The six-year gap between Sweet Heart Sweet Light and majestic new LP And Nothing Hurt is the longest of Spiritualized’s career. Jason Pierce tells John Earls: “I always seem to choose the dumbest route to finishing anything…”
It’d be easy to continue the myth of Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce as a tortured obsessive, forever tweaking his grandiose visions while living on a diet of opium consumed at a gargantuan mixing desk.
The reality is that, while Pierce confesses to suffering from a near-paralysing mix of self-doubt and uncompromising ambition, he’s also highly self-aware. And that makes him killingly funny, as he discusses just why it’s taken six years for Spiritualized to return with the beautiful and surprisingly optimistic And Nothing Hurt.
A sprinkling of the new record’s nine songs were written four years ago, but the recording took several false starts before Pierce realised the only option was to make the band’s eighth album in his East London bedroom. Which, given the epic scope of Spiritualized’s sound, was always going to drag things on a bit. Pierce had previously held ultimately fruitless discussions with John Cale and Tony Visconti about producing the album, then began sessions with noted freeform-jazz drummer Charles Hayward, “when I thought the album was going to sound like Sun Ra or Lee Perry – of very simple rock ’n’ roll songs, but spinning around your head in an extraordinary way. But it sounded like I was showing how clever I could be, and it wasn’t good.”
All the time, Pierce was avoiding the simple fact that he didn’t really have enough money to do anything apart from try to make the album himself at home. “I had no knowledge of how to make music on a laptop and I can barely use my phone,” he smiles. Over coffee at – where else – Vinyl Cafe in Kings Cross, Pierce smiles a lot over the next hour. At the age of 52, having released his first single with Spacemen 3 32 years ago, Pierce wanted And Nothing Hurt to be a form of rock ’n’ roll befitting a man of his age. Despite the stereotype of musicians four decades into their career, this didn’t mean easing into his dotage.
Doing It All Over Again
Ever since his first band Spacemen 3’s chaotic demise in 1991, Jason Pierce has wearily dismissed the idea of them reforming, saying: “I find it odd when people ask me, ‘Why don’t you do the thing you did when you were 19?’. You’d never say that to a painter or an author.”
But Pierce is more open to the idea of playing with former members of Spiritualized, feeling every incarnation of the band had its own unique chemistry.
“Technically, musicians have been replaced, but everyone has brought something unique and special,” he enthuses. “That applies to the people I play with now – I’d hate anybody not to be in Spiritualized who’s there now.”
Pierce cites his former partner Kate Radley’s “loud and primitive” keyboards as one of the aspects he misses from the band. “There’s lots of people from the band I’d be interested to work with again,” he ponders. “I’m not even sure why some of them walked out on it.”
Although Pierce is the sole constant in Spiritualized’s line-ups, the power in their live shows has remained consistent. “Part of being in a band is learning the vocabulary of your sound and what fits,” explains Pierce. “It doesn’t become effortless, but it does become easier to reach the heights, to attain the power and glory of the best shows. I don’t know if I’m more in control of that power now, but you can’t unlearn things. What we have now is an extraordinary place to be.”
Rock ’n’ roll is essentially a young person’s game,” reflects Pierce. “It’s more effortless with youth on its side, because it’s full of arrogance and stupidity. In order to make a record now, this album had to have words I’d use now, not the ones I used at 25. There’s an unwritten rule that your records don’t have to be as good when you’re older. That’s a great responsibility for me, not to contribute to that lessening of worth. I was very sincere when I said in interviews a couple of years ago that I might not make another Spiritualized record, because if there was going to be a new one, it had to be worthy of getting out there.”
For Pierce, that ambition to make another record at least as good as his heroes carries an essential conflict. “When I hear music I love by Brian Wilson, T. Rex or Kraftwerk, it inspires me to think my music can go anywhere. But as I get older and my knowledge of music becomes greater, I also think, ‘what’s the point?’, because I won’t release a song if I feel it’s already been done better. Part of me thinks, ‘I love making music, I’ve got to capture this feeling’, but my self-doubt means I’m also thinking, ‘you’re not doing anything that hasn’t already been said.’”
Lay It Down Slow
That convergence of ambition, a lack of self-confidence and belief in the magic of music is encapsulated movingly in the new album’s opening song, A Perfect Miracle. It describes Pierce shutting himself away from the world while trying to write the perfect love song. What is Jason Pierce like to live with when he’s making a Spiritualized album in the bedroom for six months? He grimaces at what he’s probably put his family through, before laughing: “At the very least, I’m distracted. That’d be the kindest perspective on how I am: I’m distracted. I become very obsessive, and I know it’s in an unhealthy way. It’s for nine small pieces of music, and I know that’s not going to change the world.”
And Nothing Hurt wasn’t made entirely at home: whenever Pierce got any spare money, he’d hire a local studio and bring in musicians to help his vision of giving the album the sound of “a Columbia Studios record, like Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain or Gil Evans.” He was also helped at home by bringing in engineers with more technical knowhow, though Pierce paints a sitcom picture of “writing lists of things I couldn’t do for the engineer to fix, he’d fix it and then there’d be another list, mostly to correct the previous list… It doesn’t help that I can never remember how I’ve done anything. Life would be a lot simpler if I had a glossary of all the things I’ve learned in studios.”
Pierce eventually handed the album over to Steve Mackey, the former Pulp bassist who now produces M.I.A. and Arcade Fire, “largely so that he could help me accept that what I was doing was okay.” It’s little wonder Pierce’s friend, Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie, despairs of how Spiritualized albums are made. “Bobby is always telling me: ‘Why don’t you get someone else to at least mix your records?’ and maybe if I did, my life could be that easy. I tell Bobby: ‘Yeah, I’ll do that!’ but I never do, because by that stage, I’m too wrapped up in it all. I always seem to choose the dumbest route to finishing anything.”
It should be noted that the last six years haven’t consisted solely of Pierce, as he puts it, “moving faders microscopically for hours on end”. There were moments of magic, creating new music that obliterated his self-doubt and made him realise that, just maybe, everything was going to be okay. He cites the lyrics to shimmering love song The Prize and the line “Quell the cavalier child” in Damaged, “a straightforward song not unlike The Rolling Stones, but when I had those four words, the song suddenly made sense. I get a weird feeling of pride at moments like that.”
Come Back Together
One of the side-effects of Jason Pierce’s mania while making Spiritualized albums is that he’s unable to listen to anyone else’s music, as he gets too caught up in hearing how other people produce music to find any joy in it. “Once this new record was done, after two weeks, I could suddenly hear music again,” he smiles. “It was amazing, having this magical thing back in my life that had disappeared for nearly two years. When I begin playing music again, I start out with records I know. When people ask what I’ve been listening to, it’s often not much of anything.”
Pierce has a clear idea of how Spiritualized’s albums fit next to his own favourite music. “The perfect vision of music, for me, is a cassette tape that goes into the dashboard of a car with a bench seat, one hand on the wheel, driving down a wide desert road in America with green street signs hanging down,” he summarises. “There’s something magical and nostalgic about that vision. If you play JJ Cale and Ohio is going past your window, or you play Philip Glass in Chicago, these songs you know suddenly become about where you are. What music does then is deeply special. That world is something you only get on long drives, and when my album is right, that’s where it fits in my head. That’s what Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go is about on the new record – those great road songs like Brian Wilson’s Busy Doin’ Nothin’.”
One of the key moments in recording And Nothing Hurt came last year when Spiritualized played two shows to mark the 20th anniversary of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Having previously played the album in full at the turn of the decade when it was reissued, it was a surprise that Pierce revived the experience again. It transpires there was an ulterior motive – to inspire greater vocals on the new record. “The vocals were sounding like they were being delivered from the side of a bed,” Pierce recalls. “Which they were – it was me on the bed with a microphone. But I didn’t want it to sound like that; I wanted the record to sound like it was being played. Even though this record is dense and there’s 265 tracks on every goddamn piece of music, I think it sounds like it’s being played, that it’s real. But to get that on the vocals, I had to remind myself of what it feels like to sing inside an orchestra. Having done that with the Ladies And Gentlemen… shows, I sung six of the nine songs again, and this time they sounded believable. I am proud of those Ladies And Gentlemen… shows, because a lot of that record is a squall of improvised music – but we give the audiences the right steps to allow them to listen to that squall, with the funny little waltz at the start, some soul, some quartet stuff…”
Such Great Heights
That joy in Spiritualized’s shows will continue for the tour of And Nothing Hurt, as Pierce talks excitedly of how the album was always intended to be played live, with up-tempo songs such as The Morning After added to the album largely because of how they’d work in concert. Pierce is only semi-joking when he claims that one reason he loves touring so much is because “it gives me some structure… I never make plans otherwise, happy to drift into things”.
If Pierce is uncertain of how to reach fresh heights in new music, he never doubts himself on stage. As raw and intense as Spiritualized gigs are, he isn’t exactly known for flamboyant showmanship. Yet you could misread elegant new song Let’s Dance, where a weary Pierce wants to shimmy with his partner, as revealing an unexpected ability. Is Jason Pierce a secret groover? “Come on, I don’t dance!” he splutters into his coffee. “That song is about nostalgia and the passing of time.” A long pause for thought. “I’ve never danced, I don’t think.” He may not dance, but, spiritually, nobody moves quite like Jason Pierce. Long may his obsessions continue.
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