Jason Pierce doesn't know how to read. Music, that is.
Incredible, then, that Pierce has managed to construct dense, intricately crafted music over a career that's spanned more than a decade, first as singer/guitarist for '80s-era British psychedelic-rock icons Spacemen 3 and later as a founding member and the mastermind behind Spiritualized, the darlings of the neo-space-rock school. Is Pierce a freak of nature or an extremely successful example of faking it 'til you make it?
"Most people's careers are built on not having a skill," Pierce says over an abysmal phone connection from somewhere in Washington, D.C., where the group is launching its latest tour. "When I started doing this I was listening to bands like the Cramps and the Stooges, and it hits you how easy it is to make music like that without having great abilities as a musician."
Well, let's first define "ability." It's one thing to possess savant-like skills on the guitar or the piano; it's another thing to build a record entirely from scratch, starting with a man and a Dictaphone. Spiritualized's new Let It Come Down -- a heady affair with a personnel roster in the triple digits, including a gospel choir -- falls into the latter category. "I wanted to find a way to arrange music without having the skills involved," says Pierce. "I just found a way that I could make that work."
That way was to sing melodies into a tape recorder, then transpose the tunes by picking them out, note by note, on the piano, which he doesn't know how to play. Bassist Martin Schellard would then translate recordings of these piano melodies into a score for the orchestra. It's a spectacularly detailed, painstaking work that took more than two years.
"Someone likened it to animation: 'What a dull chore,'" Pierce says, "But if you're an animator, making tiny little changes frame by frame, the ultimate goal is the reward. It was important that the arrangements were made without an academic approach. I wanted to see what I could do -- I wanted to make a record in which the orchestrations were absolutely integral to the music.
"I started with the French horns, let them dictate the chords and the melodies, and the songs would come from that. Most arrangements in pop or rock music, they're put into the music after it is finished, almost like it's an effect to make the music sound more realized; the same goes for gospel choirs, they're put on there to give the music a sense of grandeur, make the song sound a lot more grand than was originally intended. I sort of wanted to go the other way. Those parts would go down first and they would dictate the way the rest of the song went."
The resulting sound is an aggressive cocktail of Pierce's piss-and-vinegar vocal sneer (which takes on an added Tom Waits dimension with each new outing) and wailing harmonicas shaken with an ephemeral layer of righteous gospel and floaty strings and horns. The opening track, "On Fire," has an almost locomotive feel and kicks off the record with just the right amount of swaggering forward motion, which sustains itself throughout the remaining 10 songs; it's only appropriate, given that Pierce has had four years between albums -- the group's last record, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, was released in 1997 -- to strike just the right notes.
"You only get one chance at it; you won't ever get to repeat it," says Pierce. "Whether you're writing an article or music, you're not going to revisit it in eight years' time and say, 'Oh, I'll get that right now.' It's the ultimate for now." Let It Come Down's orchestral glory is quite different from Ladies and Gentlemen's druggy hypnotism, which, in turn, is nothing like Pure Phase's (1995) harmonica-heavy bombast. Pierce has insisted repeatedly over the past several years that he is only interested in covering new ground with every project. You've probably heard the party line coming out of some other musician's mouth before -- some variation on the theme of "We could just keep making the same record over and over again, but that would get pretty boring." The thing is, in Spiritualized's case, it's actually true -- an M.O., even. Each new Spiritualized record is a snapshot of the progression that Pierce and a core group of 13 musicians, including former Julian Cope keyboardist Thighpaulsandra, are making toward musical nirvana.
Or is it?
"The problem with that is that they all become just points on a learning curve," Pierce counters. "If it's a snapshot, it's my snapshot, not anyone else's." In other words, if you're inclined to use the snapshot metaphor in describing Spiritualized's musical evolution, it's imperative to picture it with Pierce looking through the camera, rather than Pierce (and company) as the subject of the camera's gaze.
One of the risks a band runs in reshaping its sound with each record is the loss of fans. Someone who waxes rhapsodic about a group in 1997 may very well be voicing ardent disapproval of their 2001 work. But Pierce is not concerned with retaining fans. "The thing about being a fan is that you're rarely a fan of radical change," he says. "I'm not worried about leaving people behind; it's not a bad thing if you lose them a few albums in, because they've got those albums forever." In this artist-consumer give-and-take, the musician makes the music he wants to make, taking what he needs from it, and damn the rest of the world. Music consumers take what they need from the music, perhaps continuing to purchase records by the same artist until they don't like what they hear anymore, and the parties go their separate ways. It's sort of like a musical one-night stand. It's a formula that, while not exactly lucrative, works well for Pierce -- who isn't actually interested in selling records.
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"I don't find the whole 'musical success' and the charts relevant at all," he says. "That's just a reflection of the record company's efficiency. Whether someone sells more or [fewer] records is purely at the whim of the public. The girl- and boy-bands are the music industry in its purest form. If you get high chart positions, you should be happy. Very rarely do you get a high chart position by accident, with no work, no marketing. The rewards are success in the music industry, all of which has nothing to do with me. Even if that did happen to me, it would have nothing to do with my work and everything to do with the record company. Which is fine if you work at the record company."
Pierce also can't be bothered with the media: He prefers to talk about free jazz or Little Jimmy Scott rather than jump through the requisite hoops involved in shilling a new record. He won't indulge the public with a juicy, Behind the Music-type story, as evidenced in a recent interview with NME, whose reporter was determined to turn Let It Come Down into a rehab record. "It was clear from the beginning that they hadn't even listened to the record," Pierce says. Indeed, given lyrics such as "I was very nearly clean you know/I only had 12 steps to go" (from "The Straight and the Narrow"), it's obvious that Pierce is poking fun at today's rehab culture. Though Pierce wades through the song with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, it would be easy to lose sight of the joke and get lost in the music: As with much of Let It Come Down, the tune is densely instrumental and gospel-tinged, with arrangements so lush and complex they'd make Beethoven weep.
Considering the painstaking process by which Let It Come Down was produced, the prospect of touring behind it seems daunting: Taking that kind of sound on the road could be a logistical, not to mention financial nightmare. "If we'd taken the orchestration on the road, it would have turned into a cabaret thing. We've got trombones, French horns, trumpets, clarinets and a lot of percussion." The solution, he says, is to bring along a scaled-down, 13-piece band to help create the live experience.
When asked what concertgoers can expect on this tour, Pierce speaks of keeping his music in a constant state of flux, something that requires permanent "work-in-progress" status. "The only way you can do it is to play it live; the changes happen immediately," he says. "We're not going to play it just like the record. If you want to hear the record, you can stay at home, and listen to it."