Ever since setting off on a sonic expedition to mix psychedelia and shoegaze with Spacemen 3 in the mid-1980s, Jason Pierce (sometimes known as J Spaceman) has been something of a seeker. For the past 16 years he’s pursued the perfect combination of spaciness and succinct pop craftsmanship with Spiritualized. Their latest album, Songs in A&E, was completed in the wake of a near-fatal illness and is (coincidentally or not) his most emotionally naked batch of songs to date. Here, he discusses what went into Songs in A&E and how he conducts his constant search for musical epiphany.
Songs in A&E has some of the most straightforward pop songs you’ve written. Would you agree that from your Spacemen 3 days up to now, your sound has gradually evolved from spacey psychedelia to a more conventional kind of songcraft?
Probably, but not with any kind of plan. I think I’ve become more aware that songs kind of find their own place to be, and you might start out with the intent to write something in the manner of Phil Spector or in the manner of a lo-fi field recording, but the song has to fit in that, and sometimes it doesn’t work. The songs on the latest album are almost traditional in shape, but it’s really important [to me] not to make a traditional-sounding album. So songs like “Don’t Hold Me Close,” the more country that song sounded, the more I would throw things like clarinets at it, [because] clarinet seemed like the least country instrument you could use.
How do you reconcile both your pop and experimental impulses?
I feel like I’m in the right area if I’m doing stuff with [avant-jazz artists] Matthew Shipp or Han Benink, this kind of freeform improvised music…and trying to do this experimental thing. Right when I’m getting inside of that, I’ll suddenly have a song like “Stop Your Crying” or “Soul on Fire.” I kind of fight that and say “This can’t go on the album,” but they’re kind of unavoidable. A lot of the music I love, whether it’s the Ronettes or Lee Hazlewood or whatever, is pop music. So they just kind of get into that thing.
This record was harder to put together. [Originally] there was a lot more kind of strange instrumental music — some of these tracks were a lot more extended. “I Got a Fire” is probably a quarter of the length it was. We had these huge instrumental pieces that were kind of more gluey, like kind of Miles Davis things, but when I got the album together and started finishing it, they made no sense to the kind of record it was becoming. So it’s just trying to make an album that sits in a place that makes sense to me.
What was the method by which you finally arrived at your vision for this album?
At times when I couldn’t make this record work, I thought, “I’m gonna do something that I know has worked in the past.” I tried to mix it into a big space, like [Spiritualized’s 1995 album] Pure Phase — that has worked before, that creates a sound. And I just played that record a while back; I was driving through hellish rain with no visibility, and the only thing that was in the car was a copy of Pure Phase. I put it on and it seemed like the most right thing at that moment, to be driving blind playing this music that was coming in sheets. And I thought, “If I mix like that I’ll find a way into finishing the songs on A&E.” And it just sounded foolish, like I never want to hear a tambourine in a reverb again as long as I live, you know? It just didn’t work.
Does that kind of experience make you question your instincts?
Music is not an exact science, you can’t just apply a studio technique to a song and say, “If we make this song like a Phil Spector thing it’s gonna sound and do what Phil Spector records do, because it just doesn’t work like that. You can assemble the greatest band in the world with the greatest musicians to play faithful renditions of Howlin’ Wolf songs, but it ain’t gonna move you like Howlin’ Wolf songs do. So this record, the more studio ideas I put to it, the more it resisted. The more I tried to force “Soul on Fire” into not being a pop song, the more pop it became. They are what they are, and the old records are what they are, and they’re all little time capsules. They all take you somewhere. I think good records — if I’m allowed to say they’re good records — they distort your sense of time, you can lose yourself in records.
You had a life-threatening bout with pneumonia during the making of the album. What effect did that have?
It’s hard to know…it might have been the same record had I not got ill. I don’t think this is an album about my illness; that’s just something that happened. It took a long time to finish…it was very, very difficult to find a way back into it, but it was impossible to let it go, because the songs had something in them. It’s really difficult to throw stuff out and say, “Whatever I was doing then is gonna amount to nothing.” So I stuck with it. I got lucky that I met Harmony Korine around that time as well, and he put me in the studio to make music for his film [Mister Lonely], and that really got me back into just experimenting. It was just a good time to meet somebody as crazy and beautiful as Harmony, who’s got ideas coming in from all over the place.
The instrumental interludes [“Harmony 1,” “Harmony 2”] aren’t from your film music, though?
They’re not in the movie, but things bled into each other. I haven’t taken bits from the film to put on to the record. The tracks are kind of immersed in those soundscapes as well; they’re not just connections between the tracks. The whole atmosphere of the [instrumental] pieces, the songs kind of soaked up that atmosphere. They made it contemporary for me, they made it more than just a collection of old songs…they give it a sense of space. I always liked the way “Symphony Space” [from Lazer Guided Melodies] — you listen to the song before it and you listen to the song after it, and that instrumental piece kind of makes you listen to the rest of it in a different way…slows down your heart so you can take in the song that’s gonna follow.
So do you feel there’s still some common thread between the altered-state-of-mind approach of Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To-era Spacemen 3 and Songs in A&E?
I’d like to think we were trying to achieve those kinds of states through music, and also this kind of idea of elevating the simplest of things to high art by repeating them. If you’re hitting the same chord with enough venom and ferocity for as long as you can, that it becomes the single most important chord in your universe.
Those early records, they never came with this idea of “This is how we’re gonna make our records.” They kind of found their space. Perfect Prescription, there was a ton of stuff that was thrown at that that never made it to the record. There’s mistakes that did make it to the record. The first Spacemen record was really made out of our control…It was mixed by a guy who [wouldn’t let anybody] anywhere near the desk. Short of that album, I’ve kind of done every record the same way — just trying to find a way in, to find something that puts the song into a space where it works. I’m still obsessed by the same things in music now as I was then…just getting inside of it.
You’ve been touring and recording with the same musicians for a while now, but you’re the only remaining original member of Spiritualized. At the end of the day, is the band you and whoever you’ve gathered around you?
It’s a collaborative thing, so it’s not like me doing my solo piece. It’s a collaboration, so it goes under that name. I’m not dictating where it should go. I don’t even know where it should go myself, so there’s not much point in trying to force that. It’s always been pretty free-form…people coming together to make these records.
And how are you approaching the current tour in terms of stage setup and set list?
We’ve got a smaller band this time round. We’ve got five musicians and two singers. And people’s expectations have changed. We’ve stripped it back. I think the bigger the band, the more people could hide in the noise of it. I wanted to make it more musical. So at the moment we’re two guitars, bass, drums, keys, and singers.
And you’re performing a fair amount of old songs now, as well?
I don’t feel like we do them as like, “Here’s an old song, here’s something that will please you.” They just become a part of the set we put together, so I tap into that energy.
Do you prefer touring or recording?
Touring. We never tour to promote a record; the record puts us on the road — and that’s what’s phenomenal, the immediacy of music and tapping into this kind of energy. Anybody can do a show where the sound’s good and the lights all twinkle in the right places, but that doesn’t make your music good. What makes your music good is when you can’t hear yourself, and you can’t do the things you want to do, and you put stress on it, and then you find a way of getting inside of it where it’s not so easy. You know, we’re nine shows in now and it’s already hugely different from where we started.
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