Coming Into Phase: Jason Pierce Interviewed

As the Spiritualized reissue programme continues, Jason Pierce tells Fergal Kinney about a moment of inspiration that led to distinctive sound of his favourite album by the group, Pure Phase

“Once we’d tried it” explains the softly-spoken Jason Pierce, choosing his words carefully as he reflects on the excesses of the early 1990s, “there wasn’t really any going back. I wasn’t after anything from it, at first.” Like many habits, it was proving particularly moreish – an almost unattainable high to chase. “It was kind of an accident that got out of control.” That’s right, Jason Pierce had fallen into the habitual use of analogue phasing.

When recording had finished on Spiritualized’s second album Pure Phase – reissued this month on Fat Possum as part of the ongoing Spaceman Reissue Project – Jason Pierce found himself with two separate, distinct mixes of what he perceived to be the best album of his career. The only problem? Which mix to go for. Discussing his dilemma with new friend John Coxon, one half of London jungle duo Spring Heel Jack, Coxon suggested flippantly “if you like both mixes, why not just do that?”. It was a lightbulb moment for Pierce.

“It was a typical throwaway remark but we tried it. We got them together and it was this amazing thing.” Or at least, briefly amazing – when the mixes aligned, it created a glowing, hallucinogenic affect as sounds blurred in and out of phase. Too quickly, however, the mixes would fall out of kilter. “We realised we would have to go through the entire album and, every maybe eight bars, realign it manually.”

With the album recorded onto tape, this became a physically exhausting process – late night sessions devoted to splicing and re-applying the tapes. "There wasn’t any going back. You’d listen to the individual mixes and it didn’t stand up, there was this amazing thing that we’d found.”

Pierce, whose tastes had been broadening since founding Spiritualized in 1990, was aware of the idea of phasing from the tape loop experiments of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Pop music had a more crude, electronically filtered version of this effect, popularised through the sweeping sonics of artists like Hawkwind and Todd Rundgren, but Pierce was aiming for something more subtle and ambitious. "This record is too slight to be like that, any time it went out of sync in that area we’d immediately realign it and tighten it up. I was after a kind of imperceptible, weird movement. You can’t do it with digital, it doesn’t work, there’s something about the fact that they’re on tape. Running at this slightly different speed, it gives it this real movement. It became so unaligned – you wouldn’t place a kick drum there, you wouldn’t put a bass drum there, but it was a really beautiful thing.”

Its this formal experimentalism and a genuine, dubby understanding of space that elevates Spiritualized’s 90s work way beyond their record collector rock contemporaries – who, with ostensibly the same ingredients, cooked up only unsatisfying renderings of rock clichés (Primal Scream). Pierce’s gift was for suspending musical ideas in a fuggy, opiated stasis, temporarily untethering fragments of rock & roll, Krautrock, electronica, gospel, the blues – or was it the greys? The dank pallor of the comedown is all over Pure Phase, the seven minute ‘Electric Mainline’ blinks like light filtering into a dark, smoke-filled room. It’s in this that the album achieves the high water mark of what an unnamed US rock journalist would term to Pierce ‘Stooges For Airports’. The band even briefly renamed themselves Spiritualized Electric Mainline, a druggy innuendo but also a literal description of the sounds Pierce found himself making.

Spiritualized had emerged from the paranoid ashes of Spacemen 3 – the smart money at the time was that the mercurial Pete Kember would go on to have the most success, instead, nobody had been more surprised than Jason Pierce when Spiritualized’s low budget 1992 debut Lazer Guided Melodies – its cosmic prettiness anticipating dream pop – became a minor hit. The group had been made up of former Spacemen 3 players and associates from their native ‘Drugby’ scene – that would change as sessions for Pure Phase began. Bassist Will Carruthers, drummer Jonny Mattock and guitarist Mark Refoy all exited the band, leaving just Pierce with keyboard player and girlfriend Kate Radley.

“I feel like I don’t really know what went down” says Pierce, “I read Will’s book [Playing The Bass With Three Left Hands, 2016] and it made me realise that a lot of stuff that goes on when you’re young, you just think, if you’d just asked a question, you would have realised how far your thinking was from the truth. Remember that we were in our early 20s making that first record. And it seems such a shame with hindsight. Will wrote in the book about me and Kate trying to buy a house for cash. Who buys a house cash? Even if you have cash? It was such a non-truth. But that influenced Mark and Johnny, it convinced everyone to leave before we’d even had time to breathe.”

The hardest job of any band is often simply keeping the thing together – Pierce and Radley held their nerve. “It’s like Kate’s part in the band has been written down as just that thing” says Pierce, referring to her much-speculated exit from the group, “when she was so much more than that. From a purely musical view, it was this relentless thing, the whole sound of the band was built around Kate’s Farfisa and Vox sounds.”

“I’ve got no confidence. I had so little then and I haven’t got much now, but she was so supportive of what I was doing so it’s a massive thing, and you hear it most on Pure Phase.”

Sessions continued at Moles Studio in Bath, where Pierce and Radley established a new group during the heavily nocturnal sessions. “I’ve always lived on like GMT+4 or 5” says Pierce, “so we’d start recording at about 4pm and go until 3 or 4. Bath’s a beautiful city, it’s very easy to make music there.”

At this time, Pierce’s tastes began widening beyond a diet of American psychedelia and gospel. “It was becoming a bit more like now, where everyone’s into everything from deep soul to the blues to classical to strange jazz to techno or whatever. There’s no constraints, and we were trying to be all over the place in our tastes.” Spiritualized were a product of an early 90s CD reissue boom, in which the taps of unlimited undiscovered music that we have today were beginning to be turned on. "All of the sudden everyone was finding the Beach Boys or Big Star, you name it.”

This had led Pierce to an interest in minimalism. “I found this world of John Adams, Steve Reich and Michael Nyman, particularly Michael Nyman” explains Pierce, who invited Nyman’s visionary Romanian bandleader Alex Bălănescu to appear on Pure Phase with the Bălănescu Quartet – who had worked with David Byrne and Pet Shop Boys around this time. “He didn’t let me down at all, in terms of what I wanted. It just sounds like Alex Bălănescu, in the way that Miles Davis sounds like Miles Davis.”

Electronic influences were coming into play too – Pure Phase is the most electronic of the 1990s Spiritualized records – and Pierce was engaged in bridging a gap between dance music and indie rock in a more interesting way than the humble indie dance remix. A Hackney Empire show around the recording of Pure Phase saw Aphex Twin and Mixmaster Morris supporting with a long ambient set – incense was burned, candles flooded the stage.

“I thought what Aphex was doing was an amazing kind of music” says Pierce, “I remember getting some abusive letters from Aphex Twin fans after that show who really didn’t like our music, I didn’t expect our music could make anyone so violently unhappy. Mixmaster Morris too, I’d see him a lot around that time at a number of shows, like me meeting John Coxon at the time, it was an interesting crossover.” Writing about the show, David Toop correctly identified a “harmonic convergence seems to be occurring between the ‘ambient’ tendencies of dance music and indie rock” – it’s a red herring of the 1990s that doesn’t quite happen, yet still contains much possibility.

“It was interesting, that part of the world, the original ecstasy parties at Hackney Empire, we played those as Spacemen 3. It was just before there was acid house music, it was ecstasy music, the Weeds were around and it was this strange world of ecstasy but nobody had… it was kind of just before Happy Mondays. We did shows with Psychic TV around that time too, this strange crossover world where it still had one foot in 60s psychedelia and another into this new music and strange new drug. There wasn’t a culture for it then, so it was just stealing from whenever and wherever.”

Though Spacemen 3 made no secret of their drug associations, it’s on Pure Phase that Pierce does his most interesting work with this. The album begins with Pierce, singing blankly without affectation, “Every day I wake up/ and I take my medication/ And I spend the rest of the day/ Waiting for it to wear off.” On ‘Lay Back In The Sun’, he repeatedly incants “good dope, good fun”.

“I don’t think I had any anxieties about putting that on the record, as long as it’s the truth. That’s the deal isn’t it? I thought it was important that what you put in music is of you and from you, that’s what I find in the music that I love, it’s believable. Even if it’s not true it has to be believable. We had no anxieties about it though, there’s a certain poetry to it as well. The line from ‘Medication’ was from a friend, I don’t think he said it in exactly those words, but that phrase, there’s no way out of that, it seemed poetic in that way. There’s a kind of beauty to that statement and it seemed like it had to be written into a song.”

British indie in the 1980s had been conflicted and hypocritical on the subject of drug use. Jason Pierce, wearing his caner credentials on his track-marked sleeve, was only too happy to make a darker, more nihilistic point – appearing in photographs with bags under his eyes and a ‘Drugs Not Jobs’ T-shirt. This wasn’t yet the coked up Blair bling of popular memory, instead the Major years felt stuffy with decline, less Trainspotting and more the knackered streets of Mike Leigh’s Naked and Patrick Keiller’s London.

Drugs also provided an entirely new function to be filled for audiences. “I’ve found that for a lot of people, our music became this kind of church state for people who were up all night, up the next night, and the next day, and this still world of music seemed to satisfy that moment. This becalmed state of music. I meet a lot of people who feel it fell into that place for them.”

On release, Pure Phase was met with middling reviews and remains overlooked in terms of its critical reception in the Spiritualized canon. It was released to a Britpop moment still in giddy ascendence, shortly before the release of ‘Some Might Say’ and the Conservative party’s drubbing in the 1995 local elections. Things could only get better. By 1997, a mood of national comedown found its match in Pure Phase’s follow-up, the infinitely more successful Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Regardless, Pure Phase endures as an outlier in 1990s British rock.

"I think it’s quite extraordinary, I’d probably say it’s my favourite of the records I’ve made, the construction of it satisfied something in me that likes breaking the rules, not in any kind of grandiose way but there’s something in the process of that which really satisfies me. I checked the masters back and it still sounds like this extraordinary thing. It exists in its own space, it doesn’t sound like anybody else.” The last time Pierce heard the album, it was on a drive to Cornwall. "I drove down on a stormy night and played Pure Phase as the rain was lashing down on me on the motorway. That always stayed with me, that’s what the record reminds me of. This strange swirl phased tone that creates this opiated drone world.”

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