Jason Pierce of Spiritualized
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Beginning with his early days in Spacemen 3 and over the course of six Spiritualized records, Jason Pierce (alias J. Spaceman) has always described the space between life and death, whether that means floating in space or just finding the perfect prescription. But in June 2005, he came closer than he ever intended to slipping the bonds of earth after he contracted double pneumonia, flatlined, and nearly died on the table operating twice. He was touch-and-go for weeks, deteriorating to around 110 pounds; his family and friends were told to prepare for the worst. But barely a month later, he left the hospital with the intention of getting back to his latest album.
Unfortunately, picking up where he left off proved daunting. The songs he'd already recorded suddenly seemed distant, unfamiliar, and disturbingly prescient of his near-death experience. He delayed working on them for months, nearly scrapping the project altogether, until a chance meeting with Harmony Korine led to working on the score for Mister Lonely. Reinvigorated, Pierce finally began in earnest on what eventually became Songs In A&E;, an unusually personal album for an artist notorious for refusing to reveal much about himself. Beginning with its title (referring to Britain's Accident & Emergency ward), the record has a palpable sense of mortality; tracks like "Death Take Your Fiddle" and "Goodnight Goodnight" (with its closing couplet of "Funeral home, funeral home") have a heightened poignancy. While Pierce himself downplays the background story, it still may be Spiritualized's most personally affecting record yet. Pierce recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his (and his album's) journey back from the dead, catching the elusive "ghost between the notes," and why songs make lousy time capsules.
The A.V. Club: You've made it clear in the past that you don't like putting your personal life before the music, yet your illness seems so inextricably tied to this album that it's almost unavoidable. Do you find that uncomfortable?
Jason Pierce: Yeah, because it's so long ago, you know? Time makes all of those things different. Each day, it gets further away, so it's no big deal anymore. I've also said that all the records have been hard to finish—the illness is just a better excuse for lateness than all my bad excuses in the past. But none of the circumstances really changed because I got ill. Harmony Korine helped me finish the album kind of in a roundabout way, but he didn't come to me because I was ill. He came to me because he wanted some music for his film. Maybe all those circumstances would have happened had I not got ill. [Pauses.] Really, it just provided a good pun for the title of the album.
AVC: Are you sick of everyone asking how you're feeling?
JP: [Laughs.] At least they care—I think. It's a weird situation, doing interviews. Nowhere else in the world can you talk about yourself and have people listen like they're interested over and over. Most people, if they talked about themselves for a half an hour, you'd go, "I'll give them a miss next time." So it's kind of weird.
AVC: It's tempting to see this album as "death-obsessed." Do you feel like it is, maybe even inadvertently, an album about death?
JP: No, I think it's an album about peace. I think it's at peace with itself, and it's found this beautiful place. It's like the Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space statement—you know, we really fucking are. The more you understand that, the more you can make sense of where you are. It's the same with death: Life really isn't worth living unless you know you have to get close to it. It just makes more sense of things. I don't know about "obsessed." I mean, I get obsessed like that. Click your fingers, and I'm obsessed about something. But "death-obsessed"? I think that would make it hard to listen to, and I don't think it's really hard to listen to. I think it's a really easy album.
AVC: What do you get obsessed with?
JP: Just the way I work. I get right excited. I think it's not so good to have a plan. I think it's good for things to find their own shape, to find the places where they sit right, to let things happen. I'm obsessed with the science of music. I'm obsessed with the way you can string notes together and they can do something, and you play the same notes in another way and they do nothing. How the essence within songs—within words, within lyrics—finds its place.
AVC: You've said that you originally approached the album with fictional characters in mind—
JP: That's right.
AVC: But that after you returned, it seemed more personal to you. What made it seem more personal?
JP: It wasn't really a content change, but the circumstances of my life had changed, so the subject matter became more harrowing. And so I wanted to scrap it. I couldn't finish it. Because of the circumstances, the way I was forced away from that record, I wanted to get rid of it. But I knew that it was going to haunt me. And that was it: It just haunted me. It was too close to what I'd been through—and I should add that I would never have written those lyrics about what I'd been through. To write a song like "Death Take Your Fiddle" about a near-death experience—or even a kind of near-death experience—isn't my style. It isn't the kind of thing I'd say, and it's also kind of a weird thing to do. I could still hear some of the threads I was trying to write about, but I had lost the concept of it. I lost the connection. Trying to finish it was as if somebody had said, "Why don't you try and remix Amazing Grace, or Let It Come Down, or Pure Phase?" Well, why would I want to do that? It's really old stuff. I'd lost that thing that makes it vital, that makes it really important. That had to be found again.
AVC: What convinced you it was worth doing that?
JP: Because I wasn't brave enough to say "Well, that's unfinished." I'm certainly not brave enough to release it unfinished. Everything that's come out under the tag Spiritualized has been finished, and it's as good as it's going to get. It's been pursued, and it knows exactly where it's at. It's really important to put out records that are as good as you can do, not kind of throw them out like it doesn't matter. I wasn't brave enough to do that.
AVC: You alluded to it earlier, but how much influence did Harmony Korine have on its completion?
JP: Huge. I mixed it a couple of times, and tried a number of different styles, and I'd applied studio techniques to it, all the stuff I knew. I'd applied stuff that was almost failsafe, but it just didn't work. Then Harmony asked me to do some stuff for his film, but he didn't have any kind of plan. He didn't say, "I want this kind of music," or "Here, let me set the scene for you." He just wanted the music, and he wanted my music. So if nothing else, it was a vote of confidence—somebody who believed in me, which was a huge thing at that point in time. And he's crazy, Harmony. His world's coming in from all over, and he's always throwing ideas around. It put me back into a place where my little piece of work seemed so small and feeble against this guy's sack full of craziness. It kind of made it work. He put me in a studio working with music the way I kind of allude to, or try to go for every time—which is hard to get—which is like a child, where it's just about creating sound. It's not about constructing a song, or trying to be "adult" about it, or making these big statements. I didn't have to stand by it. I didn't have to flaunt it. I just got into a studio and created soundscapes and music pieces. And that infected the record. That whole atmosphere infected the old songs and put them into that weird space where they are now.
AVC: Are you happy with the way the music was integrated into the film?
JP: Perfectly. It took me a while, because it's hard when you get inside the script. You can read words on the page, and you can see the picture, but you're not making the film. Somebody else is, and somebody else is doing the edit. And it took me maybe the third time of seeing it properly in the cinema, where it wasn't like it was when I was recording it, working with these pieces of music like they mattered more than everything else around them. You know, it's hard when you get connected to it. But yeah, I think it's a really beautiful film.
AVC: Is film scoring something you'd return to?
JP: Yeah, for sure, and I've been asked in the past. I've met with the Wachowski brothers and James McTeigue for a couple of things. But it's just not as important. It's great making music, and it's great being in studios, but I think we're a live band. We were created to be kind of freeform, and that works. It's what I enjoy most.
AVC: Once you started tackling your own songs again, did they change noticeably?
JP: In some respects they did. Someone might hear some of the old mixes and the new mixes and say, "So what did you do?" But they found this space that makes it seem right, and I think that's what's important about making records. You're making little time capsules. You're making these things that travel. And the longer they travel through time, the less important the writer is, the less important the intent. They carry this thing that warps other people's sense of time, and puts them in special, weird, wonderful places. That's what you do when you make a record, whatever your intentions. The best ones for me find that space naturally. I've said a number of times you can't make a record like Phil Spector by going to the studio and using all the microphones. People do it all the time at Abbey Road; they go in and go, "Let's go in Studio Two, that's where The Beatles worked." But you don't make great records like that. You can only make great records by understanding what's great in the records you love. It's not the notes or the microphones or the technique or the production. It's between the notes. It's this weird ghost that hangs between the notes. That's what you try to put down when you make records.
AVC: Speaking of ghosts between the notes, "Death Take Your Fiddle" features an accordion made to sound like a ventilator.
JP: Yeah, that's just a beautiful sound. I'd gotten into a lot of close-miking stuff working with Spring Heeled Jack and Han Bennink, so partly it had to do with that—though it was also a little more abstract. The track was so harrowing and so haunting that I covered it with children's toys. It's not a full-size accordion; it's actually about four or five children's toys. I thought if I did that, it would lessen the blow. And of course it kind of worked the other way. But once it was there, the song never sounded the same without it.
AVC: When you first came out of the hospital, you mentioned being inspired by the sounds of the heart monitors. Did you ever consider recording actual medical equipment?
JP: I'd love to. [Laughs.] I want to go back and ask if I can borrow [a heart monitor]. They're beautiful. I'd love to write a huge piece that was constructed around that, and also with that real beautiful atmosphere you get in hospitals. You know, how nobody really wants to be there. Everybody feels it, even if you're just visiting. You feel this huge power that's got this cap on it. It's being held down, because you can't freak out, you can't go crazy. Maybe some of that ended up in the "Harmony" pieces [on Songs In A&E;], and in the bits that went into the film without me realizing it. Maybe some of that kind of injected those sounds without being specific—you know, without me dragging a heart monitor into the studio. Which probably wouldn't work anyway.
AVC: Songs In A&E; seems slightly rawer than previous records. Are you actively moving away from using studio effects?
JP: Not at all. It just didn't fit well this time. I tried. When I couldn't finish this album, I mixed it into huge layers, messing with the sound. And it just didn't work. It sounded like I'd applied a "technique of production." I've said before that you can make psychedelic records by running all the tapes backward, using tremolos or whatever. But you don't really make psychedelic records. You make records that allude to that sound, that have all the sonics of whatever makes a record psychedelic. That kind of application to this record didn't work, so it went where it went.
AVC: Do you feel like it was influenced by your "Acoustic Mainlines" performances?
JP: Partly. Parts of "Acoustic Mainlines" entered it quite a lot, actually. Not that it's acoustic, but the power of that has been put into what we do electric. We started with all the power that came from the acoustic shows, then we plugged it into the wall, and then suddenly you can go off in all directions. At one time I tried to mix this album exactly like "Acoustic Mainlines," and I took everything out. That didn't work either. But eventually it just happened. It found where it went, you know. [Pauses.] I'm just going to keep saying that, aren't I?
AVC: But you do have a reputation for bombast, what with your frequent use of gospel choirs and orchestras and so on. Is it a burden trying to build on that every time?
JP: No, I just think where it fits, it fits. And I think it kind of didn't this time, you know? But the whole thing's a burden. If it was easy as just getting inside those environs, then every band in every bar that plays The Rolling Stones or Howlin' Wolf would sound as good and as beautiful as The Rolling Stones or Howlin' Wolf, and they just don't. There's something out there that's more than just people playing accurate notes in the right order. One orchestra can play a beautiful piece, and the same piece could mean nothing played by another orchestra. It's a weird thing, and it's elusive. It's not easy to get. But then if it was easy to get, I don't know if I'd do it.
AVC: How do you know when you've got it?
JP: You just do. You know that's where it's meant to be. When I say "get it right," I don't mean "right," like, "I've got it! Hey, everybody, I can do it!" I mean it's right for me. If you don't get it, then it's no big deal. If you don't understand it—what's there to understand? It's not a big deal. It's music. Some pieces become important, and some pieces that should become important never do. Some of the most simple, idiotic music can also be hugely important in your life.
AVC: Speaking of songs becoming unexpectedly important, you've said that "Soul On Fire" almost didn't make it on the album—yet it eventually became the lead single.
JP: Yeah, and the album kind of sits around it now. It's just, you know, I fight the kind of "pop" things that come out. I tried everything to make that song less of a pop record. At that time, when that song was written, I had just come off a tour with Evan Parker, Han Bennink, William Parker, and Matthew Shipp doing Spring Heeled Jack. It just felt wrong. You work in a sort of method of "Let's make music that's immediate, and spontaneous, and reactive to other music around it," and then the learning curve goes, and out comes "Soul On Fire." I felt the same way about "Stop Your Crying" [from Let It Come Down]. It just felt kind of wrong, but I couldn't find anybody who'd back me on taking it off the album. Nobody else raised their hand.
AVC: Have your feelings toward "Soul On Fire" changed?
JP: Yeah! I think it's really, really fucking important to the album.
AVC: That song's one of three with the word "fire" in the title. What is it about that word that you keep returning to?
JP: [Laughs.] I think I've covered it all in those three songs, haven't I? I don't know. I've said before I thought it was really lazy. I tried everything to rewrite it, but nothing would work. It wouldn't make any of the same kind of sense. And then—as if it could possibly get any worse—when the running order started working, they all virtually sit next to each other on the record. They don't even try to hide themselves.
AVC: Other than "fire," your most frequently used word is probably "God." What's the closest you've ever come to a religious experience?
JP: [Laughs.] I don't know if I have. I think religion is about belief. You either have belief or you don't have belief, you know. You can believe that the earth is the center of the universe. You can believe we revolve around the moon. You can believe anything. That's what religion is. I don't believe I've ever had that.
AVC: Nothing in your brush with death that qualified?
JP: What, that made me see the light or something? That would be kind of nice, wouldn't it? But no, I've nothing to say on that.
AVC: A lot of people survive a thing like that, and come out taking up jogging, swearing off drinking and smoking, and so on. Has it changed you at all?
JP: Maybe a little the other way. I wanted to see how strong I was, see what hadn't been knocked out of me. And you know, maybe more so than I realize. That's the other thing: It's easy for people to say, "Hey, I've been to the other side, and I've got this to report." Or, "I saw a column of white light, and you're all going to be okay." Or, "I'm a completely changed person." I think if you're a bit more rational, changes don't come like that. Although it's hard, because I'm inside of this thing. So maybe I've changed more than I realize.
AVC: Has it affected the way you sing?
JP: No, my singing's probably better. Maybe I should recommend that to anybody out there trying to sing. But you know, I never sang that well anyway, so it can't be that much better. Really, the biggest thing is this kind of disappointment that you're still the same. You expect something more radical.
AVC: You come across as the kind of guy who dislikes dwelling on the past—
JP: Dwelling on the past, no, that's kind of weird. That's an interview thing, isn't it? There's a huge time lag in music. Generally, you're talking about ideas you had two years ago. "I wrote this album, I recorded it here, we did this, we got this guy in, we did whatever." Anybody else who talks about their life on a two-year lag like that, again, wouldn't have many people around him for long. And this one comes at a greater lag—five years, nearly. So it is kind of weird. I don't sit around thinking about what could have been, or where things should have gone.
AVC: So you're not much one for nostalgia.
JP: No, I don't really think there's a "golden age" of anything. I think now is pretty fucking amazing. I'm probably the least nostalgic person. I don't think there was a golden time for music. There's always been people making great music standing here on Earth and saying, "This is where I stand, and this is what I've got to say, and this is how I feel about it." The industry of music has always been lousy. The stuff on the top, the stuff that rises, it's always been bad, right from when we first started getting into music. You just have to dig deeper. You have to look inward and outward. And then, when you make music, you can't just copy people. You can't just say, "This is how this was done, I'll do the same." You have to find what makes it good and kind of drag that kicking and screaming into your own world. Music is like a time capsule with no bearing. It doesn't really carry a message from the time when it was made. 1930s blues music doesn't really give you a sense of what it was like to live in America in 1930. It relates to your heartbeat now and where you are and what you're doing. I've said this in other interviews, but when I listen to Iggy Pop singing "Search And Destroy," it has no reference to Vietnam in my world. How could it? I'm from a small town in the middle of England. That's how music works. Looking back in music isn't even really looking back. Music's traveled to where you are.
AVC: It's been more than a decade since Ladies And Gentlemen. Has its journey to where you are now affected the way you hear your own songs?
JP: I don't really listen to them—and I was a little out of it when I made them. I listen a little when we're trying to work out how to play a song again, or when we have to check a chord. I do still think it's a beautiful record. I don't think it's any better or worse than the album that preceded it, or the album that followed it. It just became this thing. I think they all still stand.
AVC: Remarking on that record, Alan McGee recently said you make a classic every 10 years. What do you have planned for 2018?
JP: [Laughs.] In 10 years from now? Well, I'll have to make a classic for Alan McGee, won't I? You know, I think somebody should get around to asking him if I've succeeded in that with this one. I wouldn't want to disappoint the man.