards after the release of their first single, their ethereal, narcotically charged version of Chip Taylor's 'Any Way That You Want Me'. The track acted as the template for the Spiritualized sound; music that was based on simple rock'n'roll, blues and gospel, with layers of drones, horns, flutes, strings and heavy guitars, and improvisational jazz added to the mix.
Pierce's lyrics, meanwhile, explored the highest of highs and the subsequent crashing lows. Next to the paeans to heartbreak, longing and sadness were wry, dirty rock anthems that celebrated as getting as fucked up as you possibly could.
Both elements were present on Spiritualized's 1997 album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which won universal acclaim at the same time as Pierce was appearing in the tabloid gossip pages, after Radley had left him and married the Verve's singer Richard Ashcroft. While many reviewers suggested the album was about his relationship with Radley, Pierce has always brushed aside any suggestions that his life then was reflected in his music.
The idea that Spiritualized was Pierce's own grand, epic vision of life was cemented by the dismissal of three of the group's members in 1999 and only confirmed by the promo videos for 2001's epic Let it Come Down, which featured Pierce striding across Mount Etna dressed as an astronaut and in another, made by Juliette Larthe, suspended high above the ground by a helicopter.
Made at huge expense, Let it Come Down featured more than 100 musicians and was, claimed some critics, too ambitious for its own good. After a change of record company, Amazing Grace (2003), featured an outstretched arm on its cover that nodded to two of the group's lyrical obsessions: Jesus and dope. The -standout track, 'The Ballad of Richie Lee', was about the suicide of Pierce's friend, the lead singer of -Acetone, a US space-rock troupe. The most morbid, moving and ragged song that Pierce had recorded, it provided some indication at least of what was to follow on their next album, which was to end up being titled Songs in A&E
Recorded before Pierce was taken ill, the album's death- and life-obsessed subject matter make it touching and harrowing. New songs such as 'Death Take Your Fiddle' and, especially, 'Sitting on Fire' - which sounds as if Pierce recorded the vocal from his deathbed - are eerily prescient, while 'Don't Hold Me Close', a tender duet with film-maker Harmony Korine's wife, Rachel, recalls Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
Happily, Pierce can still make belligerent music too. The opener, 'Sweet Talk Like an Angel', seems to be about Bush and Iraq: 'And you say where'd you stand on the war? / Well, you stand right where you stood before / As far from the bullets and bombs as they fall.' Throughout the album there are interludes of church chimes, otherworldly beeps and odd noises. In places it could be mistaken for an album of elevator music made for funeral homes and released on electronic label Warp. It is quite a trip.
'When I got out of hospital I thought I better go check when my album was out,' says Pierce. 'When I got into the studio it sounded like it was all written post-hospital. It was harrowing... emotional. It was really hard to have written something that seemed to have pre-empted events. It was impossible to finish.'
Was it hard to listen to?
'Well, yes. But it was also about a time that was gone, and I got to thinking that what's most important about any form of art, whether you're writing, painting or making music, is the physical process of doing it.
'Everybody thinks the finished product is the most important thing because that's the end result, the bit that everybody gets to see. But by the time the end result goes out, I'm finished with it, you know, I'm never going to listen to it again. But I had to somehow get it finished.'
Unfortunately, before Pierce would start to master the songs he found so hard to listen to, there was further dreadful news. His close friend, the actress Samantha Morton, suffered a stroke shortly after Jason had come out of hospital in July 2005. 'Jason and I have been mirroring each other,' Morton tells me. 'He was really sick and then I had a stroke at the beginning of last year. Jason and Juliette were looking after me and my daughter while I was rehabilitating and had to learn to walk again. Their friendship knows no bounds. He was the only person I knew who understood what that was like, being near to death. He's just an incredible person. He's very courageous, and he helped me get through it all.
While visiting Morton, Pierce noticed a screenplay at the foot of her hospital bed. It was by Harmony Korine, who had previously written and directed art-house favourites Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. The screenplay was for his new movie, Mister Lonely, in which Morton plays a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who is friends with a Michael Jackson impersonator. Both live in a weird commune in Scotland.
'While Sam was ill, I took the script while kind of gazing up towards the ceiling, hoping she wouldn't notice I'd taken it,' Pierce says. 'Then I wrote a piece of music about it, returned the script and waited to see what Harmony thought. I met him briefly before - he'd come to my birthday party - but I'd been too fucked to talk with him.'
Soon after writing the music, Pierce was one of a handful of artists booked to play a concert at the Barbican in April 2006 in tribute to the American musician and artist Daniel Johnston. Despite having been a performer since the mid-Eighties, Pierce was bereft of confidence after his near-death experience ('Don't get me wrong, I've never really been confident'), but Juliette Larthe convinced him to call up his friends at the London Community Gospel Choir and recruit a string section. Happily, the subsequent performance was a hit.
After the show, Korine approached Pierce and the two agreed to develop the music that Pierce had started for Mister Lonely, leading to a friendship that has helped Pierce regain his creativity. Korine told me: 'I have always loved the music that Jason Spaceman makes. The Spaceman 3 were one of my favourite bands growing up. I met him backstage at a show in London and we discussed him making music for the film. It was a great experience. Jason makes a special kind of narcotic gospel music that can fill you up inside.
'His music for the movie is really ethereal and moody and works perfectly with the story. He would just go away and disappear and record stuff and then send it to us. He's a dreamer. He's a crazy bastard. I love him.'
After Pierce's performance at the Barbican, word spread about his renewed sense of purpose and the acoustic set metamorphosed into Spiritualized Acoustic Mainlines. With a four-piece gospel choir and small string section, Pierce combined Spiritualized / Spacemen 3 songs with covers of songs by artists such as Johnston. The first Acoustic Mainlines show at the Royal Festival Hall in October 2006 remains one of the most moving, beautiful concerts I have ever seen. When the band played an acoustic version of 'Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space' with an extended ending which segued into Elvis's 'Can't Help Falling in Love', many of the audience were on their feet, their cheeks streaked with tears. Since then I've attended as many of the SAM shows as I possibly can, culminating in last year's beautiful Christmas show at Islington's Union Chapel, at which, with the venue bathed in candle light, the audience was transfixed.
Does Pierce ever feel choked by the music himself?
'Well, at the Edinburgh show last year - I keep going back to that one because it was a real high - when we played 'Ladies and Gentlemen' everybody in the audience stood up at the end wouldn't sit down - and this was in the middle of the show. I turned round to the choir and they were all crying, big tears rolling off their cheeks, so I started crying too.
'It's happened so many times on the tour, and I'm like, "Why is that?"'
Kevin Shields says: 'The reason why those shows were so powerful is because everything Jason does is 100 per cent real.'
And the importance of 'realness; in his art, caused Pierce to turn down a large undisclosed fee to reform Spacemen 3 to play festivals this year.
"Why would I do that?' he asks, looking baffled.
'I mean, I would have liked to go and watch the battle of Waterloo when it happened but that doesn't mean I'm going to go and sit in a field somewhere and watch people act it out.'
Pierce has since gone on to play Acoustic Mainlines shows all around the world, including Harlem's Apollo Theatre in November 2007, for which he recruited five gospel singers from Queen's to sing lines such as: 'The trouble with the straight and the narrow is it's so thin I keep sliding off to the side / And the devil makes good use of these hands of mine'.
'I always wanted to go to the Apollo. I guess I've got to get a new dream now,' Pierce says.
Pierce's rehabilitation quickly gathered pace and soon he was putting the finishing touches to Songs in A&E. The sleeve, which features photography by Anton Corbijn, utilises paraphernalia from the intensive care ward as quasi-Catholic symbolism.
'The decision to use the little plastic catheters that connect the IV drip to your vein was because they kind of looked like crosses. They go in here like that,' he says, pulling up his sleeve. 'They are so small and simple that people don't really place much importance on them. For some people, though, these small, simple things are the most important things in the world. They save lives.'
· Songs in A&E is released by Universal on 26 May. Mister Lonely is on UK release now