Music Features

Spiritualized (Interview with Jason Pierce)

Back in September I was fortunate enough to be granted an audience with Jason Pierce. In addition to the band's ensuing live performance in Sheffield I was fortunate enough to see them play a far different show in California during November. Here are the results of these events...

. . .

No Ripcord: What are you listening to at the moment? Is there any new music currently that you particularly love or loathe?

Jason Pierce: I listen to so much stuff, it's really difficult, if you're talking contemporary stuff (my phone goes off, Jason shuts the door to drown out the drum sound check)... We just listen to so much stuff while we're on the road, everything from Marah to the MC5 to other parts of... Rocket From The Tombs... that's a wicked record. That record was so instrumental in the making of Amazing Grace, because it kind of said to me "if you're thinking of making a garage record, don't even go there", because you're not going to be able to compete with this, it just blisters...In terms of current stuff the band we're on tour with are great, The Soledad Brothers...I like bits of all of this stuff, I like bits of The White Stripes, I like bits of the Kings of Leon, I like The 22/20s... and it's been a long time since I can say, I like these bands that are currently doing their stuff. I think if you give them time, some of it's going to push through into areas that are quite extraordinary. At the moment it's...a lot of looking back, and I think you have to do that if you're going to start a band, to say "these are our parameters", and if you give them time then hopefully...

The CD cover inside my slipcase version of Amazing Grace seems to recall a burned CD or a Promo. Was this intentional (particularly given the short recording time for the album), and where do you stand on the whole Internet piracy/CD burning debate?

That's a lot of questions... it wasn't meant to resemble a burned CD, it's just really beautiful, it's really kind of pure. And also, this record was meant to have been made almost with no fanfare. Like when we went into the studio in October last year... trying to capture this specific moment in time, and if it works, of course, you have a decent record... do you know what I mean? It's meant to be, you know how a lot of bands let you know every detail of where they're at, like if they lose a grip on the press or if they lose a grip on their whole livelihoods. Until you get to the thing where they're like "we're going into a studio now... and we're working with this producer... and we're opening the studio door now... and we're having trouble with the mixing". I just wanted to go and try it, to see if it would work. And it worked.

As to the Internet, I've said quite a bit about it, and I think its fine. If what your selling has some quality to it... what the Internet does is it takes out the kind of... shafting people, out of the industry. If they know what they're going to get before they part with cash for it. If it's a case of somebody thinking, "this should be free, I should have all this music for free, and that's how it should be", I don't really hold with that. If that's the case then I say, if all you're interested in is getting music for free, then why don't you come round to my house and steal my guitar, you know, take it from source... I think what it also takes out from an industry point of view is this whole kind of mobilising everybody to buy it in the first week, because there's a lot of money in it, and therefore you get a chart position and it kind of rolls from there. It means people get round to buying it if they get round to buying it, if they're interested.

You're renowned for your use of interesting artwork/packaging on your releases, (I drew analogies with Radiohead, Wu-Tang, and Warp Records work with the Designers Republic) and you recently signed to Sanctuary, noted for their handling of the Trojan back-catalogue (another stylised brand). Did this influence your decision to sign with them via Spaceman?

You mentioned Wu-Tang... They've got a thing up at the moment where you can go in and they've got kind of a dictionary, kind of, this is the words and language to use to make a record by Beck. Have you seen it? (I hadn't.) One of those is a Spiritualized songwriter with a Wu-Tang Clan songwriter, it's kind of slowed down, and I think it's amazing. But you get kind of a glossary of words to use. How good is that?

(On Sanctuary.) They were there; they were there straight away. Kind of part of it was me saying, "If you can give us a contract that's less than five pages, I'll sign it", because I'm not interested in the kind of bullshit. You know, it's not rocket science, I'll make a record, you sell it, do whatever you need to sell it. There's no, it's not like I'm trying to look to shaft them or... I think a lot of what happens with major labels or record labels is they forget that what they're actually dealing with is people's lives. They can hold artists to five album deals which kind of... and they're dealing with their livelihoods. Sanctuary, they're dead straight, on the line, and it's like, Ween were there, and I think Ween are something else. (At this point I confess to having never heard any Ween.) You should check it out, it's just quite odd, and it's like music to take nitrous oxide to, and I just like it, you know. I think if they're there, I think I'm good; I'm going to that party.

Do you have any plans to expand the Spaceman label as a brand; either with an increased roster, or perhaps clothing?

(On brand expansion.) It's never been suggested until now, and now I'm going to have to think about it. Maybe. (On roster.) We're talking about maybe some of the Springheel Jack stuff, and maybe some bits and pieces I guess. But not actively looking. No A&R.

How was the tour with Spring-Heel Jack earlier this year? Do playing gigs where you aren't the main focal point for the band/audience cause you to re-evaluate your approach towards gigging with Spiritualized?

Yeah it was so liberating, absolute... um, to be asked to do that tour was, I was so proud that they were... people aren't friends with John and Ashley. I wasn't asked because I was their friend, I was asked because they wanted my guitar to be part of that sound, and I was kind of honoured to be there. It so influenced, that whole thing so influenced Amazing Grace. It was all about spontaneity, it was all about... there is no structure there, there is no given song, there is no count in. It's just-WHMMP, now lets make it. Because these guys are just giants of free jazz, you don't have to wade through a lot of stuff before they hit something really exciting. That's most people's problem with jazz, that you have to wade and wade and wade, and then you get something that's mind-blowing. You just have to listen to it, and some of it's just the process of making it. I kind of like that excitement and immediate way you know.

Tonight will be the second time I've seen you live, the first was at Glastonbury 2002 when I walked to the Other Stage circa fifteen minutes in to your performance after catching an unannounced DJ set from Richard D. James at the Glade. After an hour of 300bpm Gabba I temporarily lost some of my hearing. As I staggered downhill I gradually made out more of your set (it all sounded like Stop Your Crying, but none of it was.) Anyway, you're noted for playing gigs with varied settings, set-ups and circumstances (I suggest the 30-piece Chamber Orchestra gig at the Royal Albert Hall, and those at the World Trade Centre and CN Tower.) Any more live experiments planned after the more "back to basics" approach to Amazing Grace?

Not this tour. I think we're going to see how it goes. We recorded these songs on the day they were given to the band and since then we've only played them five times, we've done five shows. It's kind of early days yet. This is like a starting point and we're going to see where that brings us.

How long can you conceive yourself continuing to make music? Can you ever imagine just getting bored of creating your own tunes?

No, because it's about electricity and it's about energy and, it's kind of a thrill that you only get doing it, playing live. You only get it with an audience. It doesn't matter how many times we sit and play through these songs when we're rehearsing, it has no energy there. You can rehearse parts but its not about having rehearsed parts... I will tour until the money runs out.

That's a great quote. (intended genuinely)


In a recent BBC interview you claimed to be "simply reclaiming Gospel music for non-churchgoers"; adding that "Gospel is just like pop - except that Gospel singers have a fervour that no pop singer can match". At a first listen Lord Let It Rain On Me seemed to be using gospel stylings to criticise religious fundamentalism, but now I'm not so sure. Would you care to elaborate on lines like "Jesus Christ, look what you've gone done. 2000 years of looking down the barrel of a gun"?

Hmmm... I didn't strictly say that. What I did say is that the only difference between gospel music and pop music is that you replace the word 'Jesus' with 'baby', and it's as simple as that . But a lot of times when people are singing songs to the Lord or Jesus there's a kind of passion or belief that isn't necessarily there when people are talking about their lover.

It's kind of slightly open, but what it's definitely not is what you first said. It's not, none of this stuff... comes from like "life is so unfair". Everything is active - like Lord Let It Rain On Me isn't like, passive, like (uses bereft tone) "I'll deal with this". It's like "come on, let it rain on me, I can deal with this".

The Jesus line isn't blaming Jesus, it's more... it comes from a human response. I think that's what the album's about, being human, being fallible, you know. I meet kids who are deeply religious, we put gospel choirs on our records, and they know where it's at. They're not hearing all of this.

(On listening to the tape it sounds like I'm rushing Jason on to the next question as my time slot has ended, I can only thank him and his PR representative for allowing me the extra minutes.)

Some people believe that this is where they're from, and some people just sound like they're copping the style or the attitude of somebody else. I think that some of it sounds truthful or honest, and some of it just sounds like "hey I can deliver those kinds of words or that kind of style, but I'm not really down with that kind of thing", and I think the true stuff will always stand up. You can sell both types. You can sell the dishonest stuff. You can sell the guy who has peeled on a pair of leather pants and combed his fringe down and said, "this is Rock'n'Roll". You can sell that, but I think eventually people start to see through it, and I'm more with the stuff that seems like "yeah, these guy's are telling me where they're at, truthfully".

I was listening to The Twelve Steps walking up a busy road on a darkened hill as cars passed, and couldn't quite feel sure that the sirens were coming from my CD Walkman. You've commented to the effect that you listen to music in relation to how it affects you in your current situation (Jason seemed a bit bemused by the comment that I'd found on the net in relation to Lou Reed's Berlin, I guess it shows just how much an interviewers transcription can affect the flavour of an article). Do you consciously try to write music that the listener can connect with, or to you feel it's a purely circumstantial process?

Yeah it's purely circumstantial; you can't make stuff that's... it's not like pressing buttons. Your circumstances, your life might mean that you never even hear this music. Or you can hear a piece of music that doesn't even touch you, fifteen years later you hear the same piece of music and it absolutely floors you. It's all to do with the circumstances of your life and your experiences, where you're at and what you find cool or whatever. Some stuff you can't. It's really hard to drop yourself into say, a Mobb Deep? Record. You have to hear stuff along the line to make you like, "now I get this" or "now I understand this".

Do you ever get bored of answering the same questions about yourself and your music in interviews? Is there anything you'd actually like to talk about for thirty seconds which we could print?

No I'm kind of good... I think that if I really didn't like doing it I wouldn't, it's that easy. I think that sometimes when you talk through what you do, and try and qualify it, try and put it down straight, you kind of understand yourself. You kind of say things that mean you realise, that's what this is about, and you carry that to the next record that you make. I'm not doing a cold sale here. I'm not actively trying to sell my record to you. I'm actually talking through ideas that will make more sense to me on the next record.

. . .

And with that I left Jason to prepare for the gig and met up with a couple of friends. On the way down to the gig we bumped into Mr Pierce with his guitarist and they were as friendly and down to earth as he had been in the interview, speculating about the design for the now-defunct National Centre For Popular Music building and listening to me rant about the merits of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible. Inside the Soledad Brothers warm up with a riotous set of garage-blues. It's easy to question the level of originality on display but the energy and sense of fun in their set is undeniable. After which Spiritualized take the stage. Eschewing the more extravagant designs I saw at Glastonbury for a simple understated barrage of multiple layered guitar and key feedback, coupled with a lighting set-up reminiscent of the nightclub carnage in Dobermann, it's an unexpected experience, but one that proves altogether fulfilling.

The Leadmill set is basically garage-rock with an edge more genuinely soulful than a thousand Libertines copyists; filtered through the kind of bizarre lunar-poignancy I've seen at an Air gig circa 10000hz Legend. While the older material holds it's own (Come Together is simply mammoth in the most conventional way), I'm more impressed by the way in which the Amazing Grace material seems to emit with a common undercurrent, despite its differing tempo. This sound's pretentious as sin, but there's something remarkable about the way the quicksand-hefty take on The Ballad of Richie Lee flows seamlessly with a shredding (think a rawer, lighter BRMC) She Kissed Me (it felt like a hit) and back. Punctuated with say, a suitably slumbering version of Take Your Time from Lazer Guided Melodies, the gig seems effortlessly natural. OK, I wont insult your intelligence by asking you to take the last few sentences as anything but pretentious inarticulacy, but suffice to say the gig rocked collectively in a way I've experienced before at Mogwai gigs and really good DJ-sets. And I like.

Fast forward to November 15th 2003. The main reason for my elongated work hours and lack of free time in the last few months has been due to the necessity of earning money for my third year of study at San Diego State University (where I should be able to service No Ripcord far better than in recent months). In November I visited a mate out there already for a fortnight, and the penultimate day of my trip coincided with a Spiritualized instore at M-Theory records. In my current status as a minor in the US (which will change when I reach Twenty-One in June) I was unable to make the evenings club show at 4th & B. After spending an hour the previous day trying to find the place at the wrong side of Balboa Park, I found M-Theory on the Saturday morning. Jason's comments about touring until the money runs out seemed validated as the band set up to play their first of two gigs to an all-ages crowd around 100 people in a small independent record store with free admission.

The M-Theory gig was remarkable. The full band run through four tunes in a semi-acoustic fashion, and it's truly fantastic stuff, closer to Leadbelly's Midnight Special with perhaps a hint of the soulful ambience of say, the Minnie Riperton anthology I'm currently listening to. It sounded completely different to both the Leadmill and Glastonbury performances I've witnessed from Spiritualized. The opening Lord Let It Rain On Me brims with a potent ambience. In recent months I've been inspired enough by those performances to delve deeper into the Spiritualized back catalogue (incidentally I reckon Pure Phase is the best thing I've heard from him), and started to appreciate Ween's White Pepper to boot. It's clear that Jason Pierce is one of the good guys.