One More Voyage With Spiritualized

Jason Pierce details the trials behind And Nothing Hurt and why it might be his last album

Have you ever really stopped and thought about what it must be like to go to space? We’ve spent our entire existence as a species looking up at the sky and making up stories to try and explain the endless, unknowable mysteries waiting for us. And then, millennia later, there was just the tiniest percentage of human beings who actually made it up there, who traveled into that expanse and got just a taste of what could be waiting out in all that nothing. How are you supposed to adjust to normal life after that? How are you supposed to go about a day-to-day routine, interacting with countless people who wonder what it must be like, but having the smallest handful of others who could actually relate to you? Where do you go from there? How is anything going to live up to that for the remaining years you draw breath?

Jason Pierce seems lost. During a brief visit to New York City, he’s holed up in the unfamiliar surroundings of a Lower East Side apartment owned by his label, and he fumbles in a kitchenette while trying to make tea. He jabs random buttons, trying to turn off a microwave fan; he drops the pot and almost spills hot water all over himself. Not to belabor the fact that he used to go by J. Spaceman or that much of his recent press imagery features him in an astronaut suit, but he acts like a man who has just come back to Earth. Not in the metaphorical way that phrase so often appears, but like he has literally just landed and is struggling to recall how things work here. But then again, that is always part of Spiritualized. For decades now, Pierce has often been an artist out of place and time.

The occasion for our meeting is the impending release of And Nothing Hurt, the eighth Spiritualized full-length and his first album in a full six years. By almost any metric, that is a long time for an artist in the pop sphere to go between releases. Spiritualized has known gaps like this before, and there have often been stories explaining why. This time around, the straightforward answer seems to boil down to the idea that And Nothing Hurt very nearly broke Pierce entirely.

It’s a surprisingly hot day in early summer, months before And Nothing Hurt will make it out into the world, and Pierce repeatedly remarks about how he is still trying to learn to like the album after spending so much time buried within it. You get the sense he is still learning how to talk about it, contextualize it, that he has yet to gain a tangible distance from the all-encompassing approach its gestation entailed.

At 52, Pierce still has that trademark youthfulness to him that would seem something other than human even if not accounting for the various travails and near-death brushes his body has weathered. But at 52, the spell is also starting to crack. The years are just beginning to make a late arrival at the corners of his face. He speaks in a ragged, wandering whisper that could be the product of a man who lives only on his own wavelength, or the cadence of an artist still reeling from an immersive creative process and re-learning the structures of a conversation. Or it could be attributed to simple world-weariness.

At this age, he is also more genial than his reputation once suggested. But that doesn’t stop him from dwelling on, if not quite failure, the ways in which some things haven’t turned out the way they were supposed to. “It’s strange, I haven’t said anything positive, have I?” Pierce wonders early in our conversation, reflecting on the tone thus far and in many ways setting the tone to come. Aside from those listless forays into the kitchenette, he spends much of our meeting slumped against the wall, leaning on a compact dining table, looking to the side or into the distance while searching for answers, constantly tugging on a vape made to look like a cigarette that lights up blue at the end each time he takes a drag.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

Plenty of the prior Spiritualized albums were born from struggle. Often regarded as his masterpiece, 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was defined by recurring images of heroin use and a dramatic breakup with Kate Radley, his then-bandmate who left Pierce for the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft. Before 2008’s Songs In A&E, Pierce found himself hospitalized and near the brink of death. And then ahead of 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light, the immediate predecessor to And Nothing Hurt, Pierce was undergoing chemotherapy-esque medication for liver disease. Now, the six-year interim leading up to And Nothing Hurt might suggest a similar existential and/or mortal trial. “At times I was praying for a health issue,” Pierce dryly quips. “It would’ve bought myself a good line, I guess.”

The long wait for And Nothing Hurt, from an inspiration standpoint, was the result of good old-fashioned creative battles, the drawn-out process of Pierce trying to coax Spiritualized’s monumental sounds from inside of his head. There was a philosophical reason, Pierce’s internal debate over only putting something out into the world that very much deserved to be there. But there were also the very basic, functional elements, the fact that And Nothing Hurt was made in almost a totally different manner than other Spiritualized albums.

Though Pierce had finished portions of Sweet Heart Sweet Light at home, he for some reason opted to craft almost the entirety of And Nothing Hurt alone in his apartment, a decision he occasionally seems to regret and a decision he doesn’t totally explain. “I guess it just didn’t work out,” he ventures. “I tried to record it, tried to start again. It seemed like by the time I was actually doing the album proper, I had to find ways that were inordinately long and protracted just to do things that should be easy.”

Occasionally, there are allusions to funds; the music industry has had a tolerance for orchestral rock albums of overblown ambition through the decades, but not that much, and especially not in the 2010s. Some of it could just be Pierce’s exacting vision, a stubbornness to get something as close to right as it can be, by his standards. He’s self-deprecating about the latter, the idea of his own process: “It seems like every time I make a record I forget everything I ever learned and just do the same thing again, which is just frustrating.”

Pierce is referring to the more abstract, architectural facets of album-making. When it came to the tools and construction themselves, he actually embarked with a method dissimilar from anything he’d done in the past: The guy who in recent years talked of not even having a TV went out and bought himself a laptop, which became the studio he secluded himself with for years.

It’s the way many people work now, but presumably not the way Pierce would prefer to work, and certainly not the most efficient way of crafting the kind of celestial opuses for which he strives. “When I started [And Nothing Hurt], I wanted it to sound like it had been broadcast from space,” Pierce explains. “I say that a lot about the music I love. I always feel like it’s come from a satellite from somewhere you’ve never been to.”

His definition of that phenomenon goes back to classic albums and classic ways of recording. He cites old sessions at Columbia studios and Lee Scratch Perry, but filtered through the cosmos. Even with the limitless options that come with a laptop and a good bit of software, it’s a daunting task, to echo the irreplicable sound of a group of people playing an immortal song together in a room, at the same time, but also render it larger-than-life, larger than our consciousness. How are you supposed to conjure that in a bedroom, with a computer?

The answer: extremely painstakingly. Pierce booked minimal studio time for certain aspects of And Nothing Hurt. Otherwise, he sat at that laptop, layering tracks upon tracks, tweaking volume levels over and over. He raided his record collection, seeking the correct string sounds. “The hardest thing was just to make it sound real,” he says, describing the process of splicing tiny moments and sounds together until they cohered into the kind of grandiosity for which Spiritualized is known. At another point in our conversation, he sums it up rather succinctly: “It seemed like there was a madness to it.”

The resulting album is a quieter beast, perhaps the most consistently gentle Spiritualized collection ever. Like much of his 21st century output, particularly his work throughout the past decade, And Nothing Hurt brings the ever-present roots and gospel strains of Spiritualized’s DNA to the forefront and downplays its more cacophonous side. Aside from brief flare-ups in the middle of the album, with “On The Sunshine” and “The Morning After,” And Nothing Hurt primarily forgoes the garage rock freakouts or space-rock odysseys of Spiritualized’s earlier incarnations.

This, one would imagine, is partially a result of practicality, of intensely laboring away on an album in solitude, on a tiny screen, doing your best to not disturb the neighbors. According to Pierce, the initial plans for And Nothing Hurt outlined an album that “was meant to cover more ground,” with more free music and stylistic divergences. “Stuff just got abandoned,” he explains. “Quite often for financial reasons, quite often for mental space. Trying to make it coherent.”

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

When we meet, it comes across like Pierce has some misgivings about the way he approached And Nothing Hurt. Already deep in the process, he realized he was missing something — that ethereal impact that only comes with a live performance, or with a group of people in a room wrangling a piece of music into existence together. Without a real studio endeavor behind And Nothing Hurt, Pierce missed the chance for that spontaneity, or the more elemental epiphanies that could occur versus the slow-burn tinkering of solitary laptop work. “I had gone too far to turn around and start again and again,” he says. “It just seemed like … once you have those kinds of doubts in your own thing, it’s really hard to shake them.”

After dwelling on these types of concerns for a while, Pierce is prone to repeatedly apologizing, stressing that he’s not trying to complain about any of this. And you get the sense it’s earnest, that he’s not just being disgruntled. That there’s this urge, this fire that’s always driven Spiritualized’s music, that the work must be better. That there is something about it that will never be good enough even without the somewhat compromised — or, at least, less-than-ideal — recording of And Nothing Hurt. But here’s all that really matters: With And Nothing Hurt, Pierce has brought another strikingly, crushingly beautiful Spiritualized album into the world, one that sits perfectly at this point in the band’s arc and one that would be as fitting a conclusion as any.

Over the years, Pierce has built up a catalog that, although it has its peaks and its gradual stylistic evolutions, also works as a more overarching, interconnected entity. There is his work’s remarkably consistent high quality, but also plenty of aesthetic and thematic throughlines. Romantic desolation and glamorized self-destruction are always mingling; he was the kind of guy who was fixating on death even in his youth.

In recent years, Pierce has grown fond of meditating upon age and rock music. “I think rock ‘n’ roll kind of is a young man’s game, or certainly works better with the pride and stupidity and arrogance of youth,” he tells me. “It just translates. That doesn’t mean you can’t make rock ‘n’ roll records but you gotta sit back and think about it. You can’t just say the same lines you said when you were 19.”

Despite Pierce having lived the tempestuous young life of a rock star, complete with the high-profile breakups and drug-fueled sagas, he was always a person who seemed beyond his years. So on And Nothing Hurt, he revisits a lot of his previously favored topics, just with a different weight. His voice is more fragile and hushed, imbuing images of mortality and waning love with a gravity that only comes with the realities of life and death being more readily present as you age.

That all of this is collected under a moniker like And Nothing Hurt is as characteristically Spiritualized as the rest of the album. It is, of course, a reference to the infamous Kurt Vonnegut quote “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt,” a phrase appropriated through the years everywhere from dramatic ’00s Myspace statuses to Moby’s most recent album. (People warned Pierce about the overlap with Moby, but he scoffs at the notion that this would warrant him considering a different title: “They are about as related as my record is to Blind Willie McTell, in the context of [them both] being a recording. There’s no connection, and in some time it’ll be less than zero.”)

Pierce has been wanting to use the phrase for years, his attraction to those words dating back even before Ladies And Gentlemen. It’s easy to see why. Whether it’s the numbness of narcotics, the transcendent sounds of gospel, or the salvation of religious imagery, Pierce has been trying to use his music to take the pain away for pretty much his entire career. He’s also quick to note that Vonnegut was well-versed in irony and sarcasm. And at various points in Spiritualized’s career, perhaps including now, you could imagine And Nothing Hurt being delivered with something approaching a nihilistic smirk.

There’s also a note of finality: three simple words, the end of a sentence you don’t need to hear again, whether it’s the actual Vonnegut quote or the Spiritualized story that led to this point. It isn’t hard to imagine it as the final statement, whether an imagined destination Pierce still longs for or the possibility that, after all those tumultuous years and the album’s difficult birth, he could’ve finally located some sense of lasting peace.

Perhaps the latter interpretation remains a dream. The magnitude of any given Spiritualized album could be the product of nothing less than an obsessive, ultra-auteurist viewpoint, a particular artistic madman drive to take human experience and depict it as something mythic, something of greater beauty, simply something more. That impulse has to leave you wrecked, has to leave you half-insane. Pierce dwells on the sheer breadth of possibility within the recording process, his tendency to forge ahead down every potential route before deciding what should remain. “You can change that, but you can also change this in an infinite number of ways,” he says. “Which is kind of fatal for a person like me.”

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

For a couple of years now, Pierce has been claiming that the forthcoming Spiritualized album, the one that has become And Nothing Hurt, could very likely be the last. For fans, it would be easy to hope that such sentiments were a product of in-the-moment exhaustion, before And Nothing Hurt came to fruition and entered the universe. But while he won’t stick definitively to those words, Pierce is also not shying away from them. “I was quite sincere and still am,” he says bluntly. As for the lingering ideas, the writing he had to let go along the way for And Nothing Hurt, that might just be the way it is. As he puts it, “There’s always unfinished business.”

Pierce is, at this point, a survivor, and Spiritualized a legacy act. For over 30 years, whether in Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized, Pierce has at times been tied to one trend or another, but has almost always been ancillary to it. His version of psychedelic, melancholic, warped guitar music occurred alongside shoegaze, but not within it; his version of classicist bombast reconfigured with contemporary anxieties overlapped with Britpop for a fleeting moment, but outlasted that movement’s prime. Throughout it all, his reference points have often been deeper and further removed from anything his peers were doing. He was always on the path of joining a larger lineage than whatever permutations of British music, or rock music, that he’s personally lived through.

Pierce is also, at least in conversation, a man defeated, yet still possessed. This contemporary music landscape, it’s not built for a project like Spiritualized. And Pierce is not built for that landscape. It will probably not surprise you that Pierce is an artist still in love with the idea of albums as complete artworks, something that should aim to be enduring, something people should engage with and hopefully cherish. The six years that have passed since Sweet Heart Sweet Light were different than the four or five years he took between albums in the past. Always an outlier, Pierce is now re-entering the music world when the concept of albums is mutating under the streaming economy; he is re-entering when the expansive, star-gazing scope of rock albums like Spiritualized’s is increasingly verging on extinction.

Understandably, the business side of things perplexes and irritates him. Early in our conversation, when Pierce mentions how he’s still wrapping his head around how to discuss And Nothing Hurt, he remarks about how he’s “selling a record I haven’t seen yet.” And insofar as he engages with the economics of making music, he feels as if there has to be some better way for people to distribute and consume art.

“Two weeks ago, I was arguing against bundles,” he explains. “I can’t believe I had to say that word so many times. People want a record and you can get all my shit for three dollar savings, wrapped up in something called a bundle. I don’t want it. I think you’ve gotta have some kind of respect for people. It’s not a fire sale on day one. I’m interested in the business enough to say, look, let’s have some gravitas with this. People will find this if it’s meant to be, and maybe fall in love with it, and it’ll always be special to them, but I’m not that desperate, you know?”

It is not shocking that Pierce would feel whiplash about suddenly dealing with the banalities of bundles and streaming numbers after spending years trying to make an album that sounds like a satellite transmission. Plenty of artists younger and older than him are just as frustrated or perplexed as to how things are supposed to proceed from here. But the specifics of Spiritualized, and how he works, seem to amplify these kinds of concerns. Making these albums is draining, they take some chunk of his soul each time and appear to leave him depleted. And in that sense, there are larger targets Pierce has his eyes on, the kind of perfectionism and hunger that result in a mission statement of “making the record that should be made, not just making a record.”

For him, it goes back to a canon, those old songs he once heard as beacons beyond us. “You listen to a Lesley Gore track or Dion or Willie Nelson and it’s like, what’s the fucking point,” he explains. “They make these beautiful songs, they’ve said exactly what you’re trying to say and more eloquently, more beautifully played.”

It’s somewhat startling to hear an artist this far into their career, who has made so much overwhelming music that has connected with so many of his own listeners, still dwell on that kind of thing. Or maybe it comes back around when you age a bit, when the idea of your legacy begins to loom on the horizon, your impressions of what you did manage to achieve and where it’ll sit. Maybe there’s a historical weight, an existential crisis that comes with looking back to the origins of this stuff and thinking, it’ll never get better. Even for an artist like Spiritualized, which did manage to travel to the stars a few times over. In the end, he’s left back on the ground, looking up at those unreachable icons, thinking about how nothing will ever live up.

Pierce is quick to clarify that he doesn’t see himself as competing with the classic artists and albums in the mid-century canon, that he wouldn’t “embarrass” himself to even suggest he could exist in the same league. And yet, it seems to be the root of his vicious self-reflection. He is chasing something he knows is unattainable, and so there will always be a tinge of loss even if Spiritualized does reach some kind of resolution at its finale.

“People deserve something better than that,” he says, alluding to (and dismissing) the idea that Spiritualized could keep churning out albums just to do it. “I think often, ‘Is that good enough? Is that as good as you can do? Are you trying as hard as you can?’ I’m not talking about fictitious people. I’m talking to myself. ‘Really? Do you think that’s OK?'”

When Pierce puts it that way, you could sympathize with him flirting with the end of Spiritualized. You could try to make a person see sense, to make them acknowledge the heights their own work has scaled. But can you really argue against his logic, the long and impenetrable shadows cast by the pop history we now carry around, enshrined and undying, in our pockets? Imagine if that’s in the back of your head every time you start making something as intricate as a Spiritualized album. At a certain point, Pierce would have to walk away before the next album completely destroys him.

He hints that he could change his mind, that taking this album on the road could remind him why he does it in the first place. “It all starts to make sense when I do the shows and it feels like it’s come through the roof,” Pierce explains. “When it feels like somebody else is involved in this, somebody else is stirring this around.”

That’s what Pierce’s friends keep reminding him, that he’ll get back into the rhythm and something will awaken for what has to become the next Spiritualized album. He allows for that possibility. But some part of him also wants to end it even if he can’t. “I wish I was strong enough or willful enough to say, ‘Yeah, that’s it,'” he remarks. “It’s a little bit open-ended. A loose end, isn’t it?”

Maybe that is how Spiritualized will end, a suggested ellipsis before the words And Nothing Hurt and another suggested ellipsis after. But maybe Pierce will feel that gravitational pull once more. After all, how is he supposed to adjust to normal life, how is he supposed to go through a day-to-day routine, after this? He’s spent his entire adulthood trying to explore the heavens, and trying to bring some piece of that back to us listeners on Earth. And once you’ve been up there, you can never truly come back.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

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