Type on the cover is in a surgical green with the ® in the Spiritualized logo changed to a +. Despite the references, most of the album was written before Pierce became ill. “Presenting the album as a document of my illness is a slight problem as that isn’t strictly the case,” he says, “but it’s more hinged around the pun of the title, which is too good not to use. I still get people asking me if all the tracks are in the key of A and E though.” Concept, design, direction: Farrow/Spaceman. Photography: John Ross
CR: How did you first start to work together?
JP: Before I worked with Farrow, I did an album called Pure Phase. Even then I wanted to try and get away from the CD jewel case. It was a cheap product in an ill-designed box, the plastic cracked, the spindles broke. People were spending decent money on design but they were putting it behind the cheapest bit of plastic known to man: it seemed like the music wasn’t important. I’d seen Mark’s work for the Pet Shop Boys and thought it was beautiful. It fitted what needed to be done in order to get the music packaged and onto a rack, but it managed to do something different with it.
MF: In the first meeting you said that “music is medicine for the soul” and the idea came from there – that’s the way I remember it.
JP: It was a crazy idea that didn’t fit anyone’s notion of how much to spend on a cover but there was a girl called Juliet Howells at [record label] BMG and she supported it.
MF: There was definitely a spirit around then that you’d find difficult to cultivate now: they were happy to divert some of the money away from the spending on advertising to the packaging…
JP: They also tapped me for it [Pierce ended up part funding the packaging]. Spending more eats into profits but music’s too important to package as a throwaway thing, even though that’s what much of it is. If you make something that’s beautiful and with passion, it has value and it retains that value, and not in a monetary sense…. After Ladies And Gentlemen I had it put in my next contract that we have to work with Farrow and that there has to be a decent spend on the packaging.
MF: Clients that think like that are the ones you actively seek out – that’s why we’ve produced the work we have because Jason’s bothered about it. Ultimately it’s much easier for Jason to push things with the label and life becomes much easier for us … but [to Pierce] you enjoy that process in the same way that you enjoy making music, you involve yourself much more in that than most clients of a design company would, to a fucking annoying degree – that’s not true actually – but you make your music in that way don’t you?
JP: I think you learn more. I don’t mind pursuing blind alleys that have a gem at the end, something that you can take out of it.
CR: So where are the sources of friction, where do you tend to disagree?
JP: I don’t know that there are a lot. Right from way back the work was all about purity and accuracy and simplicity.
MF: So on that level we’re obviously completely on the same page.
JP: There are no bits that are superfluous, with any of it. If anything the problems are when we have to use the products that are already made [such as jewel cases].
CR: But now there is a seemingly inevitable shift towards downloads, is there a future for great music packaging?
MF: We don’t actively pursue music work any more. It’s very difficult to do things in music that are special now, there’s no money being spent on fees or production and I only see it declining. Personally I can see a point where the only way to get music is to download it: there are 12 year-olds out there who don’t see why music should come in packaging.
JP: But downloads aren’t as good quality. Maybe in the mainstream it will go like that but there are labels now that are doing really beautiful packaging. I’ve been raving about a label called Mississippi Records. All its sleeves are handmade: sometimes they even stick their artwork over old sleeves from other records. You can see that somebody’s put some work and love into doing them. I don’t know anybody that downloads music, or if they do they tend to do it while they are waiting for the real thing to arrive, and I find that most kids that I know are buying records, they’re buying vinyl, but the business of record companies is motivated by profit. They got lucky with CDs. The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, you name it, they could sell the whole catalogue again to people who already had it, so their profits went up a thousand fold. Now they’re not making that kind of profit everybody is saying the future of music is looking desperate but no it’s not, it’s looking exactly like it was before. Maybe you’re not selling 200,000 seven-inch singles in a week anymore but people are still buying music…. The packaging is the first point of contact with anybody who doesn’t know what your album is about so, in an odd way, it’s as important as the content.
MF: It’s the presentation of the content: it’s nice of you to say so but it’s not as important as the content.
JP: But I don’t come in here thinking it’s not.
MF: To you personally the way your album is packaged is as important as the album, but you’re rare in thinking that.
JP: It’s like owning a copy of a book: would you rather own a William Faulkner that’s in its original dust jacket by whoever designed it at that period of time and thought that was the way that this thing should be presented or some kind of modern retake? I loathe re-editions where they redesign the sleeves to make them more contemporary because they are part of the period within which the work was presented. They are as much about where you are and what you’re doing as the content.
CR: Looking back on the body of work that you have done together, is there one that you are less happy with than the others, one that didn’t work?
MF: I could honestly say that there’s not one that I’m unhappy with and I can’t say that about anything else I’ve done. Even with the compilation albums we did something relatively special. You’re just battling against someone in a production department who doesn’t give a fuck, who’s just going “no, you can’t do that”, so it’s a different battleground each time if you like.
JP: This is a non-committal answer but the record business has got a huge time delay on it so when you present the record to someboody, what you’re really saying is that I had some thoughts I wanted to put down about two years ago and here they are now, so it’s really hard to get perspective on things.
I think they’re all absolutely amazing in their own right and yet people really loved Ladies and Gentlemen. Perhaps because it was picked up so widely in the press it got pulled out from the rest as if to say ‘this is the good one’. It’s great but it’s no better than Amazing Grace which is more simple and more direct, more evocative.
CR: So of all the Spiritualized album sleeves, which one is your favourite?
JP: Pure Phase.
MF: Thanks Jason. You should put that in, it’d be a good last sentence.
This article is featured in the May issue of Creative Review, out on 24 April. Spiritualized’s new album, Songs in A&E is released on 26 May on Universal Records