Jason Pierce has never been shy about his drug use. But rather than it being something that happened alongside the music, it was, for many years at least, an intrinsic part of his artistic output.
His first band Spacemen 3 earned a reputation as chemical dustbins through outspoken interviews extolling the virtues of recreational narcotic use. Song titles and the constant theme of falling headlong into heroin addiction in his lyrics hammered home the point. Spacemen 3’s 1990 collection of demos Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To not only accurately described what was happening in the music, but summed up Pierce’s MO full stop.
“Love in the middle of the afternoon, just me, my spike in my arm and my spoon,” he sang on 'I Think I’m In Love' from Spiritualized’s 1997 Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, an album which came in a blister pack along with prescription-style liner notes and recommended dosage.
When Amazing Grace came along in 2003, Pierce called time on his hedonism, the intravenous kind, anyway; the album’s sleeve a simple, bold photo of his arm, sans the track marks that would’ve once been there. The song titles still harked back to addiction gone by – 'She Kissed Me It Felt Like A Hit' for one – but musically, the stripped-down sound backed up the clean-start allusions of the cover. In place of the blissed-out haze of instrumentation Pierce had become synonymous with, came noisy, back-to-basics garage rock.
His last two albums, Songs In A+E and this year’s Sweet Heart, Sweet Light have been mired in illness. Despite the title of the former, he’d actually finished the album before he contracted periorbital cellulitis and bilateral pneumonia. As a result, the weirdly prescient record was delayed while he was in intensive care and subsequently recuperated.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light, however, was written and recorded while undergoing treatment for Hepatitis C, and as a result his relationship with the songs is one that puzzles him.
After a summer full of festivals, it’s now time to tour the album - although when we spoke at a restaurant around the corner from his home in East London he wasn’t entirely sure what the shows would entail. At the time he thought it would be five or six songs from Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, but a message comes through from him days later saying he’s changed his mind and he’ll only be playing the album and three new songs no one has heard before. A day later, he goes back on it once more, saying he’s changed his mind again.
Jason says he eats at the restaurant where we meet at least three times a week, and sits at the same table each time; his back to the wall through paranoia he’s “going to be stabbed in the back”. Whether that’s a metaphor for his take on interviews is another thing, but once he’s moved from one side of the table to his favourite seat in the corner, he relaxes, opens up and stops drumming on the table as he talks.
It’s pleasing that after seven years of serious illness he’s come through it to look healthier than ever. There’s colour in his once-gaunt cheeks, a playful sense of humour, and, as you’ll soon understand from the rest of the conversation, strong opinions and much positivity for the future.
DiS: You’ve just come back from New York. What were you doing there?
I was hanging out with Matthew Johnson, who owns Fat Possum. We’re released by them in the States. He’s a proper, old-school record label boss. Very cool, and crazy. But not Look At Me crazy, he’s Deep South crazy, from Mississippi, in that backwater kind of way. He’s in Alex Chilton’s world, dark and mysterious. I had a great week.
DiS: Do you like America?
I love it. I always have. I’m thinking of moving there next year. To New York, but as a base to travel. I’ve booked a tour next year of all 50 states. That starts late February. I’ll be playing, and I’m sure it’s been done before. I’m not doing it for the rarity value, I’m doing it to see the country. There was talk of doing two half tours, but there’s no point in that, I want to do it in one go, over three months. And I’m not going to get another chance to do it.
DiS: Why won’t you get another chance?
You can tell you’re a journalist. It’s nothing sinister.
DiS: No, but America’s not going anywhere and you’re still young.
I just figure I’ll get older, and there are still people who want to see what I do, and in 10 years that might not be the case. So why not now, you know? And there was some real enthusiasm with the last record.
DiS: You played a lot of festivals over the summer. Are they something you enjoy?
I think festivals are the death of art, in a weird way. I know everyone has started thinking that’s the way you see bands now, but I’ve always said bands are the least important part of a festival. What’s important is standing around and seeing who you live with and what your world is and why you’re there. Bands have always been a side issue to that but now more so. And everybody is compromised as a result. The audience are, and the bands are because they get short time slots and no sound check. Yet, bands in their wisdom still soak up the glory, like they’re worth THIS many people. Or worse, when you get those awful sing-alongs, and a band’s ego kicks in when the crowd sing their words back. It’s as if they’re standing on stage thinking ‘this is what we’re worth’ and really the audience would sing 'We’ll Meet Again' if it was playing.
There’s something about a communal sing-song that’s inherent in people. People love it. So yeah, it’s been a long old summer playing festivals. I felt more and more a part of the entertainment industry as it went on. And I’m not part of the entertainment industry. I’m an artist and I want to feel like an artist. It’s important that I push where I want to go and the audience goes with that if they want to, or doesn’t if they don’t. Festivals are the death of that. And they’ve gotten straighter as the years have gone on too. They’re less about drugs and rock and roll now. They’re more about community.
DiS: This must mean that you’re looking forward to your own shows?
Yes, immensely, because it’s about what we do, about us making our own environment not trying to plug into someone else’s timeslot.
DiS: How do you feel about Sweet Heart, Sweet Light now? You say it didn’t get where it felt like it was going?
I think it’s transient record. I don’t know where it’s going, I feel like it’s a step on the way to something much more important. That’s obviously the nature of everything, that’s part of a journey, but it was made under circumstances that I kind of brushed off at the time. I had Hepatitis C, which was beginning to show its signs and I had to do something about it. No one gets a year off from treatment, you know ‘When do you want a year off?’ It just doesn’t happen, and I was told that touring would be harder on me than making a record, so I decided to make a record. Touring was impossible, and it’s too much fun to mess with in that way.
DiS: How did you feel while making the album?
Terrible. Awful. And listening back it feels alien to me. In hindsight, I think I made a pop record to offset the misery of the treatment, thinking that it would make me feel better. When I got better I got interested in the difference between Bowie’s Station To Station and Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Going On. They were both recorded under similar circumstances, I think both of them were living on a diet of cocaine and milk, or whatever the raw ingredients are, but Sly Stone was dark and menacing and up against it, and Station To Station has this pop sheen over it, like a glisten. I’m not a big fan of Station To Station, I only started reading about it because of the Iggy Pop connection in Berlin, but I can understand why he doesn’t remember making it. I think my record wound up with a pop sheen for that reason, I was trying to embrace what a dark time I was having, but a little part of me wishes I’d gone the other way.
DiS: Did it work, making a happier record? Did it alleviate the misery?
No, not at all. It’s just as miserable making a pop record as it is any other. They’re both difficult to do. I think when you record you get involved in music in a way you never should in that you’re trying to capture something. Performing music is the most joyful thing in the world. It’s like being in an avalanche, but you can manoeuvre around it and make a space for yourself. It’s a glorious feeling. Trying to nail that is horrible, and you’re trying to recreate something that should be natural. You end up listening to the same piece of music over and over trying to achieve something. I wound up thinking I never wanted to make another record ever again.
DiS: How seriously?
Really seriously. I actually didn’t want to make another record again. But people like the album. I say that in a stupid, naïve way, but people really like this most recent album, in places where I couldn’t get arrested before. France... Europe in general, they talk about the record as if it’s the only recent connection to rock n roll that’s out there. These aren’t my words, by the way.
DiS: You played at the Royal Albert Hall last November and played Sweet Heart in its entirety. A lot of people at that gig were probably expecting you to recreate the live album from 1998. But you came out and played unheard songs.
I didn’t know what to do at that show. I felt a bit backed into a corner. That show was going to be the album release date but we were so behind yet the show was still booked. I was focused on making the album but we had to stop to do a show, and then I get this fear that I’m becoming part of the entertainment industry. It seemed the only thing that made any sense was to play those songs in their ragged shape. And it kind of worked. The idea carried through, even if the execution was slightly under par. The idea was bigger than the reality of it. But then I don’t know what it sounds like, I’ve not heard it on playback.
DiS: Have you listened to Sweet Heart, Sweet Light?
I have a few times, but it’s odd. I didn’t feel like I was in my head when I made it, so now I feel disconnected from it. And not in a good way, not in a way like I imagine it would be good to read your own words or hear your own music in a way that it wasn’t from you. This is more that I feel I should have done something about it all, because it is of me, even if I wasn’t there fully. I’ve never really had that feeling before, and I’ve never not wanted to make music before.
DiS: Have you started thinking about what the next record might be?
Yes, I have. The best shows I’m seeing at the moment are at a place called Café Oto, which is just in Dalston. I saw Peter Brotzmann play there, and Thurston Moore played a show there, and some other people, and it feels like those shows are pushing the edges of music. Sometimes you have to wait a while to hear the real beauty, and because it’s improvised, it can just as easily go to areas that aren’t so interesting, but equally, it can go to places that are truly wonderful. I want to go somewhere like that, and I want to do something freer. The last album felt closed in, partly to do with the confines of pop music. You have a given set of rules. I’m not saying I want to make an album of free music, because these people I’m talking about are doing it so much better than I ever could. Also, I want to follow through on some of the collaborative ideas I had for the last album that I never pursued. Peter Brotzmann said he was making music with me for the last album but I wasn’t really fit enough to do it. Rather than having an existing band that you try to get to go with you, I figured I would find musicians who were already working in an area that I wanted to go to, that I found interested. So if I wanted to do something that sounded like Thurston, and I’m not talking about Sonic Youth, I mean the freer stuff he does, I would go to him rather than finding a way there with my band. I’m full of ideas at the moment. I haven’t really got a solid plan. I really feel this whole phase is a step on the way somewhere, but I’m not sure where that is. I’m trying to get the tools in place so I can get there.
DiS: Are you feeling healthier now?
DiS: The last two albums have both been beset by illness. You were ill after you’d made Songs In A+E, which was weirdly prescient, and then again during Sweet Heart. That must’ve taken its toll?
It’s been horrible, seven years of illness, really. But I haven’t got that anymore, and I really feel better for it.
DiS: Did you ever think that the two things were linked? Album-making and illness?
Yes. During the making of the last album, I was in hospital for 11 days for a completely unrelated thing, and when I was in hospital I remember saying that I wasn’t going to make a record again and I was blaming the album for it. Obviously that’s not the case, but I have to make that step, I have to prove to myself that I can stay fit and healthy during the making of an album.
DiS: Does your feeling toward Sweet Heart change what you do when you play live? Do you not want to touch the album now?
No, I will play it. We’re going to see what it’s like to play all of those songs. Part of me was thinking about writing completely new material to play on this tour, but that’s perhaps a better move when I go through America. I don’t have the answers at the moment until we start rehearsing.
DiS: What about when you played Ladies And Gentlemen in full? Did that make you think of the album differently?
I don’t think those shows were completely healthy to do. They were glorious shows, and I didn’t realise at the time that you can charge more for a show like that. That’s why I could afford the choirs and strings. It made me understand why people do so many nostalgic shows, because they make more cash. There is something really unhealthy about looking back, and only looking back. The show really is catering for people, they know the order of the songs and everything they’re going to get. There’s something of the perfect show in there, and it’s quite dangerous to do, because it’s hard to do anything better than that. But I don’t want to look back and think ‘This was when it was good’. I’ve always felt like I’ve pushed outwards and forwards. As great as those shows were, it’s hard to top them when you’re playing people’s favourite album.
DiS: Is it your favourite album? That’s not what I mean. I mean in a sense.
DiS: But is it?
No. It’s not even my favourite Spiritualized album.
DiS: Which is?
The last one. Go and buy it.
DiS: Looking back is something you’ve been loath to do in the past. I’ve interviewed you in the past and you refused to even talk about past albums. So why did you do those shows?
Once you commit to something like that, you commit to it. It’s booked in. I think we did five shows in the end. But I think the decision came because everything around me seemed to be folding back. I made that album among a peer group that were all pushing out, but then the industry started folding in on itself into nostalgia. It made me really melancholic that all this music that I loved, that had been such a big part of my life, was folding back that I stopped booking the shows. We could’ve travelled the world and done more shows like that, but I had to stop. It was a negative thing.
DiS: There is a nostalgia circuit, where bands just play albums in their entirety. It’s big business. Is that another part of the entertainment industry rather than live music?
Yes. There’s no art to playing your ‘hits’ and playing to an audience that isn’t prepared to move outside of that. I’m not averse to people playing their old songs, that’s the deal, but when I was a kid, as much as I loved say, Martha Reeves, I would never have attended a Martha Reeves show at Butlins where there was some Motown Revue. There’s no art to it, there’s no rock n roll to it. And that’s what I felt I was engaging in by doing those shows. It’s not rock n roll no matter how your dress it up. Rock n roll is my first love so I had to stop. I don’t care that the audience wasn’t as satisfied, that’s not why I’m into this. I’m not part of the catering industry. I’m part of this thing that hopefully pushes the boundaries. Albeit in small steps. You don’t get giant steps in evolution, but you have to at least be heading in the right direction. But as I said, it’s hard to top a show like that. And what I do now has so much less fanfare attached. It’s also made more difficult by the fact that I don’t know what I want to do. All I know is that I can’t go there again.
DiS: Isn’t that something? Knowing what you don’t want to do is almost as good as knowing you want to do, surely?
Yes, it’s elimination. And I’m talking about a real process. I did those shows, and I know I don’t like them. I wish I just knew what I wanted to do.
DiS: Do you feel positive about being so restless?
Yes, I do. It is positive. It’s not necessarily fulfilling or satisfying, but it is a good thing. I feel very positive now, full of ideas and excitement.
Spiritualized begin their UK tour tonight.