The sleeve tells you so much about the process. It’s a picture of a lone figure. Suited up and immersed in interplanetary protective gear, he walks out across unmapped terrain. In the distance, a mountain range towers over the roughly gridded sand he’s striding. This is very much a solo mission – giant steps into the unknown. Inside the helmet, there’s all the uncertainty and madness that such a pursuit brings.
That sleeve (designed, as ever, with Mark Farrow), comes wrapped around And Nothing Hurt - Spiritualized’s eighth album, the follow up to 2012’s Sweet Heart, Sweet Light. From the opening lullaby of A Perfect Miracle through to the fading Morse Code at the close of Sail on Through, it painstakingly wraps layer upon layer of gloriously transcendent sound together to create a mesmerizing and cinematic collection of songs.
There are points – the thunderous climax of On the Sunshine; the spectral waltz of The Prize; the towering guitar solo on I’m Your Man – where the waves of blissful noise are almost overwhelming, where one can imagine the studio’s speakers vibrating themselves off of the walls. Which is an incredible feat when you discover that the album was conceived and recorded almost entirely by one man – Jason Pierce, AKA J.Spaceman - in an upstairs room in his east London home. Sat in an edit suite in Whitechapel a month or so after finishing recording, Jason talks honestly about the painstaking, frustrating process of creating And Nothing Hurt.
“Making this record on my own sent me more mad than anything I’ve done before. We’d been playing these big shows and I really wanted to capture that sound we were making but, without the funds to do, I had to find a way to work within the constraints of what money I had. So I bought a laptop and made it all in a little room in my house.”
Whereas bedroom recording is commonplace for a generation of musicians who’ve grown up with horizon-expanding tech, Spiritualized have long used the studio as they would an extra member of the band – as a vital building block in the construction of some of the most cherished records of the modern era. This time would be very different. With no grounding in digital recording, Jason had to learn everything from scratch.
“The biggest thing for me was to try to make it sound like a studio session. There are bits that I went to a studio to record – mainly drums and percussion. I mean, there’s no way I’m going to get timpani up my stairs. When I came to terms with how I was going to make the record, I assumed it was going to sound like Lee Perry - all flying in from different angles; all extraordinary and not hi-tech in construction. But I was new to it all, I didn’t have all the short cuts people use when they’re making records – I just sat there for weeks… for months… moving every level up bit by bit just to try to get the sounds right.”
For the listener, the nine tracks on And Nothing Hurt effortlessly replicate the scale and power of Spiritualized’s previous releases, whether it’s the sonic blowback of On the Sunshine, the last dime in the jukebox love letter of Let’s Dance or the swell of an imaginary orchestra that seems to lift Damaged towards the heavens as it plays out.
“With a bit of trial and lot of error, I found ways of doing something that’s quite simple, if you’ve got the resources. I spent two weeks listening to classical records and strumming the chord that I wanted on my guitar. When I found something to match what I wanted, I’d sample that bit and go for the next chord and try to match that. It took weeks, trying to put together and layer convincing string sounds. But, if I’m honest, all I wanted was for someone to come and play the part and bring their own thing to the record.”
One of the biggest influences on the final sound of the record was a series of shows played in 2016 celebrating the (near) 20th anniversary of the band’s peerless 1997 release Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Those shows, played with a fifteen-piece orchestra and a gospel choir, forced Jason to revisit songs that he’d already been working on for years.
“Part of the reason for doing those gigs was to inform the songs I’d been working on. Trying to sing convincingly in a little room at home was really difficult. The big shows helped remind myself what it’s like to sing with that kind of backing. I can’t really describe it… when you’re singing with a choir behind you and there’s all this noise coming off the stage, you sing things very differently to how you would A) in a studio or B) sitting on your bed at home recording into a laptop.”
Lyrically, And Nothing Hurt touches on thoughts of passing time and acceptance of one’s age – never more beautifully than on Let’s Dance (‘The hour is getting late, they’re putting all the chairs away / they’ve got Big Star on the radio, they’ll let us stay’).
“I didn’t want to be fighting against my age; it’s very much about acceptance. And not with any dissatisfaction either – I’m not raging against the inevitable. I spent a lot of time thinking about the way that the songs should hold together, trying to make the narratives make sense rather than just throwing together a couple of lines that rhymed. Let’s Dance was very much a ‘last orders’ kind of song, about grasping at the finality of that moment.”
During the making of And Nothing Hurt, Jason kept returning to the thought that this would be the last Spiritualized record – interviews over the last couple of years made it clear that the frustration of trying to replicate the sounds in his head whilst sat on his bed were proving too much. With the record finally finished and a new UK label (Bella Union – Fat Possum continue to release Spiritualized records in the States), does he feel the same way now?
“I was quite sincere about that and I still feel like it might be the case. It was such hard work. I found myself going crazy for so long. It’s not like there’s no coming back, I’m fine now… it’s just such a hard thing to do, to make a record like this on your own. It’s almost as if, if I’m not pushing myself to point of madness, it’s not going to be right. And I know it’s going to be like that every time. What’s the definition of madness? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I kind of do that. I think the biggest goal is to make something that’s worthy of all that time and effort. And the more time and effort, the bigger the goal. I knew I had to make something that was good enough that it should be made. And a massive positive about making the record is that we get to play it live. That’s always the most joyous thing; everyone gets to contribute to the sound, this amazing thing that seems to come right through the roof.”
If the last set of Spiritualized gigs helped set the course for how And Nothing Hurt now sounds – alternately intimate, hypnotic, cyclonic and downright spiritual - maybe… just maybe… this next set will encourage Jason to flip open the laptop to press record again. Here’s hoping.