When the long-running British psychedelic-gospel institution Spiritualized unveiled the artwork for their long-awaited seventh album Sweet Heart Sweet Light, there were rumblings that — after years of seemingly loitering at the doorway to realms of consciousness most mortals will never reach — Jason Pierce had finally lost it. But like every piece of imagery associated with his band, Pierce (the creative force and only constant member of Spiritualized) had a clear vision for the hilariously baffling “Huh?” traffic sign that adorns his new one.
“I’ve seen artwork getting smaller and smaller. Sometimes people’s only connection with a piece of art is a tiny thumbnail on their iPlayer,” he told MTV Hive over tea. “I had that in mind when designing the sleeve, that it should work as a thumbnail. So that was considered when we were putting the artwork together.”
From glow-in-the-dark covers to elaborate packaging made to emulate medical pamphlets, to that weird face on the cover of Let It Come Down, Pierce has continually pushed to make his album packaging as special as his music. Along the way he’s faced resistance from record company gatekeepers and an internet-music culture that has untied the links between music as a listening experience and as a physical product. But he doesn’t let it stop him. “A while back I wanted to just sell the artwork. I figure if people were getting our records for free I would sell them our artwork for a dollar, whatever they cost to make. Or sell a blank disc in the artwork. Bootleg it yourself, but buy the artwork. Help us out a little bit. But the record company didn’t really go with that.’
A dollar would be a steal. Pierce recently went through the thought process behind the covers of each Spiritualized album, from their 1992 debut to Sweet Heart, and took several shots at jewel cases and the industry at large along the way.
Lazer Guided Melodies (1992)
“The artwork was done by Natty (Brooker), who I use to live with in Rugby [UK]. He used to wake up in the morning and start his day with mushrooms. Like days and days, he would have all the dried mushrooms under his bed and do these amazing drawings, and he kind of lost himself in his art. He’d done a couple of things for Spaceman 3, so when we did our first album I asked him if he’d do the artwork for that. I suppose when you start bands you involve everybody, as many people who want to get involved who aren’t pissed off that you’re going to be traveling beyond the town. So he did that, and then somebody at the label … if you’re taking a photograph for a toothpaste ad, somebody makes a model of the toothpaste to take the photo with. I’d always been in to artwork, but the idea that you can get the record company to pay to have this drawing made in to a three-dimensional image, it suddenly clicked with me that we didn’t have to settle for the given standards. My line was always ,‘We’re making beautiful music here. We shouldn’t be packaging it like the cheapest junk we possible can.’”
Pure Phase (1995)
“We’d made these objects for Lazer Guided Melodies, taken these beautiful photos of them … and then framed [them] behind the cheapest piece of plastic available, which is the top of your CD case. So with Pure Phase, I tried my best to redesign the box. The way it was done, to bring the cost down to anything reasonable, it had to be a large production run. So it wouldn’t be a special in the sense that you have your normal jewel case and then … I don’t know what the specials usually are. A thousand maybe? We would do 30,000 of them if we could get away with them to bring the cost down, but also to say, ‘This is the standard [edition], we’re not going to sell them for anymore. There’s not, ‘You can buy the normal issue or this at great cost,’ this is our normal issue.”
“Everybody loves glow in the dark. It’s the best thing known to man, isn’t it? We made a few mock-ups. We tried a few things, and when you’re doing that kind of thing it’s not just, ‘What can we do?’ You have to go in to the production of it and how it was made and how many pieces of plastic we had to mold for it. We got it so we could sell it for the same price as the jewel case, so nobody took the hit apart from me.”
Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997)
“I worked with a company in England doing the glow-in-dark box, and I’ve got more time than most so I sat for ages doing all of this, figuring out that we can injection-mold the tracklisting and all of this, and it won a big design award, and I was never told. So I asked the people record company if I could meet other companies that did similar things, and I met up with [Mark Farrow.] He came in and said he had always wanted to do a pill. And with that simple idea, I was away. The whole thing was going to mirror this pharmaceutical thing. Because I started talking about music as medicine, music as panacea. So we just ran with it, and the whole thing became more and more elaborate, it contained the paperwork you get with pharmaceuticals. The only place in England that can make those foil tops wrappers was the pharmaceuticals industry. They’re only ones with the machinery and copyright to do it. So the record was made alongside the medicines it was copying. We’ve got photos of people with their hairnets and white coats putting together these records. Again I wanted the whole run to be that, so the initial 30,000 maybe were in CDs that you push through the foil like a pill, but we couldn’t resist the opportunity to do a pack, so we did one where each track was on a CD. I think that was the first time we said, ‘Let’s do a special.’ The other edition was the normal one. I took the hit on the normal edition. They took it out of my royalties. The large edition, we sold it to fans at cost basically. Fifty dollars, I think. As soon as they walked out of the store with them they were $200. They were highly desirable things.”
Let It Come Down (2001)
“It’s sort of like I get an idea and I run with it. Don Brown makes these beautiful figures of his muse, his wife Yoko. And they’re all the same, these beautifully calm figures. We did this with Farrow also. I’d been reading a lot about psychology and just sciences in general, and one of the things I thought was amazing is that if you’re presented with an imprint of a face that goes inward, because you’re so used to seeing that from early stages that noses go outward, your brain can pull this thing out in to a three-dimensional thing the other way. So it was kind of like a low-grade hologram, if you like. And around that time more people started to do that sort of thing, people looking at holograms and specials. It sunk in that CD was going to be the format, but they still smacked of ideas. They weren’t integral to what was going on. Just: ‘Here’s your list of specials.’ It seemed like nobody was …they weren’t getting any better.”
Amazing Grace (2002)
“Everything became like ‘What’s the special?’ We were becoming known for this thing, and that wasn’t the intent. We weren’t trying to make it more elaborate or more outlandish or more expensive. With Amazing Grace it was like, ‘We’ve done this. I don’t want to be known for doing sleeves like they’re a thing unto themselves.’ The design should be really important. We’d already dispensed with things like barcode and all the crap that goes with them, and these archaic idea like the name of the band has to be on top, a lot of ideas that were hangovers from vinyl. And we stood by it, it wasn’t like we gave in.”
Songs in A&E (2008)
“I think again it’s beautiful artwork and I think it really works, but with that one we almost stepped in to this … we did a book, which was a … what’s the word? … it was a given special. People had already done books, those kinds of things. It’s where I really started to take my foot off the accelerator with all of this. I think the book is really beautiful, and there was talk all the way through this to put lyrics in to this, and I think putting lyrics in to a book is the best way of presenting it, but the idea that you do your cheap sleeve and then have a special edition, that’s the one time that I stepped in to that world. We fell in with the standard way that you do this. By doing that, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I don’t want to make a record and put it in a jewel box and then ask people to pay more for a limited edition that is essentially the same music. There’s no difference between the music, its just asking people to pay for a bit more paper product. It was the one time I wasn’t comfortable with what we were doing, because it wasn’t the same. And that was never the intention. I kind of went that way and found out that wasn’t what we were about.”
Sweet Heart Sweet Light (2012)
“The idea is to not do what we did with A&E. What I’m trying to do at the moment is go back to our original intent, which is that the standard issue, the one that everybody gets and is available to everybody, is beautiful. It’s a simple concept. Why isn’t everybody doing that? Also, the trend now is kind of, in a way, more obscene. You’re still producing the same junk product that we always produced, but you’re making the standard the special. ‘We’ve got it in a wooden box.’ ‘Fuck you, we’ve got it in a wooden box made of oak.’ ‘We’ve got fucking mahogany trim.’ It’s like some kind of fucking hustle. And like I said way back when we started, it wasn’t about how much more we could charge for these. So we’re working on the moment just trying to make a CD box that is beautiful and fits what we’re doing. And that is it. That’s what you buy. They’re all going to be the same, we’re not going to put them in the jewel case. And that’s the plan, exactly where we started.”
“The new one is a box. When you’re asked to specials by the record labels, they bring in a whole table, like a market store. ‘These are the ones you can choose from.’ Interestingly, my little pill and the glow in the dark box and the head that is in reverse relief are not amongst the standard issues. But that’s what the game is. You make your CD, you do any given one of these and you choose your price. It’s kind of based a little bit around one of those standard issue boxes, but I’m going to take the hit and make it as good and beautiful as we can. I feel like I’m losing the battle.”
Spiritualized’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light is available now via Fat Possum.