'Amazing Grace,' how free the sound


October 24, 2003



Renowned as a meticulous sonic craftsman, Spacemen 3 veteran Jason Pierce has made four astounding albums with his current band, Spiritualized, all of them considered modern psychedelic-rock classics by the group's dedicated following.

For the band's fifth effort, "Amazing Grace" (Sanctuary), the guitarist and vocalist threw away everything he knew about working in the studio and took a radically different approach -- recording live and attempting to capture the spontaneity of playing with the crack lineup of John Coxon, Doggen, Thighpaulsandra, Tom Edwards and Kevin Bales -- and the results are no less impressive.


*8 p.m. Tuesday
*Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
*Tickets, $19.50
*(773) 472-0449

I spoke with the former Jason Spaceman in the midst of tour that brings Spiritualized to the Vic Theatre on Tuesday.


Q. Every time I think that Spiritualized will never surprise me again, the band blows my mind. "Amazing Grace" was recorded in a very different way from the other albums, right?

A. The thing is not to repeat yourself -- not to do what you know you can do. I guess I always try to do something different. The record I made with Spring Heel Jack [2003's "Amassed"] was a free-jazz record, and that was what was in our vocabulary at the time. They're kind of the giants of European jazz: Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Kenny Wheeler. Kenny Wheeler was this dynamo of a man -- music just pours out of the guy -- and what he brought to "Amazing Grace" for me was these lines like, "Who gives a [crap] what the record is going to sound like, just play!"

It's about the physicality of playing an instrument, to kind of put your soul into this inanimate object -- this weird tube of brass or this plank of wood. I was trying to get that down onto a record, so "Amazing Grace" is nothing about production or processing; it's all about trying to capture people playing. I figured the only way to do that was to introduce the songs to the band on the day we were going to put them down. What you hear on that record is the first time that those songs just about held it together enough to say, "We've got something special there."

When we were playing back the takes for these songs, it was like listening to [Captain Beefheart and] the Magic Band for the first time, or the 13th Floor Elevators. Nobody knew any of the parts, the drummer was playing to a bass line and he'd never heard and they were all listening to lyrics they'd never heard in their lives, so people were hearing it back and going, "Jesus, is that us?" By the 11th day, we thought we could tackle anything, because there was no stopping it.

Q. There's always a special energy the first time a group plays something together.

A. It's response. It's people responding to the unknown. Rock 'n' roll is essentially a rehearsed medium. You go away and you rehearse, then you go into a studio and lay it down as best you can and you do shows in that manner. Jazz comes from this attitude of, "I'm going to respond to music I've never heard before in my life." I kind of wanted to bring some of that spontaneity back into what we were doing. We've always been a free band, but I've never attempted to record like that. I think that's the key to anything that we do -- to get outside of my expectations, trying desperately not to tread water. I'm the kind of person that if I press this button, I don't want to know what's going to happen. I think that's where great music comes from: from people who are completely out of control and don't know any of the answers to the questions.

Q. You've always had the reputation of being a studio perfectionist. Does the success of this album make you question your working methods in the past?

A. No, it wasn't in reaction to anything we've done. I think it's that I know how to make those records. This was just informed by different things, by meeting Kenny Wheeler and doing the record with Spring Heel Jack. It's not that Phil Spector or Brian Wilson isn't where it's at, it's just that my ear is leaning more toward Robert Johnson or people who put what they're trying to deliver down in a really naked way.

Q. How does the current lineup of Spiritualized compare to earlier groups?

A. That's not a fair question, really. But I do think we've hit an extraordinary vein at the moment. I'm not big on self-promotion --I don't find it easy to sit here trying to sell this -- but I think we've hit something now that can be astonishing. I don't know what it is, but it's always gotten better night after night. That's the whole reason we tour, to use what went down the day before as your grounds for the next day. And it's just slaying at the moment. This is the first record we've made that's ready to go: It doesn't need any kind of deconstruction, because what you hear is the very moment those songs got it together. We're actually starting at that point and we're playing the whole album live.

Q. We've been talking about the free element of Spiritualized, but at the same time, you've always had this strong pop sensibility: You never lose sight of the fact that melody is important and the music has to have this rhythmic drive.

A. It's also songs, you know? Everything with us has always been song-based, and as free as it gets and as kind of spaced-out as it goes, it's still rooted in what is essentially a rock 'n' roll song or a blues song or a spiritual. "Amazing Grace" is all rooted in the first records I heard -- the Stooges playing up against the Staples Singers. That's also where this record is coming from.

I had a chance meeting with [New Orleans pianist] Dr. John, and we had a really big band at the time. He was saying, "People get your [stuff]. They understand what you're trying to say because you tell it straight. You should never hide behind anything and just deliver it as, 'This is where I stand today.' " Those words kind of stayed with me.

Q. How do you know when you've written a song that's a keeper?

A. Because I'll carry it for a couple of years before I put it down. And so a line like "Nothing hurts you like the pain of someone you love" or "Death cannot part us because life already has," I'll carry those lines around because I'll know that they're going to make for great songs. Quite often when you're just saying the line, that dictates what kind of song it's going to be. "She kissed me and it felt like a hit" -- you only have to say that and you kind of know what kind of meter and rhythm that song is going to have.

I think the most beautiful thing about rock 'n' roll is that it doesn't need any intellectualizing. I love the way that you can deliver lines that are actually quite mundane and very primitive -- things like "I can't stop loving you" or "Be my baby" -- and they'd kind of dull lines, but when you apply them to music, they become better than great poetry.