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Yes, the rumors are true -- Spiritualized leader Jason Pierce has sworn off rock 'n' roll excess. But we're not talking about a 30-day stint in rehab followed by an allegiance to yoga. Rather, there'll be no more symphony conductors on speed. Big gospel choirs, begone! Fiddling with massive overdubs at Abbey Road Studios for two years? Out of the question.
"At the moment, I guess I'm more Robert Johnson than Phil Spector or Brian Wilson," the soft-spoken Pierce chuckles. "Right now, I feel like the more naked things are, the more exposed things are, the more I'm feeling emotionally moved by them."
"Naked," to be sure, is a relative term. It'll rain ice in hell before you find the 37-year-old Pierce onstage alone with a beat-up acoustic guitar and ever-present cigarette spilling his anguished soul. The current Spiritualized live band isn't the 13-piece juggernaut of two years ago, but it's still seven members strong and intent on capturing the famously transcendent space-rock atmosphere that has mesmerized concertgoers since the early '90s. Oh, and the light show is still pretty insane, too.
Similarly, while Amazing Grace-- the band's fifth studio album -- has jettisoned the 100-plus classical musicians that populated 2001's meticulously crafted Let It Come Down mostly in favor of a more immediate, fuzz-guitar-driven vibe, the album features nearly 20 guest performers lending French horns, cellos, violins, and oh-so-holy vocals.
Okay, so Pierce can stand to scale things back only so far. But a tiny dose of temperance can mean a whole lot. The band hasn't sounded this alive, this energized -- this real-- on disc in ages.
"Those elaborate constructions, well . . . I know how to do that now. That's where we were at as a band," Pierce explains. "But the point is simply not to tread water, not to do what you've done before. So I wanted to go after something I've never been able to capture before, something that sounded completely unrehearsed and spontaneous.
"The only way to do that was to give the songs to the band on the day we were going to record it, hit the button, and get down that weird moment in time where people realized they were absolutely free to go anywhere with the music," he continues. "So what you're hearing on Amazing Grace is a drummer playing to a bass line he's never heard before in his life, and so on. I really think you make the best music when you have no idea what's gonna happen. And I'm not afraid of going there."
That unscripted feel has always characterized Spiritualized's live show, but it took a 2002 recording session with British avant-junglists Spring Heel Jack -- one that also featured such veteran free-jazz greats as saxophone player Evan Parker and drummer Han Bennink -- to remind Pierce that he could apply the same principles to the studio.
"Bennink would say stuff to me like, Who gives a fuck what the record's gonna sound like, ya motherfucker! How good is this to play?!' And that made a lot of sense to me," Pierce says. "It got me to thinking, the thing about jazz records is that you can almost hear this physicality in the playing, like people really desperately trying to express themselves through a length of brass tube or a piece of wood with strings stretched over it. You tend not to get that on a rock 'n' roll or pop album -- those are usually about going to a rehearsal space for a while, getting your act together, then going into the recording studio and performing it. It's very thought out. Amazing Grace was all about trying to capture that initial raw expression, that physicality, mistakes and all, on a rock record. "
So far, critical reaction to Spiritualized's new musical direction has been mixed. Some are hailing the album as Pierce's most accomplished work to date. Others have interpreted the stripped-down nature of Amazing Grace as a calculated move to curry favor with the garage-rock-purchasing public. Naturally, Pierce bristles at the latter suggestion.
"We're not in the catering industry," he firmly insists. "This is about testing ourselves and testing our audience. What's great about rock 'n' roll is that it gets really special when people get it so wrong. What's not exciting is when people follow the blueprint. I'm not interested in doing that. Because the moment it starts to feel like cabaret is the moment I'll get a job performing on a cruise ship."