Spiritualized records have a history of being some of the most intricate, complex and laborious undertakings in modern rock music. Conceived from the often medicated mind of Jason Pierce and translated to tape, Spiritualized’s musical journey has explored everything from psychedelic freakouts and overwhelming orchestral offerings, to gospel soul and epic etherealism. Exploring the sonic peaks and valleys of drug use complete with agnostic, religious allusions that seem to cry out for redemption, the band’s anxious buildups and triumphant crescendos sounds like symphonies for substance sympathizers.
Jason Pierce wasn’t easy to track down. He never has been. But at the last possible hour of the last possible day before deadline, he came through to talk about the recent release of his seventh album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light.
While his previous record was recorded after a near death experience with double pneumonia, Sweet Heart Sweet Light was written during another health scare, one he doesn’t like to talk about. This record wasn’t created with the help of illicit drugs like many of the previous ones. It was recorded under the influence of different substances—ones prescribed by a doctor.
Thanks to the kindness and access provided by Spiritualized’s management and the venue’s security staff, this interview is accompanied by exclusive live video and a few photos from their recent show at the Paradise Rock Club.
Without further ado… Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Jason Pierce……
What is the background story behind the cover art?
Wow. I wanted it to look like one of those medical logos. But most of all, more than making it look good on a 12” LP, I wanted it to look good on any scale, no matter how small it goes. I wanted it to look like a work of art. It kinda worked on each scale and it kind of looks like the Periodic Table as well, so it kinda worked.
It seems like an interesting choice to start with a 9 minute song. Was there any reasoning behind that decision?
No, it just kind of came out like that. With the record, I wanted to make the whole thing like a pop record, like the Beatles. Then halfway through I realized I didn’t really like the Beatles. Not that I don’t like the Beatles music, but I decided I wouldn’t like to make a record like that. The idea originally was to make all of the songs two and a half minutes so it would be about harmony and melody and not about that abstraction or distortion– but some of it just came about like that. You can’t really edit that down. In a way, with the album as a whole, all the songs lean up against each other and editing them down would have made them more fucked up than this freedom. All the songs lean against each other, you know?
How did the official music video for “Hey Jane” come about and was any of that your idea? Did the video give the song a different meaning in the end?
You know how that video came about… it’s how most videos come about. You commit to someone to make your video. We usually use the video money to have some fun like when we went to Mount Edna. But most of the times you commission someone to make something. And then someone makes it seem like it was their idea. But this time, I sent it out and people came out with their ideas. This time I hadn’t known what he had done and I let him run with it and I did the opposite and didn’t give him any input. My only input, if you can call it that, was to resist any further conventions of the record label to destroy what it was or to try and chop it down to vignettes. There’s all kind of restrictions.
Is it true that you scrapped the original mix of this record after you released promo copies?
No. You know I didn’t mix the record by sitting in a room and mixing the record. I started mixing it a year before I was finished and I was trying not to do any further recording and try and balance it. It wasn’t strictly mixing. But I sent out what I called a finished thing ahead of time to try and jump the gun. There’s so much importance placed upon lead-up time nowadays. It used to be you finished a record and had it out in the stores a month and a half later. Now, it’s 5 months ahead of time because magazine have 3 and a half months lead-up time, so they’re not writing about current affairs anymore– they’re writing about things that happened 3 and a half months ago. So, I figured we could get a jump on that and if I sent an early copy out for review, I could jump on tour right when I finished the record. And it kind of worked. Within a month I was on tour. There wasn’t a clever thought about it. I wasn’t trying to get a jump on journalists or trying to make a clever statement. Sometime down the line I said as a joke that people who review the record haven’t got the proper record anyway. Some people didn’t find that funny. Some people thought I was trying to make some clever point on the state on music journalism. I was just trying to get a jump on touring.
Is the record thematic at all to you?
Is there a thread through the whole record? Is that what you mean? Yeah, kind of. I kind of had a difficult time putting it together actually. Sometimes I think I just make a record to tour because I feel the need to get back on the road. I think that’s what is most exciting… when you’re not trying to tie it down and catch something and put it down forever and be able to hear it in 20 years time. There’s something exciting live when you’re pushing it and you’re within it, but you’re not trying to hold onto it. With this record, as I said, I was trying to make a pop record—I wanted to make something where you didn’t have to be hip to a certain style or music, you could just sit and listen to it like a collection of songs that really worked. My influences were Iggy Pop’s Kill City, Clear Spot by Captain Beefheart and Accelerator by Royal Trux. They weren’t albums that they were releasing into the stars or that would change music forever, they were just beautiful collections of songs. When I tried to put that down, it became very hard to make. Anyone trying to make pop music has nowhere to hide. Everyone knows the definition of pop music. You can’t hide in an abstract idea. I started thinking that the more abstract you go with music, the more you can start to say “oh you’re not really hip to this or you haven’t got the musical ear to understand this”. But with pop music, you can’t really hide behind anything. It doesn’t really come with a disclaimer.
How is your health these days?
It’s good I think.
Did your health problems affect your visions of songs and how you approached songwriting?
Yeah, I don’t know. They got in the way. The treatment was worse than the thing I was suffering from. I had to do the treatment, otherwise I was going to get worse. Really it was made under a whole set of conditions of what being cut off of drugs can do. And so that got in the way. I can’t really even listen to the record now because it reminds me of that time. And I’ve never really made a record like that before. I usually make records that make sense to me after. It’s weird because I haven’t really got a control record to compare with. I haven’t made a record that wasn’t made under those circumstances so I don’t know if it would have been made different, but I really think it might have been.
The last time I saw you play, you played stripped down with gospel singers. Is this going to be similar, or will it be a more all-out rock show?
It’s a similar lineup. I’d like to say it’s a sit-back show, but it’s a little more involved and still allowing the ideas of the new record. But I’d like to say it’s more pop. We’re traveling with the same girls who played on the previous record, but they’re not gospel singers, they sing pop music and they sing like Leonard Cohen or the Leonard Cohen singers. They sound more ethereal and spaced out. It’s not gospel anymore, it’s taken on it’s own thing.
You’ve always used religious allusions in your music. After the near-death health experiences, the Jesus references are still there. Are they any more realistic or are they still just reference points?
No. They never really meant anything religious. I’ve had trouble trying to explain this. It’s like “Heaven Sent Me an Angel”. It’s kind of a short cut in language. I read something this morning about the Beach Boys’ song with Brian Wilson. Even though it has God-reference in the title, the song has NOTHING to do with God. It’s about love. It’s like an economy of language. Really that’s my use of language. Having a conversation with Jesus, you know exactly what that’s about. It allows you to take things with few words to carry what the songs about. There’s no religion in these songs at all.
As far as touring vs. making records, which do you enjoy more?
Touring, always. I’m not trying to pin things down and hold onto things when I play live. You can push it around from the inside and make changes. I fucking hate making records, I really do. And it just gets harder. It changes the way you listen to music. It starts changing the way you listen to other people’s records. You get caught up thinking about what kinds of reverbs they’ve used. Once I get to playing again and I get on the bus, it all starts to make sense again.
When you guys play now, do you go back through the whole catalogue or are there songs you stay away from for any reason?
It’s not very thought about. It’s not really planned. We don’t sit around with a list of songs we can do. We play something and then we think about what leads into that. Nothing’s really out-of-bounds.
Yeah, but they’re a bit more fluid. I think there are about 3 Janes in there. There’s no single Jane.
Do you think your songs have turned into more of a quest for penance or redemption at all?
My songs? No, I’ve been trying to write pop songs. In making an album, you almost drain the songs of any substance. By the time I’ve finished the album, they almost have no emotional effect on me at all. It’s kind of wicked because I know it’s in there. I know that some of it really moved me and some of it had to be said like that. But now I listen to the album and I like the pop aspect of it, but I have a few chuckles after hearing some lines of it. But there was a time when the whole album and lyrics were important to me. But you can’t make records fast. I think most bands relinquish responsibilities and hire a producer who comes in with his own bag of tricks. I set out to make my own records. I have to learn it as I go along. I don’t write the finished song before we record it. I record enough ideas and add to it as we go along.