Spiritualized :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

In the late 1980s, after a split with his Spacemen 3 partner, Peter Kember, Jason Pierce set out to make a new kind of music, less guitar-driven, more orchestral, founded on hauntingly simple melodies, but blown out with lush arrangements, blistering noise and free-wheeling instrumental improvisation. Spiritualized drew on pop, gospel, psych, blues and jazz, seeking a transcendent release in tracks that could last for nearly half an hour or incorporate scores of musicians. Four albums—Lazer Guided Melodies, Pure Phase, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space and Let It Come Down—defined a large-scale, gloriously overwhelming space rock sound, where fragile melodies unfurled amid a riot of instrumental and vocal embellishments. But after ending his relationship with Arista Records, Pierce lost control of his major label catalogue and the music languished out of print.

This year, Fat Possum has begun reissuing the first four Spiritualized albums on vinyl. We talked to Pierce about his extraordinary 1990s run, his creative process, his influences and the way that music, when done well, can transport you into different times and different places. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Why was it time to reissue these albums? Why these four?

Jason Pierce: Well, to start at the beginning, they are the first four. Why now? Because I’ve got a good relationship with Matthew at Fat Possum, and he’s been talking about reissues for a while. It was a way of saving them, reclaiming them if you like. When you leave a label, you leave your catalogue behind. It’s kind of forgotten about if it’s even pressed. It was just a way of reclaiming them. I’ve seen some other reissues that just came out without anyone even telling me. Whoever wants to pay a retainer to the major can make a reissue of it. It just seems that that wasn’t good enough for those records.

AD: Tell me about the transition from Spacemen 3 to Spiritualized? I know there were different people involved. But were you setting out to do something different?

Jason Pierce: I can’t say I had any plans. I just wanted to carry on and do something. Maybe to explore some of the quieter stuff. Spacemen 3 was always two guitars. It was this great sound, especially live, and I didn’t have that anymore. I was maybe more interested in melodies and harmonies. The simplicity of it. Rock ‘n roll is intense, but it’s a simple format, and when it gets complicated, it’s not necessarily good for it. It was just a kind of survival. I was not very confident then. I was less confident than I ever was. I was just trying to keep doing it. I’d put so much time and so many years into Spacemen 3 and I wanted to keep doing it.

AD: Both the name of the band and some of the music alludes to an otherworldly experience. What was spiritual about the music you were making?

Jason Pierce: Wow, that’s a question. What makes it spiritual? I don’t know. I guess I want to allude to all the music I found spiritual. Not religious in any sense. Spiritual is Buddy Holly. Spiritual is Patsy Cline. Spiritual is Michael Nyman. I was interested in music that could really take me places, that could feel like a journey that could accompany your own journey. Music that could make you feel like you’re in another world.

AD: It definitely has that quality. The first Spiritualized record, Lazer Guided Melodies, has really elaborate arrangements – strings and horns and massed voices. Were you comfortable right from the start working with orchestral instruments or was there a learning curve?

Jason Pierce: It’s only another sound. It’s only another instrument. I mean, I’m still on that curve, but I didn’t feel like it was any more difficult than putting a guitar or a bass down. It does open up a whole new world of sonics that you can’t get from guitars and basses and traditional band instruments. But no, we did some of that on some Spacemen 3 tracks.

It also was what I was listening to around that time. I’ve mentioned Michael Nyman, but I was listening to a lot of composers outside of rock, like John Adams and Steve Reich, stuff that didn’t seem conceptually that far outside rock and roll.

AD: What was it about those guys that spoke to you?

Jason Pierce: I guess that weird transportation you get with music. When I was making records, I always pictured an audience of one. It was never about masses of people. It was about somebody listening in a private moment. And I still think like that. I don’t make records to play on a jukebox at a crowded bar. They’re records to indulge in, to lose yourself in and to find something else, somewhere else to go. You don’t hear it all in the first listen.

AD: Was that why you released the album not as songs, but as four colored sides?

Jason Pierce: Yeah, kind of. I don’t know if that was the brightest thing for me to do at the time. It certainly stopped any radio play or anything that would have helped it sell. But it was a kind of dictating, I guess. And, also, a kind of longing for the experience you get with vinyl. You rarely put on one track on a long-playing piece of vinyl. Generally, you play the side. Part of it was a love of vinyl. And then a kind of not being fully into CD in that way.

AD: I think a lot of artists would prefer that you listen to their records all the way through in one go, but not many of them do that.

Jason Pierce: It makes sense. If you make an album, it’s a series of chapters that relate. It’s not just a collection of songs. You want people to dive into your work, not just pull out sections of it.

I feel that music is the single most important thing. It’s a way to travel without traveling. It can console. It can heal. It can enlighten.

AD: You incorporated some sounds from the Velvet Underground on the song, “Run” and even gave John Cale a credit. Can you tell me about how you connected with the Velvet Underground, how you first heard them and what they meant to you and if that affected your songwriting process?

Jason Pierce: Oh, massively. I think the small group of people that I was around in Rugby, the music you discovered was just potluck. It’s not in your control what the music is, until you get a grasp of what you like and learn to look for it. I’ve told this story so many times, but Raw Power by Iggy Pop, purely on the sleeve, it looked like something out of this world. It was something I didn’t understand. It was just this amazing find, and then it led to other music. There was this connection to David Bowie and the Velvets and Lou Reed. I don’t remember how it came to me. Also, I realized it wasn’t that hard to do. It told me we can make music like that.

AD: I wanted to ask you about Pure Phase. The title came from something called Pure Phase for DJs, but I’m not 100% clear on what that was.

Jason Pierce: It was the other way around. Pure Phase Tones for DJs was a record I released after Pure Phase. It was a kind of DJ tone record, that allowed DJs to have tones to mix into tracks. Which kind of came about because we’d been on American tour with Ashley Wales, and he started mixing Pure Phase from the album with other bits of music. And sometimes even if he changed the pitch, he couldn’t find the right one. So I made him a record of different frequencies, and he said maybe you should put these things out so that it’s not just a single item. It turned into an album.

AD: There’s a song called “Electric Phase” on that album which is just this rush of distorted sound.

Jason Pierce: I think there’s a song called “Pure Phase” on there as well.

AD: What was it like recording that album versus the first one. It sounds a little noisier, but also maybe more assured, more in control? Did it feel like a step up to you?

Jason Pierce: Yeah, I mean, we had got the band playing more. I wasn’t so scared. I felt okay with my previous band, so it was already set where we were at. So, when this album came around everybody kind of knew what to do. I think bands form by osmosis, especially in England. More so in England than in America. In America, there are so many great musicians. You just get the best musicians you can, and everybody wants to be in a band. In England, you get the four people that can even half play. Anybody like-minded. It’s quite hard to find them. But you grow into them. You don’t sit down and say, how are we going to play? What are we going to wear? How are we going to cut our hair? You kind of find what you want to do by doing it. I think by the time the second album came out, we’d formed a bit more of a band. We could play without going up skirts. It made a lot more sense.

AD: What can you tell me about that beautiful vocal at the beginning of “Let It Flow?” Where did that come from?

Jason Pierce: Where did the vocal come from? The girls? Where did the line come from or where did the girls come from?

AD: The whole thing because it’s just so beautiful. That’s my favorite song on Pure Phase, and I love that sound.

Jason Pierce: I’ve been listening to soul music forever. I found Otis Redding and the Stax label just around the same time I found the Velvet Underground. I’d always been intrigued by the backing singers on those records, so I started to find people that could do that. Then it was a matter of finding the parts that would fit the music we were trying to make, but it came together naturally. It’s not like putting different kinds of music together and it feels like it doesn’t want to go. It just felt so natural. It goes so easily. It was a kind of realization that it’s all music. There are only two types of music, good or bad.

AD: Then we have Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which a lot of people consider your very best album. It’s so huge and ambitious with the orchestra and the choir. Can you tell me about how you went about conceiving that album. Did you hear it like that when you started working on it? What had to happen to get from the idea to the actual record?

Jason Pierce: I think it’s the same process that happens with all the records. I don’t think there was anything different about the process from the other ones. I throw down all the ideas I have and keep throwing them down until it works. Mistakes are made. They tend to stay because they sounded better than anything I could have dreamt up. And it just kind of formed.

I’ve also realized recently I kind of edit up my material. I have so little of it that I’m constantly fighting to get my music to stay. I think most musicians edit down. They have 25 tracks that they have to edit down to 11. I have 11 tracks that I have to hang on to. And so, I’m constantly throwing ideas at what I have. Or throwing something against what it’s trying to be, trying to push it somewhere else. And it’s that that kind of pushed that record into being.

It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’ve got a vision and I’m going to put it down.” I don’t think that there are that many people that work that way. If you’re Stravinsky you can kind of do that, and say, well here’s the paperwork. Here’s what I want to play. I think a lot of people use the idea that they’ve got a finished piece of music in their head to build their ego, you know, like aren’t I great? Look I can dream up this sound, and then, lo and behold, I can create it. I don’t think that happens, especially if other people are involved. It’s more a process where you make mistakes along the way. There are errors and things that happen that make things work.

AD: Was it hard to get the money to do it the way you did? It must have cost a fortune making the album.

Jason Pierce: Yeah, probably. I’ve never had a royalty in my life. It’s not just the making of the album. It’s always how many more musicians can we take out on the road, how big of a choir can we have, and then you have to travel with it. But I think you get one chance to do it, and if you can do it the way you’d like to do it, that’s the best way.

AD: It seems very much like a concept album that you have to listen to all together to get the most out of it. Did you see it as telling one story?

Jason Pierce: Yeah, I think all the records are like that. They have to feel like they’ve got a start and an end, and the end makes you want to play it again. I realized recently, it wasn’t just from listening to albums, because you listen to vinyl LPs in that way, but also cassettes in cars used to flip round. You’d come to side four, and it flips back around to side one, so it becomes a kind of journey, and I realized that that had a bearing on the way I’ve always made music. It’s not just a series of moments that don’t relate. I think I’m the only one that makes albums like that but I think it’s so important to take the listener, not only somewhere, but somewhere they’ve not been before, somewhere that feels like a place where things make sense.

AD: How does it sound to you now? You must have had to listen to it quite a bit to do the reissue. Do you have any favorite bits?

Jason Pierce: On that record? We’ve played it live so many times now with a full orchestra. There’s something amazing about being within that whole, especially in the improvised places. These are simple songs, almost nursery rhyme-like, but within them, there are free moments. Like free jazz, but not really jazzy. There’s certainly a lot of influence from that.

But I think Pure Phase is my favorite of all the albums. It has to happen that one record stands apart. I think about Lee Hazlewood. People are suddenly finding his music through TV and films. It’s this weird situation where people become aware of these moments that aren’t considered the main or the most important part of the artist’s output. Ladies and Gentlemen has been a little bit like that. I think to people who found the band at that moment, it’s their biggest thing but I don’t necessarily think that it’s everybody’s biggest thing.

AD: I really like Let It Come Down, too, and I was not familiar with that one from before. I don’t know how I missed it. Are there no guitars on that? Or just less?

Jason Pierce: Very much less, but they’re there. After Ladies and Gentlemen, I thought, well, I can do an orchestra. I think there’s over 100 people.

AD: That sounds like a nightmare. 115 musicians.

Jason Pierce: Yeah, it was just a ton of stuff. It’s got bass clarinet and bass flutes, every format of every instrument. It was just, wow, I could do this? And also, with no real knowledge of how to arrange music. I whispered things into a tape recorder and tried to figure out how to put them together.

AD: Was there no chart?

Jason Pierce: The charts were written out after the parts were done. I sang the lines into a Dictaphone, then transposed them from the Dictaphone to the tape machine to play all the parts and all the harmonies, and then once I’d played them all through or sang them all through, then somebody else put them into charts for the players.

AD: That sounds like such a process.

Jason Pierce: It took me forever, absolutely forever.

AD: But it turned out great. “Out of Sight” is so beautiful on that one, and I understand you were thinking about or influenced by Phil Spector on that one?

Jason Pierce: I don’t know. I just think, or maybe I’d convinced myself of this idea that I could write orchestral parts. There was a massive learning curve.

When you have more instruments, the space available gets less. It’s something I fight with all the time, the finite amount of space you have to make a record. With modern recording, you can put almost anything into a tonal space. If you want harpsichord, you can put it in and you can hear it if you know where to listen. But it isn’t about that. If you listen to Motown or Phil Spector, you don’t hear individual instruments. You hear this immense, beautiful sound. You hear the track. There’s this thing about the clarity of it or the lack of clarity, that you don’t want everything to be perfectly in its place. You want the flute to merge with the vocal and then melt into the sound of the guitar. You want a sound where you can’t tell where the tail of one thing ends and the start of something else.

AD: That record came out just after 9/11. Do you feel like that changed the way it was perceived?

Jason Pierce: I’m not sure about that. Did it come out just after?

AD: Yes.

Jason Pierce: I don’t know. We were rehearsing for a tour, to come to America, and our flights were delayed and we jumped on the very next flight. Everybody was cancelling. I didn’t really think about record sales.

People can find music regardless of when it comes out. I wasn’t even born when half of the bands I love put their music out. It’s the sort of thing where you find the music in your own good time, and it comes through. The best music isn’t locked into its own time. It doesn’t sound like the 1980s or some kind of fashion or hit that happened at that time.

AD: I was thinking that it was a good kind of music for people who were looking for solace, and maybe the reissues are also coming at a good time, since it’s a similar time of crisis.

Jason Pierce: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to release music.

AD: Can you tell me about these reissues? How involved were you and what did you have to do?

Jason Pierce: Like I said, it’s nice to reclaim these records so they’re not part of a defunct band that the label is no longer interested in. That they are a valuable piece of work. And then once we got there, I’m not a big fan of redesigning the artwork. I think there’s something quite important about having them in the sleeves that they were originally issued in. Once we’d started this thing, it became clear that we could do this, we could make a set of them. It was good to do. We play Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space quite a lot as a live show, and it’s such an amazing thing to be inside that music and play it in a way that was never done when it was recorded. It wasn’t recorded as a live album. I’d like to do that with Pure Phase or one of the other albums.

AD: I didn’t get the reissues. I just have the originals. Is there unreleased material on them? Anything new?

Jason Pierce: No. I don’t know if they were ever on vinyl before. I think they were on vinyl but the vinyl was never…After the first record, CD became the preferred format. It was hard to get people to spend money on vinyl records. I don’t just mean the public. It was hard to get the label to invest in them. It was just nice to be able to put them out into a proper vinyl edition, and they sound amazing. But like I said, there isn’t a ton of unreleased stuff. I work hard to make everything work okay.

AD: What would you hope that people who are hearing this for the first time, maybe younger people, take away from this? How do you want Spiritualized to be remembered?

Jason Pierce: Wow, I don’t know how to answer that. I feel that music is the single most important thing. It’s a way to travel without traveling. It can console. It can heal. It can enlighten. I think if you can get that from parts of what we do, that’s the main thing. It’s the same thing that I got from other people’s music. There’s a sense that when everything’s going wrong, you can go and listen to a favorite piece of music and go and be all right. There’s something about other people’s music, whether it’s listening to J.J. Cale on the bus in South Carolina or the strange way that music can relate to the city that you’re in or the kind of mood you’re in.

Music doesn’t really come with any instruction. I’ve got music that didn’t make any sense to me when I was in my 20s, but now it feels so important. There’s a kind of learning curve in the listener as well, you know. Some music, you only really understand if you come via another band. I don’t think I would have gotten into free jazz if I hadn’t come through the MC5 or the Stooges. If I was dropped into the world with Peter Brötzmann from nowhere, I’d say come get me out of here? But I got to his music through other forms, and it makes sense. So, I think that that is a whole other process going on.

AD: That’s beautiful. What are you working on now?

Jason Pierce: Not much. I just finished a record. I’m kind of kicking my heels at the moment.

AD: When is it coming out?

Jason Pierce: Early next year.

AD: Will it be Spiritualized?

Jason Pierce: It’s a Spiritualized record as well. That seems like a weird kind of accomplishment.

AD: I’ll look forward to that. Is there anything about Spiritualized that people don’t get or they always get wrong? Any misperceptions?

Jason Pierce: I don’t know. I can’t think of anything. Not everybody likes what we do, obviously, but the people that I do meet that do, they seem to be very inquisitive about music. A lot of fans are kind of blinkered. They only like what they see—what they’re allowed to see. They can’t look left or right. The people I meet seem to be open to music.

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