After a break of five years since their last album Amazing Grace, and a near crippling bout of double pneumonia, Spiritualized are back and in perfect health with their finest album to date with Songs in A&E. Chris Berkley of Static spoke to Jason Pierce about his illness, working with Harmony Korine, and the effect this had on bringing together Songs in A&E.
Feeling alright, Jason?
A little crazy…
People have been saying that for a long time…
Yeah…I’m just rocking steadily.
Do people seem to ask you about your health a little more genuinely these days after your much publicised serious illness between the last Spiritualized album?
I’ve been sort of saying this record isn’t really about my illness. The illness just got in the way of making it. That’s the deal. It just came at the wrong time. The record isn’t really about that.
That said, it was a serious illness. Double pneumonia mustn’t have been much fun there for a while.
Fun’s not the word you’d use generally (laughs)…
You’ve had to explain away how most of the songs on Songs in A&E were written before that experience. You must’ve been aware that people would try to make that connection?
Yeah, kind of. It’s kind of harrowing to hear these songs that did start to sound more like they’d been written about that. They kinda prophesize that, and I think that’s why it became more important for me to finish it, so I wouldn’t be haunted by this record forever, that I did finish it and find a way of putting it away.
You must be self aware of how it seems that most people have said songs were written about it when they weren’t, and they are calling it prophetic. Were the songs rattling around in your head when you were sick? Were you thinking about it?
No, not at all. It was the last thing I was thinking about. But when I got out of there, it seemed like the worst thing was I couldn’t find a way back into doing the thing I love the most which was making music and I couldn’t find any way of getting into that place again. So I kinda hit rock bottom. I really hit a low place, and then I met Harmony Korine, the film-maker, and he came in and asked me for music for his film and it kinda put me back on track. This kinda crazy and beautiful man with all these ideas coming in from everywhere that filled me with enthusiasm again, and also he just asked me for music. There was no other request. It wasn’t as if he wanted a particular kind of music. He just wanted my music, and it seemed like it kinda lifted me and also put my record in that space as well, and my record started to get infected by the kinda music I was making for Harmony.
I’m very jealous that you got a kick-start like that. Did you know Harmony previously?
No, not at all. I did a show that celebrated Daniel Johnston with Daniel, and Harmony is a big Daniel Johnston fan and he was at that show, and he came to see me afterwards. I wasn’t really expecting it.
Did he seem like a kindred spirit? He’s someone else who’s been through a lot both personally and artistically, and battled some demons. Was there some common ground instantly?
Yeah, we probably shared a few demons, I think…(laughs) He’s way crazy though. He’s a good man, and he’s got ideas, and I love that kinda thing whether you’re making films or music that’s trying to challenge the form, to try and make music that isn’t just like everybody’s music, to try and find some other way of doing it, and he’s like that with his films. He’s not making films that there’s an accepted way of making films, he’s trying to find some other way of putting this thing across and putting these ideas down.
From that experience, you’ve taken stuff back to the Spiritualized album, and it didn’t only get you restarted, you also named the interludes in his honour and also his wife Rachel duets with you on “Don’t Hold Me Close”. That’s an interesting invitation to have extended to her.
It fitted that she should sing that song at the end. In the film she sings the John Jacob Niles track in Mister Lonely. It was always written, that song, as a duet. I’d always written that song as a duet with Emmylou Harris in mind, all those years back, but it was always meant to be sung from a female perspective, and when the album was starting to come together that was the last thing that seemed unresolved, when it just had my voice on it, and Rachel kinda fitted the idea that how the song should come together, so it was really important that happened.
When you had that distance and returned to finish Songs in A&E were you reenergised? I guess, there’s nothing like mortality to make you aware of your priorities. Did you return with a little vigour then to the new Spiritualized album?
No…(laughs) It didn’t work! It’s been a long, long haul. I’m glad it’s finished. I’m glad I can say that’s it, it’s done. It sounds really peaceful to me, that record does now, that it’s done. It’s found its own space.
But every Spiritualized album has been a challenge in one way or another, hasn’t it? Finding funding or getting it mixed… They don’t ever seem to be an easy ride for you.
No, none of it ever came that easy. It’s just part of the thing. It’s not that easy. The really beautiful bit in music is that elusive bit, that bit that’s hard to get. Anybody can play the notes in a certain order and anybody can tune their instrument and play these things, but it’s finding that little bit of magic. That’s what you go after, but it doesn’t come easy.
I’m glad to hear you can laugh about it now. Were you aware then of putting stuff like respirator wheeze on “Death Take Your Fiddle”? Did it almost become a project when you saw you could line up those things to make reference or finish off Songs in A&E?
Kind of, but also, because that track sounded so harrowing and dark it was also put in there with this kind of humour in mind, and also they’re all played on children’s toys, so that sound is the sound of a little kids accordion, and it’s the bellows of the accordion sticking together and opening up again. Also, there’s this Serge Gainsbourg track that has the sound of a woman crying, and that becomes the percussion on the track. The thing is driven by this sound that isn’t part of the musical track and I kinda thought that would be a cool thing to do with that track. It also made people want to listen to the music. I have this thing where people go underwater in a film or on tv, I kinda hold my breath at the same time, I get that feeling I have to do that and that kinda thing did that with that track. It made me want to hold my breath. It made me want to try and breath in time to the track, if that makes sense. It just made that track seem more like it needed to be listened to.
Do you notice a different performance in yourself. Is there a bit more of a Bob Dylan wheeze almost on “Yeah Yeah” A bit of a rasp?
(laughs) It’s probably always been there. I don’t know how to answer that. It’s just the voice that comes out.
You mentioned Daniel Johnston earlier on. You said you were doing some songs at a tribute to him. The last few notes on the album on “Goodnight, Goodnight” are a nod to his song “Funeral Home”
Yeah, a big kinda thank you. That show was a turning point for me getting back on track. I started back into this after I’d gotten some strength doing a few of his songs. We did “Funeral Home” that night, “Devil Town”, and “True Love Will Find You in the End”. So that’s what kinda put it all back on the tracks.
Apart from the beautiful songs that someone like Daniel Johnston has written over his life, his journey’s a bit of a reminder that some people have real problems as well. It must’ve made spending a couple months in A&E in a bit more perspective.
He writes really beautiful songs. A lot of people have brakes in the song writing, when they start to apply the brakes as soon as it gets too close to the nerves or too close to the truth, and Daniel didn’t do that. He says these things that are really overwhelmingly beautiful and important, and Harmony put the whole thing into perspective – here’s this crazy man taking on the enormity of the film with all that that entails and I just had this 11 track album to piece together.
There’s still a lot of work involved, Jason, it’s not all smoke and mirrors…
No, there’s some smoke (laughs).
And where there’s smoke there’s fire, so are you going to be bringing this record to Australia?
We’re trying. It kinda started there. “The Waves Crash In” was written on Melbourne’s St.Kilda Beach, however many years ago we were last there, so we gotta bring it home. We’re looking at early next year. We’re early days. We’re just plugging back into the electrics and it’s all coming together.
We look forward to seeing Spiritualized again in Australia next year then. That’s a promise, alright?
I believe so. I make those kinda promises.
First broadcast on Static on 26/06/2008. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3FM) and via the internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).