In 2001, a German nature magazine sent a crew to observe the eruption of Mount Etna, the volcano on the eastern coast of Sicily. The report they filed began with this line: "We got as close as we could for safety to the center of the eruption, and set up our equipment and our cameras. Then a man in a silver spacesuit marched up to where we were — and kept on walking."
The spaceman was Jason Pierce, leader and driving creative force of the British band Spiritualized, who was there shooting a video for the song "Out of Sight." It wasn't his first such stunt: In 1997, Spiritualized performed atop Toronto's CN Tower, 114 stories in the air.
"I think you can kind of go around and play all the normal venues — or you can look for places where, even before you start pushing the air around and making music, you're in a beautiful environment," Pierce tells NPR's David Greene.
Pierce is playing things safer these days — musically, anyway. The new album Sweet Heart Sweet Light begins with a languid instrumental, in keeping with the psychedelic sound of the band's earlier work. But 60 seconds later, a barroom riff announces the start of "Hey Jane," perhaps the peppiest, poppiest song Pierce has ever committed to tape. He says that in writing and recording the new album, he made a conscious decision to veer away from abstraction.
"[When] you make it more abstract, you move into a kind of 'emperor's new clothes' area — where it almost comes with a disclaimer that you're not hip to this music, or you're not musically bright enough to understand it," Pierce explains."I kind of wanted to make a record that didn't have any of that, that wasn't hiding behind any kind of disguise."
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
We're about to meet one of the most popular and mysterious rockers in Britain. Like so many in his field, Jason Pierce of Spiritualized has pushed the boundaries of his music and his body. He has a history of drug use, and in recent years, Pierce experienced some serious health problems. Musically, he composed his grandiose, spaceman-like songs driven by a love of early rock n' roll, but often bordering on the abstract.
Our colleague David Greene talked to Jason Pierce about what he says is his poppiest album to date, beginning with the song, "Hey Jane."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY JANE")
JASON PIERCE: (Singing) Hey, Jane, where you going today? You took a call and you ran all day. That clock going 110, I never said I'll get you back again. Said you ain't got time to make no mistakes. Ain't got time to waste my breaks. Hey, Jane. Where you going today...
I kind of wanted to make a record that was laid out in a way that was easy for the listener.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: You're saying "Hey Jane" is maybe a little more assessable than some of your old stuff?
PIERCE: I think the whole record is. I kind of got to thinking that with the abstract in music, with each degree, you make it more abstract. You move into a kind of emperor's new clothes area, where it almost comes with a disclaimer that you're not musically bright enough to understand. And I kind of wanted to make a record that wasn't hiding behind any kind of disguise.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "HEY JANE")
GREENE: There was a story that had me, kind of, smiling. It was a German nature magazine that had a crew that was looking at Mt. Etna, the volcano in Sicily. And their report on Etna started with this line: We got as close as we could, for safety, to the center of the eruption, and set up our equipment and our cameras. And then a man in a silver spacesuit marched up to where we were and kept on walking.
And the man in the spacesuit was...
PIERCE: Was myself.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREENE: What were you doing on Mt. Etna?
PIERCE: Having some fun, really. We'd been given some money to do a photo shoot, actually. We stood about a meter away from the 100 foot-wide lava flow.
GREENE: And you're lip synching while you're that lose to the lava?
PIERCE: Yeah. Yeah. Just on a little Walkman type thing.
GREENE: And this is for your song "Out of Sight," I think. Right?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF SIGHT")
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREENE: Or you would have done it.
PIERCE: I would have done, for sure. Yeah.
GREENE: That doesn't sound safe.
PIERCE: I don't think anything we did up there was safe.
GREENE: Why is it so important to you to push the line? I mean you have put on some stunning shows - hanging from helicopters, going to the 114th floor of the CN Tower in Toronto, which I think you described as the highest gig of all time - I mean, why these antics.
PIERCE: Because we can, you know. And I think that you can kind of go round and play all the normal venues. Or you could look for places where - even before you start pushing the air around and making music - you're in a beautiful environment, let's see if we can play there, let's see if we can do that.
GREENE: I want to take you, if I may, back to 2005. You started having some breathing problems and were hospitalized.
PIERCE: I had double pneumonia then, so I was put in hospital for a while.
GREENE: I understand it got so scary that your girlfriend was getting grief counseling. They were showing you photos of your kids in the hospital. I mean that must have been awful.
PIERCE: I think more so for the people around me. I wasn't so aware of, you know, I don't think you know when you're close to death or anything. So, I was having a bit of a rest, I think.
GREENE: Has it changed you and changed the way you live your life?
PIERCE: Not as much as I would have thought. It wasn't so profound. It was almost disappointing that it was the same old me when I came back.
GREENE: Well, your song "Death Take Your Fiddle," some people have wondered if that captured the sounds of the breathing machine in the hospital and the scene in that hospital room.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH TAKE YOUR FIDDLE")
GREENE: How are you feeling these days?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PIERCE: I'm doing all right.
GREENE: Are the health challenges still there? I mean do you have to take it easy on the road and on tour? Or...
PIERCE: No, I had a weird one on this album. I have liver disease, of all things to happen after all that. And I had to do a proper kind of chemo course.
GREENE: This new album or this is a...
PIERCE: This is the new album, yeah.
GREENE: This is the new album. Just remind us how many kids you have.
GREENE: Your 11-year-old daughter, Poppy, has a songwriting credit on the new album, in the song "So Long, You Pretty Things." She also sings in the song. I wanted to play a little of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO LONG, YOU PRETTY THINGS")
PIERCE: There was a lot of themes wrapped up in this record. And some of it was the passing of time. And it seemed like the obvious connection with the passing of time was my children.
GREENE: Your career, Jason, has spanned two decades now. You're 46, and I guess I wonder, as music fans, we see a lot of musicians kind of have a very hard life. And some of them have died early. I mean, are you afraid of that? Is that something that you're aware of and trying to avoid?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PIERCE: Isn't everybody trying to avoid that a little bit? I'm just the same as anybody. I don't, you know, I just get on with what I do and don't really think about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE GIRL")
NEARY: You can hear the new Spiritualized album, "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" at NPRMusic.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.