If consistency is the hobgoblin of human minds, we can all be thankful that Jason Pierce is from outer space. The Spiritualized architect and founding member of Spacemen 3 has regularly cheated death over the past decade, most recently fighting his way through chemotherapy to concoct what’s rumored to be Spiritualized’s final album. The sometimes brooding sometimes soaring Sweet Heart Sweet Light is mature, psychedelic pop with Pierce at his most repentant.
[Jason Pierce pointing at a copy of Electronic Beats Magazine Fall 2011]: Ah, Björk. Haven’t had a chance to listen to the new album yet. What’s the consensus?
AS: Taken as a whole, with the app and interactive elements, it’s certainly innovative . . .
The last time I saw Björk was at Alexander McQueen’s, um, I don’t really know what you’d call it . . . I guess it was a memorial of sorts—a gathering in St. Paul’s Cathedral. She was asked to sing, and she performed a Nina Simone song a cappella. For the occasion, it was absolutely amazing. I don’t know how else to describe it other than moving. [pointing at a stack of vinyl] What did you steal?
MD: Well, it was supposed to be a few copies of the last Grinderman record, but I waited too long to pick them up, so I’ve ended up with a few copies of the new S.C.U.M.
I really like that last Grinderman record.
MD: I think it’s brilliant.
We went on tour with Nick for a while. We ended up playing a festival he curated in Australia with The Saints and a bunch of other great bands. Nick played, Suicide was out there, Harmonia was out there, Silver Apples were on the date. It was also pretty cool for Australia, and as festivals go in general, kind of uncommon.
AS: Sounds like ATP.
That’s exactly what it was. Nick’s one of the good guys, isn’t he? I mean, I don’t own that many of his records but I truly enjoyed some of the classic stuff he played on tour, like “Deanna”. When most people play older songs, there’s a sense of revisiting something that they haven’t got anymore. Especially in England, with the whole trend of hailing everything as “classic”. It’s usually music that was created in the stupidity of youth. Come to think of it, you could almost call it the ATP ethos. It can be enjoyable, but there’s also something deeply wrong about it.
MD: Figuring out how to deal with your artistic past—archiving or digging things back up—is a big challenge for lots of musicians. Bob Dylan or Miles Davis had been able to wade through their back catalogue and reinterpret it in a fresh and even risky way. I always find the reinterpretation much more inspiring, because it leaves open the possibility of failure.
The alternative is trying to relive your youth. There’s something very unsavory about middle-aged men and women doing that so publically, especially in England, where it happens so often because there’s money to be had in it. I mean, Spiritualized did three Ladies and Gentlemen shows and we didn’t really earn much from it, because we spent everything on making it bigger and more glorious. But there was money there if we would have pursued that for the next year and a half. But why would we want to do that? Not wanting to make new music as a musician—to me that’s bizarre.
AS: I read that you were in tears onstage during a recent performance of Ladies and Gentleman.
It was on a weekend in Scotland, and people properly come out there on weekends. They’d all taken their ecstasy, and the venue was kind of electric. It was like one of those snake handling churches where somebody would just stand up and shout, “I fucking love you!” and then sit back down again. We were playing an acoustic set with three gospel singers and a string quartet. The noise from the audience was actually greater than the noise from the band, but not like talking over the music or anything. It was more excited noise connected to the music. We started playing the title song and when we got to “Wise men say . . .” I looked around and saw all the gospel singers with tears streaming down their faces, because it was so glorious. But not in a hushed reverence—it was properly mad in there.
AS: There’s been lots of talk about the ridiculous amount of money you’ve been offered to reform Spacemen 3 . . .
“Original” band members, “original” venues, “original” audience: it’s all an attempt to capture a moment that’s gone. I mean gone. The thing is that music evolves very, very slowly, even though people are constantly looking for something new. Most listeners pick up on big changes in style, but the actual progression is in tiny increments over long periods of time. Either way, it’s important to be oriented towards the future and making music for now, not just regurgitating old crap.
MD: Don’t you think changes in music are more like paradigm shifts in science, brought about from the introduction of new technology and new tools to express new ideas within a different conceptual framework. Or at least reinterpret old ones?
It can be, sure. I don’t mean progression in terms of “improvement”. It’s more like evolution. But you still want to, like, encourage the change. But that’s perhaps where the comparison stops. I mean, it’s not about making a musical soup with a little bit of Stooges, a dash of Patsy Cline, a pinch of Willie Nelson; rather it’s about appropriating a feeling or artistic spirit. When I was a kid, it was still possible to catch Bo Diddley or Candi Staton playing in some tiny venue with a couple dozen people in the audience. Or I could go to some Motown revue thing at Butlins holiday camp resort. But I wouldn’t do that, because that was geared for people who had been listening to Motown when it came out, and were dead set on reliving something. Bo Diddley on the other hand was timeless. I think that’s the difference to catering to uncritical audiences, between wallowing in the past and moving on. I mean, who the fuck wants to be in the catering industry? Or do professional battle reenactments? It’s like those people who put on fake beards and buy fake guns to go reenact the Civil War on a Sunday.
MD: Simon Reynolds wrote a whole book about it. Have you read Retromania?
No, but people have recommended it to me. When I went on tour with free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, I asked him how much of what he does is “new” and how much is the Evan Parker that people want and expect. Clearly, there had to be a good deal of new, because so much of what he does is improvisational. He said it was fifty-fifty. I believe sometimes you have to force the music somewhere else; somewhere it doesn’t want to go. The whole reason we do this is because it’s exciting. That’s rock and roll, isn’t it? It’s the most glorious, beautiful, powerful thing around. And it’s so easy to mess it up. The difference between truly beautiful, heart wrenching music and crap is fractional. The difference between Patsy Cline and some god-awful bar band is maybe a slight change in tremolo. It’s the difference between Kraftwerk and what you hear piped out of your local shoe shop.
AS: You can sometimes draw a line between psych bands that rely heavily on orchestration and those that do things free form. Spiritualized are often seen as doing more of the former, although there are long stretches of Sweet Heart Sweet Light that sound like the latter. How much of what you do these days is improvised?
That would be most of the album, actually. You see, I don’t write songs. I just come in with ideas and then we work it out as a band. Some people that talk about the “symphony in their head”, one that “just” needs to be recorded. That’s a very conceited notion of making music, one that doesn’t allow for mistakes or things going hopelessly wrong. Some of the best bits of music are the product of people seriously fucking up. For Sweet Heart Sweet Light maybe less so because I was really looking to make a classic pop record, but I still didn’t instruct anybody to play parts. Everybody just played into that sound. But that takes time. With the band, communication is like osmosis. It’s like with friends: you learn how to talk around your friends; you learn how to dress around your friends, or whatever. It’s easier to get to the heights without the needle going into the wrong area. A good chunk of the new album was pulled from old bits and ideas that had been rejected from records in the past—you know, bottom shelf stuff. No, not really. But “Too Late” was like that, which I wrote for Candi Staton. I had this bizarre idea that Marianne Faithfull would have done it somewhere down the line. “I Am What I Am” was written with Dr. John almost eight years ago. But this was all stuff that didn’t fit at the time. It was too pop. But they don’t sound now like they did back then. Without trying to sound romantic, I thought of this as the last Spiritualized album, and I wanted to tie up all these loose ends. There was no reason to feel embarrassed by them. I’m talking lots now, but also, in a weird way, you can hide behind abstraction and distortion and always claim that people just aren’t “hip” to something when you make stuff like that. You definitely can’t do that with pop.
AS: Sweet Heart Sweet Light certainly doesn’t hide behind any fog of reverb or effect-driven atmosphere—at least not the unfinished version we heard.
Exactly. I thought for all these classic moments in rock and roll that have been written about to death, many of which I own on record, there are equally as many brilliant records that aren’t full of the stupidity and single-mindedness of youth. They have wisdom, musical wisdom. Beefheart’s Clear Spot or Iggy’s Kill City or even Elvis Country were records that had to be made. That’s what I wanted to make: something that’s more fitting of my age. Though I thought it would be easier to make a pop record.
AS: Really? That’s surprising to hear from a perfectionist.
Well, I’m not trying to make a perfect record, just something that fits perfectly with where I’m at . . . not that I know exactly where that is, but I at least have some approximation.
MD: Do you have any role models when it comes to aging with dignity?
I think there are a lot of musicians that age or had aged with dignity, but I don’t really have role models. For me, seeing The Sun Ra Arkestra and Peter Brötzmann have been some of the most inspiring musical moments of recent years. There’s also a lot of “new” music out there that’s just aping stuff from the past. I wanted to make a pop record that didn’t just sound like snippets of things you’ve already heard, but rather had its own identity. This isn’t the record of a young man that was writing on your walls and messing up your floor and kicking bottles over.
AS: One of the paradoxes of pop culture is that the things that are embraced by the masses are the same things that people feel speak to them personally—a dynamic Spiritualized seems especially attuned to.
I suppose so, but at the end of this record I realized that I had made something that was almost for a single listener . . . I guess it’s just how pop music works. Whatever your intention, how the work affects people is always out of your hands. I mean, when I listen to “Sister Ray”, I’m not thinking about sailors and prostitutes.
MD: Do you remember your dreams?
Some, yeah. But I’m not particularly mystical. I like science. Part of the reason why this record took as long as it did was because I had been doing a chemotherapy type thing, where the drugs they gave me were worse than what I was actually suffering from. The dreams that I had during the chemo were so closely connected to real life that there was a good six months of difficulty in telling the two apart. But dreams for me almost never have any deeper meaning.
AS: You’ve told us about crying to your own music—when was the last time you cried to somebody else’s?
I do it loads. I feel myself welling up all the time. Not properly crying though. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because I don’t listen to other people’s music when I make records, because I can only hear production values; how somebody records a snare or sibilance levels . . . I’ve only just started listening to music again, so I can’t report on any crying in the last couple weeks. But it’s always the same songs that get me again and again. “Day by Day” by Jimmy Scott, for example. I guess that’s an obvious one, but when I play it for somebody else and they’ve never heard it before, I usually get emotional because of their reaction. ~
Photo: Max Dax