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It must be pretty great to be Jason Pierce. As a founding member of Spacemen 3, Pierce made unconfined music that managed to stretch the gummy boundaries of psychedelia. With his current band Spiritualized, Pierce has delivered no more than four increasingly elaborate albums in just over a decade, a snail's pace given that the band is on a major label. This is a man whose freedom to create whatever his heart desires dictates his very creativity. Quite a luxury, that freedom, one that might prove hazardous to a less adventuresome artist than Pierce.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997) signaled Pierce's foray into building a huge sound rather than deconstructing it as he and co-Spaceman Sonic Boom had done with their collaborations. The album was an opera of drug-addicted romance and misery, a blues-inflected post-rock expanse of sonic experimentation packaged to look pharmaceutical: The CD came in a blister pack, and it included the instructions, "One tablet, 70 minutes. Spiritualized is used to treat the heart and soul." Four years later, Pierce has handed over his latest album, Let It Come Down, a wryly tongue-in-cheek "feel good" record packed with tracks boasting upwards of 100 musicians each.
Via telephone, the Englishman discussed his creative process.
Do you always dream big, and does the goal have to be huge in order for it to be attractive?
Not necessarily. The scale of this record was an oversight on my part. I didn't realize that there was a formula for recording big bands. The main thing was that I wanted the sound of French horns. I didn't want individual expression through the French horn, or any of the instruments for that matter. I just fed the figures as I saw them at the time. But it's more a drive to work outside of where I'm familiar, so with every album I try to work in a completely different area, so I don't know which way to turn and the whole process of making an album is new to me.
One instantly recognizable departure from earlier Spiritualized albums, evident on Let It Come Down, is the attention given to vocal harmonies. Some songs even boast gospel choirs. Is this another example of how you keep things fresh?
It's about harmonies, period. It was based around two main things: to write a record where the orchestrations were absolutely integral to the record, rather than how they arrive at most people's music, which is an addition to. The other thing was to get away from making music that dealt with the sonics or effects of sound and just use the voices of the instruments given. Outside of jazz or classical, it's all about the effects. Doesn't matter if you're making hiphop, drum and bass, electronic, psychedelic, or rock music--there's a whole vocabulary of effects that you can use to make that sound. I wanted to make an album that didn't rely on messing with the sonics of the music, but was more about the voices and the performance.
Does this open-ended opportunity and fine attention to detail make it harder or easier to know when the album is finished?
It's never easy. I think you just know. To be honest, mixing a record with 140 tracks of music is no different than mixing a record with four tracks of music. It's just that the amount of decisions you can make goes up exponentially with each track, and I will explore all of that because it's part of the process. Even if that only arrives at a very small percent of the album before I have to go a different route, I will still consider that part to be very important.
With so much instrumentation informing the album, is it less or more exciting to take it on the road in a stripped-down configuration?
It's way more exciting. Spiritualized has always been about being a live band. The records are a means to an end and that end is performance.
How did you choose a mere 13 musicians to take on the road?
It's people from the album sessions that have got the ears for playing live. It's not about ability, it's not about covering the parts, it's about listening to what's being played and playing from that. It's very freeform. You can put across the same kind of expression and electricity as a 30-piece string section with a single clarinet or guitar or saxophone if you play it in the right way. It's trying to find the electricity or emotive quality in the songs. Once people find their way into that, it starts to go off.