By Timothy Dwenger
Jason Pierce is Spiritualized. He is the composer, the arranger, the songwriter; in short, he is the genius behind one of England’s most successful psych-rock outfits. He made history when, in 1997, Spiritualized released one of the most critically acclaimed British rock albums of the decade with Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. It’s been 16 years since that album brought international recognition to Spiritualized and while many bands of that era have long since faded into obscurity or simply broken up, a year ago Spiritualized released another masterpiece with Sweet Heart Sweet Light.
With two years spent recording and another full year mixing, the album was three years in the making before it was finally ready for release. While mixing is a painstaking process in any situation, in this case it took Pierce a full year because he was enduring mind-numbing treatment for hepatitis C which had basically paralyzed his liver. “Just to get inside of those songs and make the record was quite hard work. Sometimes, on that medication, I felt like I was in somebody else’s head,” Pierce admitted during a conversation with The Marquee from his home in London, as he got ready for a brief U.S. tour that kicks off in Denver. “I said that the album was a pop album and I think people took that in kind of a weird way, but I think it’s a really strong collection of songs and I think I tried to be concise in the way I put the songs together. I didn’t want them to drift aimlessly, as much as I love music that drifts aimlessly. I wanted it to be very concise and focused, and I think Sweet Heart Sweet Light is like that.”
Though some may not think of a nine minute song as “concise and focused,” the album’s lead single “Hey Jane” clocks in at 8:52 and encompasses much about what the album is centered around. Jangly pop guitars give way to Pierce’s voice and soaring background vocals that give the song the gospel feel that has been a hallmark of the band since Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s a monster of a tune that chugs forward with a wall of sound that washes over the listener and begs them to get lost in its intricacy.
For all the details and depth that pervades Sweet Heart Sweet Light, its cover is a bold statement in simplicity. The blue interrogative “Huh?” is awkwardly confined within a green octagon that makes the graphic look like a strange and otherworldly stop sign. Pierce explained that the album art is a commentary on his foggy state of mind during the recording process. While most bands are pushing the envelope with their album art and striving to be the most artistically creative band on the scene, it’s clear that Pierce is content to let the music do the talking.
“I feel like records are stepping stones on the way to something else and, especially with my music, they are tiny steps,” Pierce said. “Like any evolution, my music doesn’t take huge leaps into the future. You can make huge leaps if you drop all the vocabulary you’ve got and make a stylistic change, but I’m always wary of people who do that. It shows a certain lack of sincerity if you come back with a completely different sound and different vocabulary.”
While Pierce has almost always written all of the songs on Spiritualized albums, Sweet Heart Sweet Light features not one, but two songwriting collaborations. The first, “I Am What I Am,” was co-written with Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John) after the legendary New Orleans pianist played on Ladies And Gentlemen’s “Cop Shoot Cop,” and while Pierce was never really happy with the Chambers Brothers flavor of the original version, he finally found an arrangement that allowed him to let it out into the world.
The second collaboration was with his 11-year- old daughter, Poppy Spaceman, and Pierce gives her an enormous amount of credit for the eight-minute “So Long You Pretty Thing” that closes out the record. “She just had a good song and I stole it from her,” Pierce said chuckling. “It wasn’t collaborative, really. She just wrote these amazing words and attaching them to the beginning of my song really made it complete in a way that it was struggling to be before. I think there’s something really moving about kids’ voices, especially when they’re singing sincere lines, so it only seemed right that she sang them. In the end it turned my half-baked song into something that was really something else.”
In reality, the whole album is truly something else, and he has gotten back in touch with the songs by playing them live. “When I made Sweet Heart Sweet Light I was going through treatment and making the record was a really difficult thing, and as a result I didn’t feel too attached to it,” Pierce admitted. “Even though people really took to the record I feel a little distanced from it, so playing it live is a good thing. It feels like me playing the songs with a clearer head.”
That said, audiences shouldn’t expect a pure re-creation of the album when Spiritualized takes the stage. Pierce is the first to admit that he doesn’t even try to duplicate the recorded versions when playing live. “I don’t think playing live is about replicating your record. It’s not about accuracy; it’s about energy,” he said. “It’s impossible to capture that in the same kind of energy on a record, so playing live is not really about the parts; it’s finding the bits that make the songs as good as they are and translating that.”
To help with the translation Pierce has hired a new band who he feels are more than up to the task. “Part of the thing about this tour is that I wanted to shake things up a bit,” he revealed. “I’ve got an American band. I’m still bringing Tony [Doggen] who plays guitar, but the rest of the people are American. I’ve kind of changed the fabric of it, which is a good thing. It’s good to get inside these songs and start playing them like they mean something.”
As Pierce gets back in touch with the record on the road, he admits that he has had to change up the typical Spiritualized live show a little bit because it is simply costing too much to bring the band’s entire light rig across the Atlantic for a run of shows. “We’ve always brought big shows that hit people from every angle. If we can hit them visually, electronically and with the sound, we can move them. I threw video into the mix recently because it kind of runs itself and it was getting really expensive to bring the lights over from England, but it’s really quite effecting, and quite something else, especially when you stand in front of it live,” he said. “It doesn’t lessen the impact but when I was faced with the cost of bringing our lights over, I didn’t then want to say ‘We’re not gonna’ do it.’ I wanted to find some way to do it that was just as psychedelic and just as amazing but wasn’t going to cost us everything.”
As Pierce soldiers on with Spiritualized in the face of illness and the logistical challenges of touring, one thing remains a constant — he consistently thrills and amazes his fans with one artistic triumph after another and it doesn’t sound like that is ending any time soon. “I feel like I’m in a good place,” he said. “I’m writing a lot of good new songs and I’m looking to make a record that isn’t like the last three I’ve made. Spiritualized has always balanced this weird dichotomy of wanting the music to be free but still having it relate to the songs I write. I still think it’s important to have hook-based songs but the most far reaching shows I’ve seen of late are completely improvised and I kind of want to try and find a way of translating that into a record that contains my songs.”
While the world waits to see how the next Spiritualized record deals with this complex issue, Pierce is currently giving audiences a taste of three or four of the new tunes on the road. “They’re not fully realized yet but I think it’s important they’re played rather than constructed in the studio,” he said.
:: Spiritualized ::
:: Bluebird Theater :: April 4 ::
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