Jason Pierce has spent the past three decades building a body of work that runs the gamut of druggy psychedelia, moving from the spaced-out, minimalist drones of the Spacemen 3 in the Eighties to the maximalist gospel euphoria of Spiritualized, his main band since the early Nineties. Spiritualized will release Sweet Heart Sweet Light, their seventh album, on April 17th. The record finds Pierce working on the familiar grand scale of past Spiritualized discs while emphasizing simpler, bolder melodies.
Pierce made Sweet Heart Sweet Light while being treated for a degenerative liver disease, but at the time of this interview, that information had not been made public, so the topic was not addressed. He told Pitchfork recently that he’s “on the mend” and will soon hit the road in support of the new album. In this conversation, Pierce talks about how he came up with many of his new songs while driving in his car, recalls how he was convinced to go out on a recent tour in which he played his breakthrough album Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space in full, and explains how he pulls off enormous stage productions on a shoestring budget.
Your songs are so elaborately composed. Where do you begin when you write them? Do you know what the arrangement will be like when you start?
A little bit. But this album was always going to be based upon pop motifs, a lot of stuff that I rejected in the past. “I Am What I Am” I wrote with Dr. John, but it never made it to the record. I had all of these little bits of discarded materials, which were essentially discarded because they were too pop. They were hard to make abstract. Once you try to cut up the pieces and throw them, it stops being what it is, which is essentially quite a traditional form.
I also went in with this kind of idea that there are an awful lot of records that I love that aren’t made by kids, that aren’t made by people with everything that comes with youth, like this kind of singular vision, that aren’t throwing stones at you and messing up your floor. There are these beautiful albums made by people who, whether they wanted to or not, they’ve soaked up this wisdom and all these different types of music. And these records were things like Clear Spot by Captain Beefheart and Kill City by Iggy Pop and James Williamson. It was just these great pop albums, these great collections of songs that you play and in the end you say, “What a beautiful album,” but they weren’t the ones that were written about. They also weren’t the rarest of albums. It’s easier to write about the bigger projects, or the things that went wrong, the things that were unfinished. The things that had more broader changes in musical style, but these amazing records that just seemed like, I don’t know, more befitting of my age, I guess. Rock & roll always tries to pretend that it’s young, but there are these amazing albums that exist that seem like they have to be. They’re not made for an audience, they just are. That was kind of the starting point.
When you say “pop,” what do you mean in the context of your music? Because even if it’s more direct, it’s still not quite what people consider pop music now.
Just dealing with melody and harmony and embracing that, not constantly trying to fight myself to pull it away from that. In a way it’s easier to hide behind the abstract. It’s easier to hide behind distortion. When you’re dealing with pop, everybody knows the form. Everybody knows what you’re dealing with, and I just thought that was a good starting point. I also wanted to tie up some loose ends, because I thought I may not be making another album for a while, so I wanted to tie up all these pieces that have fallen by the wayside or that have always been a struggle, and put them together.
I’m curious about “Hey Jane,” which is at the start of the new record. What were you going for there? It reminds me of Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground, but it’s also structured a bit like his song “Street Hassle.”
Yeah, there’s a bit of that. It was a kind of idea that rock & roll is such a big part of me. I wanted to write on a thing that reflected the sadness and the demise of that in that record. Hence the name Jane. It was written specifically about a couple of people, but the name Jane seems as fitting as any. There is a line in the middle of it, where she is listening to “Sweet Jane” on the radio.
I was recording a lot in Wales and moving a lot between London and Wales. So lot of it was written halfway between London and Wales. There is also a way that you engage with music when you’re driving. You don’t listen to it the same way. You’re engaged with something else, and the repetition becomes different, and different than a kind of repetition through drug use. It was meant to reflect all of that.
So you were saying before about writing while you’re driving. Are you coming up with this stuff while singing to yourself?
Kind of. I was putting bits and pieces down. I had all these kind of melodies, that were going round and round. So it was like trying to make sense of those. And the whole album is built around that. There isn’t anything that isn’t built around melody. It’s something like a house of cards. The songs all lean on each other slightly, they all require the other songs to validate why that song is in there. The one I was having trouble with was “Heading for the Top,” but without that track working on the album, “Too Late” became sort of more normalized.
Before you started on this record, you went on tour and started playing the Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space album in its entirety. Did that have any influence on what you were doing?
I loved being back, involved in that kind of big scale, in a scale we could not have done at the time. When you’re making a record you’re working at the very edge of what you’re capable of doing, so the idea of going out and playing that live is kind of not possible, but 12 years later, or whatever it is, it’s more than possible. Well, hopefully.
We spent all the money we got from those shows on the show, and doing more. It’s a lot of money to be made in that. There’s a big trend at the moment, to only do that. I think the only way that music is going to go forward is if we make new music now, and not kind of take a starting point. It seems to constantly to look back. Like, we were great then, this was our moment, and you all enjoyed it, and here it is. The audience’s fingers cross that you don’t do any new stuff.
So in another way, the big influence on the new record was “I don’t want to be doing this.” As hugely enjoyable and amazing as those shows were, I don’t think it’s very healthy to use that as a reference to go forward. I’ve never seen myself as doing that. I’ve never seen myself as kind of looking back, or treading water. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re traveling, but you’ve got to be traveling, and you’ve got to be pointed in the right direction.
When you are pushed to revisit your older material, like when playing all of Ladies and Gentlemen, do you find yourself connecting with it in a new way?
No. I think that particular set of songs is more well-known than Pure Phase, the one that precedes it, just in the fact that it was marketed differently. I don’t think it was any better or worse than the album that preceded it, or the album after it. I understand how people get connected to things. It’s kind of a given, once you’re playing to an audience that’s already connected to that. It’s a lot easier to do. We did a show where we performed the whole of the new album from beginning to end last November sometime, and I didn’t do that with any courage or any kind of confidence. It just seemed like the only thing to do. If anything, I felt more backed into a corner that I’m making all these new sounds – to then just go out and play old material just seemed like a really dumb thing to do.
I had made the decision [to do the Ladies and Gentlemen tour] at altitude. I was talking on the top of a mountain in Australia. We went out to do shows with Nick Cave, and I was up all night with those guys and Barry [Hogan] and Deborah [Kee Higgins] from ATP, and they were leaning on me to do a Spacemen 3 show. It could have been worse! I could have agreed to do the Spacemen. They started with the Spacemen 3 and got down to Ladies and Gentlemen. It was about 10 a.m. the next day morning, and I figured I’m not going to get out of here unless I say yes.
I couldn’t sit here with any confidence and talk about what it is to do those shows, and make any decision about what to do next unless I’ve done those shows. It just seemed like the end of everything, to consider that as a way forward. To spend a year and a half playing an old record. To be honest, I maybe should say I’m not making any value judgment on anybody else doing that. I never judged anybody else in that way. I just realized that really isn’t for me.
You always have a very large number of musicians with you on stage. How does that work, logistically and economically?
How does it work economically? I take the hit all the time. I think it’s more important, you know? I think it’s more important to do a show. In fact, I don’t really think about it. I was going to say I ignore the budgets, but I don’t really know what the budgets are. I just say, let’s do this, or let’s get that. And they run the figures and it’s always out of whack. We just kind of make it work the best we can so I don’t use so much money.
We can’t afford choirs, so we get people who want to sing in an artistic sense. We got a guy called Daniel Thomas who is a choir master, who works with the gospel choirs and comes in and raises everybody’s voices, and teaches them how to fill their lungs and stuff. It’s that kind of thing about getting everybody with some kind of energy for it to pick the thing up. So there are ways of trying to make the thing work. Ways of, I guess, cutting corners, but I don’t even think it’s cutting corners. There’s different ways of doing shows than just bringing up a gospel choir.
Does it take a lot of rehearsal to get all these people on the same page?
We did one three-hour rehearsal, which is time enough. When we did the Acoustic Mainline shows, we couldn’t afford to travel with the band, so we picked up the string quartet and the gospel singers on the day of the show. We got together in a hotel room and played through the afternoon, then did the show in the evening.
There is something about rehearsal – you can go over and over the same piece of music. But it’s such a fleeting thing when you play live. I’m not suggesting you go out and make mistakes, but they’re not mistakes, they are just a part of this rush of music, and it’s not about accuracy. If we had more money, I don’t think the music would benefit from it. Now, making the recording is a different thing. You’re not trying to make a recording that is literally a record of what we did in that studio on that particular day for those three minutes. I want to bring in everything. I want to make the most glorious records, but also the most fragile. I want to make those things that cover everything, that make sense if you’re driving across a desert or waking up in the morning, or anything.
Do you ever have an impulse to go much smaller, since you have been working on a grand scale for a while now?
I just do what fits. Something happens, and I sort of make decisions on the fly. A lot of it are the options that fit your budget. I just had a conversation like that about artwork. We do sleeves that fit the record. The idea was that the music was beautiful, let’s package its beautiful. Not like, how can we sell a more expensive version of this record to people who pay the money for it. I just sat down with a table full of special editions. You know, where you go, you can have it in a box, or you can have it with two folds a card, or one fold a card. The sleeve is made for the music. I’ve paid for the sleeve, like Ladies and Gentlemen. I’ve paid for the last three shows, because it was bigger than the money we had on the table. Obviously, something must make money somewhere down the road.
If you’re constantly putting your money into it, where are you getting your money?
Exactly – there must be something that’s pulling some money in somewhere. There’s some mysterious benefactor out there, or up there.