Jason Pierce, Spiritualized’s prime mover, has always been a study in creative ambition. Even the band‘s formative work, recorded in the early ’90s on the most modest of budgets and then fastidiously mixed by Pierce to THX-headphone perfection, offered a depth of sound and a span of references that few artists working in pop music had ever attempted. Here was a man who sought to encompass the fervor and uplift of gospel, the raw power of the Stooges, the cool ambient space of Brian Eno, the pathos and humor of blues and country, the psychedelia of the 13th Floor Elevators and early Pink Floyd, the minimalism of Suicide and the grace of European classical music. And, incredibly, it worked.
But Spiritualized records didn‘t sell until 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, a critically lauded masterpiece featuring Dr. John, the Balanescu Quartet, a host of free-jazzniks and the London Gospel Community Choir as well as the English band‘s core members. In the wake of that album’s (relative) commercial success, Pierce set out to unfold his musical vision even further, and Spiritualized‘s recently released Let It Come Down is his biggest production yet: If Phil Spector built a Wall of Sound for his three-minute teenybop pop operas, then Pierce has been to the Holy Mountain of Sound for this album’s adult symphonies. The music is played by a 96-piece orchestra, a gospel choir and a new eight-piece band.
Pierce spoke by phone about what motivates his unorthodox approach to recording and performing, and what we can expect when the now-13-piece Spiritualized plays here this Tuesday.
L.A. WEEKLY: You have a reputation for being a perfectionist in the studio. Yet you also obviously enjoy playing on the road, which is rare for “studio heads.”
JASON PIERCE: Making the records enables us to get on the road, where the whole thing becomes about making results immediately. I don‘t understand bands that say they don’t like to tour. What do you do as a musician if you don‘t like playing music? If you’re recording an album, unless you‘re doing lots of overdubs, you’re only playing, I dunno, 140 minutes every two years. I think to a lot of bands it‘s a required thing that they have to tour, and for me it’s completely the opposite: It‘s a requirement that I have to make records to enable us to go on tour.
And we’ll tour until the money runs out. Same plan as last time. It‘s always done on the fly, making things work for whatever we can get at the time. We’re looking to get a gospel choir for L.A., but I don‘t know how strong a chance that is yet.
Your music has always had a gospel influence. When did that develop?
Natty, who was the original Spacemen 3 [Pierce’s former band] drummer, used to tape this radio show that played a lot of roots and blues music, and one gem was a very early, pre-Stax Staple Singers record. So it was there from early on. The Cramps were also a huge influence on us, because they weren‘t shy about letting people know where their sound was from. They said, “If you like this, you might want to check out Hasil Adkins.” It was an education being interested in that band.
The sets on this tour so far have been evenly spread over the whole of your catalog, rather than emphasizing the new album.
As far as I’m concerned, we‘re not on tour to promote our album. We’re not out here with a string orchestra, we‘re not replicating this album, we’re not learning the parts and just putting them out like some dumb cabaret — we‘re finding the excitement within the parts, whatever makes the electricity, and pushing that. You can make the same kind of excitement as a 30-piece string section on a single guitar if you play the guitar in the right way. But that’s not to diminish the albums. Because if you‘re gonna make a record, it should always be the best record you could possibly do at the time.
You’ve really made a leap with the lyrics and arrangements on this album.
I think everything had to stand up a lot more on this record. I know it sounds kinda dumb that there‘s a hundred players on it, but I really felt that this was stripping everything bare. The voices of the instruments are pretty much the voices that they were, and the record comes about by these people playing through these songs. I mentioned records like Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter Songbook to the people who performed the sessions, to say this is what I was after. Once you‘ve got the idea that the drummer is at the back of the hall, and the choir are over there, then you’ve got this kind of soundscape in your head.
I think a lot of music nowadays is only about making interesting noises, making interesting sounds. It doesn‘t matter what kind of music you’re trying to make, whether it‘s hip-hop, drum ’n‘ bass, trance, psychedelia, whatever bag you’re into, there‘s a whole vocabulary of effects that you can use to make something that sounds within that genre but doesn’t actually require any more thought or depth or soul than the application of those effects. And because of that, people don‘t have to apply themselves to the songs or to what they’re trying to say.
Now, what drives contemporary classical-music composers and jazz musicians — William Parker, Matthew Shipp, people like that — and pushes it further, is people forcing the harmonics, to make a more interesting use of the notes. They‘re not treating the piano to sound like some weird effect to pull you into the sound of it; it’s just about the notes chosen. So this album stayed away from those kinds of effects; it‘s all about the harmonic, and the things that were being said, that made the songs.
But then, I don’t really see the records musically as stops on the way, like there‘s a learning process that goes through the records. There is one, obviously, but that’s not the aim. This record does not diminish the last record, or the subsequent record.
You wrote the arrangements for this album using a Dictaphone and then hunting and pecking for the matching note on the piano. Isn‘t that tedious?
Part of why these arrangements sound like they do is they’re not coming from any kind of academic approach to writing music, or even the ability to play the piano. If you learn to play piano at a reasonable level, you learn things like “the next chord to go to” after the chord you‘re on — you learn a kind of movement within music. Even people who are phenomenally talented on piano, they sometimes have to unlearn what they know in order to get back to an area that’s exciting. Without that knowledge, the only limitation was what note I could dream up, which didn‘t require whether I could actually locate that note with my fingers on the piano or guitar. Somebody here likened it to animation: You’re drawing the same frame over and over again with the tiniest of changes, but when you spin it back and the frames go past in real time, it‘s exciting.
There’s a lot of humor in the lyrics on this record, which is an element of Spiritualized listeners often don‘t grasp.
I guess some people want everything to be about specifics, like I’m a country singer: “Something happened to me at the bar the other day,” or “A friend of mine had this misfortune, and I decided to write a song about it.” The songs are honest to me, and I‘m not writing about things I don’t know, but they‘re not about specifics in my life; it’s not like I‘m laying everything bare by saying these words. Lee Hazlewood, when he’s singing about selling his watch for a fifth of scotch, there‘s no misery involved, there’s no ‘This is sooo unfair, oh Lord, why am I here?’ It‘s about the highs and the highs. It’s rejoicing the highs and — well, saying it‘s ’rejoicing‘ the lows is the wrong word — but it’s rejoicing the whole. It‘s all part of what makes life exciting.
Spiritualized performs at the Wiltern Theater, Tuesday, November 13.