This Is A Big Record: An Interview With Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce

Pierce talks to Elizabeth Aubrey about Spiritualized’s forthcoming festival performances, Ladies and Gentlemen at 20 and the next Spiritualized album

This year saw the twentieth anniversary of one of the most acclaimed albums of the nineties, Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Released in the same year as OK Computer, Spiritualized famously pipped Radiohead to NME’s Album of the Year in 1997. For a band notoriously uncomfortable with their past, Radiohead have remarkably embraced and celebrated the anniversary aplomb with the release of the extensive OKNOTOK boxset, a headline Glastonbury set and live performances of OK Computer rarities. Spiritualized’s celebrations, on the other hand, have been much more subdued. A couple of tweets on June 16 declaring “it was twenty years ago today”, Sgt. Pepper’s style, appeared on the band’s Twitter feed, quietly reminding us of the anniversary. Blink and you’d have missed it.

Like all things with Spiritualized, however, this wasn’t quite the full story. The occasion has been marked, albeit curiously out of sync with the album’s actual anniversary. Ladies And Gentlemen got its deluxe release back in 2009 and was performed at a series of special anniversary concerts then and again last autumn at London’s Barbican where the band performed the album in full, complete with orchestra and choir. Last year, according to Jason Pierce – the band’s one constant during the various incarnations of the band over the years – there was another reason too. A new Spiritualized album, the follow up to 2012’s Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, was on its way. “The new album is also due next year…and as they don’t compete, we decided to run an anniversary show this year and leave some clear space for the new album,” Pierce tweeted last year.

I’m speaking to Pierce just ahead of Spiritualized’s forthcoming performances at Oslo’s Øyafestivalen festival and Melbourne’s Supersense festival in mid-August. We begin by talking about the concerts and what to expect. I wonder if they will continue the celebrations of Ladies And Gentlemen from last year, or if indeed any of the anticipated new album material will emerge. Pierce tells me that whilst the performances will be structurally similar to those at The Barbican in that an orchestra and choir will feature, content wise they will focus on more of a career retrospective. The new album, he tells me, is still being finished.

“There will be 25-30 musicians on stage. It’s not centred around a single album, it’s covering a lot – probably something from every record. It’s also good because I don’t think we’ve ever played some of these songs live because they were focussed on an orchestra. We’d never go out and play with samples and click-tracks or anything. It’s hard to do some of the songs so it’s good to be able to finally do them any kind of justice. The plan was to try and set up presenting a new album, but the album isn’t quite ready so we’re ahead of time on this show. The idea was to try and set up shows in the future that present the whole album.”

Part of the reason behind the album not being finished is that Pierce went back into the studio after the anniversary gigs last year and re-recorded parts of it again as a result of the live performances and the impact they had on him and the band. “After the Barbican show I went back and sung half the new album again because there’s a kind of feeling that you get live where it really is of the moment. There’s no rehearsal. It’s like you’ve got to perform. And it felt like the studio is almost the opposite of that, especially when you get to put the vocals down. It’s kind of like you’re just working off paper or something. I kind of forgotten how to [be of the moment] until that Barbican show so I went back and did some of the record all over again.”

“It was just beautiful, beautiful to play with a big orchestral and choir,” Pierce tells me, rightly proud of the concerts which received much critical acclaim last year. “[They were] also kind of hard to get together. I thought somewhere down the line I could try and do shows that were kind of beyond my means a little bit. I figure if we fail, we fail gloriously, if that makes sense. We got an offer to do [some more of] the same thing. It’s harder to do those kind of shows if you’re travelling as the costs just mount up – the costs become enormous. I just jumped at it because it’s hard to get those kinds of things together.”

For Pierce, seeing the positive response to Ladies And Gentlemen being performed in full still surprises because of its many different musical styles and emotional depth. Whereas Radiohead were singing about the anxiety of technology and the new millennium in 1997, Spiritualized created a symphonic soundscape of heartbreak and addiction where souls were not so much bared as cut open and brutally exposed. Experimenting with blues, free jazz, rock n roll, krautrock, doo wop and gospel, Spiritualized’s third album was simply light years ahead of its day and its contemporaries. A layered othering with dizzying scope, it refused to sit in any genre and is still widely regarded as one of their – and music’s – all time masterpieces.

“It’s kind of strange because there’s an awful lot of complete freeform, of improvised music in that album – probably nearly half of it. It’s beautiful to be able to present that as a show and have people walk out and they’re not fazed by that, you know? It’s instrumental, it’s freeform and it’s wild. The way it is paced and the way it’s put together just seems to work as a show as well as a record.”

“They’re not over-rehearsed these things either, they kind of come together,” Pierce explains when I ask about how rehearsals for the forthcoming shows are going. “Some of the parts are written but there’s also a lot of freeform. We’re really going in the day ahead of the concert, showing people the cues and we kind of make it all click together. They don’t sit and sort of labour over it. It’s more about the power and glory of the moment and there’s something really special about playing those songs with that volume of musicians. There’s something quite amazing about that.”

I wonder if this love of free-form is linked in any way to the new album or indeed if it might mean we can expect something along the lines of Amazing Grace, made and produced in three weeks and influenced by freeform jazz, as opposed to something like Let It Come Down which took the band a painstaking four years to make, but it appears it’s the latter. “No far from it – far from it. It’s been a bigger undertaking,” Pierce explains. “I’m probably into my second year now. I don’t know how to put it into words – it’s not even finished yet. But it [was all about] trying to make something that was worthy of being made. I think so much music is knocked together and thrown out – especially now because people are desperate to get back on the road.”

“I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make a record that made sense. There’s so much music out there. Every time I put on one of my favourite records I kind of think ‘what’s the point?’ because everybody’s said everything. I wanted to make this record really, really worthy of existing and worthy of being out there.”

Echoing an interview last year, Pierce says that this may well be the last Spiritualized record. “I didn’t say it too lightly [last year]. I wasn’t saying that I wouldn’t do anything with music, it’s just such a big deal to go away and make a Spiritualized record especially. There’s so much stuff out there – there’s so much stuff that I love out there. Take any single artist, Sam Cooke or Ray Charles – they’ve covered so much ground that it just seems like everything’s kind of been said in a beautiful way already. It seems like such a big deal to make these records.”

“I feel like there aren’t going to be many more; I said a while back it may very well be my last record. I wanted to make something that was really worthy of that, a kind of glorious ‘this is what it’s all about’ kind of thing. And it reaches far – it covers a lot of ground. It’s not just another collection of songs – it’s a big record. It’s also [taken] years of work…I don’t want it to be a light undertaking. I want it to say something and be a big deal.”

Pierce tells me that making the record has been an all-consuming experience. I ask if he ever manages to unwind. “No, no. I just go crazy. I just get crazier and crazier and it’s not healthy which is kind of why I was saying I can’t see me doing this again. It’s like…it’s the only thing that matters and it shouldn’t be really. There’s so much else going on out there but it just consumes me. I can’t wait to get it down.” Does the album have a title yet? “No, not one,” Pierce tells me. “It’s just about there. It seemed for a while it wasn’t going to make sense and now it’s kind of coming together. It feels like it’s not far off. A couple of months and then I’ve got a finished record.”

Releasing an album in the anniversary year of Ladies And Gentlemen feels like a fitting cycle of sorts. If the new album is their last, it’s release will be tied in inextricably with their most famous third album, the one which brought them both critical acclaim and musical prominence. I wonder if Ladies And Gentlemen will prove a touchstone for the next or if the album’s anniversary has inevitably impacted on the making of the new one.

“No more than any of them,” Pierce says. “That album just seemed to register with [people]. In fact, it’s usually the first record that people buy or hear, isn’t it? That’s the touchstone. That’s the one that kind of gets them involved…I don’t think that album is any more [influential] than the others. It’s not my favourite. As a piece of music, it works as a live show because it was put together like a symphony.”

“[It’s] not like a reference, like a musical reference, but it had to have a point. The new record had to be something more special. I didn’t just want to say, ‘we can do that, let’s do it again.’ I wanted to make something that really did have something to say. Rock & roll is kind of a young person’s game, like folly and the power of youth. I wanted to make a record that wasn’t just trying to relive those. I wanted to make something that was twenty years on from Ladies And Gentlemen.”

The journey here, to what may well be Spiritualized’s last album, has been very much about one of survival – whether it be Pierce’s own health (he nearly died following the effects of a double pneumonia infection and has also suffered from long-term liver disease) or the various incarnations of the band, I ask him if the anniversary causes him to dwell much on the past or if there is a sense of celebration at the survival. “Yeah, I’m still here,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know. I’m not sitting here reflecting on what’s ahead and what’s gone. I want the [new] record to reflect where I am now and not just be like another record I’ve made or something. I want it to seem like it ties up loose ends, to say ‘this is what this is all about.’ And I wanted a record that covered all that ground lyrically and emotionally – something that was about exactly where I am now.”

“I want to make a great record, to make something that wasn’t failing or trying to be something that it wasn’t.” The days of illegal highs are in the past for Pierce, something ironic considering the tag line of the festival he is due to play in Melbourne alludes to ascending to “planes of ecstasy.” I ask him how he achieves that these days. He starts to laugh again. “It’s musical, obviously!” he tells me. “It’s about the music. If you play it enough, you get there. I remember I hold dear a line Jim Dickinson said. ‘You have to record an awful lot of music to find the good stuff.’ You sit and you play and you eventually turn up the goods, then you find something really special.”

“And you do get that. Down in the studio you work and you play… there’s a kind of myth around recording that it’s all about the first take, that some kind of magic happens. Maybe sometimes that happens but that’s not a given otherwise none of the great symphonic pieces would work – if it was all about Stravinsky’s first piece, there wouldn’t be any necessity of doing it again. And it’s not about that. It’s about playing it and finding something special. You can achieve anything if you work at it hard enough and long enough.”

Looking to the past, Pierce revealed last year that he was offered millions to reform his first band, Spacemen 3. I ask him if looking back to the earlier work of Spiritualized in this anniversary year ever makes him want to revisit his earlier work with Spacemen 3, a band whose work is still seen as pioneering, or if the idea is too painful based on the acrimonious way the band ended. “There’s no pain involved, it’s just that I don’t see the point of playing through the things I played when I was 19 or 20, you know?”

“I’m just not interested. It’s a musical [rather than money] thing. I don’t want to go over old ground. And even doing Ladies And Gentlemen shows, it wasn’t like we were just doing that – there was something about getting in touch with that and playing it in a way that we could never play it before. It’s a good two thirds of a record we’d never played live. These shows were looking to the future.”

“Music shows aren’t about presenting the new, they’re about going out and playing all your old songs. In certain cases, people don’t even want to hear the new stuff. I started doing these Ladies And Gentlemen shows as a way of saying, ‘Look, we can do this, and if it doesn’t work, it fails in a nice, glorious way’ – there’s something really beautiful about that as well. As to going over old ground for old ground’s sake, I don’t see any purpose in that. We’re trying to say, look we can do these [anniversary] shows and hopefully somewhere further down the line, we’ll do some around a whole set of new songs as well.” I tell Pierce I can’t wait for the album to be finished. “Neither can I,” he says, laughing.

Spiritualized play Supersense Festival, Melbourne on the weekend of August 18 – 20

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