Spiritualized's Jason Pierce

Spiritualized's Jason Pierce
From his time in the influential yet self-destructive Spacemen 3 with his one-time friend and toxic twin Pete "Sonic Boom” Kember, to the last 18 years as the driving force and only permanent member of the gospel-leaning space rock force that is Spiritualized, the man they call Spaceman — whose lyrics time and again consist of love, death, redemption, drugs, rock’n’roll, and of course, spirituality — has experienced everything he sings about first hand. And that includes death. Twice. After being stricken with near-fatal double pneumonia in 2005, Jason Pierce made what can only be described as a miraculous comeback with the sixth Spiritualized album, the self-explanatory Songs in A & E. Pierce took time out of his busy schedule in the studio to chat about how he managed to finish the album, as well as the distance between him and his former band and that intergalactic nickname of his.

All of your albums seem as if they were planned in advance. Did Songs in A&E have any sort of blueprint when you began making it? I can’t remember, should be the right answer. And also, it’s really hard to stick to ideas because quite often the songs find their space accidentally. I might start off with an idea to make something that sounds like Phil Spector or a lo-fi field recording but sometimes the songs won’t carry that. I think mostly I just start off with a bunch of songs and see where they best fit.

How soon did you go back to the album after you left the hospital?
[It was] maybe a year or so. I mean, it was always there, like, ‘Shit, I’ve still got to finish that thing,’ y’know? But I couldn’t find a way into it. If there was a starting point to this record it was that the songs were going to be written almost like traditional songs, and the shapes of the songs were going to be quite formal, almost like a standard kind of thing. And when I came out, they just sounded like that, like 11 old songs that I couldn’t make contemporary to my life. I tried a number of things. At one point I tried mixing them like Pure Phase, like something I knew had worked in the past. So I put a lot of layers into them, but this didn’t work. I kind of knew any way that you just can’t apply an idea or technique to something and it’s gonna work. The best thing about music is that it’s not an exact science. You don’t just play 15 notes in order and have people feel elated or emotional, there’s just a magic between the notes, and it was like that trying to find that with these songs, trying to put them in a space where they demanded that you listen to them.

Did you ever consider scrapping the entire album?
It takes a braver man than me to do that. Because then you’ve got to say all that work amounted to absolutely nothing. And also that they had no beauty in them, that there was not a scrap that was worth saving. I think I saved the best bits, some of it did go.

When did you decide on the album’s title?
I don't know. I’d like to say before I got ill, because it sounds like one of my titles. A&E in England only ever means "accident and emergency” but it seemed like the pun was too good to pass. And also I thought it aligned to how the whole of my life is lived like that. I have no plans for anything, all of my songs I’ve written and everything I’ve done with [Spiritualized] seems to be a product of accident and emergency. So, yeah, maybe I should stick with that and say I thought of it before I got ill, but I can’t remember.

The album contains three songs with the word "fire” in the title. Were you conscious of that when you were writing?
No. Somebody recently said I use the word "beautiful” a lot, and I notice that sometimes I do say it five times in one sentence, and then think, "Wow, slow down. It can’t all be that beautiful.” [Laughs.] And the fire thing was like that. When I got to "Soul On Fire” I thought it was a pop song, and thought I should have got down some more of that experimental, improvised music. Every time these pop songs come into my head I think, "Oh no, I’m gonna make a pop record.” And then they’ve all got this word fire in, and thought, "Surely you can rewrite these words, they don’t all need to have fire in them.” And I tried to rewrite them but they just didn’t fit any other way. Even worse than that, they all appear right next to each other at the beginning of the album. I couldn’t even bury them and put one at the end. So they’re all there, but the other day I realised they all have a different meaning of the word fire.

How did working on the soundtrack to Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely affect Songs in A&E?
I had no idea how to finish my record. I said, ‘I can’t find my way back into this.’ Harmony came when I really needed some help, and this crazy, beautiful man who has ideas coming in from everywhere said, ‘make me some music.’ And it was liberating just to be doing that and not having to front it and say, ‘This is my new album, this is the concept, this is what we’re trying to achieve.’ I just sat in the studio making sounds. And he didn’t even say he wanted this kind of music, he said he just wanted my music. It was somebody coming into my world when I was suffering bad — I couldn’t make my record — and saying, ‘I want your music.’ Some of the stuff Harmony went with, some of it he couldn't use, but it was all existing, so I was winning on every level because I was making these pieces — some of them you can hear on my record now — that because it was all going so well I started to work on my album at the same time. The songs got immersed in this soundscape that gave them the state they now inhabit. I think good records walk in a sense of time, everybody knows you can lose yourself in a 40-minute record for days or you can lose yourself in your favourite songs for the rest of your life. And that’s what happened with this record, the songs went into a place and started demanding that you listen to them in a different way than you did prior to that.

Are you interested in doing more soundtrack work?
Kind of yeah, but none of it’s planned. I’ve been asked before but I was never able to find the time.

The Acoustic Mainline Tour was a perfect way for you to reintroduce yourself. Would you consider recording an album using that approach?
Maybe, but it was an accident; it was never meant to happen. We did a one-off show to celebrate the music of Daniel Johnston, with Daniel playing in front of 2000 people. It just carried, people were deeply moved by it. And somebody at that show booked us for the festival in Roskilde, and somebody there booked it for Barcelona, and it just carried. Then we had shows at the Apollo in Harlem, and more shows came from that. But it was just an accident. I never saw myself playing with an acoustic guitar on my knee playing songs to people. That seems as far away from my idea of rock’n’roll as it gets. Rock’n’roll is a guitar plugged into the electrics, this whole different thing. It was never planned, but it really did work.

Also, it taught me a lot about those songs. There’s nowhere to hide on a stage like that. You can’t lose yourself in the noise, you can’t get lost in the music, so every bit of that is a performance. From the moment I got on stage to the moment we ended I was singing, there was no rest from it. But I kind of got into these simple songs, that you can tap into it. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think any of my songs are showcases for talent. None of them are like, ‘Hey look what I can do with my fingers on the guitar!’ I’m hitting the same chords on this songs as I did on the last one, and it’s the same tempo, and in exactly the same order. But you can find something in this, in the magic, elusive thing that’s in music. And it was great for that, and some of it has gone and infected to the electric shows. The electric shows aren’t like a return to the electrics. We’ve been doing that acoustic thing and now we’re plugged back in, and the possibilities are endless.

Did you record any of those shows, with the possibility of releasing them?
We recorded a couple of them in London, where we played some chapel shows. But they’re a little bit like any recording, you can never get it. I don’t mean they were bad, but there were so many different bands we used for so many shows. We had a different band for the West coast of America than we did for the East coast, and a different band in England, and that brought a whole different feeling to it. And some of those shows were deeply kind of sombre and reverential, and some of them were like those weird churches where they handle snakes where they stand up for no reason and then sit down shouting. I guess we’d be more in favour of the reverential ones…

Doggen was the only member of the band that accompanied you on the Acoustic Mainline tour. Who else is currently in Spiritualized with you?
[Fire alarm goes off in background.]

That sounds like trouble.
That’s what my life sounds like, always. So he’s still in the band, Kevin Bales on drums, Tim [thighpaulsandra], Tom [Edwards]… it’s a smaller band, a five-piece band. We’ve also got two gospel singers, but all that’s gonna change depending on where we are. And it was this kind of idea to try and explore the music in there. There’s a lot of freeform playing when we’re on stage, and I didn’t want to hide in the noise and I didn’t want anyone else to feel like they could hide in it.

Do you mind if I ask you some questions about your past?
Well, if I can remember… [Laughs]

Do you have any connection to Spacemen 3 anymore? Are you involved with the releases?
No, I lost that some way back. I didn’t lose control, more like what I was saying wasn’t being listened to. When they were reissued with different sleeves, I was like, they are what they are, like little time capsules that travel through time that have this sound within them. And that’s what’s special about music. And nobody was interested in preserving that, they were only interested in how much more money they can make out of it, so I kind of left them to it. Remastering costs money, and no one’s interested in any spend on this. I like the records for what they were, with the sleeves for all the kind of oddness to them. The cover of The Perfect Prescription is an odd photograph, and odd the way it’s put together, and I don’t think it needed to be dressed any other way. The industry behind the Spacemen 3 is, ‘Here’s Playing with Fire again with seven unreleased tracks, here it is again with the singles attached, here it is with a different mix on the second track.’ And there was just an awful lot of it, and it wasn’t great for the music.

The first album of yours I ever bought was the glow in the dark edition of Pure Phase. And then of course there was the pill box for Ladies and Gentlemen. What did those limited edition packages mean to the music from your point of view?
Well, now people are doing big special packages, almost like, "Well, we can’t sell our music normally, but there’s a market if we stick it in a box and sell it for $40 or $50 dollars, like ‘Here’s our special edition!’” Ours were never meant as special editions. They were meant as ‘this is the edition.’ There were 70,000 of those pill boxes, because that’s all I could afford. But at least I could afford them. They were meant as, music’s really fucking important and shouldn’t be sold as this unit of sale that is as cheap as you can make it to get the most profit from it. And they felt like, if you put your music in a box like that it would have a true value, and it would retain that value. And also there are really dumb things, like, "We don’t want a barcode,” and the record label says, "You’ve got to have a barcode!” But as soon as you walk out of the store that barcode has no meaning at all. It’s only there so you can register the sale. I mean, you might just as well print the fucking price on the thing. It has no value to the art of what we’re doing. I think it’s really important.

When exactly do you use the J Spaceman moniker as opposed to Jason Pierce?
[Laughs] I don’t know anymore. I don’t think I’ve ever used Jason Pierce. I think people just write that in magazines. My closest friends call me Spaceman… [Laughs] Some of them! It’s been there since Spacemen 3.