Music interview: Spiritualized

Jason Pierce of Spiritualized
Jason Pierce of Spiritualized
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JASON Pierce sounds a little distant this morning, his soft Midlands accent initially barely audible down the phone line.

“Tired,” he sighs when I ask how he is. “But let’s do this.”

Long-time fans of Spiritualized, Pierce’s band who sprung from the ashes of Rugby space rockers Spacemen 3 more than two decades ago, will be familiar with his weary tone from records such as Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space and Let It Come Down.

The 46-year-old singer and guitarist may pause at length before answering questions but he’s thoughtful, dryly humorous and articulate about the things he loves.

Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, Spiritualized’s seventh album, released earlier this year, was made during a bout of serious illness, during which he was put on experimental medication – normally given to leukaemia patients – to tackle long-term liver disease.

“I had this treatment and I had to take a year out and make a record on it,” he says. “I was told I would not be able to tour if I was on the treatment.”

Unlike its predecessor, Songs in A&E, which was completed after another health scare – with life-threatening pneumonia – this time Pierce “tried to make something brighter and with more clarity as a kind of opposite to the way I felt”.

“I’m not a big fan of David Bowie,” he says, “but I read somewhere a while ago that he was working with Iggy in Berlin when he made Station to Station. It’s not that dissimilar to my record in its clarity. He was in an unhealthy time in his life, living on cocaine and milk.

“The other record that’s similar in my world is Sly Stone’s record [There’s a Riot Goin’ On], but that’s dark and brooding. I went the opposite way as an antidote to how I felt.”

He’s reluctant to say much about his illness, other than “it’s fine, it’s sorted”, but is more forthcoming about the record it spawned. Was he trying to capture some of immediacy of bands he loved in his youth such as The Stooges, the Modern Lovers and MC5?

“Not deliberately so. What you want to do when you make a record is to cover new ground. But you keep things that sound familiar and touch on things you love. It’s hard to break away from that. It’s why I’m wary of radical change in people’s music.

“Part of this feels like it was made by somebody else,” he says. “I wanted it to sound like live, like a band, to have great clarity. I figured if I did a pop record there were given the rules you had to apply. The vocals had to be loud; everything had its own space.”

Pierce’s influences have always been wider than rock’n’roll. His love of vintage blues “started with Blind Willie McTell”.

“His album Travelin’ Blues was the first record I heard. It’s always there; it’s what I’ve always loved.”

A fondness for American gospel music stems, he says, from doo-wop. “When I got into the Velvet Underground I read that Lou Reed loved doo-wop. It’s full of lines like ‘Heaven sent me an angel’ and ‘Ask the Lord above’. They’re full of religious imagery but they’re love songs. I figured all my songs are love songs. Even if they use the word ‘God’ they are not about God. Most of my references are to do with that.”

Another long-standing interest is free jazz. “It’s the most forward-thinking music,” he says. “The best shows I’ve seen recently are free-jazz. In London I live close to Cafe OTO which caters for improvised music and free-jazz. The shows are light years ahead of everything else at the moment.”

He “actively stayed away” from incorporating it into Sweet Heart, Sweet Light for practical reasons.
“I wanted to stay within a familiar framework and not have any great leap into those songs,” he explains. “I wanted it to be like somebody in the room with those songs. It’s not a stylistic thing but I didn’t want it to be avant-garde. I didn’t want there to be any excuse or somewhere to hide in a cloud of fuzztone.”

Pierce once said he disliked the recording process so much he never wanted to make another record. The difficulty, he says today, is that “too many ideas come in”.

“It’s the fact that you have to nail it: this is how it is forever. Music should not be like that.”

He’s happier performing his songs on stage. “When we play live it’s like being in an avalanche,” he explains. “You push it around, it’s a moving thing, constantly in flux.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Spiritualized records is their covers. Pierce might not have a design background but he takes a keen interest in cover art, working closely with designer Mark Farrow

“It’s the first point of contact for most people – or used to be; I’m not sure it is now,” he says. “But before you listen to music you’re generally holding the thing in your hand. The days of flicking through record sleeves are long gone but people moan about the lack of scale in a CD [cover]. This sleeve works at any scale. It works as a tiny centimetre-square of artwork.”

The cover of Sweet Heart, Sweet Light features a single word: Huh? Pierce says “it was a joke about the state of my brain when I did it” and intended it to be the title of the album before reconsidering.

“I figured it would become known for that, but it’s such a weird thing for people to say,” he explains. “Not that people ask for records now, but I could not picture people asking for it. I had an image of a Monty Python sketch where people had to repeat themselves.

“For simplicity’s sake, I had to change it. Sweet Heart, Sweet Light is a lyric from the song Hey Jane.”

Pierce was 12 years old when he was first given a guitar. The first record he bought was Raw Power, by The Stooges. He quickly realised “it was something you could do, other than work. It seemed like the best thing to do.”

At 16 he formed Spacemen 3 with fellow art college student Peter Kember. They made four studio albums with various line-ups before splitting acrimoniously in 1991. Do those days feel like another lifetime?

“Probably. How long ago was it?” he asks. “It’s somebody’s lifetime. But, in saying that, what I like and what makes my world work is similar. I still think music is the single most important thing. I still like music that’s simple. I still like rock’n’roll – the basic feeling of it. It doesn’t need to get more complicated. I still have the same feelings about talent. Great music is somebody hitting a single chord like it’s the greatest thing in the world.”

After a “summer’s worth of festivals”, Pierce is looking forward to Spiritualized’s forthcoming tour.

“I know everybody’s going to festivals but it seems the compromise you have to make as a musician is not a good thing,” he says. “It’s good to be playing our own shows. You can do whatever you want. I’m looking forward to that more than anything.”

November 3, Leeds Metropolitan University, 7pm, £19.50. Tel: 0113 812 8400.