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- Posted on Apr 17th 2012 4:30PM by Theo Spielberg
When Pierce picks up the phone, his speech is quiet and considered. His slow, measured answers are not standoffish -- they come from a place of intense contemplation. Following two years off the road, Pierce is a man who has no problem taking his time to get things right. His last album was three years in the making and recorded in London, Wales, Iceland and Los Angeles. Pierce spoke to Spinner about exactly why he took so long to make the album, the drug-related stupor it arose from, why he refers to it as "Huh?" and exactly where the excitement lies in music.
How are you?
I'm good, I think. I'm trying to get back into doing this interview thing again.
Where are you now?
Um, I'm in London. I just finished a tour. About nine days in England. It was good, really good. It just takes a while. It just has to grow again and sort of fall into place and its been really amazing. Quite stunning ,actually. Quite a shock after not doing it for two years, so, all good.
Given that you took quite a while to record your last album, is it more immediately satisfying to play the songs live?
[Hesitates] Uh, yeah but I don't really like making records, to be honest. So just playing live is good in itself. The record has kind of put me back on the road and that is kind of what I like doing most, so it's just good to be doing that again, really.
You said that you don't like making records, but you spent the last three years or so making this one. What's it like to take so long on something that you don't like to do?
Yeah, why, exactly. Um, because I want to get the records right. I don't want to just put records out. I want to make sure they satisfy what I'm trying to do, and sometimes I don't really know what I'm trying to do. I haven't got a bag of tricks; I kind of wish sometimes I just had a bag of tricks that I could roll in. I still feel like I'm learning how to make a record. I'm not just making a record like the last one I made. I'm trying to do something I haven't done before so it just takes a while to get there.
It's not just making my own records that I dislike; it kind of ruins the way I listen to other people's music. There's a whole period while I'm making a record, I start to listen to other people's music with a view to how it's produced, or where the snare drum sits, or how they've treated the voice. You shouldn't have to listen to music in that way. It kind of fucks with everything. Then when I get on the road, it's the complete opposite. Suddenly, music all makes sense again. Like being in an avalanche and it's all around you but you're not trying to pin it down and you're not trying to hold on to the moment. It kind of rushes through you and I get to listen to music again.
Have you heard of those "Oblique Strategies" cards that Brian Eno made when he would get stuck? They would say things like "use an old idea" or "work at a different speed."
Yeah, I do know those. I think our keyboard player had a set from years ago. I don't know if I would hold with the lot. Sometimes its like "get the drummer on the guitar," and stuff, isn't it? I don't think I'd get stuck in that way. It's just trying to hole the music into the right space all the time. More than I realized before, the difference between truly beautiful music, truly awe-inspiring music that affects you deeply, and music that is the worst music you could possibly hear, the difference is so fine. It's not like all the great music is at one end of the scale and all the awful music at the other and by degrees it gets better or worse. It's just a fine line. The difference between, say, a Patsy Cline record and a similar sounding piece of music in a bar, played by some awful bar band, is slight. It might be a slight change in the voice or a slightly different production, but one is Patsy Cline and the other is ignorable. It's trying to keep everything on the right side that makes sense to me. I don't know an easy way to do that.
You've expressed a sentiment that a lot of authors and musicians talk about, which is that records, or any body of work, are like time capsules or spaceships -- once you release them they don't belong to you anymore. How do you reconcile that with releasing an early, unfinished mix of your record?
[Laughs] I can't reconcile that. That was a bit of a fuck-up, wasn't it? Yeah you know, it was a bit of a studio idea, I think that was. The records put me back in the bus and get me on the road and I figured there's this awful lead-up time. It seems to be sort of this new invention where people need four months between the date of giving it to a magazine and getting the review back, this inordinate amount of time that people seem to need to set up an album. I figured I'd skip that if I just let the thing go at an earlier stage. Say, "Look, this is the record. Go get it reviewed and I'll carry on working on it. Then when it's finished, I'll let you have it and we'll have lost no time. I can just get straight out of the studio and start going on tour." I wasn't trying to hoodwink anybody. I said as a joke before that sometimes they review it like they've got a different one anyway, so this time they might as well have a different album. It's not so different, you know? I think it was the NME that came back and said, "Oh, I really like the new mix of "Mary," and "Mary" hadn't been touched. Nothing had changed. It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time.
You said this album is more pop oriented. How did that come about?
A few reasons, really. One, the thing I was most embarrassed ... I don't think embarrassed is the right word -- the thing I was most uncomfortable with in Spiritualized was the kind of out-and-out straight pop melodies. I said before that "Soul on Fire" nearly didn't make it to the last record because it was so obviously pop. I always figure people do that sound better than I do it. So in a way I thought that to embrace that this time would be putting myself in an area that I wasn't familiar with. I didn't know which way to go every time; I didn't know the moves to make.
The other reason was for all the records that people talk about, the records that reach for the stars, the sort of out-and-out classic rock 'n' roll records, I also own an awful lot of records that were just beautiful records. They weren't trying to change the world. In an odd way, I owned more records like that than far-reaching records that were aiming for the unknown. I wanted to make a record like that because I had to undergo a course of treatment for my liver disease, which I knew I'd have to do. The treatment is worse than ... They're just bad drugs, like chemo drugs. I figured that if I did something like a pop record I'd make it easier on myself. Which wasn't the case really but I figured somewhere along the line that was my plan.
You had quite a health scare a couple years ago with double pneumonia and complications. Did that play into your music making process at all?
Not really, because it's gone. I said at the time, it was almost disappointingly normal when I came back. You read about people having life-changing [experiences], that they are going to readdress everything that they hold dear in life. Everything was slightly, disappointingly the same when I came back. So not really.
Can you explain the album cover at all?
Yes. No. I don't know if it needs explaining. That was always the title for the album. I said that at the top of page A when we recorded it. It just stuck with me as a title. Then, almost, I couldn't imagine people asking for that. I couldn't imagine how people would buy that record. Almost like it would get into some kind of Monty Python loop of people trying to ask for this record that was a question. Then I figured the best way to not call it that was to make that the sleeve. Almost like The White Album, the sleeve would be what people refer to as the record.
Also, more and more, everybody bemoans the lack of 12-inch record sleeves now. I thought rather than sit and complain and say, "Oh, it was so much better then," was to make a record sleeve that worked on a 1.5-centimeter square. Something that worked on its own level as tiny as it could go and it would still be a fantastic image. So there was some of that in there, it was a record sleeve that would work next to the tracks in an iTunes player. It wasn't complaining about the lack of the 12-inch record sleeve to work with anymore, it was just going to make its own statement.
Do you envision people one day asking for a Huh? album?
No, I still can't imagine them asking for it so I just had to throw a quick other title at it. So I think they can ask for Sweet Heart, Sweet Light.