In a sterile room somewhere in the upper reaches of Universal’s sprawling Kensington HQ, Jason Pierce greets news of his last interview of the day with a raised fist in mock celebration.
“No offence,” he adds to yours truly.
None taken. It’s the warmest greeting I’ve had all week.
Looking relaxed with pale blue shirt and regulation rock star sunglasses poking out his top pocket, he enquires as to the nature of DrownedinSound, with which he would appear strangely unfamiliar.
“…it’s sort of a music website,” says I, quick as a flash.
“So you come from there, do you?” he says, tap-tapping the computer screen on the desk in front of him.
Confused nod. But where does Jason Pierce come from, exactly? Throughout a 20-odd-year career in music he has been Playing With Fire and Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To with seminal drone-rock outfit Spacemen 3, then on to more personal, song-based pastures with Spiritualized, and being Fucked Up Inside, …Floating In Space and finally, it seemed, ‘Out Of Sight’ after 2001’s Amazing Grace LP ushered in a lengthy hiatus for the revered outfit.
Pierce's music has always been singularly broad of gesture and epic of intent, betraying a fascination with the irreducible Big Themes which has led some to criticise him as being solipsistic and something of a stuck record from a lyrical point of view. In conversation, as I’m about to learn, he’s similarly reticent on the specifics while, it must be said, happily holding forth on any number of abstract topics as they appear in relation to The Music, Man.
About the only tangible object Pierce displays any interest in throughout our brief encounter is a batch of promos of his new record, Songs In A & E, of which he’s clearly proud: “This is what it’s all about. People have asked me to do radio edits before, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like, you can buy a detail of Michelangelo’s two fingers touching but you can’t deny the whole thing, and that’s what I do, I make albums.”
Designed by long-term collaborator and Closer director Anton Corbijn, the album design incorporates a lavishly-appointed booklet featuring catheters and various other hospital accoutrements which allude to the album’s title and much-discussed back-story. “They’re like children’s hymn books,” remarks Pierce’s PR, after the interview. “Better than that,” says Pierce, grinning like a schoolboy. “Better songs”.
But anyway, onto that back-story, and July 2005, when Pierce was rushed to intensive care with a bout of double pneumonia that nearly killed him. Released from hospital after a month weighing just six stone, when Pierce eventually got around to finishing the album he’d already written and part-recorded before falling ill, he found he’d come unstuck.
Video: 'Soul On Fire'
In fact, Pierce came perilously close to abandoning the whole project: “I thought about it a lot. But to scrap something you have to say all of that amounts to nothing; there’s no beauty in it worth saving, and that’s quite a brave thing to do.”
In the end it was an offer to soundtrack American director Harmony Korine’s latest film, Mister Lonely, which gave Pierce the impetus to finally nail the record, which arrives with us this month at over three years in the making: “I wasn’t working with anything I had to front, I was just making pieces of music and it was hugely liberating to work that way. The music I was working on for that film seemed so relevant and contemporary it became a way I could take those old songs and make them make sense.”
As for the end product, it’s an oddly conventional-sounding affair composed mainly on guitar – in itself something of a departure for Pierce - and while it may be fair to say the record stops some distance short of the defining Spiritualized masterworks, there are also some neat touches that offer potent reminders of Pierce’s talents as a producer and arranger.
The way ‘Baby I’m Just A Fool’ breaks ranks to let a little of the chaos of old back into the mix with discordant horns and violin, the ventilator wheeze that gives ‘Death Takes Your Fiddle’ a distinctly scary overtone, or the strings that pulse and throb at the end of ‘Don’t Hold Me Close’ - all stand out as goosebump-inducing moments to rank with their best.
It also lends unprecedented prominence to his voice, at times unusually reedy and high.
“The shapes of the songs are quite traditional," says Pierce. "They’re like standards – ‘Death Take Your Fiddle’ is not a million miles away from ‘House Of The Rising Sun_’, they’re the kinds of songs you play at the end of your guitar. And because of that it made sense that the vocals would sit quite prominently.
“I’d also been doing a lot of music with (electronic/free jazz troupe) Spring Heel Jack, I’d gone on tour with them, where it was this whole world of immediacy and improvisation in music, yet within this world it’s still okay to do standards. So I didn’t feel so weird about these songs being standard in shape, you can use that as a starting point. But the idea wasn’t to replicate some old-fashioned folk idea of how to write music, you just start from there and try to push out a little…_”
Pierce also made it known in a recent interview how he’d grown disillusioned with people using production techniques to mask a certain lack of ideas, although he’s quick to withdraw any perceived accusatory fingers:
“I wasn’t going on the offensive, it’s more the idea that you can apply a production technique that cons people’s ears and it just seemed like my music was getting better if it had no production. The effects had started to sound like just that – an effect.
“It’s like with certain psychedelic music, you can apply a lot of backwards tapes and phasers or whatever to create this sense of psychedelia but it doesn’t necessarily make for psychedelic music. I always said one of the greatest psychedelic records for me was ‘Slipping And Sliding’ by Buddy Holly and that’s not even trying to be psychedelic, and I’ve got a couple of record on Sublime Frequencies, one of them’s called _Radio Burma I think, and someone’s just running through the dial on a radio in Burma, picking out bits of classical or pop music or whatever…
“It’s easy to be wilfully weird, but it’s difficult to then go with it so you end up thinking, ‘this is made by you because you are there’, that it makes sense for your music to be in that area._”
Video: 'Come Together'
If Songs In A & E has already been afforded an additional whiff of significance in press circles because of Pierce’s near-death experience, you could hardly begrudge him that.
I tell him I’d be interested to know about the album title and whether he’d thought much about the levels of interest it would generate, particularly given that the songs had actually been written prior to his illness.
“It’s a great title though isn’t it?" comes the game response. “I mean, how could you resist? And maybe this is with hindsight but I’m thinking I had a slight idea that title was there before I became ill. It doesn’t mean anything else in England, it’s an immediate thing but it doesn’t translate, you know it doesn’t travel to America at all but I just thought I don’t care, it works. Apparently there are a lot of songs in A and E on there, though I wasn’t really aware of the fact.”
But Pierce has been notoriously dismissive of his private life in relation to his music in the past; can he really be comfortable with all this personal intrigue?
“I don’t have to talk about something I don’t want to talk about,” he says. “I also think that we’re talking about ideas I had three years ago, you know there’s no other place in my life where I can say, ‘Oh you were thinking about this stuff three years ago, d’you wanna talk about it?’ But gradually the songs become way more important than the stories, I know that there are people who are interested in that stuff but there’s an awful lot more who listen to it and don’t care about the back-story or where the artist was at the time.
“It’s like I love ‘Search & Destroy’ by Iggy & The Stooges which is apparently about Vietnam, but how could it mean anything about that to me? I don’t want to listen to that like a historian and think this gives me an idea of what it was like to live in America in the late ‘60s, I listen to it for the energy it infects me with.
“‘A & E’_ for me was never a specific reference, I always thought all my records were written in A and E, like they were all kind of an accident and the emergency was to get them down, like this is the last record, this is the most important thing in my life, to finish this thing._”
Call me an incurable cynic but this is starting to sound like so much improvised balderdash. Time to change tack, perhaps: was Pierce at all struck by the prescience of the material when returning to the record after his convalescence?
“Yeah, it was really harrowing. The first song, which isn’t actually on the record, had a lyric that went, ‘if you know about life, hold on tight, don’t let go’, and it was about the rarity of life… The same goes for ‘Death Take Your Fiddle_’, it was written from this perspective of, not pride, but life really isn’t worth living unless you get close to death.
“Death is what makes life really beautiful and really fragile, you know in a way we really fucking are floating in space, and the more you open your eyes to that the more you open your eyes to everything in life. It’s like the opposite of people who say, ‘I don’t really want to deal with that or have to think about it, I’m just going to concentrate on these little thing here’._”
At a pinch I’d say our culture is pretty ill-equipped at dealing with death, modish predilections for a certain titillating ‘darkness’ in pop culture aside. Spending is profligate under the youth’s despotic banner, pension shortfalls are continually forecast, the old are tucked away out of sight in retirement homes… but it seems Pierce is thinking of something else entirely:
“I don’t really know who _is equipped to deal with death (laughs), but I think that idea is really important, you know get as close as you can and then if everything starts going seriously wrong you start climbing away from it as fast as you fucking can. But you have to get close to these things, they’re all part of life._”
Typical. He’s only gone and incorporated serious illness into his Icarian worldview. Are there any other artists – past or present – he thinks write about death in an interesting way?
“Well yeah, everybody writes about death - Charley Patton, The Rolling Stones… It’s everywhere, all the issues of rock ‘n’ roll are essentially the big issues, you know, love, death, religion, the whole mess of it. But the simple lines are the best, as soon as you start to get too prosaic in music it loses some of its power. I think that’s partly what gives music its ability to travel through time, it deals with these universal things.”
Ah, the universal again. It must get tiring, though, all this gazing at the stars: with music as bold and immersive as Spiritualized make, does it not become difficult constantly striving to remain in the moment, from a live perspective at least?
“No, I used to say I only made the records so I can go out and play them live; everything happens there and then and you just try and hold onto the magic. Music gets stronger the more stress you put on it. It’s easy to do shows in great-sounding venues with all the lights firing off in the right places, it’s like some kind of pantomime. But it seems the best shows come out of places where it isn’t so easy to do that.”
And speaking of the live shows, Pierce opted to play the first Spiritualized gig in well over three years (he has of late been playing stripped-back appearances under the Acoustic Mainlines moniker) on the Later With Jools Holland programme last week, with Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris watching from the wings, among others. A strange move, you might think, from an artist who had until recently been suffering from a crisis of confidence, and the experience was, by Pierce’s own admission a “very, very strange” one, though not without its unexpected benefits.
“The weird thing with Emmylou Harris was I’d originally written ‘Don’t Hold Me Close_’ with her in mind, and then I became ill and I just didn’t have the courage to ask. So for a long period of time it felt like it wouldn’t end up on the album, it felt strange with me singing it, and then it worked out because Harmony Korine’s wife sang it as the very last piece that went into the album and it really made sense, it was really beautiful.
“But it was weird meeting her, I was going to ask Jools if he thought he could get a record over to her and he just said let’s do it now. He just raced off, all the audience was in and I couldn’t catch up with him to say look let’s not do this now. But it was great in the end, you know.”
“It was a difficult place to try and start piecing this thing back together. It’s the first time we’d plugged back into the electricity supply, which was amazing actually... just realising we had all of this power and energy at our fingertips._”
Pierce’s eyes flash mischievously. The dials might be turned down on Spiritualized’s sound right now, but Pierce is still floating, still dreaming. And that's something most definitely worth droning on about.
Songs In A&E is released via Universal on May 26; find Spiritualized online here.