What’s all this, then? Music in a church? Coffee and cream backing singers, dressed in whiter shades of pale? A band made up of twanging guitarists and a banging drummer? And in the midst of it all, a middle-aged man, looking ever so slightly the worse for wear and tear, singing words we have now forgotten over a music bed of blessed, blissed-out melodies and lacerating guitar solos. Sister Act it ain’t.
The previous evening, Jason Pierce – the absent-without-leave linchpin of Spiritualized, one of British rock’s most lauded, if displaced bands – is to be found in the rather less elevated setting of a hotel ante-room in Dingle. He looks as if he’s been through various wars, this man, whose previous work in Spiritualized amalgamated gospel, psychedelia, strings and free-jazz wipe-outs to such heights that you weren’t sure whether you had died and gone to heaven or hell.
Although poised to perfection, the music, particularly 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space, and 2001’s Let it Come Down, hid a serrated edge: the lifestyle of Pierce, whose experience of drugs has, perhaps, made him look older than he by rights should. It has been said of Pierce that he never used drugs, but that they used him. Extremes, then, are what this man is all about, extremes that have inevitably wormed their way into his songwriting. As he writes in The Straight and Narrow (from Let it Come Down), ‘the trouble with the straight and narrow is it’s so thin I keep sliding off the side.’
But that was then, as they say, and right now the softly-spoken, frail-looking Pierce is in reflective mode; sunglasses placed on a small table, despite the howling wind and driving rain outside, it transpires that he has only very recently left the confines of his studio, having spent over 12 months working on the latest Spiritualized album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Is he still in a bit of a daze? “Yes, I am, to be honest. I’ve spent over a year working on it, and I’ve been so involved in it, at the moment there are no words to describe it. I kind of wanted to make a rich man’s record, in that you could pursue your ideas without worrying about money – like The Beatles, who latterly in their career had the luxury to work on songs without being told by the studio engineers that they had run out of time. But I didn’t have the money, so one of the ways in allowing me to do it was to record it in my house, and not in an expensive studio.”
Not that he and his musicians were trapped in a home studio 24/7; session work was undertaken in Wales, and a visit to Iceland was arranged to work on the string parts. But time, says Pierce, is of paramount importance. “Time is money, isn’t it, so in the house, there would be flexible working hours – some days I’d be working on the music round the clock, other days it’d be three hours. It wasn’t all about putting in an inordinate amount of time working solely on the record, but rather the investment of all my time across various areas of its making.”
His main goal for Sweet Heart Sweet Light, he says, was to make a pop record, and to end up with music that wasn’t hiding behind a stylistic, lo-fi distortion. Pierce wanted the songs to be crystal clear, and had in his head a batch of touchstone bands by which to reference: The Beatles, Beach Boys, Captain Beefheart, Big Star, Can, Link Wray, and The Ronettes. “Many of the records I was looking at were kind of lost in time, so in an odd way I’d set the bar low because it’s easy to make a record that has no commercial expectations. Now, let it be said that the new album is nothing like The Beach Boys’ Smile or The Beatles’ Revolver, but I certainly wanted a kind of sound that has been truly realized. I also wanted to sing my songs, rather than just read the lyrics off a piece of paper into a microphone. That also took time, but when I got them down it was a performance rather than a read-through.”
Another element of the creative process that drove Pierce to make Sweet Heart Sweet Light was a concern that acts touring their classic albums dominate a portion of current live music. “It’s almost like it’s the end of the road for them,” notes Pierce. “Obviously, I didn’t want to do that so blatantly. I want to make albums like Ladies And Gentlemen… right now, not to hold it up as an example of how good I used to be. So I just wanted to go away and write an epic album; my thinking was that if I’m not competing with anybody then so be it, I’ll just compete with myself.”
Pierce is aware of his place in rock music: determinedly peripheral to the mainstays and the conservatives. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is his seventh album in over 20 years, and such non-prolific output highlights his creative processes and lifestyle choices (he spent a lengthy period of time in intensive care in 2005, following an unspecified illness). Like life, like creativity? “You get one chance to do these things,” he reasons, “and it’s a slow process because it’s nigh on impossible to invent new music. Music for me evolves slowly, so the only way to succeed is to do the best you can to move it into the right direction. In so many parts of music it seems the brakes have been put on, people saying let’s look back, when what they should really be doing is looking forward.”
All of the tinkering, all of the time spent on getting something right – would you classify yourself as being an obsessive type? It’s all in the details, small and large, says Pierce. “In the late mixing stage, you can obsess about whether a fade is an eighth of a second too long or too short, but that’s no different from the early mixing stage of a fade being ten seconds too long or short. The details get smaller as you pursue the goal. I’m not obsessive when it comes to takes – we do about three to four takes of a guitar part and that’s it. Mixing records is based, for me, on four main principles: is it too loud, too quiet, too bassy, too trebly? Simple as that. Yes, you can pursue that almost in a mathematical way, but even if you don’t the end result can be magic. And you don’t necessarily have to understand how it gets to be magic; you can pursue the science of it, but if you don’t it doesn’t make it any less glorious or ruin its beauty.”
Wind and rain still screeches and stings outside; Pierce is looking forward to mooching around Dingle the next day as well the gig in the church the following evening. He fidgets with his sunglasses and reaches for his cigarette packet. The chat, we sense, is coming to a close. Does his level of meticulousness help or hinder? “It has to be helpful, doesn’t it? That said, you can tinker with things too much and for too long and get the wrong results, but that’s the challenge. Some of my favourite sounds are field recordings, but I don’t make records like those – I need, want, layers of sound. There is trial and error, for sure. Trial and terror, too!
“Is it mad? It’s only mad if you don’t finish it. Or if, having worked on something for so long, you break it. But my music? No, I don’t think it’s broken.”
(This first appeared in The Irish Times/The Ticket, February 2012.)