Progress Report: Jason Pierce chats about the new Spiritualized album and the perils of perfectionism.
It’s easy to take for granted what an influence on popular music Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) has had over the past three decades. As a member of Spacemen 3, Pierce trademarked a kind of druggy noise-psych that would spawn a million inferior imitations over the next twenty years. As the founding (and only constant) member of Spiritualized, Pierce has crafted some of the most fantastically blissed-out rock music of all time and done so with an intensity bordering on the religious. Next month Spiritualized will release it’s seventh album, the much-belabored Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Though I’d heard that Pierce could be a somewhat difficult interview, I was relieved to him to be a very amiable, chatty guy and one of the few people I’ve ever met who can turn up wearing white leather pants in the daytime and have it seem totally normal. Also, as the video for “Hey Jane” would indicate, Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a stunner.
STEREOGUM: Sitting here, I can’t help but think of the first time I saw you in person. You were playing a show in Oklahoma City on the tour for Pure Phase. I couldn’t believe that you were actually playing a show there — no one came to OKC in those days — and even though you were playing in a tiny room to only a few people, you guys had enough lights to fill an arena. My mind was blown. I also remember the Pure Phase concert t-shirts actually glowed in the dark.
Jason Pierce: Wow. We only played there once, in a shack of a venue that was poorly attended. I’ve always had this thing that, if we can get someone to print the tickets and invite us, we’ll show up and play a show. Especially in those days. We played in Boise once to about 11 people … but still, there were 11 people, you know? It’s funny; I can still remember the street where that venue in Oklahoma was located … wasn’t there a restaurant nearby called Spaghetti Factory or something?
STEREOGUM: Ha! Yes!
JP: We traveled with all those lights, upon my insistence. I shipped them at great cost and there were unlike anything you could get in the states at that time. It cost us a fortune but you know. We were going to Oklahoma! We needed our lights!
STEREOGUM: How was the experience of making Sweet Heart Sweet Light? I heard you were still working on it as of a few days ago.
JP: As difficult as they all are. I thought I was going to lower the bar a little bit. I wanted to make a pop album. So, I had this idea that that would make it easier. I always wanted to make a record that would be somehow unlike all the outward-reaching albums that aim for the stars, made by musicians that trying to desperately overreach themselves. There are an awful lot of records that I own and play that I like — pop records that aren’t made by younger people. They haven’t got the confidence and arrogance and stupidity of youth – and the kind of singular vision that you get when you are younger. They are made by people that, whether they want to or not, they’ve soaked up a bit of that wisdom. They’ve soaked up some other sounds. You might think of them as the great, but often forgotten, mid-period records by big artists. There is this group of records that probably outnumber the records that people hailed as the classics, or the big moves in rock and roll, and they seem like the very backbone, the spine, of the music I love. I wanted to make one of those kinds of records, one of those things that befitted my age a little bit more. I hate the way that rock and roll continues to try and be young all of the time. All these old people running around the stage like they are still in the prime of their youth. I hate the way people in rock and roll must always pretend to be kids. So, I was thinking of these certain types of records that, you know, aren’t actually rare. You can go into the store and tomorrow and pick them up. They aren’t going to cost you a thousand dollars in a record shop. Like I said, I thought that’d lower the bar for me to make a record like that, because these are records that were essentially lost … and how good would it be to make a lost album?
Once I got involved with it, it’s just as hard. There’s something about abstract music, or dissonance or distortion. You immediately enter the world of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It comes with a kind of -– you’re not ready for this, or you’re not with us on this. But with pop music, everyone understands the medium. There’s nowhere to run. You’ve just got to get it right; you’ve got to make it sit right. So, It took a while. It took a year to mix this album. I should say, however, that it didn’t actually take a year to mix the album, it’s just that I spread the mixing of this album out over a year.
STEREOGUM: People imagine you are like in a bunker in a basement somewhere, not eating or sleeping, just relentlessly remixing the same guitar overdubs over and over.
JP: I was just in my house. I didn’t do it in a studio. I didn’t want to book a studio for a lot of money and then feel compelled to use that time. So, I did three-hour days at home sometimes. I did three-hour weeks sometimes. Sometimes I did more. It was working over a period of time so I could live with decisions and explore different ways of doing it, to throw the tracks up and see how they landed. I could try different things in different areas and see what best fit the tracks.
STEREOGUM: People often think about you as being one of the most notorious perfectionists in rock music. Has the process of making records gotten easier for you at all as the years go by?
JP: No. It’s about the same. I’m not looking pitching for the perfect sound or the perfect mix. It’s the one that fits the track. All mixing is simple physics. The sound is too loud or too quiet, too much bass or too much treble, and you can balance it. By slight degrees, you can change how the track is. And those slight degrees are the difference between beautiful music and awful music. It’s not like all of the awful music is here and all of the great music is here –- and by degrees it gets better or worse. The lines between them are only very, very slight. You know? The difference between Patsy Cline and the most ignorable barroom music is fractional. The different between MC5 and the most god-awful heavy metal power pop is, again, fractional. And you can move to it so easily by a slight change in production or a slightly different vocalist or the balance of the drums to guitars. It’s all about trying to keep the needle on the right side of things, trying to make it sound like what I consider to be rock and roll, the music I love.
That’s all it is. It’s not tinkering. It’s not this idea that record labels seem to have that you’ve mixed the track early on and then the next five days or a month is just you in a studio making minor moves. Those minor moves are just as important as the things you do at the start of mixing. That’s all it is. You’ve got to balance it until it resists change. Until it is what it is.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy getting into that process, or is it tedium?
JP: Both. It’s amazing. Some days you cover a lot of ground. Some days you don’t. But it’s the same for everybody. It depends on to what degree you accept the responsibility for it. A lot of bands hand over the responsibility to a producer … who quite often comes in with a bag of tricks. You get what you get. It’s the same for everybody. Sometimes it’s the last song you finish on your record that sounds the best because you’ve not heard it a million times before. Often the strings on peoples records are too loud because they were the last thing to be added during mixing and people are still too in love with the sounds. I don’t know, the mixing is just as important as every other aspect of the process. For me, it’s not about just documenting what we sounded like in the studio on a specific day. It’s about capturing the song as a whole. I want it to capture everything I love about music. Time, time is the thing. It gets easier if you have time.
STEREOGUM: That’s a tall order. The idea that it is not just a record of how this band sounded on this day, in this month, and in this year … but that it should be always striving for timelessness.
JP: What’s weird is that sometimes people make records specifically for the medium itself. Like they make records for radio or with a particular theme or whatever. The records that seemed important to me were made regardless of that. You go the feeling that there was no vision to how they were going to be sold or how they were going to be played on the radio. Or, even if they were, that was only my take on that. Perhaps Captain Beefheart was really trying to make a hit record, but I’ve come to appreciate that record out of time. I’m not following Captain Beefheart as an artist, waiting to see what his next move is going to be. It’s come to me out of time, with no context, as a piece of music, and I relate to it in that way.
STEREOGUM: Do you find it difficult to call something finished and let go of it?
JP: Well, the new record is finished now. It resists any further change. I finished it on Friday before I came to New York to do interviews. Interviews, by the way, always feel so funny to me — like the thing you do when you are trying to get a job. I was in France to do press things before this trip and I didn’t have the finished record when I went there. I felt like one of those medicine men, like a doctor traveling around. I have this thing I can cure you with, when they really didn’t have anything to cure you with. I was talking about this record that I hadn’t finished. I made a concerted effort last week to properly finish it so I wouldn’t have to do that again. What makes it finished is that it works. Short of going away and making a new set of raw ingredients or recording it again. It’s never going to be more right than it is right now. It’s a lot easier to make an unfinished record than it is to make a finished record.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been releasing records since the early ’80s. Do you feel like your approach to the process has changed? Or that your way of thinking about it has changed?
JP: Nope, not even slightly. I think that it’s still as important now as it was. You get one chance to make a record. There is a lot of pressure to change your music. You know, some people get one sniff of radio play and they are suddenly prepared to chop up the tracks and make them shorter, remove any swear words, take out any feedback or too much distortion. But the record is going to be around longer than any radio station. I think you’ve just got to make the record that you want to make because you can’t take it back once its done. I’ve always kind of felt like that. When we made the first Spacemen 3 album we went to a little studio where we paid for five days of recording. The guy had a recording console made up in this little elevated nook that nobody else could get to, and he made our record. I remember looking at this guy, controlling our music after we’d spent two years honing this specific sound. Suddenly this other person was in control of it. I sat there and said, I never want to make a record like this again and the next record took me a year and a half. I’d rather spend the next year and a half learning how all the various faders work and teaching myself how to use all the machines than rely on someone else to figure out how to give me the right sound. And it’s kind of been like that ever since. I don’t take notes for myself, so it feels like I’ve had to relearn it all every time I do it. I forget the pain actually. I go out on tour and have the best time of my life. It’s all about music, and being in the rush of music. It’s not about capturing things. It’s about this thing that travels from night to night, changing and shifting. And then we run out of tour dates and I have to go and make a record. It’s like a soldier getting dressed up to go fight in the battle of Waterloo — you’ve got your fancy tunic on and you’re marching off and it’s all very exciting — and then you get there and realize you’ve forgotten how horrible it is to have people firing canons at you. It’s a horror. In the end it’s a good feeling, but it’s just fucking hard work. You now, the music that I love has never been about perfection, never been about how fast you can move your fingers on a fretboaord, it’s about so much more than that … and I guess it’s just too important to me to not give the process as much time and thought as I think it deserves. Still, I have those feelings sometimes of being a fraud. I wait for someone to come and tap me on the shoulder and say “You’re busted! You don’t know what you are doing!”
STEREOGUM: That seems very much in keeping, at least thematically, with what so many Spiritualized songs seem to be about — striving towards the intangible, the impossible.
JP: I think you have to work outside what you know you are able to. When I say that, I think people expect something outside of their perception of music. I’ll be trying to do something that, to me, is new and people will say that it doesn’t really sound all that different from the last Spiritualized album. It still sounds like me, but I think that’s unavoidable. Trying to invent new music outside of nothing is bit like trying to invent a new animal. What the fuck is that? It’s an animal, but it has to flow in this evolution, a slow evolution. You have to make new music. You have to be pointed in the right direction and doing new things, even if you’ve been a band for a long time. There is this trend now to go and dig up one of your classic albums and then go and play that for a year and a half. I’m not making any comment about people who do that, but I realize that it just isn’t for me. I did the Ladies and Gentlemen shows where we played that entire album … and they were just unbelievable, glorious shows, but it felt like a sideways movement rather than a leap into the future. I just think you have to always try to be moving forward in whatever way you can.
STEREOGUM: How is the experience of touring and playing live for you? You enjoy it?
JP: Yeah, because it’s free and nothing is tied down. Everything happens faster on the road. You get this immediate feedback. It’s so fluid, while recording is the opposite of that. Playing live, you get to experience the songs in a very pure way, and you generally get better each night. The songs move in different directions, you retain the best bits and they become a part of what you do the next night. With making a record, especially mixing, it’s all about trying to tie things down. The hardest thing for me is known when to stop recording. I could just record endlessly. I’m not a person who can go and try out material on the road — it’s like letting someone have a glimpse into your notebook or something. I want to retain possession of the song until I know it’s finally done. I guess what I’m getting at is that playing live feels very liberating and free…and one of the only moments in my life that I’m not worrying about not having enough time to get things right.