Jason Pierce: Garage grandeur

On their last offering, Spiritualized were all strings and symphonic yearning. On the new album, Amazing Grace, loud guitars play at full throttle. Jason Pierce, the band's front man, tells Kevin Harley why the change in sound suited the changing times
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The Independent Culture

You have to hand it to J Spaceman, otherwise known as Jason Pierce: he sticks to his guns - even if it appears, superficially at least, that the one-time guitarist in cosmic-rock narcoticists Spacemen 3 (who split amid much talk of substance abuse in 1991), now the main mover in Spiritualized, has changed tack. In 1997, when Spiritualized's third album, Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space, was hailed as a classic for its monumental meltdown of gospel-hued heartache hosannas, fractious free jazz, raggedy-ass rock'n'roll and country-soul quasi-confessionals, Pierce claimed it was no better than its predecessors, Lazer Guided Melodies and Pure Phase. Contrary? Yes, and wrong, but noble, too: no shameless sales pitching there. Now, though, according to some press stories, he's touting Spiritualized's fifth album, Amazing Grace, as "garage rock" and his greatest record. Just how pleased with it is he?

"What, in the sense of, is it the best album I've made? If you mean, is that my quote... well, it's not my quote." It's not? "No," Pierce says, without a hint of rancour, over a beer in east London. "Why would I say that? It kind of negates everything we've done before it. It'd be part of that thing in music, where people never seem to be in control of what they do. They'll say, 'Oh, this album is amazing, we've finally got it right', as if they didn't with their other ones. But I am pleased with it. It wouldn't be released if I wasn't."

No change there, then, and in many ways, it's a relief. After all, between 1990 and 1997 - when Ladies and Gentlemen towered over the year's other releases, including Radiohead's comparatively insular OK Computer - Pierce didn't put a foot wrong. Indeed, it only takes one listen to Spiritualized's recent The Complete Works Volume One, a collection of early material, to hear how clearly he had their transcendent trance-rock nailed from the off.

From a distance, though, the years post-Ladies and Gentlemen seemed like dicey ones for Pierce. For starters, he sacked his band, annoying them and befuddling those fans who - on the basis of L&G's opiated songs of loss - mistook him for some weak-willed, lovesick pup. Then, in 2001, Spiritualized's symphonic fourth album, Let It Come Down, was released to an equal dose of critical pounding and praise. It was majestically orchestrated, with songs that were among Pierce's finest; but for some, it was simply top-heavy. Was Pierce worried? "I don't care. I don't see 'critically acclaimed' as a goal. People talk about how records are received, but 'received' changes. I don't have records at home where I think, 'Oh, this is the one the critics liked.'"

As for whether its reception had anything to do with Spiritualized losing their major-label deal with Arista in January, Pierce puts another spin on it. Asked if the split was mutual, he gives a sly answer: "A bit more mutual on our side than their's - I'd gotten their Elvis back catalogue. I think we tried to fit Spiritualized into someone else's idea of how to market records, but it doesn't fit with what we do."

That said, Amazing Grace looked set to become one of rock's great "lost" albums as a result, having been recorded in 2002. But internet chat boards, the music press and a few online downloads gave it a head of publicity steam anyway. It gained notoriety for being Pierce's "garage" album: a post-bombast, back-to-basics thing, all sweat and guitars, each track recorded in a few takes. It's no surprise that another label, Sanctuary Records, snapped up Spiritualized before too long.

Again, though, Pierce refutes any suggestion of a post-Let It Come Down retraction. "It's not a response of, 'OK, let's turn this around,' " he says, "because I don't see it as a polar opposite to Let It Come Down. Where there's a string section on that one, there's sounds on this that replicate that. I didn't approach it in a sense of, right, I want to make a small record. It's almost classical, the sound on the album, it's got a grandeur to it. There's about five songs recorded at full throttle, as loud as it goes, but it's a bit more than a garage record."

If anything, there's simply a purity of purpose on Amazing Grace that indicates how thoroughly Pierce has woven his free jazz and gospel influences into Spiritualized. And, rather than the NME-led garage-ocracy likes of The White Stripes, the key influence on it was the avant-jazz duo Spring Heel Jack. On their 2001 album, Amassed, Pierce was asked to play guitar, alongside players such as the revered, sixtysomething drummer Han Bennink. "I got a sense of pride from that, because the musicians were the best of their kind - people who took a style of music and ran with it in a way that was almost unprecedented, like there were no ground rules. That kind of dictated the way the album was going to sound, because it was about capturing performance."

Another old-hand fired the album up, too. "At about the same time," Pierce says, "we did Later... with Jools Holland, with Dr John as a guest, just after September 11. And he said, 'You should write some shit about what's going down, your songs mean something.' And that fuelled this confidence, that I could just put my voice into a microphone, with the barest of instrumentation, and put something across that could possibly be more effective than a symphonic sound."

The Let It Come Down tour put that to the test. A couple of months into it, Pierce pared down his 13-strong band, leaving just a raw seven-piece without the band's horn section and gospel singers. It looked as if Pierce's aptitude for losing band members had struck again, but the difference between a 13-piece, excellent Hammersmith Apollo gig in October 2001 and a stupendous Brixton show in March 2002 proved his point. "I stripped it down," Pierce says, "because the horn section put across this phenomenal sound that we were laying back into. As soon as we took them out and put more space into the music, everyone became more audible and had to refocus their energy. It pushed the guitars forward and it just sounded amazing."

He isn't being immodest, either. Spiritualized at Brixton Academy was like being hit by a force of nature: it was music to pull you under. And, although Pierce is essentially Spiritualized, it's clear he still sees them as a band rather than a springboard for himself. He's certainly chary about exploring personal issues in interview, and with good reason. When I point out that the album's "The Ballad of Richie Lee" (a friend of Pierce's, and the singer with Acetone, Richie Lee committed suicide in 2001) is perhaps Pierce's most explicit song and a key to the album's themes of embracing love in the face of death, he says: "To be honest, the title is the most explicit part of that song. None of the rest has any grounding in that way. People trying to pin it down to specifics has been a problem with all our albums, but they're not Tammy Wynette songs, where 'Something happened on the way to the show tonight and I'd like to sing you a song about it.' There's a poetic license in music that makes it universal."

Scratch this surface and he gets close to what sounds like a manifesto. "What's exciting about rock'n'roll is that it's always outward looking. It's not about, say, people wanting to sound authentic, like, 'Hey, I've got the right guitar, amp, I'm recording through a Sixties desk...'. Jerry Lee wasn't content to sit at his piano in Sun Records and make authentic sounds. He wanted to play outside himself, whether by getting bigger bands, more fucked up or whatever. It's about what's just beyond your ability.

"There is a process you have to go through to get to where it sounds like there is no process," he adds. "What it's like to play in Spiritualized is that people are free to contribute whatever, and it wasn't until halfway through the last tour that the band began to realise that. But things took off then, and there's nothing like it. It's totally unlike six contributions in sound - like someone opens up the roof and all this sound just pours in."

'Amazing Grace' is released on Sanctuary on 8 September. Spiritualized tour from 10-16 September. See www.spiritualized.com