For an artist who has released some of the most transcendent albums of the last two decades, Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce is remarkably down on the process of recording them: “I really don’t like making records,” he says. “I like playing live a lot more. It always seems like a chore.”
But Pierce doesn’t leave it at that. He’s always been a thoughtful interview subject, taking his time to answer questions and explore things more fully. He makes albums much the same way: investigating every possible angle before he finally pronounces one finished.
“I want to make the best record I can make every time, and that means I want to try all things, all possibilities,” he says. “I want to make intense, ecstatic, fragile, intimate music, and squeeze it all into 10 seconds. I don’t bring in a producer with a bag of tricks. I have to do it myself, and before I know it, I’m consumed by the process and it takes two or three years off my life.”
Pierce isn’t kidding. After establishing himself in the ‘80s with the revered U.K. band Spacemen 3, which pioneered a minimalist brand of space-rock, he has made seven epic Spiritualized albums in the last 20 years. The last couple have accompanied near-death experiences: In 2008 “Songs in A&E” came out after he nearly died of pneumonia. His latest, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” (Fat Possum), was made while he was being treated for liver disease. Pierce says he’s healthy now, but he considers the latter album his most difficult to finish, and that’s saying something.
“It started out as this pop, melodic record,” he says. “I went in with a few ideas and a desire to make a beautiful collection of songs that were not shouting at me as being life-changing or earth-shattering. Sort of a proper pop record, like the Beatles once might’ve made.
“But about halfway through, I realized I don’t even like the Beatles, so what possessed me to want to do that? So like with all the albums, you end up following where it leads you, instead of you leading it. I find it’s extremely difficult to be dogmatic about what you want, because so many great things come from mistakes, errors.”
Pierce says he never has too many things written out or conceptualized in his head before he goes in to record. “I do a lot of writing while in the studio, and the songs come together as I’m recording them and more importantly while I’m mixing. I’m still adding vocals as I put the mix together. That’s always the part of the album that takes the longest and it’s because I’m adding or subtracting until the last minute.”
More likely adding. Spiritualized albums pull together myriad genres of music, everything from gospel to free jazz. “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” includes a Los Angeles-based pop choir and an Icelandic string section, among other embellishments.
“It’s all stuff I like and try to recombine,” Pierce says. “In an odd way, this record is quite traditional, it’s not psychedelic. I wanted to make a record that was easy for the listener -- not easy listening, but you didn’t have to prepare yourself for it. You didn’t have to be educated in free jazz on the way in to get it, and then when there is some free jazz, we hold your hand on the way in and give you a way out. I wanted an immediate record, with a little more clarity like a Link Wray or Modern Lovers record. Mine doesn’t sound anything like those records, but the intent was similar in that I hope the listener could instantly understand these songs and enjoy them.”
That call to immediacy was tempered by Pierce’s health problems. “Toward the end as I was getting better, the record started to remind me of feeling ill – and I sincerely hope it doesn’t do that for the listeners,” he says with a laugh. “I ended up letting go of the album sooner than I might have because of that. A song like ‘Headin’ for the Top Now,’ I know somewhere in the back of my head I wanted it to be like Happy Mondays meets Neu and Steve Reich, with a little bit of Georgio Moroder in there as well. I don’t know if I ever really got that, but what I finally got had a quality that I couldn’t take any further. So I let it go.”
Like all Spiritualized albums, Pierce assembled his latest album with the idea that its individual songs and themes would be intertwined and enhanced by their proximity to one another. No, Jason Pierce is not a fan of shuffling tracks on his cellphone.
“I try to make records where all the songs lean against each other, they kind of prop each other up,” he says. “The choir at the end of the record sounds like ecstasy because of what comes before it. A song like ‘Freedom’ is more harrowing and hollow because it comes after ‘Headin’ for the Top Now,’ and ‘Headin’ for the Top Now’ sounds more fragile because it’s on the same record as ‘Too Late.’ That’s what’s important about records. You play records to feel that -- or at least I still do.”
Spiritualized: 8 p.m. May 3 at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., $24; metrochicago.com