In Conversation: Spiritualized

J. Spaceman on the art, and unbridled power of rock 'n' roll...

For a moment there, the world stopped. The pandemic changed everyone’s lives, pausing our surroundings and completely altering our existence. Daily routines suddenly became vitally important, a means not just of staying sane, but survival itself.

For Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman, the impact of lockdown was unusually acute. The songwriter, guitarist, and sonic cosmonaut is based in East London, close to the city’s financial hub. When lockdown measures came into place, the pace of the world around him went from quicksilver frenetic to an eerie quiet. Taking himself out into this post-apocalyptic landscape, he found himself walking for miles without seeing a single individual. “I mean, I walk everywhere anyway,” he notes wryly. “But it was an extraordinary thing. Extraordinary. One day I walked to Tower Bridge on my own, and stood there for 20 minutes without seeing a soul. It was almost like a sci-fi, disaster movie, in a way.”  

“I live close to the City of London, so less and less people actually live here, it’s heavily populated by people who work here. So to suddenly not have that was a really amazing thing. But my daughter works in the NHS, so there’s a heavy, heavy caveat. Those walks also took my past the Royal London Hospital, where people were dying.”

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We’re seated in a bar close to his flat; it’s home territory, and he’s remarkably at ease. Spiritualized – the vessel J. Spaceman has powered since the early 90s – have only released a smattering of material in the past decade, with the songwriter often struggling with his health. Today, however, he’s the epitome of quiet confidence, knocking questions left and right with a wry grin. As he points out, he’d be training for pandemic isolation for most of his life.  

“The thing is, when you’re in the studio you’re isolated anyway,” he says. “You work 12, 14 hour days, and in my case get more productive as the day goes on. But when the world descends into silence, there’s no possibility of distraction. Sometimes it did feel kind of foolish to focus on music during a time like that, there was a guilt there… it felt a little selfish.”

“My one liner at the time was: at least you don’t have to be worried about people not inviting you to parties!” he chuckles. “It almost made making music seem excusable. Suddenly there was nothing else to do but focus on seven pieces of music.”

Losing himself in the project, the results are outstanding. New album ‘Everything Was Beautiful’ is a staggering piece of space rock minimalism, a suite of ecstatic material that moves from familiar Spiritualized tropes – Stooges-esque strut, free jazz skronk – into uncharted realms. It’s fantastically broad, and thrillingly alive, the work of someone who truly put his soul into every note. “I’m obsessed – obsessed – with the music I make, to an often unhealthy degree,” he notes. “And the context sort of made that allowable.”

“It takes 1000s of decisions to make a record. 1000s. I obsess over the tiniest of things – a cymbal that’s two decibels out could destroy the whole thing! Music is all about the fine balance. That’s what music isn’t the same as anybody else’s – yes, it might be same two chords, but small moves make the difference. If it was all about the right notes on the right instrument then every barroom cover band in the world would be the most amazing experience… but it doesn’t work like that. And the bits you’re trying to capture are elusive, they’re out of reach.”

The new record finds J. working at the coal face; as if his role as songwriter, guitarist, and producer wasn’t extensive enough, Clash points out, he’s credited with 16 instruments on the sleeve. “Well, I’m a master of none!” he smiles in response. “Look, this album is brutal in its simplicity. There’s a way of playing one chord where you can just sit there, and it’ll feel like the most natural thing in the world.”

Reducing music to its core essence, and then building outwards, is how he operates. ‘Everything Was Beautiful’ is littered with aspects of the past – from chord changes to, in the case of ‘Crazy’ or ‘Let It Bleed’, full song titles – but the record continually explodes them outwards, locating beautiful new mosaics amid the fragments.

“Sometimes in music, there will appear to be these rules,” he points out during our chat. “Like, a 10-point checklist, kind of thing. What to wear, how to hold yourself, the songs you’re meant to listen to. But if you’re just different – like, different – then you don’t do that, you find your own vocabulary. And – again – the parts you’re after, are the parts that remain out of reach. If it was easy to attain, then it wouldn’t be thrilling.”  

Breaking the rules – and bits of kit in the process – seems to be the process that drives Spiritualized forwards. “I find it all the time. All the time,” he continues. “I’ll get a new bit of kit, and try to make it work… but it won’t. And through breaking those rules, I’ll find something I need. You think, how come I couldn’t see that naturally. But it’s the chase, that’s the important bit.”

For all its abandon, the album has a definitively minimalist, almost punk-like sound. “Well, this record was a product of two mixes,” he explains, with the patient of a slightly aggrieved university professor. “I laid them on top of each other, and everything became squashed, and crushed, and distorted, and compressed. Then you have to adjust for that. It’s like throwing the pieces up in the air and seeing where they land.”

How did his London neighbours feel about a minimalist space rock masterpiece coming into focus late at night?  

“I’ve got great neighbours,” he beams. “I mean, seriously beautiful people. They kind of know what I do. They’ve actually lived here longer than I have. They are particularly understanding, which is amazing.”

The dynamic on the new album moves between two poles, two extremes of songwriting beauty and outright noise. If ‘Everything Was Beautiful’ allows itself to dip into the red, then that is only because it feels confident enough to pull itself back from the edge. “I like songs,” he says. “I like Cole Porter, I like Holland Dozier Holland. But each song exists in a unique space, and you can change that space.” In the end, the record was edited to fit a single slab of vinyl – seven tracks, and 44 minutes of exhilarating music. “I think most people need an editor, to get their 27 songs down to 12. Well, I need an editor to get mine up from three to seven,” he shrugs.  

“I have to trick myself into letting go,” he says. “If I had some sort of plan, that would make it all easier. I just keep throwing ideas at something until it begins to make sense.”  

In spite of its breadth, ‘Everything Was Beautiful’ has an incredible sense of unity, in which the possibilities of the new are blended with the security of the old. Using those classic tropes, Clash wonders, could be a way of reclaiming them.

“I don’t want to reclaim it,” he says. “The idea of reclaiming ‘Crazy’ from Patsy Cline is… well, it’s not gonna happen. It’s done out of a deep love, and respect. I have a respect for the language of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a simple thing. It’s the dumbest thing, really – it’s all about passion and feeling. It’s not about ability, or where you put your fingers… it’s just this rush!”

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‘Everything Was Beautiful’ is out now.

Catch Spiritualized at the following shows:

4 Gateshead Sage
5 Glasgow SWG3
8 Manchester Bridgewater Hall
9 Nottingham Royal Concert Hall
10 London Roundhouse

Words: Robin Murray

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