Intricate Symphonies: An Interview With Spiritualized

Jason Pierce speaks to Piers Martin about how he drew on Kurt Vonnegut, "ridiculously complicated" production, and the lessons learned from across his career, to produce Spiritualized's best album since Ladies And Gentlemen

Photo by Sarah Piantadosi

Jason Pierce has become a regular at The English Restaurant on Brushfield Street in Spitalfields, east London. It’s a short stroll from his flat – which overlooks Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church – and it’s from here, in a booth near the back, that the Spiritualized leader has been attempting to explain for much of the winter how he’s made his best record in 25 years.

He still can’t quite put his finger on why, he says, but even he’s noticed that Everything Was Beautiful, his ninth full-length, is being greeted with a “wow” rather than an “oh”. “That’s quite strange for me because usually it’s not enthusiastic,” Pierce says of the typical reception to a new Spiritualized record. “I’m not complaining, but it’s odd that this one has resonated with people. Even I can see – and I’m not really paying attention – that people are going, ‘This is actually OK.’”

Pierce gets up around 3pm – “Is that kind of normal?” he asks – so interviews tend to take place a couple of hours after that. It’s late January when we meet, and dark outside. Covid restrictions have eased and the news of the day is that Nasa’s James Webb space telescope has reached its final destination, a million miles from Earth, having launched on Christmas Day. At 56, Pierce looks well, like Rupert Everett’s younger brother, classically handsome, with a slightly crumpled demeanour. He’s wearing his favourite silver sneakers and a lavender shirt. He speaks softly, aware he’s been saying the same things to similar questions a lot recently. The following week, pressing-plant problems push the album’s release back two months, to the end of April, which must be frustrating because Pierce says he delivered the vinyl master a year ago, anticipating delays, and the whole campaign – including US and EU tours – had been focused on a late-February release.

This shouldn’t dampen its impact. After a series of albums stricken by narratives which dwelt on Pierce’s misfortune, Everything Was Beautiful feels like a breath of fresh air. Not only does it distil all that’s great about Spiritualized – the euphoric space-rock, celestial jazz, wild narco blues and mind-bending production – but the whole process of putting it together went relatively smoothly, even by Pierce’s exacting standards. When he was promoting its predecessor …And Nothing Hurt in the summer of 2018 – the first new Spiritualized album in six years – he sounded exhausted just talking about the extreme lengths he would go to to achieve the perfect mix, so much so that he wondered if he even had another record in him. This could be the last one, he swore.

In fact, at the time, Pierce had already written and recorded most of what would be on the follow-up. The tracks on Everything Was Beautiful stem from the same pool of songs, demoed around 2013-14, that he drew on for …And Nothing Hurt. He didn’t let on, possibly because he wasn’t asked the right questions, though he’s been in the game long enough to know that a little mystery goes a long way. A clue was in the title – why the ellipsis before …And Nothing Hurt? – which, added to Everything Was Beautiful, forms a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt” is what the time-travelling protagonist Billy Pilgrim, bestowed with clarity of vision, suggests should be written on his tombstone. What’s the significance for Pierce?

“I’m not saying,” he smiles. “It’s just open, isn’t it? And there’s a sort of heavy sarcasm and cynicism. It’s also immensely beautiful. I’ve always loved Vonnegut. He’s cutting and sharp and full of good humour and humanity.” Around a decade ago, Pierce began rereading key authors from his formative years, such as John Fante, William S. Burroughs and Vonnegut, and was struck by the poetry of the language. “I hadn’t run out of reading material but I wanted to read them without the idea that I had to read them as a kid to be hip to whatever. It was quite surprising how different they were, and how with a lifetime – or half a lifetime or whatever I am into my life – you read them differently. The words are different and the context is different.”

For Pierce, there are similarities between “Ladies and gentleman, we are floating in space” – a line taken from Jostein Gaarder’s 1991 novel Sophie’s World that Pierce used for the title of Spiritualized’s 1997 classic – and “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt”. “It’s wordy and it allows the listener or reader to take that anywhere. It appears very descriptive but it’s not really. It’s open to anything.” Originally, Pierce had planned to use it as the title for a double-album, “this grand statement”, but was quickly talked out of it by Matthew Johnson, the boss of his US label Fat Possum. “He said, ‘You might as well bury it now because nobody will have the time and nobody will understand it.’ Obviously some people would invest in it, but he’s not in the business of selling records that will be discovered later down the line. In a weird way it’s probably the smartest thing I ever did.”

Photo by Juliette Larthe

Once that decision had been made, Pierce first finished the songs for …And Nothing Hurt, which were the ones from the demos closest to completion, and then moved on to the material for Everything Was Beautiful, which needed a bit more work. “It was an arbitrary split,” he says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh I’ll keep these’ or ‘these songs fit well together’. The songs that appeared on …And Nothing Hurt were just further down the road than these ones.” He’s keen to point out that this new album is very much its own entity, not part two or the other half of …And Nothing Hurt. “It sounds strange to try to talk it into something different but it really is something different,” he says. “It became its own world. It was approached as an entirely different mix with entirely different people.”

One of the new people brought into Spiritualized’s orbit was David Wrench, the mixer and producer, who was asked to mix the record with Pierce. Work started at Wrench’s studio, near Broadway Market, in Hackney, in the summer of 2020 and continued, on and off, until Easter 2021; Pierce would pop in one afternoon a week or so, which suited Wrench’s routine.

“The process ended up being ridiculously complicated,” Wrench says on the phone. He became a Spiritualized fan in the mid-1990s during the Pure Phase era – “that’s a properly psychedelic record,” he says – and the phasing technique of playing two mixes of the same song at the same time, which worked so well on the 1995 album, was tried on this new one too.

“At the start, Jason came in and played his mixes and immediately I knew the songs were so good, but it didn’t have what I’d want as a listener from a Spiritualized record, where you’re like, ‘Woah, I’m in another world.’ It was to do with the dynamic, and it didn’t have the level of detail you’d expect from a Spiritualized record. “You can listen a hundred times to Pure Phase and Ladies And Gentlemen… and there’s always something to listen to. There’s layers, but it’s all there, it’s not a mush, even though it might appear so on the first listen. It’s cleverly done so you hear one thing, then another. A melody goes from one instrument to another. It’s super detailed and intricate. It’s quite symphonic and classical in that way.”

The pair gradually assembled the tracks using parts of the original demos and later studio recordings as well as layering sections of different mixes together. “It needed patience to get it done,” says Wrench. “I’m always up for a challenge and wasn’t going to be defeated. I remember saying to Jason: ‘Don’t worry about it, keep coming in and if we’re working in this way, we’ll get it right. We’ll just keep going until you’re ready.’”

Wrench says Pierce has “an amazing ear”. “It’s rare to find a musician who is such a deep listener, but there are people who have it and, weirdly, I work with a few. Like Dan [Snaith, of] Caribou, he’s got this ability to listen in super deep, and Dave [Bayley] from Glass Animals – these people have this ability to listen in very, very deep into a mix. Jason has definitely got that.”

Photo by Sarah Piantadosi

The most challenging song to mix turned out to be the one that became pivotal to the whole album. An early version of ‘Always Together With You’ – credited to The Spiritualized Mississippi Space Program – first surfaced in 2014 on Lefse Records’ compilation The Space Project, but this new arrangement is altogether more elaborate and ambitious as two songs, one indebted to Phil Spector, the other to The Velvet Underground, collide in a symphony of chaos that threatens to collapse at any moment. “When I look at the session on that it’s crazy,” says Wrench, referring to the program used to mix it, “there’s a lot of layering. Different bits from everywhere. Quite a complex one.”

“I’d like to say they’re easy bedfellows but they generally aren’t and that’s what kind of makes it work,” says Pierce of the song’s components. “There’s also this funny little flamenco acoustic thing that doesn’t want to sit there but has been pushed to sit there alongside this straight-up doo-wop arpeggio.”

To bring the track to life, Pierce used some old tricks from Ladies And Gentlemen, We are Floating In Space. Where his partner at the time, Kate Radley, had spoken the album title at the start of the record, here his daughter Poppy says, “Everything was beautiful,” followed by a trail of otherworldly blips before the song begins. This, Pierce reckons, gives the record a sense of gravitas.

“I couldn’t get it so it felt like anybody would want to sit and listen, and so announcing the title with a tiny little transmission signal from Apollo 11 was straight off Ladies And Gentlemen… and it made it work,” he says. “It suddenly meant that the whole thing was a trip, that it felt like a space odyssey, like someone was viewing the planet from just outside the planet. I’m trying to rationalise things, but it really did change the listening experience.”

The album’s artwork of a pill packet (superimposed on an image of a meadow) also directly references Ladies And Gentlemen…’s famous pharmaceutical design. Pierce and his long-time designer Mark Farrow, who came on board for that album campaign, were playing around with Spiritualized’s visual vocabulary when the idea of the box came up. “As soon as it became a wellness ad or a strange Brave New World soma thing, it was kind of perfect. Farrow was the first to say, ‘Who wouldn’t take a pill called “Everything Was Beautiful”?’ How could you not?” One early artwork concept had involved Pierce flying to Mexico to film a video standing on the pyramids but that was binned. “It felt so unjust to follow a pandemic with my holiday snaps: ‘Here he is, nothing’s changed, business as usual.’ So we used what was to hand.”

Farrow worked closely with Pierce on last year’s Spaceman Reissue Program which saw the first four Spiritualized albums reissued in smart new vinyl and CD editions by Fat Possum. “It’s my life’s work and this is a way of reclaiming it,” he says. “Matthew Johnson wanted to make sure the records were out there and done properly. There’s a proper love for what he does.”

The 1990s trilogy of Lazer Guided Melodies, Pure Phase and Ladies And Gentlemen… are regarded as Spiritualized’s imperial phase, when Pierce managed to pull together the disparate strands of US psychedelia, garage blues, free jazz and gospel to fashion a singular style of experimental yet symphonic cosmic rock, culminating in the broken-hearted masterpiece Ladies And Gentleman…, a commercial and critical success that proved tough to follow. Over the next two decades, Spiritualized never quite hit the same highs again. In some ways. Everything Was Beautiful – full-bodied, energetic and wired – is the natural successor to that first run of albums, and it certainly feels like that during the ecstatic second side of ‘The Mainline Song’, ‘The A Song (Laid in Your Arms)’ and ‘I’m Coming Home Again’.

Even Pierce admits that these songs capture the sheer joy of Spiritualized at their best, when they sound unique and untouchable. “You strap a guitar around your neck and you hit a chord and if it’s the right sound and the right guitar, it really is this deep thrill,” he says. “This record sounds like Spiritualized but it doesn’t sound like anything else – and it feels quite effortless. ‘I’m Coming Home’ feels like we just knocked it off. Even playing these songs live, there are six of us trying to play what 30 to 40 people are playing on the record, and it still feels right. These songs are rooted in a single chord – or two, if we’re being clever – but they’re like John Lee Hooker in that you just sit on that chord and it works.”

Spiritualized chiming with the times hasn’t happened since the heyday of Cool Britannia in the late ’90s. Pierce’s recent records have all been politely received by fans and critics – …And Nothing Hurt reached No 11 in the charts – but you suspect he’s secretly enjoying the broader attention this new one is getting. “It’s quite strange, isn’t it,” he says, “and for once it seems to have sat into a world where it makes some sense. Usually they land at a time when people are not interested in the kind of stuff I’m doing.

“I’ve said all my life that I’ve tried not to sit with what’s hip or what’s fashionable, what’s selling or what makes sense, sometimes wilfully and mostly because I’m not interested in stuff that currently sells or currently registers with people,” he adds. “So sometimes it’s because you’re not trying to compete, so you’re not really in the competition.”

Everything Was Beautiful is released by Bella Union on April 22. Spiritualized’s UK tour starts on April 28

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