The (Final?) Miracle of Spiritualized
Jason Pierce talks about the struggle behind the space rock band's new (and potentially last) album 'And Nothing Hurt,' and what he hopes for in the future.
Even over the phone, there’s something powerful in the way Jason Pierce speaks.
“I’m alright,” the 53-year-old says when I ask how he’s doing. “Good enough for this, I guess.” Then he laughs, but also doesn’t quite laugh, creating an awkward pause in the conversation that still makes him seem very much in control.
The space rock musician—who’s about to release And Nothing Hurt, the first Spiritualized album in six years—has built a career on this quiet, introspective confidence. The music of Spiritualized is sweeping and lush, drenched in psychedelia while floating in free jazz. Listening to it is like staring at the cosmos and holding your chest as your psyche launches into space. But the musical approach is not aggressive or overt. The songs are tenacious and powerful, yes—but there’s a sense of calm within each. This is the Spiritualized model, and it’s one that—even though Pierce, whose gone by the nickname J. Spaceman since his days in his previous band Spacemen 3, won’t explicitly admit it—hasn’t really been replicated by any peers.
“Most music is this giant framework, and everything is connected,” he tells me through a thick English accent. “I always have this idea that I’m going to make a record that can pull on the threads and make the connections, and make the distance slightly less between Kris Kristofferson and Sun Ra.” Over a career that’s spanned nearly three decades, he’s made it his goal to seamlessly tie such disparate influences together, as though he were challenging himself to bring something into the world that we haven’t heard before.
And Nothing Hurt, the band’s eighth album, exemplifies this dramatic ethos. It’s a bold, soothing record full of Pierce’s most beautiful songwriting to date, music that captures the pureness of what makes Spiritualized’s sound so revolutionary. While recording it, he told the press that this would be the final album he released under the flag of Spiritualized. Not because of his health concerns (he nearly died of pneumonia and liver disease in the mid-00s), but because he wasn’t sure if he had anything left that was “worthy” to put out in the world. At this point, though, he’s not quite sure about any of those claims.
“I honestly don’t know,” he says, with a hint of exasperation. “It’s too early to say. Making this album threw out a whole load of ideas and songs that should be finished eventually. I was quite sincere when I said that.”
That said, And Nothing Hurt would make for a perfect last album. Outside a couple ferocious tracks (“On the Sunshine,” in particular), much of the record sits in a pensive, soulful space. Songs like “A Perfect Miracle” and “The Prize” offer hazy ruminations on the meaning of life and the fragility of existence, all while earnestly attempting to dig into what makes us human. In conversation, Pierce echoes these ideas, speaking of both music and life as a sort of hallowed ground that one must be careful with, wielding one’s power wisely. Whether he likes it or not, he truly is our spaceman.
Noisey: And Nothing Hurt is out soon. How are you feeling about it?
Jason Pierce: Here we go again. It’s good. It’s good to have it done. We’ve got shows coming up, which always feels good. Life always seems like it’s about immediate music. That’s how music is; it’s how it works best. So it all feels kind of good.
I feel like this album is going to be incredible to play live.
Yeah, you know, it kind of fits it. I kind of knew that when I was putting the running order together and stuff. Initially, I left the two heavier tracks off the record—“The Morning After” and “On the Sunshine”—but it just didn’t make sense as a Spiritualized album. It started to sound like a J.J. Cale album or something. It just seemed wrong to have a Spiritualized album that remained in the same gear.
The whole time [recording] was pretty straightforward. I had a big dream to make a big-sounding record, like a big session, but if I hadn’t been so stubborn, the songs could’ve worked on an acoustic guitar, you know? We’ve only spent a couple days playing this with the band. The band didn’t play on the record, so it’s a new place for me. [The record is] assembled from the smallest part. I had never played these songs, but I knew they were going to work.
"I’m a big believer that songs dictate the way recordings happen." —Jason Pierce
Can you describe what it’s like moving from that intimate recording setting to the band setting? That has to be an interesting experience.
It sort of takes on its own life. I’m a big believer that songs dictate the way recordings happen. Talking to another one of the guys at the show the other weekend, we talked about this misrepresentation—the idea that musicians have these ideas in their heads, and all they have to do is get the ideas down. And I’m never about that. It kind of stems from that, but often you chase the arrows: “Hey, what did you just play? What did you do there?” You chase all the faults in it. That’s what makes it music.
Recently, I was listening to Aretha Franklin demos. “I Never Loved a Man” was always a great song, but it moved through all the ideas and became whatever it became. It’s good. It’s good to have it feel organic again. There are not endless possibilities, but there’s just enough to make it work and capture the best that’s in those songs.
The recorded songs give you a strong foundation to play around.
Sometimes you push songs into corners [where] they don’t want to go, and they resist it. I spent a lot of time with this record, because I could. I had the time to do it. At one time, I wanted it to sound more like Sun Ra. At other [points], I wanted it to be more like Lee Perry. But the songs are more classic in their form, and they just kind of resisted it. Whatever happened to them, they seemed most comfortable as a session, you know? Which was kind of the original idea, or some of the original idea: Just the sound of the songs being played in a studio, like a single recording. Somebody said years ago that our songs are like rocket ships: They start small, and get bigger with each chorus, and then they sort of click. That’s how I felt these songs were always going to feel best.
So is this the final Spiritualized album? You’ve said both that it is and isn’t.
I honestly don’t know. It’s too early to say. Making this album threw out a whole load of ideas and songs that should be finished eventually. [But] I was quite sincere when I said that. Anybody who makes an album should cast the net as wide as they can. It’s such a huge undertaking. I’m not interested in making an album that has like four good tracks on it and a few half-baked ideas; I want the whole thing to work. But I know the process that’s involved now.
I was talking to someone about why that should be—why it’s so much harder to make them now versus when I was younger—and one of the suggestions he made was that I know that process is waiting for me. Before, just navigating myself about was a problem that was interesting and new; now I get so obsessed and so focused, and it just feels like, Here we go again, you know?
It wasn’t an end to making music; it’s just a kind of existential problem with albums. I’m not sure people want albums anymore. It seems like this endless quest to make these things, and I was questioning who listens to them. Does this warrant me to hate myself for the two, three years it takes to make them?
You were still working on the album when you said that. Did you feel any sort of added pressure once that statement was out in the world?
There’s an enormous amount of pressure anyway. I feel a massive responsibility. These things have to be worthy. They have to be worth being out there. And as I get to know more about music, and know about more music, I feel like so much of it has been said so eloquently and beautifully that there’s little point in making more stuff if it’s just covering ground that other people have done better.
"There’s an enormous amount of pressure anyway. I feel a massive responsibility. These things have to be worthy." —Jason Pierce
You’ve spoken about the idea of making music that’s “worthy” many times over the years. When did that mindset set in for you?
I’ve always been precious about what I do. A few months ago, when I started doing interviews, I was saying that there are these records that are made by people my age that are recapturing something. They’re not about, “I’ve got a beautiful record I want to release.” They’re more about, “We need a record”—and they can get you back on the stage and you can make some money and reconnect. It’s not about the quality. [And] the easiest way to do that is to just mirror the things you were doing in your 30s—your established sound that they like.
In no way is that to suggest that you can’t make great records as you get older. I just feel like that your responsibility should get greater—it shouldn’t be easier because there’s an audience out there. But it just seems like business is as bad as it always was. You can sell something if you’ve got money to put behind it. You can sell good music. You can sell bad music. I just feel like, yeah, I always put some pressure on myself—that it should get greater as you get older.
This record is full of the kind of Spiritualized music that made me fall in love with the band. It doesn’t sound like Ladies and Gentlemen , but I do feel like it hits a similar vibe.
No, that album is way more free-form. It’s harder to understand that album; it’s harder to understand why that album became so established in people’s listening. It kind of hit a perfect moment, which is also what people forget about music. There’s a huge amount of luck involved: when it’s released and into what environment, who else is making music at that time. Somebody pointed out [that] at that time, there was resurgence in people throwing different styles of music together. Especially in England, it was a very established kind of thing: Let’s make music like The Beatles, but let’s ignore the later Beatles. Let’s make early to mid-period Beatles music. And so that album is astonishing in the company it kept, but it wasn’t astonishing on a musical front—compared to the history of music. There’s an awful lot of luck involved in this.
But I thought this album would hit more parts like that. And there were bits like that—they just didn’t fit, you know? The record just became more… it’s kind of easy listening. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I had this idea that it would sound like radio—or my idea of radio. You go on a long drive and turn the radio on, and there are two or three songs that kind of fit your drive on that moment in time. On “A Perfect Miracle,” the idea behind that was “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” That’s why it sounds like that; it was meant to sound like a broadcast. I don’t know how close it came to that,but the original intention was tuning this radio dial into this broadcast where everything made sense—a little like an old cassette, where you get to the end of side two, and you’d bring it back to side one.
The first time I really listened to the record was while I was driving through the mountains, and it was a real emotional moment. It’s a record made for driving.
For travel. They all are. Music’s about travel, anyway, and America’s made for that. Anywhere else, you travel mostly on the highway as a means to get from A to B. In America, those green signs hanging down in places—it’s like a b-movie. You’re lost in your own trip. Music always makes sense. You travel from east to west.
You were playing Ladies and Gentleman shows while recording this album. What was it like pushing forward and making new music while revisiting such a defining moment in your career?
I didn’t recognize any changes. [Ladies and Gentleman] wasn’t a game-changer for me; it was just another record. It was the first record we had the mechanics of business behind. We made videos, posters, billboards—it was a different world. The record that came before—that just wasn’t sold in the same way. I don’t even know if we had a press agent when we did that record. So seeing how that was done—it didn’t change my life or anything. We played bigger shows, but I never thought I was climbing any ladder with this anyway.
I felt like my new record was made from the side of the dead—which, quite literally, it was. It felt like that. It felt so small and boxy and it lacked whatever that is that you get when you’re set on those stages, surrounded by that sound. So it was really to remind myself of that. I redid bits of [the new record] after the shows. It was chasing that feeling that you can’t really get any other way.
In my opinion, the live element has always been a vital part of Spiritualized.
I was quite astonished that you could have an audience that sits through two-thirds of [Ladies and Gentlemen]. Without the other third, I don’t think it’d make a lot of sense. And that kind of connects to what I’ve been saying for a long time now: Most music is this giant framework, and everything is connected. I always have this idea that I’m going to make a record that can pull on the threads and make the connections, and make the distance slightly less between Kris Kristofferson and Sun Ra. Name two people—it doesn’t matter who the people are—[and] you can pull the chords and make those distances less. That record made sense in that way. You can understand something more in free jazz, because you’ve got other lanes to connect to that.
How do you feel about your legacy, and how this And Nothing Hurt fit into your idea of what that is?
I never wanted to not make music. I can say that I’ve got bits and pieces that this album threw out, and I can’t see them not being released. But no, I didn’t really think about [my legacy]. Somebody here pointed out that every song—at least two-thirds of the album—felt like the last track on anybody else’s album. And I quite like the idea of an album of last tracks.
That’s good. Anytime I make a playlist, I usually end it with a Spiritualized track.
Maybe I’ve done a lifetime of last tracks. Maybe that’s the thing.
"Maybe I’ve done a lifetime of last tracks. Maybe that’s the thing." —Jason Pierce
The world has gone a bit crazy, and so I’m curious: As someone who’s made a career of music that’s based in escapism—quite literally talking about drug use and going to space—has the shift in the political climate in the last couple of years played a role in your creativity? Is that something you think about?
That’s a long question for something that I’m not going to particularly answer. But I do think it will. They always say that when things are put down politically, art ramps up. That seems to be some kind of given.
Also, I do think that the access to music is so different than when I was younger, you know? I had a Kraftwerk record when I was younger, and I knew bands that kind of related to them. But I carried that information for seven or eight years before I saw any of those records. They’re sort of archeological ideas. Same thing with the Silver Apples: I heard about the Silver Apples through The Scientists, an Australian band. Again, I didn’t see the record until I was in New York—like nine years later, or something like that. It just remained this kind of idea. And now you can type into a search engine and find all of the material, and another 12 references, and all of their references. I think that’s going to seriously affect the way people make music, if it isn’t already. It certainly is in hip-hop. But I’d always been more interested in rock n roll, and things like that affect the way things pull together or fall apart.
Do you feel like the internet is positive or negative for art and creativity?
I think it’s a positive. There’s a lot of convergence in art. There’s a lot of stealing. There’s a lot of people taking ideas of stuff that’s not well made and passing it off as their own. And when you suddenly realize that you’re not working in a black hole and your ideas aren’t unique or totally original, that kind of puts pressure on people. It should put pressure on people just to say, “Well, I’ve got to rethink this or push this to somewhere it hasn’t been.”
That kind of comes back to what we were talking about earlier: How you only want to put new music out into the word that you feel is worthy.
Yeah. Just to make sure there’s space for it, you know? That it’s not just this thing where you’re like, “Here it is again.” Often it feels like people are saying, “Here it is again, but it’s not as good.”
Regardless over whether this is the final Spiritualized album, what are you hoping for and how are you looking into the future?
For me, it was just really to finish that record. Now it’s all about playing live shows. It feels like where we started, really. I just came back from playing a show this past weekend, and it was a bit of improv—immediate music, no rehearsal, that kind of thing. And that’s where it gets exciting again. I get to travel. I get to do the things that make sense.
Making records—the possibilities are endless, and you can push the ideas as far as they can go. I like to see [where] it can’t go as much as where it can. But live music isn’t about that. It doesn’t work without an audience; it’s all about the air in that room at that time.
I’ve always said that it’s easier for us to travel than it is for people to travel to where we are. I like doing that. I’ve said this before so many times, but you find out what works, and you hold on to the great moment, and you carry that forward with you. That’s how it works. And it gets more exciting as it comes.
Eric Sundermann is the editor-in-chief of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.