Saturday, 1 August 2009

UNCUT Magazine Interview - August 2009

An interview with Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce: “What we were doing… was morally and legally wrong”

UNCUT MAGAZINE - August 2009

by Michael Bonner

“I like to do one thing a day,” says Jason Pierce. “You know, go to the bank or something. And today I’m doing two things.” Later, he’ll be heading off to record a duet with Mark Lanegan. But for now, ahead of Spiritualized’s slot at this year’s Latitude Festival, Pierce is here to talk through his back catalogue, from the galactic drones of Spacemen 3 to Spiritualized’s symphonic highs. “This is like a drowning experience,” he says. “The whole of your life flashing before your eyes…”

The Perfect Prescription (1987)
Art school friends Jason Pierce and Pete Kember form Spacemen 3 in their native Rugby, Warwickshire in 1982. They follow up drone-heavy debut Sound Of Confusion (1986) with this one, softer and more textured…
I’d left home as soon as I could, so I’d got a house at the bottom end of the town which I shared with Natty [Booker], our first drummer. I think Rosco [Sterling Roswell, bass] was living there. It was an open door house, anybody could come and go. Pete lived with his folks in a big house in a village outside of town. We came to a guy called Paul Atkins who ran a kind of semi-professional studio off an industrial estate at the bottom of town – he had a sampler, which I think was quite rare at the time. He had an 8-track recorder, but he wanted a 16-track recorder. So we said we’d buy him a 16-track for unlimited studio time, which worked out amazing for us, but not for him – we were young, we had unlimited time! We moved my house and our whole scene down to the studio and spent hours getting deeper and deeper into making this record. Were Pete and I competitive as songwriters? No, not at all. He’d always claim he wrote a lot of the songs before he met me, but when I met him he had a guitar with two strings on it and he couldn’t play it. I taught him rudimentary barre chords. We had an agreement early on that there was never any “this is my song, this is your song”, which made what happened later [Pierce and Kember argued over writing credits, which contributed to the band’s breakup] all the more shocking. I guess everything that we were doing was against everything I’d been brought up to believe you should do. The whole drugs scene, what we were doing with our lives… it was what we wanted to do, but it was morally and legally wrong.

Playing With Fire (1989)
A pinnacle of late-’80s space-rock, drifting between dreamy psychedelia, minimalist gospel and heavy-duty feedback. But Pierce and Kember’s relationship deteriorated badly during the recording…
We started recording in Cornwall. It was quite a funky little house in the middle of nowhere. Kind of hippie, log burners… I’d never been anywhere like that. I’m from the town. Also, to be honest, I’d never really travelled, we never had money when we were kids. In Cornwall, we were sleeping on mattresses on the floor. But it only works if everyone gets on, and it was getting to the point with Pete where we couldn’t be in the same room together.
He got crueller, and it was very hard to deal with, especially as we were in such a close scene. I’d started going out with Kate [Radley, future Spiritualized keyboardist], and Pete was so childish – “You can’t do that.” It became miserable, but making this music was never about misery – there’s a beautiful sorrow, a beautiful longing about the music. Even in the more heavy-duty drones there was a kind of epiphany.
How did I respond to Pete? I shut down and got on with it as best I could. As happened later in the line-ups of Spiritualized when things got bad, I think if you give people time, they realise their mistakes. The thing that upset me the most was when Pete wanted to change the songwriting credits. I remember having a meeting to sort out the credits for Playing With Fire, which I thought was the end – it wasn’t the beginning of the end, it was the end.
“How Does It Feel?” was originally called “Repeater”, which is the sound a Vox Starstreamer makes: you hit the guitar and that’s what comes out of it, it plays itself. Pete put down this long repeater thing and then I constructed a melody over the top, and his claim was that it was his song, because he’d put down the original track. I joked that if you owned the tape, you owned the first part, so you could make this claim that I own the silence that the Starstreamer is going on to. I mean, you can’t make songs with people who are putting flags in them – saying, that’s my bit, that was my melody. We wrote songs together – no, we wrote songs and then we shared the credit. It doesn’t matter whose song it was, or who did the greater or the lesser part of it, it was just that was what you did. Done.

Lazer Guided Melodies (1992)
While promoting the final Spacemen 3 LP – 1990’s Recurring – Pierce unveils Spiritualized. Cue multi-layered vocals, string arrangements, Motorik grooves…
We recorded this for £3,000 at [Rugby studio] VHF on half-inch tape, on this little machine. Did it feel liberating to be on a new venture? Yeah, but scary, too. It was liberating not to be around Pete, to be honest. All of a sudden, we were in this situation where I could just push out in all directions, I could go as far as I wanted to go in the studio.
It was good to get back on the road and see if it worked. I went to see Van Morrison play Astral Weeks some weeks ago, and I’d forgotten how much that LP became an influence on Spiritualized. Not by stealing parts or getting somebody to play gut-string guitar, but just the sense of the interplay between three instruments… there’s a flute, a classical guitar and a violin, and it’s quite chaotic.When you’ve got people who can really play well, who are given their freedom, there’s a sense of “hey, this is good times”. We were big fans of the Velvets, and there’s this idea that great music comes from conflicts like Reed and Cale’s, which is bullshit. Great music comes from chasing it. We were trying to make this sound where God was on feedback behind the curtain… I think that’s what we set up.

Pure Phase (1995)
Credited to Spiritualized Electric Mainline, this showcased the anaesthetised grandeur of Pierce’s songs and his extraordinary eye for production detail…
The “pure phase” became a sound within this record. The mix in one speaker is completely different to the mix in the other. I mixed it twice, and liked bits of both, but didn’t like them enough to say this is the finished record. So I tried to run them together. At the time there wasn’t a piece of kit that would do that. We found we could sample about 8 or 10 bars of music and run them left and right before the sync started to go out, before the drums started to sound like two drums. Then we’d cut the tape, and then we’d do it again. And again. We did the whole LP cutting it up into eight-bar sections. It made this extraordinary sound. The bass drum was no longer in the centre, it was moving in this slightly random way due to the way the two tapes were slightly out of sync. It’s weird because recently I found an original mix of “Take Good Care Of It”, with Rico Rodriguez. It’s kind of straight, without any of that phasing and soundscape to it, and it’s beautiful. I listened to it, thinking, ‘Why the hell did I do anything to that?’ But the work involved in doing something is almost more important than what you’re making.

Let It Come Down (2001)
Taking 155 musicians to make and four years to mix. Only the birth of Pierce’s daughter, it seemed, would stop him…
155 session musicians? Too many, I think. There are rules for these things. Normally, you have a quartet or a 12-piece, but I just made up the numbers. How many French horns do you want? 11? Why not? 11, that’ll sound great. I was quite in control of it for a while. It was phenomenal. And then I had to mix it. Yeah, it took four years. I just got more and more… Well, I think I was already leaning into the mad wind. My car lived on Abbey Road studios car park until it went green with sap from the tree above it.
I wasn’t sleeping. I was taking a lot of barbiturates, anything to put me to sleep. My girlfriend was pregnant with my first child, and I kept falling out of bed every night, hurting myself, getting more and more fucked up. She said, “If you don’t fucking sort this out, I’m leaving you.” So the next day I went out and bought a mattress that would break my fall… My daughter was born at Abbey Road, and that was when I stopped work. That was my cut off. She’s the youngest ever visitor to that studio. But the record worked out. It’s a hard record to listen to. I still think “Out Of Sight” has got something that I couldn’t have gotten any other way than losing the plot with it. It was mixed twice. Or maybe three times…


Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (1997) The ambitious scope of Ladies And Gentlemen… took in everything from the blissed-out sweep of the title track to the 16-minute free jazz epic “Cop Shoot Cop”. Its success was perhaps all the more remarkable considering the number of stumbling blocks – both personal and professional – that Pierce encountered along the way…
The songs were written ahead of my split with Kate [Radley, who left Pierce for The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft]. I didn’t split up with Kate and then write “Broken Heart” – that would be quite a weird thing to do. Honestly, I’d been listening to lots of Patsy Cline and Jimmy Scott, songs full of absolutely heartbreaking things. Where do lines like “Little’s Js a fucking mess” and “There’s a hole in my arm where the money goes in” come from? All of that happened before the split. And “the hole in my arm” – that’s a John Prine line. Can you make the connection between that and heroin? Yeah, and one should.
We’d done an amazing tour through America and we’d started playing songs like “Cop Shoot Cop” and “Electricity”, so this was the first time we were playing songs live ahead of recording an album. Initially, we put down live takes, they’re not studio constructs. We ran into a problem with the Elvis Presley estate over the title track. I sang a close harmony of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” over the end of the song. The label pressed 50,000 copies before Elvis’ people came back and said, “Yeah, you can use it, but it has to become our song.” I asked if we could share the writing credits, but they were adamant that if that piece remained then it would be called “Only Fools Rush In” and credited to their songwriters. So I took it out. It was like a Spacemen 3 flashback.
The album came in foil blister packs. What were we saying with that packaging? Music does exactly what medicine does. How much did it cost? In the scheme of things, pennies. We were leaking money all the way through. I’ve still never seen a royalty from any of it. The only people who can make that foil were the people who actually do the foil on medicine packets, while the little red sticker that goes on there with the dosage amount had to be made by a chemist on the chemist’s machine. The records were put together by people wearing white gloves and hairnets. It’s great, isn’t it?
Yeah, I sacked the band [after a show in October at London’s Royal Albert Hall]. So much was made of me being difficult to work with, but the simple fact is this is the only time I’ve gotten rid of people. Their demands just became… kind of weird. Like no consecutive touring – if we went to America we had to come home for the same amount of time before we could go anywhere else. The more I couldn’t make it how they wanted it, the more they ignored me – I’d walk into the back of a bus and they’d get up and leave. I wasn’t delivering what they thought they could have from this. They didn’t like me spending money on packaging, and taking time making records. And they insisted on contracts, to put everything they wanted into writing. So I let them go. I used their contract as the means. I had my one clause in there which was that I could let them go. So as soon as the names went down, that was that. It was heartbreaking, it was a hard thing to do.

Amazing Grace (2003)
Recorded in three weeks, Amazing Grace evokes the garage aesthetic of Nuggets, as well as strung-out ballads like “Lord Let It Rain On Me”…
I was working with Spring-Heeled Jack, recording a lot of free-form jazz. We weren’t writing songs as such, just experimenting with getting sound out of instruments. With Amazing Grace, I had this idea that I wanted to make a record where the musicians would only hear the song on the day of recording, so what we got was their immediate response to it. Then we’d try and make a record out of that. I really like that album, because it was so missed at the time. People were saying it’s a garage record, like The White Stripes, but it’s not. It’s simpler than Spacemen 3, but there’s something about the sound of the songs, they’ve got that sparkle in all Spiritualized records, something to do with the high frequencies, the air at the top of it. And it was good to make. But I’m still drawn back to the the same old, “Let’s try and mix it again…” I’d love to be able to make field recordings that capture a moment, but I still have to go through this process where I’ll try mixing it one way just to know that the way it’s been done is the right way. I don’t mind that. I find I have to work like this to be satisfied.

SPIRITUALIZED Songs In A&E (2008) Delayed by a lengthy illness, Songs In A&E is Pierce’s most conventional album. Extra-curricular work – a soundtrack for Harmony Korine, the orchestral Silent Sound installation and SpaceShipp, recorded with pianist Matthew Shipp – also appears to have got in the way…
Maybe, in an ideal world, you could have thrown it all into the album. But it’s quite good to cover things like SpaceShipp – just heavy drones – outside of an album. You can be more extreme. It’s the same with the Harmony soundtrack for Mister Lonely; it became more filmic because it wasn’t made in the context of a band. The songs on this LP were quite traditional for me, so I didn’t feel there was room for more abstract stuff. The thing about making records, it can’t be inconsequential, it can’t be like, “Here’s some sounds I’ve put together.” There has to be a thread.
Has my songwriting changed over the years? No, there’s still a particular kind of simplicity, but there’s a learning process going on. With Songs In A &E, I didn’t just want to use the tremolo that worked on that, or the fuzztone I know works for this. I wanted to look somewhere outside of it. Eventually all my records settle into a space, for good or bad, that’s my take on things. It’s my snobbery, that…

article from here

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