Prog - - Contents - Words: Rob Hughes Images: Juliette Larthe

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.



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