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Spiritualized: Electric Phoneline

Mark Dale interviews Jason Pierce, leader of Spritualized and former Spacemen 3 member.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 14th Aug 2015

Image: Spritualized

Spiritualized's Jason Pierce has never made a bad album. How many artists can you say that about, let alone ones who have had 30 year recording careers?

That career began in the early 1980s when he formed Spacemen 3, with college friend Pete Kember. Since splitting that band have become regarded as one of the most influential of the UK's alternative acts of the 1980s.

They hit a creative peak in 1987, with the release of the timeless The Perfect Prescription album, and a commercial peak in 1998/89, particularly in America, with the release of their third LP Playing With Fire

The band were known for their psychedelic live shows and recordings, which lyrically referenced drug use and musically referenced bands like The Stooges and The Cramps early on, and later gospel and blues. 

An acrimonious split between Pierce and Kember caused the band to dissolve in 1990. Their final album Recurring was released posthumously in 1991 and has since been followed by the issue of many bootleg recordings, such as the infamous Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To.

Pierce formed his own band Spiritualized in 1990 using musicians who were part of the latter day Spacemen 3 line up: Will Carruthers, Jonny Mattock and Mark Refoy. They have released seven brilliant albums in their career, with band leader Jason Pierce being the sole constant member of the group, acting as songwriter and producer also.

The music of Spiritualized differs greatly from that of Spacemen 3 in its ambition and finesse, often utilising vocal choirs and intricate orchestration and referencing free jazz, noise, ambient, dance music, gospel, blues, rock and roll, soul, psychedelia and the 1960s productions of Phil Spector and The Beach Boys's Brian Wilson.

They are best known for their ambitious, landmark Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space album (1997). Jason Pierce has suffered serious health setbacks during his time in the band, which inspired some of the content of their 2008 album Songs in A+E and delayed both the release of that album and the recording of their 2012 album Sweet Heart Sweet Light.

Currently recording their eight studio album, Jason took time out to talk with Mark Dale about a number of subjects including Spacemen 3, drugs, psychedelia and life in general ahead of the band's September appearances at Moseley Folk Festival and Liverpool Psych Fest.

Where are you and how are you?

I'm in London and I'm ok.

How are recordings for the new album going?

As well as can be expected, with me. It's a long and arduous process, I'm afraid. But at least there's some progress. 

I read somewhere that you were recording it in Spain, but you're in London.

Nah, I did some sessions in Spain, but I never really had a vision of doing anything outside of London, to be honest. We went out there and did a few drum takes and stuff.

I was reading an interview with Jim Dickinson the other day, who was a Memphis producer, and he said a line like 'you have to record an awful lot of music before you get to the good stuff' and I hold that to be quite true, particularly in my case.

You just have to keep putting stuff down until you astound yourself. We're well and truly into the process, but there's a little bit more recording to be done yet.

How does the recording process work with Spiritualized? Are all of the songs written and finished before you go into the studio?

Yeah, kind of, but things can always be bettered. I've got songs and ideas in mind, but I'm constantly chipping away at it. There's always a better or more poetic way of saying something, something that sounds stronger but with fewer words. And I think that's the same with music.

There's a certain way of putting it down. Anyone can play. I mean, there's a certain talent involved in playing a musical instrument, but quite often you find the most memorable and beautiful things are the most simplest.

It's like anything, it's an ongoing thing. You've got one chance at a record, you can't recall it. You can't put a record out then say, hey, that wasn't quite right. So I think it deserves to be taken very, very seriously and made as great as it can be. Like I said, it takes an awful lot of recording in order to find those beautiful bits. 

Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?

It's not perfection I'm after. I like music that's kinda ragged, kinda raw. So it's not a kind of perfection in that it's beautifully executed. And it's not all about constantly working at it.

Sometimes you can do something and find immediate magic. There's something that comes from just throwing stuff down and sometimes you can astound yourself that way. But I think the most important thing is that word.You've got to astound yourself. You've got to walk out of there and go 'Wow! Look at that! I never thought we'd come out with something like that.' It's too easy to satisfy yourself simply, I know I can do that. It's trying to do stuff that touches on places you've never been, put something down in a way that hasn't been said before. And more importantly, hasn't been said by me. Like I'm not just treading water and doing the things I already know how to do. 

How is it working with Youth [famed producer]?

It's stopped actually. It was kind of very, very hard work. I think that story will come out later. I never went to work with him, I never said 'hey, I've got to work with this guy'. He came to me. He offered me his help. But over a period of time it emerged that his motivation wasn't to help, it seemed like he had some other motives behind the offer. And it was quite a long process to extricate myself and the tapes from that situation. 

All of Spiritualized's albums have a individual sound. Is that because of the different musicians you use on each, the different producer you use or is that something you personally envisage before the recording? Or is it a combination?

Yeah, a bit of all of them. Different musicians bring different things to it obviously. I've always self produced, so it's not really down to different producers. A lot of it is down to the vision of the record. With Songs in A+E, the tracks all originated on an acoustic guitar, so they were kind of humble in origin. It was always meant to be something that focussed on the songs.

Some of the other albums were a bit more broader in their origin. The new album is not unlike Ladies And Gentlemen in that I'm trying to encapsulate all of the music that's important to me, everything from free jazz, reggae, soul, doo wop, but without it sounding like an add on, like it's just stuck on the side of the song. Sometimes that comes easy, but sometimes it's harder to make those things work in the same song. 

You're playing Moseley Folk festival and Liverpool Psychedelic festival later this year. Which would you say you're closest to being, a folk band or a psychedelic band?

Hah! Wow. There's a thing. (after a long pause) I didn't think that would stop me in my tracks! I don't know. I think a bit of both. I think all music is folk music, it's kind of about where you're at. It would be nice if we could be in both camps, I guess. But maybe it's easier for people to see the psychedelic side of what we do. 

Mark E Smith of The Fall has said that being the leader of a band is a bit like being a football manager, every so often you have to get rid of the centre forward, in order to freshen things up. Would you agree with his comment?

I don't know. I think it's more like family, you know. For me it's an incredibly personal thing playing music with people, so not necessarily, no. I wouldn't really know because I don't know what it's like to manage a football team. 

You famously scored Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely and you've just performed a score to William Eggleston's film Stranded In Canton. Are you a bit of a film buff?

Yeah, somewhat. I was asked to do the William Eggleston thing, I know Rob Gordon really well, but I didn't ever envisage writing a score for it. In fact, I kinda likened it to jamming along to The White Album, like it already exists, why would it be any better or worse if I got involved? But it was an amazing thing to do.

I think a lot of film music, even now, is a bit after the event. After the event they type the film out and get someone to write a score for it. And I've always wondered why people don't get involved with the music at an earlier stage, because it really does change the way you see the film. Sometimes it really does work, but sometimes in the back of my head, it feels like it's something that art censors do. They say, hey, wouldn't it be great to get this band and this film and you get like a double audience, you get people from both areas coming to see the show. But when it works it can really be something else. 

I was really pleased with what we'd done to William's thing. We left all the music that was already in there intact, but we brought something new to it. I'm not saying that it's any better or any worse, it's just different. But it brought something to that film that enabled you to view it in a different way, which is not a bad thing.

You've had some pretty frightening health problems in the past. Have they affected your outlook on making music or life in general?

Probably not as much as I would have liked. I said at the time, I thought I would come back and say, hey, second chance, here we go, kinda thing. But I think I came back just the same disappointing person I was before I went in there. So no, not really.

Sometimes I feel like time's running out, but I think that always happens when I make a record. It becomes the most important thing in my life for that moment, so it's important that it gets finished. But no. If you'd have asked me before all that happened, I probably would've said yes, but in reality, not so much.

Would you say that understanding the psychedelic experience, via the use of psychedelics, is essential to fully understanding psychedelic art?

Difficult that one. I don't know what you mean by fully understanding. I've always said that it doesn't matter, if it's a prerequisite to understanding or getting into it, then there's something wrong in the art. Because I think art works on millions of other levels.

The most psychedelic record for me is Buddy Holly's Slippin and Slidin and that's certainly not made under the influence of any kind of psychedelics. You don't need a key. I think great music is just great music and it works on many different levels, rather than any kind of singular thing like that. 

What does Liverpool mean to you?

It's funny, I was talking about Manchester and The Hacienda earlier today, and about Stax Records, about how some places have this cultural worth that is beyond their real value in the world of banks and stuff. I was talking about how, when Stax went under, all that it really amounted to was a lot of empty rooms, because without what it was when it was in the room, it's nothing and the Hacienda's the same.

I grew up so far away from Liverpool. I remember Jim Dickinson talking about rock and roll music and he said that it all came from water level, it was all about pushing molecules around and the molecules are thicker the nearer you get to the water. He listed Memphis, the Mississippi delta, New Orleans. Liverpool's always in that list for me. It's a huge centre of music. It's fed a lot of music into the world. 

There's an element to your music, especially when you play live, that seems to reference free jazz and noise. 

Yeah, but folk, soul and psychedelic music too. I've always wanted to make music that covers all that ground without it sounding stuck on, like it's not some unnatural fusion, that it's in there and you capture the essence of it, which is usually in its most simple form. So that it doesn't matter how many notes you play, the deeper you get into it, it seems you can say the same, and more powerfully, with less information. 

In the moments you do play free jazz and noise, do you ever miss having a saxophone in the band?

Why, do you play saxophone? Is that where this is going? Hah! Sometimes, but you know it's hard. We've had saxophones in the band in the past. I just kind of got more involved in other things. I've worked some with Evan Parker and I've just worked with Alan Wilkinson and it seemed like, once I'd worked with people like that, it got harder to accept people who weren't like that.

There's a certain sense of freedom and tonality that is lacking in a lot of people who would want to get in a bus with me and travel the world. It's more about people, you know, whoever's around and makes sense at the time and gets involved. There's a whole ton of instruments out there I'd love to work with, from vibraphones to timpani and French horns, but the electric guitar can cover an awful lot of those sounds. 

There were moments when you did have saxophone in the band when you used to remind me of the Nik Turner era of Hawkwind.

Wow. I don't know what that era was like, I've never been a massive fan. In Spacemen 3 we used to get likened to them, but I can't say it was ever a big part of our musical influence.

Oh, the first few albums, when people like Nik Turner and Lemmy were in the band, are great. They sounded a lot more organic then, folk in some places, more like The Stooges or Krautrock in others.

Yeah, I think that was the problem with a lot of psychedelic music actually, in that when it was rooted in more organic music, R&B and the blues, it kind of made some sense, more so than when people started trying to explain the inner workings of their mind. It lost some of that primal sense that's in the blues and rock and roll music. 

Free jazz and noise can be wild and spontaneous music. Is there much space for the musicians in Spiritualized to improvise in your live sets or is it pretty much pre-defined? Do you dictate what will happen in a live performance?

It's all set up loosely for the song and then it's played. It's all about trying to find that energy, it's lucid, it's not easy to define, but it's a live show. We're doing a lot of festivals at the moment and more and more we're coming across these kind of press and go shows, where you hit the green button and the show kind of runs itself - be sure not to press the button before the band go on stage kind of thing.

Our thing has always been about performing and trying to make these instruments do things that aren't easily there. So, it's all improvised but, as I say, the fewer notes you play is often the best way, so it's not like they're expected to do a big show off of their talents.

Are you a fan of improvised rock music? Have you ever delved into the Grateful Dead back catalogue?

No, hah. I was just thinking about that and I think that's to do with Stax music again. I like music that's rooted in rock and roll. Even with psychedelic music, I like the bands that wanted to sound like the Rolling Stones, but they'd chewed acid and it kinda came out wrong, way more than people saying, hey, look what I can do here and look how fast I can move my fingers around this.

I like music that's song based, so the improvisations of the Grateful Dead I never really delved into. Maybe I should, because there's so much of it? I'm sure people could play me 10 tracks that would make sense.

I think it was the Stax thing, where Steve Cropper said he'd gone down to where they were playing and - this goes back to your other question - if you took away the jar of homebrew, this wouldn't make a lot of sense. It wouldn't be the same. Musically, it wouldn't get the people moving like that. I think I like music that kind of works outside of that space, you know. Like it has its own power. 

I'll send you some Grateful Dead music

Hahahaha! And some of your sax playing music! Hah! Don't send me it all, man, I don't want to be sat there for days!

Of the many themes that you've discussed in your music, recreational drug use is one that you've addressed throughout your career. Have your attitudes to writing about that subject matter changed over that time?

Yeah, probably. It's hard to judge your own stuff, but probably. It's hard to judge. I just found myself writing about other themes. Whatever you write, it's got to be the truth, you know? I've said the line so many times, so many bands try to pass off the ideas of other bands or their styles, as their own. And I just think that if you tell people the truth, then you can't get any better than that. If people are going to invest any time and money in what you do as an artist, you've got to be telling them the truth.

Former Spacemen 3 members Will Carruthers, Jonny Mattock and Mark Refoy have all revisited their musical relationship with Pete Kember. Do you think he treated you differently to how he was with the other band members at the time of Spacemen 3 and as a result prevented any chance of you two working together again?

Wow. I never really thought about it as anything of the sort. I think they got involved because they were trying to raise money for Natty, who was the band's first drummer (Natty Brooker also contributed artwork to Spaceman 3 and early Spiritualized records and sadly died of cancer in 2014.

[The reconvening of the former Spacemen 3 members in 2010, minus Pierce, but with the addition of Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, a former support band of Spacemen 3, had been a fundraising gig for Brooker which also served as a retrospective exhibition of his artwork - Ed).]

To be honest I was never asked. I never knew about the show, so it wasn't a case of not wanting to be involved, I didn't even know it was there to be involved. 

But, I don't know the answer to that I'm afraid. 

Maybe he did, I don't know. But I wrote the music, I was writing the songs, so it's a kind of different situation, isn't it. I kind of invested my life into that, that's what I did, I wrote those songs and it's kind of a big deal so... I don't know really. You'd have to ask him really, because I don't know how he treats the other people any differently or the same. I don't know the answer.

Spiritualized play Moseley Folk Festival, Birmingham on Friday 4th September head to the festival guide for tickets and essential information.





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