Spiritualized Goes Pop

Published April 2, 2012

Jason Pierce learned a funny lesson on the way to creating Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, the seventh album from Spiritualized and already a contender for one of the top releases of the year: making a good pop record is not so easy. Certainly the architect of such grand, symphonic rock statements as Let It Come Down, Songs in A&E and the masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space has long known his way around hooks and melodies, but he’s generally shelved his poppier output in favor of creations more abstract and expansive.

No more. What majestic form “pop” takes on Sweet Heart, Sweet Light—aching, exultant, rooted, as Spiritualized so often is, in pain, but reaching for the stars. From the drive of the nearly 10-minute, multiple-movement lead single “Hey Jane” to the classic Britpop singalong chorus of closer “So Long You Pretty Things,” this is pop rock of another era—you’ll hear traces the Velvets, Chuck Berry, ELO, and Oasis—and yet it still feels utterly new and is a welcome addition to 2012. For all of the nostalgic thrills Pierce brought Spiritualized fans in 2009–10 with those special concerts playing Ladies and Gentlemen…, in its entirety, he has no interest in being an oldies act. And why would anyone be, who’s capable of making new records this thrilling? It’s just one of the topics we got into when we sat down at New York’s Ace Hotel with Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce.

NORRIS: Jason, I cannot say enough great things about this record, which has been a few years in the making. When they say “three years,” it was sort of stop and start, right? It wasn’t three years straight through?

PIERCE: No, it was about two years, but I’ve taken my time. You know, I’m unable to make those records where you just go in a studio and that’s it. I think you can capture so much more on a record than just a particular performance on one day. And also I want my records to be the most magnificent and glorious-sounding records, but also want them to be the most intense and fragile. And I want that all in the same ten-second bit of music. And it just takes a while to get there, and I don’t write the songs and then go and record them, I write in the studio. So it takes a while to kind of piece them together and know that that’s what I want it to be like. And I constantly throw the bits up in the air and see how they land, and eventually they kind of keep landing in the same place and that’s where it stays.

NORRIS: You’ve got that hard-won perfectionist reputation. Is it still hard for you to say, “Okay, that’s done” and not continually to go back and re-tweak songs?

PIERCE: Yeah, but they get to a stage where they resist any further change, you know? And that’s kind of where they are, short of re-recording or starting again. That’s kind of where it’s gonna be.

NORRIS: Some of these songs, or elements of them, have been around going back to Songs in A&E time [2008]?

PIERCE: Yeah, some are even older. I’ve always been a bit, I don’t know if embarrassed is the right word, about pop, but I prefer the abstract and the distorted in music. And I keep writing these proper melodies and harmonies, and they’re the bits that get thrown out of the records! And I have quite a collection. One of these songs, “I Am What I Am,” was a song I wrote with Dr. John; “Too Late” was a song I wrote years ago for Candi Staton and never gave it to her, never had the confidence to say “I’ve got this song.” And just, bits and pieces like that. So I thought, well, I’ve got enough for a pop album. I’ve got enough to embrace this for once, and say I’m gonna write within this form, you know? In an odd way I thought I was lowering the bar for myself, in saying, well, I’ll make a pop album. But in a way it’s kind of harder to make pop music. It’s like the more abstract you get with music, you get into that emperor’s new clothes thing, where you can go anywhere, and just claim that your audience may not be prepared to go with you. But with pop music, I think everybody understands the form, everybody knows what it’s meant to do. So I would say it’s harder to write that kind of music.

NORRIS: And yet you’ve done that start to finish here, and created a really complete album. For those people who have only heard “Hey Jane,” it’s only the tip of a pretty amazing iceberg.

PIERCE: Yeah, I’ve got an awful lot of records, like ’70s Link Wray albums, or Clear Spot by Captain Beefheart, where these artists, whether they’ve wanted to or not, have soaked up all this wisdom in music. And they seem like very complete records, like you can pull them down and play the whole thing. It’s not like, this record’s got a couple of great tracks. They’re complete. You know, like a house of cards—all the songs lean on each other and all the songs rely on the other songs to be what they are. And I kind of wanted to make something like that.

NORRIS: And as much as people loved you bringing back Ladies and Gentlemen… a few years ago, I know you’ve said it’s really important not to repeat yourself or look to the past.

PIERCE: I just think there’s an awful part of rock-‘n-roll music where people kind of pretend they’re young all their lives, you know? And they kind of live off past glories. Especially now there’s kind of a trend where people are performing only their old albums, in their entirety, beginning to end. And obviously, we played Ladies and Gentlemen…, but it’s not something I want to continue. I think it’s essential to make new music now, and to try and make epic records now, and not rely on what happened in the past.

NORRIS: Which is interesting because the Ladies and Gentlemen… revival came about because you guys did it for ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series. Even that name, “Don’t Look Back”…

PIERCE: Well, yeah, there’s some kind of humor in that, obviously, but it seems like as a way to go, it’s just not… I think it’s really hard to move forward in music. To make new music. I’ve been saying recently it’s like trying to invent a new animal. It’s like, what the fuck is that? I mean, it’s an animal. It’s such a slow evolutionary thing that makes it move forward, you know? And sometimes when people perceive things as genuinely new, they’re just seeing a kind of broad stylistic change. You know a jump from Hawaiian into, I don’t know, rockabilly or something. And they’re like, “Wow, this is new!” But I think the actual, most important thing is that you’re making new music. So it’s with those kind of loose ideas that I tried to put this record together.

NORRIS: You’ve got some backing voices on the record, and I understand the string section that you recorded in Iceland were musicians that you had played with before?

PIERCE: Yeah, they were in a band called Amiina. And they didn’t play like classical people—not to say that they weren’t classically trained, but they played essentially pop music and they played their own music. So they played in a kind of different style to people who play only classical music. And so I kinda figured I’d go back there and record them for the record. And the same with the singers. The singers were from LA and they sounded a little bit like “So Long, Marianne” from Leonard Cohen, the singers on there, or Ray Charles records. They weren’t gospel, even though we’d asked for gospel singers. They had this kind of sassiness that came with pop music. So I thought it really important for this record that I go to Iceland for the strings and LA for the vocals. And also, it was kind of to treat myself. You know, I was having a tough time in my front room in England, so I figured I’d plan these two trips to get out.

NORRIS: So ultimately you premiered the album live at the Albert Hall in October, but you didn’t announce beforehand that the show would be all new songs?

PIERCE: Well that is the most glorious building. And we just felt that if we failed, we failed majestically. You know, it’s a beautiful place to fail. And so, it kind of worked. I think once we’d played four or five songs, people realized that we weren’t about to put in any old songs. And maybe the album needed it. We were meant to go up there and play old songs, but it seemed weird to be completely wrapped up in making this new piece of music and then go out and play a show of old songs. So I felt like the only thing I could do was to play the album in its entirety.

NORRIS: The album concludes with two songs that are somewhat spiritual in nature, lyrically. They both reference Jesus. I’ve lost count of how many Spiritualized songs over the years have had either religious references in the lyrics or gospel flavor in the music. Has your own relationship with faith or spirituality changed over the years?

PIERCE: Not really. It’s a language. I bought a Jack Scott record recently, and in the middle of that record, there’s a doo-wop kind of song. And I used to listen to so much doo-wop, and I’ve talked a lot about gospel music, but I realised a lot of that language came from doo-wop music. You know, “I Asked the Lord Above,” “Heaven Sent Me an Angel.” That’s rock-‘n-roll, and that’s where a lot of this language is coming from. Also, I’ve said before that as soon as you start having a conversation with Jesus in a song you know you’re dealing with issues of morality and how fragile it is to be human. It’s a shortcut to putting those ideas across. But like the [1997 Spiritualized] song, it’s “No God, Only Religion.” I like the fervor, I like the excitement of it, but there’s no God in this music. Not in the kind of church sense of it.

NORRIS: But in another sense, it’s absolutely spiritual.

PIERCE: Well, for the joy of it. Everybody’s looking for some kind of authenticity in music. Or some kind of truism, you know, “This is true!” And the thing about gospel music is, these people are singing about their faith. So it always comes across with, as authentic, you know? Gospel choirs put across this amazing sound but they’re singing from the heart because they truly believe it. And I kind of have that faith, but I just have that faith in music.

SPIRITUALIZED’S SWEET HEART, SWEET LIGHT IS OUT APRIL 17. YOU CAN SEE JOHN NORRIS’ VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH JASON PIERCE AT NOISEVOX.