Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jason Pierce (Spiritualized) interview: 2011


So-dubbed ‘space-rock’ band Spiritualized’s accolades have included some definite ‘out-there’ moments in their 21 year career. While playing the ‘highest ever concert’ in print sounds typical of a band known for neo-psychedelic rock and drug-referencing, the fact is altitude alone is the basis for the record. Apart from performing at the planet’s northern most point - the Arctic Circle - and delivering career defining, poll-topping album, Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the UK band’s leader, Jason Pierce, was actually revived from clinical death in 2005. His lack of interest in staying earth-bound seems almost too fitting for a man most commonly known as J. Spaceman. Interviewing Pierce therefore, I’m not surprised to discover someone struggling with the idea of 'down-to-earth'.

New material from the band is reaching completion as we approach the four year mark since Spiritualized’s last album, Songs In A & E, but Jason doesn’t claim the time-frame was in anyway a break to ‘reconnect’. “No, I still feel quite disconnected from myself, actually.” This opening quote, it turns out, is almost a crutch with which Pierce moves about on – especially when discussing his music. It’s true that the quiet, evenly spoken singer has long had a turbulent relationship with the press, but his former band, Spacemen 3 and to some degree, Spiritualized haven’t been spared Pierce’s apparent turbulence either. Hiring and firing musicians – or at least failing to retain them for any length of time – has ensured Spiritualized remained Jason’s own project. On this subject, however, he is quick to point out, “Most of the current line-up has made the last four albums with me.” He adds further, “I actually feel encouraged by this band, which is something that has taken a long time for me to feel.”

Stable band in place, Spiritualized’s seventh studio album is finally nearing completion following almost a year of imminent release date teasers. The as-yet untitled album, according to Jason, “Is more about my voice this time, which has happened I think because of doing the Acoustic Mainline shows.” Spiritualized have long divided their shows between Acoustic and Electric Mainline billed performances, dependant on what level of 'plugged' or 'unplugged' they happen to be. “I’m not hiding away behind the music this time around and it feels… just good to step forward like that.” He confirms. Pierce’s music in pre-Spiritualized indie psyche-rockers, Spacemen 3, was a big ol’ bag of drugged-up crazy - in scientific terms. Spiritualized, although an easier listen, have scarcely delivered anything like a ‘pop’ album thus far, but mention of a rumoured pop direction on the forthcoming record has Jason scoffing.

“Did I say that?” He snorts, “I must have because I don’t think anybody’s heard any of the songs yet. Most of them aren’t even complete.” Although I can’t offer a relieving source to the rumour, I wonder if Pierce has at least an interest in creating a pop record. “Not in the sense that it has to be about slick sounding pop in that ‘gotta be bigger and more overblown than the last album’ way artists go.” He adds, “I hate that mindset where everything has to keep getting bigger and louder and more. I have no interest in making albums that takes what we’ve done before and just serve up a slicker, more polished version of that.” Spiritualized’s 1997 album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space - which was widely praised at the time and has become something of a classic since - was again toured in 2009 as part of the Don’t Look Back concert series. Revisiting their most popular album while work was beginning on their latest, Jason reflects on how much his interest in jazz-like deconstruction has grown.

“On the tour for Ladies and Gentlemen... we had a string quartet and a choir on stage with us and rather than have everyone just learn their part, I wanted the musicians to feel the music and add to it as they saw fit.” He says, offering a peak into what the next record might actually offer. “I have no interest in standing on a stage and just recreating the same concert note for note over and over. When we play the songs on our current album, it won’t be any different to that.” He adds, “But that experience (playing Ladies & Gentlemen...) was a beautiful, wholly successful, and extremely satisfying one.” If Pierce sees Spiritualized’s music as a very personal expression for him, it is hard to determine. The obvious drug or break-up songs etc… he refuses to confirm as autobiographical. In fact he dislikes talking about his personal life at all, and retreats from any inquiries to that effect. He reasons that whatever music he is makes shouldn’t be overshadowed by amateur profiling.

“A lot of people in the press want a story to attach to you whenever you have an album coming out, you know some angle to try and read into, and I learned that when I made Songs in A & E.” He says referring to his band’s 2008 album, written entirely while Pierce was recovering from a bout of pneumonia which almost killed him. “Really though, the truth is I have not spoken about music for about a year and a half and the words have quite simply deserted me.” To summarise, Jason in his way of avoiding answering questions wherever possible, offers, “I honestly don’t know to what degree external influence in my life find their way into our music, because I’m always just filtering.” Attempting to get Pierce to open up is tough, but then reading between the lines proves to be a fun challenge. The fact is Jason sees his music as the most honest, undiluted expression he could possibly offer, while interviews to him offer only weak, inadequate platforms. So by the time I ask if he feels a sense of pride regarding any or all of Spiritualized’s albums, I’m starting to warm to his non-committal responses.

“I have a kind of distance from my work once it’s recorded and released.” He sniffs, “I don’t sit and contemplate my music at all.” Following the singer’s 2005 (obviously temporary) clinical death from complications surrounding pneumonia, a clichéd ‘new lease on life’ character has not resulted. Perhaps the extraordinary amount of pharmaceuticals – legal and otherwise – apparently ingested by - and certainly sung about by Pierce - had long ago dulled any sense of his own mortality. But then even a quick glance at the band’s visual output – albums in prescription medication packaging – hints at an ongoing reliance in Pierce’s life, or perhaps an unspoken ‘music is medicine’ philosophy. “Making music has probably kept me alive, yeah. I’m not sure if that’s what you mean, but all I know is I feel so alive when I’m out there playing (live) and that makes me want to keep going more than anything else.”


Monday, May 9, 2011

Tom Ellard (Severed Heads) interview: 2011


Severed Heads main-man Tom Ellard’s 30-year career should really be defined by his prophetic technological foresight, but in reality it's a decidedly old fashioned ‘whodunit’ narration on one major hit, Dead Eyes Opened, that really grabbed the spotlight. 17 years after that single, during which time Ellard remained quiet, yet musically active, he has decided to end Severed Heads once and for all. “Seriously, 30 years is long enough. I mean… Jesus!” Ellard, who has often been quoted making anti-nostalgia diatribes, discusses his musical past self-effacingly, while his successes in the form of innovation are worn as honour badges. Now as he prepares his farewell shows - opening for new-wave innovator Gary Numan's Pleasure Principle Revisited tour - Tom explains, in some frustration, Severed Heads may be harder to kill than he had initially thought.

“Well we already put it to bed at the end of 2009 which was the actual 30 year mark.” He begins. That last Severed Heads show was performed at the Sydney Music festival with little fanfare. “Some people thought it was a bit rude of me to just shut it down without a proper farewell tour and so we decided we would drag it out just one more time and say our toodly-doodly’s.” The Gary Numan tour was in Tom’s mind an oddly perfect way to bring his band to a close, he explains. “I think it works having us and Gary Numan on the same bill because, although we were a generation after (Numan), he put out The Pleasure Principle album while we were still very much in the bedroom making noise nobody wanted to listen to, but at least we were operating in similar musical mediums.” He adds, “Gary and us both put out a record in 1979, but then again there’s a big difference between his top 40 album and whatever the hell we thought we were doing.” Tom’s set for the farewell tour will cover Severed Heads 30 years, however the audio-perfectionist he is, won’t allow Ellard to just plod through a vintage Severed Heads concert.

“I look at a band like Kraftwerk who just stopped dead creatively in 1990, and since then have toured the same old show, and I think ‘I would never want to do that’. Although we don’t play any new music, we are constantly updating how we play the songs live and improving on them.” Re-interpreting songs aside, the visual side to Severed Heads shows has remained integral since Tom’s very early interest in 3D video art and how it could be mixed live with the audio long before the technology made such displays cheap and easy. Sadly his style of 3D looped motion clips also spawned a thousand dodgy rave videos, but Tom’s rough, yet no-less impressive animations trail blazed non-performance music video in Australia.

“The promoter gave us a list of what he wanted us to play in these shows so I just said, right well we have to make new videos for these songs to use in the concerts because some of the songs are so old now and the original clips are pretty weak by today’s standards.” He laughs, “It’s fine though, it has given me an excuse to fix up some stuff that has always bothered me about how the videos looked. The one for Heart Of The Party for example could have been so much better if I had’ve had more time but they (the label - Volition) wanted it done quickly, so it ended up looking only half finished to me.” Through the now defunct Volition label, Severed Heads along with other notable dance acts Paul Mac, Single Gun Theory and Boxcar spearheaded a sizable underground movement counteracting the rock/grunge dominated early ‘90s. When the label folded in 1996, many of its discoveries where never to be heard from again, but many friendships formed within the label continue to this day. Tom discusses.

“An old friend of mine Stewart Lawler from Boxcar – who’s basically ‘the other guy’ in Severed Heads these days - will be joining me on stage for these shows.” He confirms, “I need somebody who can play the keyboard, you see. I can’t play a thing, but I do push a damn fine button, I think.” At Severed Heads inception, music in Tom’s mind was undeniably heading away from the traditional four-piece rock band. He would often lapse into heated arguments with his old band mates Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright over this very point and as a consequence, Ellard soon found himself the sole constant member. Without compromise, he was then free to create his often twisted, dark industrial tracks utilising a strange new device known as a ‘home computer’. “I had a home computer in 1977, and it just seemed like such a normal thing to have.” He recalls, “The whole idea of making music electronically was actually a lot more active in the late ‘70s than even now. People were much more interested then I think in its possibilities over and above what you could do with a guitar, because that medium had already been exhausted in many ways.” He reasons.

“It’s funny to put on a live show when you’re an electronic band, because you kind of have to redefine what a live show is.” He says continuing, “What Stewart and I decided was if we wanted it to kind of feel like a real live show, the potential for things to go wrong had to be there.” He laughs, “Its not very interesting watching a couple of blokes playing keyboards, but that leads us back to the whole 3D video thing.” In the 1980s, Tom painstakingly tried to sync his music clips on analogue video machines during the live shows, but the digital revolution has offered a seamless and simplified alternative for acts like Severed Heads, surely? “It only gets easier if you get better at what you do, so that rules me out.” He offers, self-mockingly. But Tom’s front hides a true DIY obsessive who excelled in drawing the most out of even basic analogue gear, sampling and early digital technology to great effect. As quaint as it all looks now, Tom made a memorable 1994 appearance on serious science TV program, Beyond 2000 which saw him declaring everyone in the future would buy stuff with cards and CD-Rom was poised to revolutionise music. So CD-Rom has been consigned to the dustbin of the multi-media museum, but he was half right. “I remember I said about card’s replacing cash and everyone around me was like, oh wow!” He laughs. “What I didn’t predict though is the kind of evil side to certain so-called advances, and how everyone would one day be conned into selling their privacy.” Ellard scoffs.

“One of the reasons I don’t wanna be in a band anymore is that at our peak time, we were kind of at the forefront of our little sector in music – with our video art and so on – but now, bands all just want to have an iPhone application as their contribution to things, and I find it a bit depressing.” Tom is adamant there will be no more Severed Heads music or activities after the Numan shows. In fact, if he had his way, the self-imposed ban would be extended to all musicians. “There’s no real need for any new albums. There’s plenty to listen to out there and in a way its kind of immoral for bands to keep putting out new music when you could already spend a lifetime trying to hear everything that’s available now.” He concludes, “Basically I think the world just doesn’t need anymore watered down Led Zeppelin cover bands.”


Severed Heads Heart Of The Party video