Jason Pierce muses whether new album And Nothing Hurt might be their last?
Back with a new album after five years, Spiritualized’s latest sees them ruminating on getting older. From turning down £2m to resurrect his old band Spaceman 3 to dismissing the idea of ‘heritage acts’, frontman Jason Pierce has plenty
to say about taking music forward…
If a job’s worth doing at all, then it’s worth doing properly. At least according to Jason Pierce, the creative nexus of Spiritualized, the space rock visionaries he founded 28 years ago. Pierce has a reputation for being something of a seriousminded perfectionist, though his latest album took him to new extremes.
“There ended up being a kind of madness involved,” he says of
And Nothing Hurt, the long-overdue follow-up to 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light. “Every time I do this I fall into the same trap. I forget everything
I’ve ever learned about how to make a record and I get obsessed in the same way. Even the nature of obsessing deeply over nine pieces of music is crazy in itself. It starts to become like, ‘What is the point of all this?’”
There is also the challenge that every artist faces in the modern era: how to make a valid musical statement when it’s all more or less been done before? The weight of history is something that Pierce is acutely aware of. “When I was younger, it felt like I could play the music I loved – other people’s music – and be totally inspired,” he explains. “It would open up these worlds of opportunity. But it floors me as I get older. I feel like everything’s been said so beautifully and eloquently and played so well in the past, so what’s the point of adding to that? And with that comes a kind of great responsibility, that I shouldn’t be entering into this lightly, I shouldn’t just be throwing songs out as a means to get back on stage or on the road. It has to be right.”
Thankfully, the painstaking threeyear process behind And Nothing
Hurt – yes, the title is meant to be ironic – was worth the sweat and toil. The album is a consummate triumph: a rich, deep exploration of sound, melody and harmonics that buzzes with a vivid intensity. Layers of ambient bliss ebb and flow between thunderous breakers of guitar and symphonic noise, caught in the rolling tides of Pierce’s imagination.
It’s a place where prog, rock’n’roll, minimalism and elements of free jazz share a common dialogue. It’s all the more remarkable for the fact that it was mostly put together by Pierce in the bedroom of his East London home.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. “The original idea was for it to be a big studio session, like Ray Charles or Gil Evans recording at Columbia Studios,” he says. “I spoke to a few people about collaborating with me, including [producer] Tony Visconti. And I’d approached others to play on it, like Dr. John and Spooner Oldham, but things didn’t come together in the way I’d wanted them to. It felt like my reaction to that was to hole up somewhere and make sure it worked, to allow myself the time to do it right.
“There was also some kind of safety and security in being able to piece it together over a longer period of time,” he continues. “Suddenly I had 260-odd tracks to throw ideas at and it had become an obsession. I find it becomes like an exercise in dealing with my OCD or something. There are no complaints – making music is the most amazing thing to be involved in – but the process of doing it almost gets to the point where I can’t even listen to the music I love any more because I start hearing it like a production.
“Once it’s done, playing the songs live never really gets to be a problem. You put these simple, funny little ideas on stage and then it feels like somebody else is stirring it. It feels like the music’s coming through the roof.”
One of the main lyrical themes of And Nothing Hurt, which takes its title from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, concerns growing older. It’s something that 52-year-old Pierce is especially mindful of, given that rock’n’roll is essentially a young person’s game. “When music is full of that stupidity and arrogance of
“I feel like everything’s been said so beautifully and eloquently and played so well in the past, so what’s
the point of adding to that?”
youth, it just works,” he posits. “But I see too many people of my age using the same language that they would’ve done in their 20s. You should try instead to astound yourself and work harder to get something that’s more exciting. That’s why I dislike the use of the phrase ‘heritage act’ – the idea that people don’t want new material from older acts, they just want them to stand on stage and play their old stuff. And it’s very prevalent in music: you don’t find that in painting or writing.
“So I’m not just going to throw out some of the shapes I was doing 20 or 30 years ago. That’s part of my reason for not wanting to go anywhere near my first band again, because why would you even want that?”
The band Pierce is referring to is Spacemen 3, the indie darlings he and fellow guitarist Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember founded as teenagers at Rugby Art College in 1982. They became known for their distinct brand of trancey psychedelia, their distorted riffs creating hypnotic drones from the most rudimentary chord progressions. It was all wrapped up in a reputation for being drug fiends, with Kember in particular freely discussing his use of every stimulant under the sun to the attendant music press. Not for nothing did they release an album called Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To.
Yet Spacemen 3 also proved highly influential, their assimilation of
The Stooges, Sun Ra, Suicide and others pre-empting shoegaze and the development of post-rock in the early 90s. Pierce and Kember split in 1991 and wasted little time in setting up Spiritualized and Spectrum respectively. Pierce has said that one reason for forming a new band was because Spacemen 3 had become too safe and unrelentingly loud. As the captain of Spiritualized, he could start to create a wider palette of sounds.
A few years ago it was reported that he and Kember had been offered £2m to reunite as Spacemen 3. “That’s true,” Pierce confirms, “and it continues.
But you wouldn’t ask that of a painter or somebody in a different art form. Of course I’m not going to do it – times change and I’ve changed. I’m certainly not in the catering industry, like a musical jukebox where you put your money in and get a song. Maybe
“I dislike the use of the phrase ‘heritage act’ – the idea that people don’t want new material from older acts, they just want them to stand on stage and play their old stuff. And it’s very prevalent in music: you don’t find that in painting or writing.”
it’s a massive conceit on my part, but because I feel like I’ve been working on improvised music and other forms, it feels like I operate slightly outside of that anyway.”
Pierce’s passion for outsider music has played a major role in his musical development. The Cramps, The Gun Club and Tav Falco’s Panther Burns fed directly into Spacemen 3, but other influences were of a more progressive nature, particularly the sounds of early 70s Germany. It wasn’t always a smooth journey though.
“Sometimes you need certain music to make a link between things,” he says. “For instance, if you listened to Peter Brötzmann [German free jazz saxophonist] from nothing, it would sound almost impenetrable. But if you heard it after discovering Iggy And The Stooges and then Sun Ra and John Coltrane, then you start to get some kind of reference for it.
“The same thing applied to me with Can. I loved Kraftwerk when I was younger and I still think what they were doing was essentially doo-wop music. If you listen to Radioactivity, it’s all doo-wop and simple harmonics. Then that led to Can, but it took a while to get there. Because it was all quite drum-based, it felt like a kind of anchor, like it was always held down. So it took a while for their music to really make sense.”
At the same time, Pierce denies that Hawkwind helped point the way for Spacemen 3, despite critics routinely comparing the two bands.
“Within the band, there was some annoyance about that at the time,” he recalls, “because we weren’t listening to Hawkwind. I’ve heard their music since, though, and I like some of the earlier stuff, like Space Ritual.”
If Spiritualized have a defining moment, it’s probably 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, a vast concept piece that drew from drone-rock, ambient music, avant-jazz and gospel to express a wealth of private emotions. Guests included the Balanescu Quartet and the London Community
Gospel Choir. Amid the reductive clamour of Britpop, it stood out as something daringly different, more akin to prog in its scale and ambition.
Even the packaging was meticulously devised. Pierce spoofed his public image by teaming up with designer Mark Farrow and housing the entire thing as prescription drugs, complete with warnings about side effects: “delirium, a sense of intoxication, visual and auditory hallucinations… changes in the level of sexual desire”.
Spiritualized have revisited Ladies And Gentlemen… as a full live spectacle on several occasions, most recently in honour of its 20th anniversary. Pierce says that those latest gigs, in which he and the band were joined by a gospel choir and 15-piece orchestra, had a bearing on the songs he was working on for And Nothing Hurt.
“I like the way Ladies And Gentlemen… was able to present stuff that was quite testing for an audience, but it had the right steps to make that palatable,” he explains. “When we play it live, well over two-thirds of it is a quite ferocious, free-form kind of squall. And yet it seems more operatic than that, and that’s because of the way it was put together. Maybe that was an accident or whatever, but initially that informed this record.
I just needed to remember what it was like to sing with a choir behind me and that sense of how different it can be.”
Four more studio albums followed Ladies And Gentlemen…, among them the orchestral wonder Let It Come Down and 2008’s Songs In A&E, recorded after Pierce nearly died from double pneumonia
(his heart actually stopped twice and his girlfriend was offered grief counselling).
Sweet Heart Sweet Light was recorded in trying circumstances too, while he was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for long-term liver disease.
And Nothing Hurt is the first Spiritualized album in some time that wasn’t made in the shadow of a major health scare. Pierce says he’s in decent shape these days, with the only source of discomfort being the protracted gestation period of the record.
“There were times when I was secretly hoping that something might go wrong, just so I could get out of that little room,” he laughs. “But be careful what you wish for, I guess!”
Indeed, the frustration with the process has led Pierce to think this might be the last Spiritualized release.
“I can’t see me making many more albums,” he reveals. “They always seem like this huge undertaking for an audience that doesn’t necessarily seem to be there any more. It’s not like I’m suffering for art – it’s just part of this thing where I feel like I’ve been there and done that, and that there must be some other way of putting some of these ideas across without the spread of it being so wide. That’s the pattern that needs to change.
“Having said that,” he adds, “I’m not going to be doing anything drastic. I was just so pleased to let And Nothing Hurt go, but it threw up some loose ends and a couple of ideas that are worth pursuing. I’ve got no intention of stopping making music.”
And Nothing Hurt is out on September 7 via Bella Union. For more information, see www.spiritualized.com.
FLOATING IN SPACE: SPIRITUALIZED MAINMAN JASON PIERCE.
BACK TO EARTH: PIERCE RETURNS WITH ANOTHER SLICE OF SOULFUL, GENRE‑BLENDING, SPACE‑AGE PROG.