A freewheeling chat with Spiritualized’s Jason Spaceman in The Royal Oak, following his nasty bout of pneumonia and a series of spine-tinglingly beautiful acoustic shows. (Another Man, 2009)
Photography Tim Gutt
It’s lunchtime, and Jason Spaceman is standing at the end of the bar in an east London pub, sipping a steaming cup of black coffee, his dishevelled mop of hair giving the distinct impression that this is a man who has just got out of bed.
“I’ve just got out of bed,” he says. “I’d forgotten all about this. I’ve only just got back from touring, so I’m still trying to put all the bits and pieces back in the drawers in my head.” It has been a busy time of late for this quietly charismatic 44-year-old musician – in May last year, his band Spiritualized released their sixth album, Songs in A & E, a beautiful work that almost never saw the light of day because Jason was struck down with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia during its creation.Finding inspiration and recuperation working on the soundtrack for Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, as well as a series of emotive acoustic concerts, he succeeded in completing the unfinished record and has been travelling the world since, restored to his rightful place exploring the outer limits of rock with his enduring brand of gospel-tinged space-blues. “Though I’ve been back for weeks now,” he confesses with a smile. “Far too long to still be struggling.”
Another Man: Where did the final leg of the tour take you?
J Spaceman: We took the overnight train from St Petersburg to Moscow. It was beautiful. I felt like I was a little boy, looking out the windows and seeing the troops and police and all these characters. Every station, I would peel back the curtains. The trip was half based in reality, and half me writing my own story of what it should be.
AM: Spiritualized does Anna Karenina! And what have you been doing with yourself since you got back?
JS: Trying to write. I’m really lazy at writing music, I wait for it to happen. And when I get an idea that I think is good enough, I just hope I won’t forget it. The origins of the last album were very traditional – made on a guitar. I’d never done that before, I don’t want to walk around with an acoustic on my back! I can’t think of anything less rock‘n’roll. I’m seriously limited by the guitar, I just hit it as hard as I can and try to pull something out. But if it’s all in my head, I’m not limited by my ability.
AM: So why did you decide to limit yourself?
JS: I just found a beautiful guitar on tour, it really is the devil’s instrument – a 1929 Gibson, like the one in that Robert Johnson photo, the one with the cigarette they airbrushed out when they put him on the stamps. I sat and played it, and it came with all these songs.
AM: You did some shows with Daniel Johnston, and then an acoustic tour. What effect did that have on you?
JS: When I did the shows with Daniel, I didn’t have the bottle to just sit there with an acoustic, so I brought in the choir and strings. We’ve gone through quite a lot of gospel singers, as a band. It was phenomenal the way people reacted to our Acoustic Mainlines shows, but also the way we reacted. I’d never cried on stage until we did those shows – it was really moving. Maybe some of that went into the making of A & E, but trying to make it all acoustic didn’t work. All great songs find their own place and time. I think great records are like time machines – you push them off and they fly through space and touch other people. But you’ve got to get them right before you push them off, because you can’t make changes later.
When I did the shows with Daniel [Johnston], I didn’t have the bottle to just sit there with an acoustic, so I brought in the choir and strings… We’ve gone through quite a lot of gospel singers, as a band
AM: How did your time in hospital affect you?
JS: I think in any art, the process is more important than what you’re making. So, when you have a break in that process… Well, if you start painting a room and leave it for a year and a half, there aren’t many people who would go back to it. At least with the same colour.
AM: How close did you come to starting afresh?
JS: To throw it away would have just been too traumatic, because it would have been five years and a serious illness that amounted to nothing. It would have haunted me. And this really is the most important thing in my world, much as I’d like it not to be. Just finishing that record gave me a reason to focus on getting better. I still can’t put into words what I’ve gained or what I’ve lost since that illness; I’m sure it’s much more than I know at this moment.
AM: Talking of gigs, you were asked to perform at the opening of the CERN collider in Geneva.
JS: It was a shame, but we just couldn’t get it together. You know, we have these weird pockets of fans – it’s very odd. When we made the film for ‘Out of Sight’, it coincided with Etna erupting. So we went to the volcano and took a bit of money to bribe whoever was guarding it, but it was Sicily, they didn’t care. We got to the very top and kept walking. The only people we met at the top were two German vulcanologists, and it turned out they were huge Spiritualized fans!
AM: You have a thing for playing unusual places – you once did the ‘world’s highest gig’ in a tower in Canada.
JS: That was an amazing show, though I just liked the pun, really. We were playing the highest show on earth, so we said, let’s do just that. We played the top of the World Trade Center as part of the same tour.
AM: Not many bands get to play the Royal Albert Hall, like you did in 1997. Was that a memorable experience?
JS: Last year, I nearly booked the 10-year anniversary for that show but we weren’t able to do it. But often, the really special things are the things you don’t expect. We did this show in San Francisco – it was on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, and they sold 666 tickets and it freaked them out. The atmosphere was amazing, it really was the best show ever! You can’t plan for it. I don’t actually remember much about the Albert Hall, I don’t think it was even recorded.
AM: Um… you released it as a live album.
JS: Oh yeah! [laughs] There you go. That’s how much my memory’s fucked…
AM: How about taking a trip on the Virgin Galactic space flight – J Spaceman, floating in space?
JS: I reckon I would do that, though I don’t think I will because of the cost. Also, I’m not great with heights…
AM: There’s something of an irony there.
JS: I know! I’ve got rotten vertigo. I joke that I get scared standing up. But I think I’d do it if it was within my means. I think you’d have to do it.
I’m not great with heights… AM: There’s something of an irony there. JS: I know! I’ve got rotten vertigo. I joke that I get scared standing up
AM: What about the world’s first weightless gig?
JS: I think we’re not specifically looking for ideas, but thanks… For a while, though, we were looking at the highest planetary gig, and we got pretty close last year – the Arctic Circle, in northern Norway. It was just beautiful. We were on this little island and people all came on boats. We played in this natural cathedral cave with views over fjords and glaciers and moose swimming in the water… There was 24-hour daylight and the inside was carpeted in Arctic flowers. By 4am, it was like something from The Wizard of Oz. Then we were hanging out, probably not up to much good, and the coastguards came over to ask what we were doing. And one of them goes, “Spiritualized!”
AM: So, particle physicists, German vulcanologists and Norwegian coastguards… who else is making up your fanbase at the moment?
JS: We met these kids in Finland this year, from right up in the very north. Can you imagine what it’s like to live there and get Laser Guided Melodies? To get this music that speaks in a weird way about where they are on the planet, but it’s come from somewhere else? I always think we’re good for that, and good for these people. In [previous band] Spacemen 3, we always used to say that this is music for all the fucked-up children of the world. But fucked-up always meant remote… like there’s reality, but their reality is always a couple of inches back from that.
AM: Do you think you will always make music?
JS: As long as it makes sense. I think the acoustic thing was really special. I said at the time that it was like church. There was a real sense of this weird spirit that everybody was feeling. It exceeded everything that was meant to come from it, and as long as that happens, you’ve got to keep chasing it.
AM: What is it that drives you to keep doing that?
JS: The really great moments in music are the hardest things to find. Otherwise, everybody would be churning it out all the time. All the greats would always be great. But they’re not. And those shows were.
Originally published in AnOtherMan S/S 2009