Spiritualized

Searching for a Spark

Jun 01, 2008 Summer 2008 - The Protest Issue Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share


Jason Pierce was in a good mood until I asked him about the Coachella festival. It’s only three days after he played the finale in a succession of “acoustic mainlines” shows, the widely acclaimed concert series where Pierce reinvented the Spiritualized canon with a string section and backing vocalists, and he’s still frustrated over how badly the set went. “It was a shame,” he says candidly. “We had troubles with the sound, and it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t a very good show. That show can be so special when it sits right and in its own space. It’s a beautiful show for all its simplicity. It has its own power...,” he continues, trailing off as if considering what it might have been. “It was hard work,” he says pensively before turning philosophical. “I never got into any hard work,” he muses. “Any work, even.”

Of course, that’s not exactly true, as Pierce has certainly poured as much work into his albums as any songwriter, writing songs that bore the stamp of a meticulous perfectionist, from the space drones of Spiritualized’s 1997 breakthrough Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, to coordinating the efforts of 120 musicians for 2001’s Let It Come Down. But like any perfectionist, much of Pierce’s work is spent fighting himself, wrestling with intuitive notions of what kind of music he wants to make, what kind of music he should be making, and what kind of music he needs to make. With Songs in A&E, he didn’t know what he was making at all.

“I had no idea how to make it work. It sounded like 11 songs that were old and not contemporary to my life at all,” he explains. “Amazing Grace, the idea of that record was all about immediacy and trying to make a record where we didn’t rehearse. We wanted to capture the sound of a band,” he says, describing Spiritualized’s newest endeavor by comparing it to their last, the 2003 release that was notable for stripping the band’s sound down to gospel, blues, and soul rudiments. “This album, the start was more conceptual. All the songs were going to be written about fictional characters to get outside of myself. I thought if I could write about fictional characters I could write songs that were unlike anything I had done before, but they didn’t end up like that. They ended up being more personal than anything I’d done before. The vision for it was quite different from how it became.”                 

Before it became anything, Pierce nearly gave up on it altogether. He would try songs with different reverb effects. He would experiment with and without drums. He would put once-messy arrangements into different rhythmic permutations, seeing which one fit best. Nothing sounded right.

Then, just as he was struggling to find within the recordings a spark of life, he nearly lost his, ending up in the hospital with pneumonia and respiratory failure. After two-and-a-half weeks, he had been resuscitated by doctors twice and had dropped to an alarming 112 pounds. When he left the hospice, he found that the songs he had written were eerily prescient, dwelling on death and loss as if preparing him for what he’d soon experience.

“I’ve said I should be careful what I write about in the future,” he laughs. “I think that the album sounds like it’s got that kind of low-level energy that you get in places like hospitals, like ‘There’s something really fucking important going on in this place.’ But it’s got this kind of layer of calm. I think the album became infused with that. ‘A&E’ only means one thing in England—it means ‘accidents and emergencies,’” he says referring to the album’s title. “If anyone in England says, ‘What’s the name of your new album?’ when I tell them, they get the joke.”

But even while he recognized the strange overlap between songs like “Death Take Your Fiddle” and his brush with mortality, he still wasn’t sure that the songs he was writing would add up to an album. Though he couldn’t articulate it, there was still something missing. It would take an offer from a friend he had met at a Daniel Johnston show to provide the unifying thread he needed to tie together a disconnected series of songs into an album.

“It found its own environment only through working on Harmony Korine’s film,” he says, mentioning the famously eccentric filmmaker who had approached Pierce to do the score for his Mr. Lonely. For once, Pierce could make music free of the expectations of having to please himself, and he found that working on instrumental music pieces offered him an entry point into understanding how he could fit together seemingly incompatible tracks. Tellingly, the six transitional moments bear the name “Harmony.”  “When I started working for Harmony, I was in the studio working on this stuff that I didn’t have to front, stuff I didn’t have to say, ‘This is my new thing. This is the new Spiritualized record.’ I was just working purely with sound, and that was hugely liberating. Because I was being so productive and writing all these pieces that just came out, I decided that I should work on the record at the same time. So the film score kind of bled into the album, and bits of the record are on the score and bits of the score are on the record.”

What began to emerge was a richly imagined song cycle, one lushly arrayed with swooning strings, stately horns, and softly layered backing harmonies but that remains at its core a surprisingly straightforward record. As the first album that Pierce wrote on guitar, the songs are simple largely out of necessity, as his limited knowledge of guitar chords kept the chord progressions relatively simple. But as a perfectionist with a taste for the abstract, he just can’t bring himself to celebrate his newfound way with an accessible pop hook, even fighting against having first single “Soul on Fire” make the final cut because it was too much of a sing-along anthem. After all this time has passed, he still can’t say exactly what was wrong with the album before and what made it all feel right in the end.

“The needle in my musical compass is swinging, like, ‘Whoa, I don’t like that. That sounds like something I don’t want to be a part of,’” he says soberly. “But it can be quite abstract. For no reason that’s easily understandable, I have an idea of what kind of albums I want to make and should try to be making. I think the other thing that I like about the line ‘accidents and emergencies’ is that it seems that that’s how I’ve always made music. It has always been this accident when the songs arrive in these melodies that float around, and I start piecing them together. And it seems like it always seems like, ‘Well, I better get this done now, because I won’t be able to do it forever,’” he continues, and you can almost see the mental gears grind to a halt, freezing a brilliant artist into inactivity simply because he knows he has too many ideas and too little time to explore them to his satisfaction. “I don’t even know what it is,” he finally says of the ingredient that transforms a set of songs into an album. “If I did, I could get there faster.”



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