Jason Pierce has some experience in the desert. In 1999, the British bandleader brought Spiritualized into the heat of Indio, California, for the inagural edition of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, where they played pulsating, emotional space rock into the early evening with the help of a local childrens' choir. He was back again this year, this time with a new band of American players, mixing new songs with material from last year's acclaimed Sweet Heart Sweet Light.
'Both weekends onstage in the festival's Gobi tent, Spiritualized delivered waves of improvised, song-based material at times jagged and ethereal, with raw psychedelic guitar and spacier cosmic flourishes, as if early Pink Floyd and later Pink Floyd got together to start a band. In his trailer backstage at Coachella's Empire Polo Field, Pierce spoke with Rolling Stone about his history with Coachella and the festival experience, his new American band, and his plans to begin work next month on a new album with longtime David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti.
What are your memories of the very first Coachella?
I didn't have a band, so I came out here and put something together, and then we got a local school to provide a choir. I like the desert when there's nobody in it, so it was just hard work. It was a completely different festival than you know now. They had an idea of being a bit more free like Glastonbury and a bit more fucked up, and like what festivals used to be – a way for people to get out of the city and get as high as they fucking can and as far away from their real life as they possibly can. And it kind of changed to people wanting more of the facilities of real life, so it changed a little bit – neither for better nor worse. It's just different.
Are you surprised that the reputation of Coachella has grown so much since that first show?
Americans are good at business, aren't they? They like success, so no, it does not surprise me in the slightest.
What have you been doing at Coachella this year?
It's hard to play a 50-minute set. I've got a new band again – an American band. Last week we were 11 shows old. It's new and exciting.
You have had a lot of new bands over the years.
[Smiles] I haven't done it as often as I'm known for. The shows I've been most excited about seeing are in a little club in London called Cafe OTO where I see people like the [Sun Ra] Arkestra play, and it's all improvised music. I've thought of Spiritualized as improvised but hungover songs, but when you see those guys, it's all about the immediacy of playing. There was nothing wrong with [my] band as it was. It was just hard to get them to become more free. So I came to America with the idea of finding musicians that played more like that.
You just put out Sweet Heart Sweet Light last year. Is it too early to be thinking about the next one?
No, I'm there. I've got a lot of songs, a great new band. I asked [producer] Tony Visconti if he wanted to get involved, and he really wants to get involved – which I wasn't expecting at all. You can only ask.
Are you doing any of the new material on tour?
Yeah, we've been playing lots of it. For a while, people thought if they played new material it was stolen from them immediately. We've got to get over that. I don't think that's good for developing anything. All the best things come from making mistakes, and you can't make mistakes unless you actually do it. There's something very traditional rock & roll about playing songs. It's probably why most peoples' first albums are great.
How do you approach playing a festival?
I wanted to go out there and play "Rated X," which has developed into 20 minutes of freeform, but it's so hard to do that to an audience that's a little bit transitory. There's a huge compromise on everybody's part at a festival. The thing about making a show is you own that stage, and you own the environment and you push the air around. Obviously you can't do that here. It's like a market store where you sell your thing louder than the next guy. I went out last week and the best thing is the audience. There's a great thing that happens when people come together. And there's magic in the shows. It's just a little bit of give-and-take to get there.
What are your recording plans?
I want to make it in New York next month. I've produced so many records now that I'd like to talk to someone like Visconti about sitting on the other side of the glass. He's made some great records, some of the best records. So the plan is to do that – or at least starting like that. I have a problem with records. I have good intentions, but reality kicks in.
Your last album took three years. What happens during the course of that?
There's a million possibilities – that's what happens. They're like little time shifts you're pushing off with all this information, all these densely packed ideas. You can't pull it back once it goes off. So they've got to be right, and they've got to say what you want to say. And that takes me time – but not time messing around or trying to get perfection. It's more time to know that it's what I wanted to say. The great bits of music aren't the big moves, they're the tiny earthquakes. There's a bit in the middle of Little Jimmy Scott's "Day By Day" where he almost imperceptibly changes speed, and it's the most gorgeous moment in the world. It's in those moments where the real beauty is.
Will the next album be a shift from the last one?
A shift from the last few. It's a new band, for a start. But I'm desperately trying to not make a record like the last three. They were constructs. I want to get a record where we play the songs and know exactly what we're doing, to a point, when we go in the studio. At least the intention is different.
The last one was very well received.
It's weird, isn't it? The last one I was having treatment for hep C, which is not great – I have nothing to recommend for those drugs unless you want to cure liver disease. So I felt like the last one I made outside of myself. But then people really like it, particularly in America. So it's an odd feeling to make something where you're a little bit distant from it and find that people really, really get it.