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Music: Pop - Just what the doctor ordered

With their subtle blending of disparate sounds, Spiritualized know a thing or two about musical alchemy. James McNair meets the band's lyricist, Jason Pierce, to find out what makes the ingredients mix so well.
We're in a kitschy cafe in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. Jason Pierce, cadaverous yet boyish at 31, orders a plain omelette and peruses the sleeve notes of a CD copy of Gyorgy Ligeti's Ramifications. This is no empty pose, but rather a reflection of the fact that Spiritualized's frontman and chief songwriter knows his music like the French know their onions. If you've heard the band's pharmaceutically-inspired album masterpiece Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, you probably knew this already.

Melding Aaron Copland-influenced strings with gospel choirs, and 1970s Elvis horns with sometimes blissed-out, sometimes flat-out rock instrumentation, Ladies And Gentlemen is a feat of sonic alchemy. When I ask Pierce about his refining process, and about how Spiritualized have developed a strain of psychedelia that is so neoteric, he emphasises the importance of avoiding what he calls "Grandma's recipes". "The term is from a book by Theodore Zeldin called An Intimate History of Humanity," he explains. "Zeldin's talking about society not learning from its mistakes, but you can apply that line of thinking in music too. Music should be evolutionary, not some diluted version of The Beatles or Miles Davis."

Intriguingly, early copies of Ladies and Gentlemen came packaged in foil- like outsized paracetamols. Pierce says that he wanted "something with a trash aesthetic, something different from the industry standard". The accompanying literature cleverly developed the theme, parodying the "about this medicine" spiel which usually accompanies prescriptive drugs, and reminding listeners that this was "music to treat the heart and soul". It was the drug-addled lyrics, though - a staple of Pierce's song-writing - which generated most column inches when the album was first reviewed. "Love in the middle of an afternoon / Just me and a spike in my arm and my spoon", sang Pierce on "I Think I'm in Love", while on "All Of My Thoughts", he confessed he sometimes had his breakfast "straight off a mirror". Was this junkie chic? "I've been accused of that," he says. "But those references are part of my life. They're always qualified, though, so I don't think it's an irresponsible use of language.The highs are high, and the lows are low"

One emotional low in particular on the album has been the subject of much speculation. "Broken Heart" - a beautifully fragile ballad that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever run to avoid standing still in the wake of a break-up - seems to refer to the demise of Pierce's relationship with Spiritualized's keyboard-player Kate Radley. The fact that Radley's now stepping out with Richard Ashcroft of The Verve only seems to add to the song's poignancy; especially when you consider that Ashcroft's "The Drugs Don't Work" is the only other track this year which has matched the aching finesse of Pierce's composition beat for beat.

Pierce remains tight-lipped about the significance of "Broken Heart", but he has plenty to say about the writing of it. "Musically, it was inspired by those old classic country songs that you can feel in your belly," he says. "And I remember feeling a dumb kind of pride when I'd finished the lyrics. For once, every word seemed like the right word." He continues: "Oddly for me, that song owes something to PG Wodehouse. I think his stories are dreadful, but the economy in his use of the English language is incredible I was drawn to that."

If you talk to Pierce about the actual recording of Ladies And Gentlemen, it's clear that one of the highlights was when the legendary New Orleans piano player Dr John came down to play on the epic "Cop Shoot Cop". "I was grinning all day," he remembers, "but he was way into it. He was walking round the studio saying: `This is the shit, man!' We've become friends since, and he's joined us on stage sometimes. I think he's going to play with us at the Royal Albert Hall on this British tour."

Later that evening in Paris, Spiritualized whetted my appetite for the London show with a gig at the Arapaho Club on Avenue d'Italie. On "Cop Shoot Cop", guitarist Mike Mooney has the unenviable task of filling Dr John's prescription, but he does so brilliantly with some tasteful slide- work. Pierce has no dialogue with his audience - this would break a spell cast through repetition of simple motifs and an inspired sense of dynamics. Kate Radley, though currently "not well enough to join the band on tour", is in the audience. The crackling, endorphin-rush of "Electricity" spills from stage to audience and the white stroboscope flashes freeze-frame our faces. We can only wonder what Radley is thinking as Jason Pierce leaves us with the kind of high we least expected.

Spiritualized are at the Royal Albert Hall (0171 589 8212) tonight and touring until 18 Oct. `Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space' is on Dedicated Records