After years of superfandom and now months of conversation with the artist and his closest collaborators, writer and filmmaker Andy Capper has found the meaning behind the visual work of Spiritualized mastermind J. Spaceman. Sort of.
The art and aesthetics that accompany the music of Spiritualized are some of the most arresting in the canon of modern music. One man’s opinion, of course. J. Spaceman (né Jason Pierce), the sole mastermind behind Spiritualized, composes across gospel, garage, rock ’n’ roll, free jazz, and drone all in one, music wrapped around his fragile but commanding voice. Since beginning his career in music in 1982, in a band called Spacemen 3, which channeled the Stooges, Suicide, and the blues, Jason has been a near-mythological figure to his most loyal devotees. That’s apparent in the visual representations of his work: on his album covers, which nod to the abstract art of Bridget Riley, pharmaceutical packaging, and religious iconography, and in his promos videos, where he plays a lost, lonely bluesman wandering around deserts, volcanoes, and frozen lakes in a spacesuit. A sole Spaceman, indeed.
Something else happens on stage. Spiritualized concerts are all about intense strobe lights in sundry colors: deep blues, perfect purples, and fiery oranges. On recent outings, like the band’s spring 2022 American West Coast dates, which I accompanied Spaceman on as a longtime fan-turned-friend, he was, as always, an obscured silhouette at stage left—a magnetic, shadowy figure that barely moves, except to lead the band by tapping his silver-toed boots. Always with those metallic shoes.
The performer persona is distant from the recorded tracks. The shows were to promote Spiritualized’s ninth studio album, 2022’s Everything Was Beautiful, seven songs about love, life, death, and drugs—so intimate and affecting, it’s like a different person wrote them. The album’s sleeve, designed by longtime collaborators Mark Farrow and Gary Stilwell, showcases a pill packet laid over a dewy meadow. Farrow and Stilwell have worked with the band on every release since 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, the first Spiritualized record to feature a sleeve based on what the drug companies make for us—an artistic rendering meant to resemble prescription medicine, complete with a booklet containing “dosage advice.”
“The first [cover] we did came about because Jason [Spaceman] talked about [doing] something pharmaceutical,” Mark Farrow tells CREEM from his new design studio in London. “Obviously, he’s drawn to that. It was in the first meeting I ever had with him. He said that ‘music was medication for the soul,’ and that really resonated with me. The idea started to form...could it be a pill?
"Me and my partner Gary Stilwell have had long relationships with various bands that we’ve worked with. Probably most of all Pet Shop Boys, but Jason is another one. He disappears for two years and then he goes, ‘It’s album time,’ and we start the conversation. Normally it would start with, ‘No, we’re not doing drugs again, Jason. We’re not doing packaging and all those things.’ But then he kind of owns it,” Farrow continues. “I had no wish to resist it this time [on their latest album]. It felt right. With Spiritualized, and this often goes missed, there’s humor in there with a drug called Everything Was Beautiful.”
I paid attention to Spiritualized after coming to adore J. Spaceman’s other band, Spacemen 3, but it wasn’t until I saw the promo video for 1997’s “Come Together,” the lead single from Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, that I fell head over heels in love and Spiritualized became my favorite modern group. In it, Spaceman wears the uniform of a felon, walking handcuffed by guards along a prison hallway. He looked wasted, pale, grisly, beautiful—it was so exciting and powerful to me.
That period of my life, those late-’90s days, were spent enthusiastically discovering pills and drug culture writ large. I framed “Come Together” as a nihilistic party song. In my imagination, the lyrics “Little Jonnny’s sad and fucked/First he jumped and then he looked/The tracks of time/These tracks of mine/Little Jonny’s occupied” were all about me. They were about my jump off a cliff into the darkness of drugs, not really knowing or caring about the consequences or just how dark the darkness gets. They were about me not really knowing or caring what the future held—having become a drug addict, further down the road with the psych wards, the yelling, the crying, the blood on the wall, always vomiting, the shame, the regret, the hurt people hurting people and big trouble always around the corner. Being sad and fucked was something I was sure I could handle because I’d always felt a little like that, but nothing really prepared me for how concentrated and crushing the misery and fuckery gets as you get older.
Now it’s been 30 years, and I have been in love with Spiritualized the entire time. My life changed, the world changed, and the song began to take on a deeper meaning. Now I sometimes hear a guy in agony, trapped by choices that aren’t really his own. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some seductive, nihilistic fun in the middle, but that’s what makes it hard to get out of the hole. But sometimes I wonder if it meant something different to Spaceman. I mean, it must. That’s what makes his band so enduring and meaningful to people: It’s open to interpretation.
Speaking over the phone from his home near Spitalfields, East London, Spaceman is pondering where he got the idea to wear a spacesuit in his promo photos and videos. He offers this: “Camouflage.”
“I guess all the imagery from the first three records [Lazer Guided Melodies, Pure Phase, Ladies and Gentlemen] was coming from me and [ex–Spiritualized founder member and romantic partner] Kate [Radley]. We were talking about the lack of imagination in promo photos, in everything. We started looking at ads and fashion photography [for inspiration]. With the spacesuit, it wasn’t so much the suit itself that was powerful, it was where we shot it—like in the city of London, with all the bowler hats and Lloyd’s building,” referring to a famous shot of him walking through London shot by Kevin Westenberg.
“If you’ve got time to explore, to try things and see what happens, you generally get results that you’re not expecting. That’s key to filmmaking and art. We don’t have a road map. We don’t plan. It hasn’t failed. There’s always something that turns up and something that makes it worthwhile."
As for the obsession with cold pharmaceutical designs, he laughs: “Yeah, the real crises in life come with the Helvetica font. I like medical design because it’s designed for a very specific set. Everything in that hospital room with you is designed for a purpose. It’s not designed to be flowery; it fits. There’s nothing that has design for design’s sake.”
He’s soft-spoken, quiet enough to hear ambulance sirens alarming in the background, the ambient, audial texture of London. “That’s what I like about Farrow, [his work is] honed to: ‘What are we doing here? What is the purpose of this? What is it for?’” he says. “I’m a little bit like that with music as well. [Everything] must have a role. It’s all very direct and here for a very definite reason."
Eventually Spaceman and Radley parted ways, and a new creative partner would come along in British film producer Juliette Larthe. The pair met when Larthe was producing a magazine piece about Spiritualized for L’Uomo Vogue magazine. At the time, Spaceman was living at the well-known Columbia hotel in West London—a rock ’n’ roll play place for hedonistic musicians, the very same that inspired the Oasis song “Columbia,” written after the beloved Britpop band was banned from the establishment after throwing a TV out of a window onto the manager’s Mercedes.
“For the [L’Uomo Vogue] interview, I asked Spaceman to describe his music, and he just said, ‘I love you,’” Larthe recounts over the phone from East London, where she lives with their two children. “When I asked him what that meant he said, ‘I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.’ The editor [on the shoot] said to me, ‘Does this guy fancy you or something?’
“I guess we started talking after the interview, and then we met up again [at] his place after I’d asked him to put the kettle on for me. He had a cigarette in the kitchen, a cigarette in the living room, and then he had a cigarette in his hand. That’s when it was clear that I was falling for him, which shows you where my head was at the time,” she says with a smile.
The two moved in together, living at Abbey Road Studios, where Jason was making the group’s fourth album, Let It Come Down (featuring the work of 115 musicians). They were together for more than 15 years, had two children, Poppy and Hank, and became fierce collaborators on all Spiritualized music videos. The first was 2001’s “Do It All Over Again,” from the album Let It Come Down, in which Spaceman is suspended from a helicopter and dropped into a lake. As they tell it, the hired stuntman refused to take part in it, so Spaceman had to do it himself. Larthe couldn’t attend the shoot as she’d just given birth to Poppy.
Another video, for the song “Out of Sight,” was shot on Mount Aetna, an erupting volcano on the eastern coast of Sicily. “With Jason there’s a lot of, ‘Would you be mad enough to go along this journey with me?’” Larthe explains. “Mount Aetna wasn’t even our first time up a big mountain. When we first met, we went up Mount Akron in Bali and cooked eggs in the crater of it.
“For the video we made up fake passes. We were volcanologists making a film for Channel 4, and I couldn’t believe it worked,” she continues. “We got through one barrier, then another barrier, and then one barrier, and we got further up in the mountain than the fucking National Geographic crew. We ended up having to use night-vision cameras because by the time we got up there, it was so late. Jason dropped his lip-sync earphones and they melted on the ground.”
British photographer Steve Gullick accompanied the couple up the volcano to take stills: “The heat of it was intense and everything was smoking. There was lava running down. We couldn’t have walked to the edge of the volcano because our feet would have melted off. Nobody would have stopped us. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an astonishing thing to witness and be there.”
In June 2005, Spaceman was rushed to an emergency ward in London after developing double pneumonia. Larthe was told that he was at death’s door.
“His lungs gave up and lost capacity. His body was not responding to treatment. He had that horrible thing that was eating his bone,” she says, explaining that Spaceman had contracted a terrible virus, a side effect of the double pneumonia. “[Doctors said] I had to take the kids in to see a grievance counselor. We took a photo of what we thought might be his last-ever photo,” she recalls. “I think he used that picture in the back of the book they released with [his 2008] Songs in A&E album.” In England, A&E stands for the Accident & Emergency department of a hospital.
After a month, weighing only 90 pounds, Spaceman had recovered enough to leave the hospital. He then got together with Mark Farrow to design the album artwork.
“We decided to make some of the [insert] artwork using the catheters from the hospital; the IV drone coming through an illness that nearly killed him. He liked the pun as well, obviously,” Farrow says, laughing. “And I don’t blame him. It’s a very good one. Rather than pills, he sat for weeks on end in bed with all these things hanging out of them. They’re beautiful things. People normally flinch away from them.”
“There’s been less volcanoes and helicopters since the trip to the emergency ward,” Spaceman says of the Songs in A&E era, but he did shoot one more stunt video after recovering—on a frozen lake in Iceland for “Soul on Fire,” visuals set in the otherworldly majesty of the Northern Lights. “The Northern Lights...they’re almost, like, there for you alone. Fireworks are, comparatively, a communal thing, and maybe an eclipse is like that as well, but Northern Lights are a singular thing, a kind of mushroom event. They’re lowering these strange curtains to you alone. It’s most extraordinary,” he explains. “That’s a musical thing as well. The music I really love is music that feels like it’s there for me. Like with pharmaceutical packaging, your name is on it, and it’s only for you. You shouldn’t really share.”
One of Spaceman’s closest friends and collaborators is musician and jazz aficionado John Coxon of the band Spring Heel Jack. Rough Trade’s Jeanette Lee, formerly of Public Image Limited and manager to Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, introduced Coxon to Spaceman in the period between Spiritualized’s second album, 1995’s Pure Phase, and 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen.
“What is Spiritualized about and what is it doing? Well, that’s the big fucking mystery. What are you doing?” Coxon asks over the phone from Atlantis Records, his store in Hackney. “The Spaceman persona is a little bit like Sun Ra. Sonny Blount used that persona as an allegorical expression of his outsider feelings, but Jason uses the Spaceman as a mask that empowers expression of tenderness, love, and ecstasy. It allows him to express deeply personal things that touch a lot of people. Jason is an incredibly sensitive person, but he’s able to elevate these private feelings, artistically, in a generally empathetic way.... He’s saying, ‘Help me, Lord, help me, Jesus,’ whatever.”
On the West Coast tour, from the L.A Fonda Theater to an old cinema in Santa Cruz to Coachella with a tentful of teenagers rolling on Molly, Spaceman sat still as ever, tapping his foot, bathed in the lights, mute between songs.
“He’s always been somebody who’s been very, very, very concerned about how his live show is going to be enjoyed,” Larthe says. “He doesn’t talk on stage, not because he’s haughty but because he’s shy. I suppose he must do this because otherwise he’s got no way of expressing how he feels in his own skin, and sometimes he’s not very happy in it.”
That’s something everyone can relate to. “He can’t let go of these feelings and thoughts, even though what he thinks about is so deeply emotional and personal,” she continues. “You know, it’s like in male suicide, for instance. It’s something like 10 to 1 [when compared with] women. You think, if he hadn’t found this, what would have happened to him? They say religion is for people who believe in hell and spirituality, or Spiritualized, in this case, is for people who’ve been there.”