A Conversation With Jason Pierce (Spiritualized)

It’s been a while since the last Spiritualized album, 2003’s Amazing Grace, but you’d be on rather impolite footing if you accused Jason Pierce of being a slacker in the interim. Three years ago, the Spiritualized mainman found himself in a London hospital, suffering from double pneumonia, which twice nearly killed him. After recuperating, Pierce returned to the songs he’d set aside before becoming ill and turned them into the new Songs In A&E (Fontana International). Des-pite the five-year gap between them, the album is remarkably complementary to the stripped-down ethos of Amazing Grace. In keeping with its predecessors’ organic use of soul, gospel and classic rock, Songs In A&E is warm and direct. While early Spiritualized LPs sounded like angel sighs, this post-near-death-experience album is bristling with down-to-earth energy. The 42-year-old Pierce took time out from shooting a video for the song “Soul On Fire” in Iceland to speak with MAGNET about the protracted process behind making Songs In A&E, the joy he got from an ad-hoc series of concerts (dubbed Acoustic Mainlines), his work on the soundtrack for the latest Harmony Korine film Mister Lonely and the relief he feels whenever he doesn’t have to explain himself.

Songs In A&E was written before you got sick.
It was all written before. I think somewhere in the dim and distant, it was meant as a companion piece to Amazing Grace. It wasn’t going to be an elaborate production. Also, there was an idea that maybe I would try to write these songs that were slightly detached from myself. So I was trying to write something that dealt with almost a fictitious family … I can’t really describe it any better than that. “The Waves Crash In” was a song about a father saying goodbye to his daughter and the way things carry on through the lineage, the way things are handed down. Then all of that got lost by me being ill for two years and being removed from it.

So the idea of separating yourself from the songs got set aside?
I figured if I wrote outside of myself, I could cover broader issues. When I listened to the songs again after being ill, it seemed like every single song and every single line sounded like it had been written about my illness. It was harrowing. It was like someone coming to me and asking me to mix (1997’s) Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space again, and why the fuck would I want to do that? [Laughs] Why would I want to get involved with something that’s an old piece of work? Even “Death Take Your Fiddle” was about meeting death on your own terms. Then suddenly, the song isn’t about meeting death on my own terms; it’s about meeting death on its terms. I’ve said it a few times, but I think the process is more important to the artist than the final work. There aren’t many authors that read their own fucking books or painters that spend hours looking at their own finished paintings.

The ventilator sounds on “Death Take Your Fiddle”—I can’t imagine you would’ve used that accompaniment before being hospitalized.
Some of the scores and some of the string lines were already written but hadn’t been recorded. So I put them down (on tape), because they were obviously meant to be there. Then I had to find a way to make the songs contemporary. There’s always a time lag in music, but it felt even stranger. It feels strange now, talking to you, to say, ‘I had something to say that I felt was really fucking important that I had to [record it],’ but it was five years ago. ‘I had something to say five years ago, and here it is, everybody.’ It’s just fucking weird. The songs had too much gravitas not to finish them.

There are obvious acknowledgements of your illness on the record, like the album title for instance. (Accident and emergency departments—A&E—are the English equivalent of American emergency rooms.) But it’s not really a self-pitying piece of work.
It’s not a document. My albums aren’t like diaries. Songs In A&E was always there as a title. It’s a great pun. It was there way before the events. It just has more of a pun to it now. I’ve always thought my songs were written in some sort of accident or emergency. Not literally, but that’s the way I seem to write, anyway. It’s never been something that’s come easy.

So you didn’t need to write any new songs after you got out of the hospital?
No. They all came real quick. We found a guitar four or five years ago, when we were touring the last album. It was a 1939 or 1940 Gibson acoustic, and it just sounded unbelievable. It was this really flat tone. I don’t really play acoustic, and I’ve never seen myself as someone who sits around strumming the guitar. I know this sounds hopelessly romantic, and I don’t believe it for one minute, but it almost seemed to come with the songs attached. Those songs all came within the space of about two weeks, all because of that instrument. I’ve never written on guitar. As far back as I remember, I’ve always sung the melodies, then worked out how to play them afterwards.

Speaking of acoustic guitars, were last year’s Acoustic Mainlines shows something you had planned on doing regardless, or was it more of a necessity given what you had been through with your illness?
It was an accident. It was an accident and emergency. [Laughs] Shortly after I had gotten out of the hospital, I did a show with Daniel Johnston, partly to bring more people to know about what he does and his songs. I had no confidence. I weighed about seven stone (98 pounds), and like I said, I’m not a guy who sits with an acoustic on his lap, strumming his songs. Someone suggested bringing out the big guns, so we brought in the gospel choir and the string quartet. We did that show and did some of Daniel’s songs and a handful of Spiritualized songs, and it was enormously moving. It was great, because I didn’t have to front it, in a weird way. I didn’t have to talk about it or explain myself.

How did you come to work with Harmony Korine on the Mister Lonely soundtrack?
He came to the Daniel Johnston show; he’s a big fan of Daniel. I told him I had a piece of music he could have for the film. I had read the script—I know (actress) Samantha Morton (whom Pierce aided through her own convalescence due to a stroke in 2006)—and loved what was there, so I told him he could have this piece of music. That piece ended up getting nowhere near the movie, but we got talking about doing some of the soundtrack work.

Do the “Harmony” interludes on Songs In A&E have anything to do with the soundtrack?
They’re separate things. They’re called the “Harmony” pieces because [Korine] gave me a reason to get back into the studio. It gave me a way of working on pieces that were unconnected to the songs (on A&E). As far as the soundtrack goes, I’ll go back to what I said about the Acoustic Mainlines show: I didn’t have to front it. I didn’t have to say, “This music is about this,” because it was incidental music for Harmony’s film. It didn’t have to be my new record, and I didn’t have to explain everything about it.

Was there any collaboration with the Sun City Girls (whose music is the other half of the Mister Lonely soundtrack)?
No, we didn’t work together, but I absolutely would have loved to. Maybe sometime in the future. They do the … what’s the label called?

Sublime Frequencies.
I’ve got a ton of those records and had been playing them throughout the making of [the Mister Lonely soundtrack] without realizing that it was them. I got hooked on Radio Burma and Radio Thailand, which are basically someone tuning in a radio dial in those countries, with TV shows and pop-culture stuff and all sorts of other things. Without meaning to be psychedelic or being labored, they’re really fucked-up and amazing.

I noticed in a recent article in The Guardian that Yoko Ono said she considered you and her to be kindred spirits. What do you think about that?
I think it’s lovely. I thought it was really sweet. When I spoke later to the guy who did the article, he said he had tried to track down a few people, and Yoko almost immediately got back to him with that response. I thought it was wonderful. It was great to do that track. (Pierce did a remix of “Walking On Thin Ice” for Ono’s Yes, I’m A Witch album last year.) I hate to go back to this again, but it was very liberating to have it just be about the music and not have to think about what I’m doing with it.

—Jason Ferguson

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