Our Lady Peace Look Back at 'Spiritual Machines' a Decade Later

by Colin McGuire

23 December 2010

Our Lady Peace 

"We’ve never let ourselves look back at something."

“I’ve been in this band for 15 years now,” he says sternly. “And until now, we’ve never let ourselves look back at something. We’ve never wanted to make Spiritual part two, or Clumsy part two. There were some great moments on that record. And despite all the setbacks or obstacles, there are some really wonderful moments. It’s weird to look back, but it’s certainly up there. Spiritual Machines is a pretty complete work.”

Though it may indeed have been a complete work and though there is clearly a faction of the group’s fans that believe it’s the band’s best, that wasn’t enough to impact record sales. In addition to it being the album that debuted the lowest the band had ever seen on Billboard’s charts, Spiritual Machines also sold the least amount of copies in both Canada and the United States in the group’s history to that point, gaining Platinum status only twice in Canada while not even breaking the Gold barrier in America.

As if that wasn’t enough, the album was the band’s first to not provide a song that appeared in the singles charts north of the border, while featuring only one that cracked America’s charts when “Life” found its way to the Alt Rock list, peaking at No. 27. These numbers are particularly important because of the success the band was enjoying prior to the release of Spiritual Machines. Both 1999’s Happiness…Is Not A Fish That You Can Catch and 1997’s Clumsy eventually wound up as the No. 1 record in Canada, with Happiness topping out at No. 69 in the U.S. and Clumsy peaking at No. 76 in America.

That said, the release was not always deemed a failure by music critics at the time. In March of 2001, Eden Miller of PopMatters wrote that “The spoken word excerpts from author/inventor Ray Kurzweil give Spiritual Machines an air of arrogance, as if Our Lady Peace wants everyone to know just how significant this recording is. All of this would be irritating if Our Lady Peace didn’t manage to be so good,” adding that the album’s lyrics are “still custom made for mainstream modern rock listeners,” and “even in their weaker moments, they’re pushing themselves farther than most.” Mackenzie Wilson of the All Music Guide noted that with Spiritual Machines, the group proved it “can still deliver pinch-hitting licks and the brash attitude they did when they first formed in 1993, but they are a little older and a little wiser,” going on to call the effort “a bold move.”

A bold move, indeed. So bold, in fact, that as a result of all the work put into the release, it left the band at a crossroads with its guitarist, its future, its sound, and its fans. Now, with the damage done, and the dust settled after what would prove to be one of the most difficult times the group would ever see, one would have to ask if such a bold move was worth it. And unfortunately for the four members of Our Lady Peace, the answer to that question would only be found in due time.

The impact the release of Spiritual Machines had on the legacy of Our Lady Peace is simply immeasurable. Not only was it the final album to feature art model Saul Fox on the cover, but it marked the end of Turner’s tenure in the group. The release, in and of itself, has proven to be at the epicenter of the sentiment amongst uber-fans that splits the faction into two groups: The fans who liked the band before Spiritual Machines, and the fans who liked the band after Gravity, Our Lady Peace’s 2002 follow-up to Spiritual Machines.

Perhaps complicating things even more is the reality that Gravity produced quite possibly the band’s most popular hit, “Somewhere Out There.”  A ballad-like seemingly sentimental song, the track broke the band in America once again, allowing the group to play to crowds they were more accustomed to seeing north of the United States. “Innocent,” the single succeeding “Somewhere Out There,” did unexpectedly well on the Modern Rock charts as well, later being covered by eventual American Idol winner David Cook during a season of the popular television show.

One group of fans scoffed at the harder, heavier sound of Gravity, dismissing the record as a sell-out tactic, especially considering the success and softness of its lead single. At a time when watered-down, copy cat acts such as Three Doors Down and Nickelback were burning up the charts, long-standing OLP fans were convinced the band was doing its best to cash in on what had become the new modern rock standard: Crunchy, layered guitars; warm, sparkly production; and simplistic, uninteresting chord progressions. A clear and sudden change from the experimental, art-rock vibe of Spiritual Machines, Gravity not only disappointed a section of Our Lady Peace’s fans, but it drove them away from the group altogether, disappointed and unhappy.

The change in sound was a conscious decision made by the band, heavily influenced by super producer Bob Rock, who lent a hand in the Gravity sessions. Maida remembers the sessions for Gravity and the idea behind the follow-up to what some consider his band’s best effort.

“We were definitely going on divergent paths with what we expected and what Mike was bringing,” Maida says about initially going in to the studio to record Gravity. “And everything was a little distorted that way. That really came to ahead when went to Maui to record the next record with Bob. In the middle of that record, we sat down and said, ‘You know what—we are starting to rehash a lot of the same ideas that we’ve done in the past, and that’s usually a signal to move on.’ So even though I think the record [Spiritual Machines] is really great and experimental, I think creatively, we were starting to hit that wall in the format that we were working with.

“We needed to make a change emotionally, with where we were at,” Maida continues. “Steve was one of them, and Bob was another. None of us were huge Metallica fans, but we liked Bob. We met with a bunch of producers and liked Bob. We flew to Maui and spent three or four days with Bob and had a great time. It was a very natural, organic experience with him and we thought, ‘Let’s try this with him.’ We definitely went with him and went down his road, and his road is definitely a little bit tougher and more polished. His thing is the big guitar sound. The whole point in making the change was to have someone who was going to essentially take this band to a higher level.”

Insert Steve Mazur, the band’s current guitar player who joined Our Lady Peace during the Gravity sessions, replacing Turner. Coming into the group, the Detroit native admits that he didn’t want to emulate Turner’s playing exactly. He knew he was brought in to put his stamp on the group, and he was more than willing to take the task head on, even if that meant a change in direction for the group was imperative.

But even though he acknowledges that change is more visible in the gap between Spiritual Machines and Gravity, the guitarist is quick to point out that Rock had more to do with the heavier sound than anyone else.

“Honestly, I met up with these guys when the Gravity record was at least three quarters done,” Mazur says when reflecting on the time he came into the band. “That’s when I met these guys. I played on a few songs on that record, and I’d say that’s the biggest shift style wise—from Spiritual Machines to Gravity. But how much I had to do with that change wasn’t a ton. That huge shift was more of what came from these guys working with Bob.”

As it turned out, that change wasn’t all the band hoped it would be. After the release of Gravity, Our Lady Peace turned back to Rock for help on Healthy in Paranoid Times, Our Lady Peace’s sixth record, and, without any doubt, the group’s most tumultuous. Showing resistance toward the heavier sound that the super producer added to Gravity, Maida now explains the conflict that occurred between the band and the producer as something that nearly tore the band to pieces. And if you don’t believe him, the rest of the band is quick to back that up.

“There wasn’t any intentional conflict,” Coutts now says when asked about the Healthy in Paranoid Times sessions. “It was just that at some point, I think we got lost. We were all in slightly unfamiliar territory.”

“Everybody was getting blamed for everything,” Taggart recalls. “It’s like if a fire starts and everybody had matches. Everybody knows they had a part in it. Now, let’s just forget about it and move on. It wasn’t that everyone wasn’t doing their job—it was just that the focus was off.”

“There were a lot of different things going on,” Mazur points out. “Everybody made that record possible, but everybody created problems in that record. It was no one person. It was just a hard time. You don’t ever want to make the same record over and over again, but we learned from it. There were still great moments on Healthy in Paranoid Times. Bob helped me as much as he may have frustrated me. That’s what a good producer does, though.”

Persevering through those sessions a mere five years after having to endure the troubles the Spiritual Machines sessions brought about only made the band stronger. Now, with the band’s latest release, Burn Burn, behind them, the sentiment throughout the group is much lighter than ever before. Each member agrees that getting back in the studio is something they can’t wait to do, and even though Madia plans a solo release sometime later this year, the singer also adds that a new Our Lady Peace album should be written and recorded by the end of this year as well.

According to Taggart, a big reason for the turnaround is the group’s departure from major labels. Last year’s Burn Burn was released on Coalition Entertainment, a management company that helps bands release their material independently. The band’s shortest album [it clocks in around 38 minutes], Burn Burn is what Mazur calls his first true “stamp on the band,” and showcases the group in a much more organized state, a state that Taggart claims is indicative of where the band as a whole is these days.

“We like the way we do business now,” Taggart explains when asked about the future of the band. “The same idea goes for making our last record and the way we are going to do our next one. We inspire each other by writing riffs and songs. It’s like we’ve never been this happy. We look a year in advance and think, ‘OK, we are going to do this,’ and have an actual cycle while knowing we have fans and can play these venues. It’s just very organized and there’s just no reason why we can’t keep making music forever this way because everybody’s enjoying it still. The only reason we wouldn’t keep making music together would be if we don’t get along anymore, and we’ve always respected each other and done this because we like playing music with each other. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything else.”

“It sounds kind of cliché, but it’s been like a rebirth for us,” Maida says about where the band is at currently. “We’ve already worked on stuff and we have total freedom to do what we want. It’s really great.”

“All of us on our own examined what made Healthy in Paranoid Times difficult, and the way we made Burn Burn,” Mazur adds. “The way we made Healthy In Paranoid Times wasn’t a bad way. The way we made Burn Burn, it was a different way – we had a great and inspiring time with the writing and recording of Burn Burn. We want to make the next record the same way.”

And speaking of that new record, would it be possible for the band to ever try and delve back into the world of concept albums to try and tackle yet another piece of high-brow literature? Well, that depends on who you ask, really.

“To make an album like Spiritual Machines in 2010 might be a bit of a death sentence,” Mazur says. “But it would be great to take a stab at another thing like that. It’s hard enough to get the idea across to kids these days to buy a whole record. Who knows, though? Maybe the album thing will come back and be supported a little more.”

“Right now, it’s kind of a scary time for records. A lot of bands aren’t making them right now,” Taggart quips. “It’s hard to get kids to listen to 11 songs in a row without losing their minds. There’s an identity crisis now with bands. They’re going by the iPod so fast. To think that you’re going to stick around for more than three songs is insane. Even the Beatles get rushed by.

“But there’s no reason why a concept idea can’t come across,” the drummer asserts. “Weather it be short or whatever, I think, hopefully the album comes back at some point because with performance, people come in and they don’t want to leave after five minutes. People are still enjoying an hour or two of music. So I think it will probably come back in some way because people who watch movies, their attention span isn’t that cracked. But right now, the way you get music, and you hear it, it’s almost impossible to think that people will get it. They don’t market albums anymore. It’s just like, iTunes, good luck. I kind of like the idea of a concept EP. Instead of a double album, have it be like five songs. I mean, why not?”

Madia, on the other hand, doesn’t see the future as being as bleak as Mazur and Taggart.

“I totally disagree with that,” he says when told about how impossible his band’s drummer and guitarist believe it would be to make an album like Spiritual Machines in today’s fickle music world. “I think that’s what makes it more inviting to do something like that. Because if your record is just a collection of songs, it’s really easy just to pick and pull what you want. If you view a record more as a conceptual piece, and that it should be heard as one, then, you know, for a casual music listener, that’s when you might get that chance to sit down for 45 minutes and listen to the whole piece. I think that’s maybe some of the inventiveness that’s been lost in music within the last little while. And it’s helped turn the music business into just a singles business.”

“(You can do it) If your idea is strong enough,” Coutts adds. “If some of your songs are individually strong enough and can stand outside the concept record. I mean, you can listen to something like The Wall as a concept record or not.”

Regardless of whether Our Lady Peace decides to make another concept album sometime in the future or not, one thing still remains certain about the time they already did: It changed the face of the band forever. And whether you fall into the category of fans who loved the band before and during the Spiritual Machines era, or the category of fans who merely found them as a result of the success of “Somewhere Out There” and Gravity, you can’t deny that Spiritual Machines marks the biggest turning point in one of Canada’s biggest rock bands of the last two decades.

Though to look forward, one must always look back. And looking back for each member who was involved in the Spiritual Machines sessions means something different for everyone involved.

“It’s eye opening,” Maida says about listening back to the record as a whole. “Some of the vocals I did, it seems like I never stop singing. I like the whole concept of it all and that it actually worked. I know we didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now, playing it back in full, it’s amazing and I’m very proud of it.”

“We couldn’t play any of it now if we didn’t have Steve,” Coutts notes. “Spiritual Machines was made with five members and it was played with five members. Without Steve, we’d have to add an extra guy.”

The importance of Mazur, Coutts adds, doesn’t diminish the importance of Turner and his influence on the album.

“I don’t wish Mike any ill-will at all,” the bass player says with a tone of sincerity that is tempered with a bit of defensiveness. “I wish the best for him, and I hope he’s happy. But I’m glad about where we are today.”

Even Mazur, who wasn’t associated with the band until after Spiritual Machines was written, recorded and toured, has been able to notice the importance and significance the record has within the band’s cult of fans.

“It’s interesting with Clumsy and Spiritual Machines because the audience is split in two,” he explains. “With Clumsy, there are a lot of people who grew up on that record. And whenever we play songs from Spiritual Machines, those nights have a lot of diehard OLP fans. Like that‘s their record.”

All of that said, it may be Taggart who sums up the band’s landmark album the best.

“We’re playing better as a band obviously than 12 years ago,” he begins with a bit of apprehension. “It’s light years in terms of communication and how to explain dynamics without having to fight for your space on stage. All of those things are just the most important things about performance and being a performing artist. Spiritual Machines is nostalgic.”

Then, with a smile beaming off his skinny, weathered face, he adds one more line as though he is finally struck by the gravity of how important Spiritual Machines is to the legacy of his band. And it’s a line that couldn’t have summed up the entire process any better, a line with only a miniscule amount of words. A line as poignant as ever.

“It’s our underdog,” he says smiling. “That’s our underdog, for sure.”

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