July 29, 2010
With Spiritualized about to make a big appearance in New York to perform their 1997 masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in its entirety, with a full orchestra and choir, I thought it would be high time to share an interview I conducted with the mastermind behind Spiz, Jason Pierce, a.k.a. J. Spaceman. The– what should be– historic concert is scheduled for Friday, July 30, and thanks to “Spin Magazine”, you can watch it live on-line via Facebook. Accept their RSVP to make sure you do not miss it.
Now, on to my story, which first appeared in edited form in “Goldmine Magazine” in October of 1997*, with a then up-to-date and comprehensive US and UK discography of both the band’s CD and vinyl releases. Those were the days of print pages to spare! Though it was painstaking work to gather those catalog numbers and formats organized in chronological order, I shan’t share those here, unless several fans request it, as it is quite dated information and poses a pain to re-format for the web.
Without further, ado, here is an extended version of the profile I wrote back in the day, revised by yours truly, the author himself. It’s long, so I’m breaking it up into a 2-part series of posts, as I broke up my archival Tony Levin interview, also first published by “Goldmine”…
As the main mind behind the elaborate and haunting music of Spiritualized, Jason Pierce has often had to dodge tags of the tortured artiste and shoot down misconceptions as a perfectionist. “I like doing it,” Pierce bluntly states from the New York offices of his US label, Arista. The music of melancholic strings, sighing vocals, shimmering guitars, weightless drums and ambient synthesizers, coupled with lyrics of desire, transcendence, despair and rapture is all in good fun for Pierce, who wants to push music’s boundaries over the edge and find beauty beyond chaos.
The music that the Spiritualized name has come to define, through the 7-year course of four LPs and a multitude of EPs, can sometimes be wonderfully harmonic and other times jarringly dissonant, but, to Pierce, it all reaches its purpose, otherwise he would not bother having it realized. Pierce’s explorations of the harmonic spectrum have often left fans in tears at performances and critics blabbering superlatives. Pierce just smiles with interested content that his little trick worked. “I have a lot of fun doing it,” Pierce affirms. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it. People say I took two years out of my life making this record, but that’s not so. It’s two years in my life.”
The new album, entitled Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, indeed took two years to follow-up the last record, Pure Phase, which, discounting the live, mail-order-only Fucked Up Inside, itself took three years to see the light of day after Spiritualized’s debut, Lazer Guided Melodies. Pierce composes all of Spiritualized’s music under the moniker J. Spaceman. His compatriots on the current aural journey that is Ladies and Gentlemen, include a core group of four, which consists of Pierce on vocals, guitars and keyboards, Sean Cook on bass and harmonica, and Damon Reece on drums and percussion. The fourth regular member of the band, Kate Radley, Pierce’s girlfriend up until the album’s release and organist/back-up vocalist of Spiritualized since 1992, “temporarily” left after the dissolution of her relationship with Pierce. She has since married Richard Ashcroft of the Verve, but has yet to return to Spiritualized, though Pierce says she is welcome to return when ready.
Adding a special flavor to the mix are a variety of guest artists. The Russian avant-garde string quartet lead by Alexander Balanescu returns after making an appearance on Pure Phase. New Orleans pianist Dr. John adds vocals and lends his keyboard wizardry to several tracks. Not to mention, the London Community Gospel Choir, which fill up the record with a soulful sound. Then there are a variety of horn players adding another dimension to the songs.
Considering this eclectic mix of instrumentation and players, it is no wonder Pierce does not believe he fits the perfectionist label. “I don’t think I am a perfectionist, and, if I am, it’s definitely not in the recording stage,” he explains, pointing out that the aforementioned mix of elements could never easily be directed to reach a preconceived musical ideal. “Most of the album is first take stuff. It’s not labored over. It’s no like, ‘Hey, that would be better if we changed the fuzzy sound a little.’ A lot of the drums are recorded before we even get the mics set-up to record them well. The immediate take tends to be the best take, no matter how many times we try and do it better or cleaner or whatever. We never get there again. Once we’ve recorded something special on those tapes, then you have to do it justice.”
It is once he has everything on tape when Pierce admits to having some sort of quality that might be understood as perfectionism. “You can’t mix them in any other way than the right way,” he continues, “and I guess that’s what takes time– trying to retain the original feeling that went into it, which, obviously, gets harder to do the further you get away from that, in time, so, two years later, trying to remember what was exciting about this stuff gets kind of difficult to do, but it’s important to get that back into it, otherwise you end up with a record that sounds like it was recorded two years ago and mixed two years later. I don’t think this one does. I don’t think any of our records do.”
Though his mixing can be very exacting**, Pierce explains that his desire to make his music sound transcendent does not fit into the popular definition of perfectionism. It’s more of an exploration of some hidden truth within the music that even he does not understand. “I’m very ambitious, musically,” he says. “I think, if you aim really high, even if you don’t get to the height you aim for, you still get way, way higher than you thought you were able.” It’s the mystery of the beauty that makes him seek, not what he thinks would be the “perfect” song.
As for the opening title track of the album, Pierce does not care to explain why a subtly placed beep among an electronically muffled violin that melts into the sound of a harmonica can chime along with the quavering sound of a bombastic guitar chord to move someone to empathize with the protagonist’s words of love and devotion, which are presented in four different lines of lyrics, sung by four differently modified voices, layered atop each other and delivered simultaneously. But, when listening to the title track of Ladies and Gentlemen one realizes the whole thing works. Even to Pierce, the creator of the above mentioned song, the mixture of elements is a mystery. “They just work, don’t they? It’s just integral, isn’t it? But I don’t think music is anymore important than the lyrics or the other way around. I don’t really know how that works,” he says. “It just does. I guess it has to do with the sort of intangible thing about recording, or writing of a song.”
Sometimes Pierce’s explorations lead him down subconscious familiar roads. The strings on “Broken Heart” seem to recall a relatively obscure track by Brain Eno, “Three variations on the Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel,” which Eno tagged to the end of his 1975 album Discreet Music, an early album of ambient music. Pierce admits that someone else pointed that out to him, though he had not heard it, but had grown interested in obtaining a copy of the album. Though, Pierce admits he goes out of his way to keep his music sounding original. “If we start to get stuff within our recording that starts to sound like other people’s music, we abandon it,” he says. “I’m not interested in just saying stuff that’s been said before. I’m more into the idea of music being evolutionary. I’m not into music that dilutes the original ideas, which a lot of music, and especially a lot of music in England, tends to be about. They’re using someone else’s blueprint, whether it’s Nirvana or the Beatles or David Bowie, and then just diluting the source. I’d rather go back to the source.”
Despite his efforts, Pierce still finds it difficult to completely extinguish his influences from the Spiritualized sound. “We’ve arrived at places that other people have arrived at, but as a kind of convergence, rather than robbery. I’ve found, since ‘Electric Mainline,’ that Don Cherry has got a track called ‘Brown Rice,’ and there’s a track on one of the Cluster albums (the album with the kind of yellow rainbow with the stars around it) that sounds just like ‘Electric Mainline,’ but these weren’t starting points for us. They were just something we arrived at, and, I guess, with everybody using the same musical scales, you’re always going to end up hitting some of the same notes, in the same order.”
Like a lot of the more daring musicians that came before him, like Eno, Pierce uses unusual sources of inspiration that lead him to his finalized songs. This is how he explains the conception of “200 Bars,” the finale of Lazer Guided Melodies: “I wanted to get that kind of feeling of when you’re given anesthetics in a hospital, and they do the count down, and, by the time they get to 10 you’re meant to be completely out of it, and I kind of like the idea of making that kind of stuff, within ‘200 Bars,’ anyway, that you could get to 200 and still be with it.”
This brings up the question of the possible role drugs play in Pierce’s music. Ever since his early days in the seminal eighties space-rock group Spacemen 3, drugs have been a reference point for Pierce. One sonic concept for Spacemen 3 came from the idea to create the sound one might hear before passing out, similar to “200 Bars.” Then there are titles like Taking Drugs (To Make Music To Take Drugs To), a compilation of Spacemen 3 demos. But before the question can be finished about the influence of drugs on Pierce’s musical ideas, he interrupts saying, “No, no. I don’t think drugs play any role, actually. The thing I keep saying is, the only way to prove that, is if you do a random control trial where you get 200 non-creative people, and you give a hundred of them drugs and a hundred of them placebos, and see who comes out with the most creative stuff, and I would imagine you’d find no kind of extra creativity in the drug side of the experiment.”
As far as drugs in his personal and recreational life, Pierce feels it would be an irrelevant question. The truth, or the reality, might destroy a myth, perpetuated by his lyrics, which would, ultimately, weaken the power behind the music. Take a line from “Come Together”: “Little Jason/fucked up boy/who dulled the pain/but killed the joy.” Then, on “I Think I’m In Love,” Pierce sings, “Love in the middle of an afternoon/Just me and my spike in my arm and my spoon.”
Pierce says that knowing more about the personal lives of the musicians that have moved him in his life has not brought any better appreciation of their music to him. “I think it comes through in those kinds of musics,” he says. “It comes through whether it’s the Stooges or Stravinsky or Hendrix or Captain Beefheart, or whatever. It’s all honest to those people, and you don’t need to hear the stories behind the music. You don’t need to hear about where those people were or what they were doing. You hear it within their music, anyway.”
The story continues in part 2 here.
*The interview was conducted in August of 1997.
**Pure Phase was actually mixed twice, with the separate mixes laid atop each other, in synchronization, creating the sound of two copies of the album playing simultaneously. Pierce called it a “nightmare” to synch.