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Jason Pierce doesn't really remember where he was while piecing together his band's newest psychedelic wonder, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. The Spiritualized leader knows the album took three years in three different cities to complete; it's just that the medication he was ingesting for liver disease left him in an otherworldly frame of mind — and at a loss to explain how the album actually came together.
"I don't know. I didn't feel like I was in my head when I made it, but people seem to like it," he says by phone from Minneapolis. "Usually, I have an idea about what I made and what the record's about, but with this one, I feel a little detached from it. I don't really know what it is. I know what I set out to make, but I haven't got a control. I haven't got another record I've made without drugs [of one kind or another], so I don't know how much it affected [the writing and recording process]. I know it made it really hard at times."
If the album's lyrics are any indication, it was a difficult and painful time. Pierce, who also goes by J. Spaceman and was a founding member of psychedelic noise pioneers Spacemen 3, is known for his honesty and heart-on-sleeve approach to songwriting. He doesn't mince words when sharing his experiences and feelings through song.
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Occasionally, the scope of heartbreak and sadness causes involuntary wincing; other times, the refreshing realism brings knowing smiles. But when Pierce sings "Sometimes I wish I was dead because only the living can feel the pain," on "Little Girl," it's clear an internal struggle was raging. Yet making Sweet Heart Sweet Light also proved to be something of a cathartic experience.
"I know those portions of treatment are really difficult, anyway, and I wanted something to distract me from that," he says. "It kind of worked both ways. Making this record was kind of hard, but it also distracted me from how hard the treatment was.
"It's over, and I hate having to talk about it all the time," he says, exasperation in his voice because he'd rather talk about music than his health. "But now I feel like I've got a disclaimer for the album: If you don't like it, it's because I did it under these circumstances. I never really allowed for that; it sort of gets in the way of the music. It was a heavy time, but the record shouldn't be about me but about what other people can relate to on their own terms."
But in pain Pierce finds magic. Sweet Heart Sweet Light may be Spiritualized's strongest release since the band's 1997 breakthrough Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Songs ebb and flow in howling, tension-filled psychedelic send-ups that feature stinging guitars, haunting organ fills, and monstrous drums, but also gospel choirs and rolling harmonies. Layers upon layers of sound repeatedly push the album's pulse to the breaking point before collapsing into a hushed, often bluesy, breather before striking out again. One gets the feeling it really could be the soundtrack to Pierce's chaotic life, which has seen him battle drug and alcohol issues, shattered relationships, and imploding bands.
Not surprisingly, Pierce says he's ready to put the album behind him.
"To be honest, listening to it reminds me of being ill. That's not such a good thing," he says. "When you make a record, you listen to it so many times that all the pieces that resonate to you, you become immune to it. I've gotten everything I could possibly get out of that record. I know there are those lines on the record that have the ability to move people, but I've heard them so many times that I have to put it to rest a while before I can regain anything [that resonates]."
If that comes across as somewhat ironic, given that the band is about to begin a lengthy American tour, Pierce makes it clear that the live beast that's a Spiritualized concert — wall of sound, strobe lights, kettle drums, sweaty tension — has little to do directly with the record or any songs from the band's seven recordings. Instead, Pierce sees his songs more as a jumping-off point for exploration of something new.
"It's like being in an avalanche or a waterfall," he says of being onstage. "You push the pieces around, but you're not trying to pin it down, not trying to capture it or perfect it or make it stand the test of time. It's such a different world to be in. Playing live, it just happens so fast, you know. It's about finding an energy rather than replicating a record. Any fool can replicate a record. You just take all the parts and basically press the buttons in the right place and go out and do that. But there's no performance in that. There's nothing that's going to astound in that. Playing live frees all that up. It's hugely rewarding to have those ideas and parts there to launch into other areas."
Some of Pierce's inspiration to create Sweet Heart Sweet Light followed the complete performances of Ladies and Gentlemen at the 2009 All Tomorrow's Parties festivals. Re-creating the past, however, had caused Pierce some hesitation with a looming uneasiness at having an audience know exactly what they'd be hearing from him. Yet the opportunity to perform live with a 50-piece band featuring gospel choir and orchestra proved rewarding enough to sow the seeds for future musical exploration.
"It was amazing — glorious sound. It was a great thing to do. But it came over time, with a little bit of this nagging voice that said, 'Don't do this.' But while I was [performing], I felt it was more important to be looking forward," he says. "These shows inspired me. The importance is to do new stuff, and this was a huge moment for me. The shows created a lot of passion to continue. All these bands are re-forming and playing to events that already happened. So, really, a lot of the inspiration was to not be satisfied to look back and say we've done this, but carry on trying new things."
While Sweet Heart Sweet Light doesn't break a lot of new ground, treading all the well-worn Spiritualized pathways — "I think that you could probably take any one of my songs and put it on any one of my albums and it would fit," Pierce agrees — it does reveal how a creative mind, no matter what state it's in, can merge disparate sounds into something unexpectedly grand.
"I don't really set out with an idea to mix it all up. Making a record is kind of exploring the tolerances of it, seeing how far you can push it and seeing where it sits right and what works with it. That's the benefit of being able to record," Pierce says. "If I was just recording how we sounded in the studio on a particular day, that's really closer to playing live than making a record. If you're going to make a record, I think you should explore all the possibilities."
Easier said than done, unless you happen to be a bit out of your mind.