Our Lady Peace Look Back at 'Spiritual Machines' a Decade Later
The impact the release of Spiritual Machines had on the legacy of Our Lady Peace is simply immeasurable. PopMatters talks with the band ten years on about the difficult birth and curious life of their high-concept masterpiece.
Sitting in a chair on the second floor of the Riviera Theatre, an elegant, old-fashioned building minutes north of Buffalo, New York, Duncan Coutts, bass player for Canadian rock outfit Our Lady Peace, takes a few seconds to gather his thoughts before admitting to something even his band’s biggest fans may not know.
The topic of conversation doesn’t concern a run-of-the-mill matter. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Over 15 years of touring, nine records released (including a best of collection and a live release), and millions of units moved, to many listeners, only one moment in his band’s history overshadows all the others. That moment has nothing to do with arena tours, opening slots for Van Halen, award-winning music videos or how many times an act can go platinum. Nope. Nothing to do with the various charities the members of the band have been involved with, or the time working with one of rock music’s legendary producers, Bob Rock. It has nothing to do with any of that.
This time, the topic at hand is quite possibly the band’s most critically acclaimed effort, Spiritual Machines, and the time that surrounded the making of that record, 10 years ago. The album, the band’s fourth, will forever be linked with Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, a 1999 over-your-head text that tackles the notion of artificial intelligence from most every angle, if for no other reason than the six spoken word tracks that feature the author citing scriptures from his very own literature scattered in between songs. Most die-hard Our Lady Peace fans argue the album’s place not only in the band’s history, but in the history of post-grunge art-rock, citing the record as not only the band’s best to date, but without any doubt the most influential piece of art the quartet has ever undertaken.
And that’s why Coutts is taking his time. He knows what he’s about to say may come as a shock to most and a crime to some.
“Fifty percent of the record was based on the book, and 50 percent was really more human experience than anything,” the goateed bass player says, his long thinning hair spattering back and forth like it can’t decide which part of his head it wants to take up. “It ended up being a concept record, but it certainly didn’t start that way.”
So, how did it start? Until now, it has been widely reported very simply that then guitar player Mike Turner had begun reading Kurzweil’s book, loved it, brought it to the rest of the band, suggested writing a record around it, and before anyone could even utter the word “technology,” the project had been put into motion, destined to bring a wave of intelligence to the oftentimes juvenile world of rock and roll. While somewhat factual, that scenario, according to the band’s lead singer Raine Maida, wasn’t entirely how the legend of Spiritual Machines originated.
“Lyrically, it was what really tied the album together,” Maida says in regards to what significance the book played while figuring out the nucleus of the record. “We all agreed that the book was going to be the centerpiece of the record, and then it all kind of filtered down.”
“Some songs had definitely been written before the book became incorporated,” Coutts points out. “We had ‘Life’ before the book came along. ‘If You Believe.’ I think ‘Are You Sad?’ was one of those as well.”
Both Coutts and drummer Jeremy Taggart were admittedly apprehensive about tying the book into a record the band had already felt was completed. Noticing there was something changing within the intricacies of the group, Taggart now looks back on how the book became “frosting” on an already-finished project.
“The book came around the last two weeks, and definitely affected the lyrics,” Taggart says. “But with the songs, (the book) added a nice frosting to that record. The record was pretty much as it was. In the big picture, that record was still songs. For people to think that without the book it doesn’t make any sense, that’s crazy. If the book didn’t come in the last month, the record would have been very similar (to Happiness Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch, the band’s third release), but with a completely different idea. But it really conceptualized the mindset. It’s funny how people market a record, you know, with the book, but (in the end) the songs are really the songs.
“It was toward the end of the record, and I knew that it was going to really change the face of what we had,” Taggart continues. “Before the book, it was like we had all these songs and it was a record. Then, we add the book, and then it was like the record became the book.”
When asked about his initial resistance, the drummer quickly acknowledges the depth of the literature and the detachment he felt incorporating The Age of Spiritual Machines might create with the band’s fans. Half-jokingly, Taggart, the youngest member of the band, explains how difficult it was to fully grasp the meaning behind Kurzweil’s book, and the complicated nature of the arguments the author presented.
“I was like, ‘You guys read this book, right?’” Taggart says in a youthful manner, his face opening up as he begins to run his hands through his curly hair now pulled back into a ponytail. “It’s not exactly The Far Side. I remember saying that people were going to look at it, throw it on the ground, and go, what the hell is going on here, because it was like physics. That’s why I was slightly apprehensive. We liked the idea, but to me, it’s still a book about how this guy wants to live forever.”
All things considered, Taggart’s trepidation was the least of the band’s concerns.
As the beginning of Spiritual Machines came closer and the nucleus of songs that would later be cut for the album began originating, the band was feeling uneasy about where it was going. Utilizing touring member Jamie Edwards to the fullest, the band had seemingly expanded to a five-member act by default. Three full-length releases into their career and some members in Our Lady Peace felt as though the band was hitting a wall. Going into the studio to begin the recording process, there were many unsettling feelings circling within the group.
“We were figuring out that it was kind of the beginning of the end for Mike only because we were definitely going on divergent paths with what we expected from a guitar player and what Mike was bringing,” Maida explains. “Jamie was kind of filling in the blanks.”
Coutts credits the band getting through those sessions leading up to the Spiritual Machines album to the versatility of Edwards. Without the pseudo fifth member, the bass player points out, the band’s fourth album may have never been possible.
“It was a different time for us,” Coutts says about the days before going to record the album. “Jamie Edwards is a phenomenal musician. He was around during the recording of Clumsy, but he was around and definitely very active in the recording of Spiritual Machines. That was different. The songwriting process, I think, was a little more isolated, too.”
Taggart, on the other hand, opines a different tone toward those last few days before beginning the album-making process.
“People don’t realize that at that point, Jamie Edwards was a big part of this band,” Taggart recounts. “He’s an amazing guitar player, and he played on the record. People don’t know that he had a lot to do with that stuff. He was very influential. We had him in all our writing sessions. It was a very creative time that was cool because we were all in a room, kind of working together.”
After his dark eyes look away quickly to the right and back to left like ping pong balls, Taggart continues with a sense of levity so sincere, it becomes palpable.
“That record, for sure, was kind of hard to make,” he says, the volume of his now-monotone voice decreasing. “It was the hardest record in terms of with us and Arnold (Lanni, the band’s producer for the first four albums). They (Edwards and Lanni) were all kind of going their separate ways, and that was kind of the beginning of us having a situation between us and Mike. When that started – and I don’t even know when or how early it started, but definitely by the time of Spiritual Machines – the gap was clear. So it wasn’t the most fun making that record, but we got what we got.”
Quite possibly the most remarkable thing about the making of Spiritual Machines is the fact that the album was actually completed. During the recording process, two band members suffered near-death experiences, further dramatizing the story behind what would arguably become the most defining album of Our Lady Peace’s career. Both instances were admittedly frightening, and both put the future of the group in doubt.
It began with Taggart. During the album’s sessions, the drummer was walking his dog in Toronto when he was mugged, reportedly leaving him with injuries to his ankle, knee and hand.
“I got mugged and I couldn’t do the tracks,” Taggart now says in a quieter tone when asked about the recording sessions for Spiritual Machines. “I called a friend of mine, John Richardson, who was playing in a band called Change of Heart at the time, and I asked him about Matt Cameron because Pearl Jam was on tour at the time, and I just realized that Matt was coming through, so I asked John to help me out.”
Having already written the drum parts for the two songs left in question -- “Right Behind You (Mafia)” and “Are You Sad?” -- Taggart points out the difference between the two percussionists on record when listening back.
“I called Matt and said ‘Hey, man. If you’re around, what are you doing this afternoon and Thursday?’” the drummer recalls. “He came over, did both of those songs in three hours, and it was great to have him play. The way our songs are, especially for the drums, I know I like things lining up with the vocal. When the parts are lined up with the vocal, it’s kind of impossible not to play that. Matt’s obviously a great drummer, so I think the other guys didn’t have a problem. Matt really put his stamp on those songs. It sounds like him. He added his flavor for sure. To me, it sounds like Matt 100 percent.
“It was great to have him play because with having Elvin Jones play on the record before [1999’s Happiness …Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch], it was kind of cool to start having a collection of really cool drummers on your body of work,” Taggart says. “In the ‘60s, that’s kind of the way it was. Drummers would just go on to other dude’s records, and it was fine.”
The second hurdle the group had to clear came when Coutts was dealt a serious health scare. During the latter stages of the Spiritual Machines process, doctors found a tumor in Coutts’ pancreas. Knowing that news of that magnitude usually means the worst, the bass player dropped off most of the initial touring schedule backing the album. “Tumors of the pancreas are usually 90 percent bad news, and results are never good,” Maida told Launch in 2001.
Looking back now, Coutts recalls the early stages of his illness while being in the studio during the recording process.
“I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it was during the recording of that record (that he became ill),” Coutts remembers. “I had to excuse myself for hours and lie on the couch for hours at a time because I just couldn’t move. We ended up shooting the video for ‘Life’ and ‘Mafia’ on the same night, and I had surgery the next morning at 6 a.m. So that was interesting.”
Fortunately for Coutts, the band, and the record, the Toronto resident’s surgery was deemed a success, and he was able to return to Our Lady Peace with his health intact. As a result of overcoming the near-cancer scare, Coutts believes the recording process surrounding Spiritual Machines may have been the time he has seen his band grow the most.
“I look back at it differently because of the growth of the band,” he says after a long pause when asked about his memories of the recording process. “That was the first time Raine had a co-production credit. I don’t know if the songwriting process was harder, but it was different. Raine was bringing in more complete ideas at that point.”
And chances are most of those ideas weren’t inspired by anything other than the life experiences Maida had called upon when writing lyrics to the record. When asked about a quote he gave when the album initially hit record stores -- “I believe in a lot of what the book said, but I wanted to fight it because I felt there was a soul and a spirit to the human kind” -- the lead singer responds with enough palpable enthusiasm to make you believe in his sincerity.
“I do (still think that),” he says even before the quote and subsequent question is fully recited. “It’s became more evident to me that I was on the right path because it just feels we were able to take that book and pull the humanness of it. For us, being a rock band, I’m just glad that we were able to tap into that part of the book. It would have been very pretentious to try and deal with what (Kurzweil) is talking about because it really goes over our head. It’s elevated material.
“There are ways to justify ‘Are You Sad?’ That’s an emotional experience. If you take it as far as Ray is taking it, with what he sees us turning into, we won’t be able to have that kind of experience. It’s kind of like taking breaks from what he’s talking about. It’s finding that middle ground and saying ‘Yeah, it’s great that we can have hip replacements, and who know how much further it will go, but beyond that, it gets a little scary.’”
Those lyrics and that emotional connection couldn’t be any further away from the approach Taggart takes to analyzing the recording process of Spiritual Machines. The drummer is reminded of the difference in sessions between his band’s fourth album and its debut, 1994’s Naveed. The entire first-album experience, he says, was something he’d rather forget.
“Naveed was really not the way it’s supposed to be done,” Taggart says, adding that he was a mere 18-years-old when the album was recorded. “Naveed was too hard, and I was being pushed too far. I had just turned 18, and it was a very clinical environment for me to make a record. When you’re playing 14 hours a day, the same song for three days, you’re not going to get it. I know that for a fact.”
By the time Our Lady Peace’s fourth album came around, the drummer points out that the amount of comfort he had in recording had increased tremendously. In fact, upon reminiscing on the Spiritual sessions, Taggart’s take concentrates more on the band’s maturity level than anything else, citing change as an important facet to any successful musician’s career.
“Everybody was maturing,” he says. “Duncan was maturing. Raine was maturing. All the musicians that I loved, they kept changing. I started listening to guys like Levon Helm and Zigaboo Modeliste from The Meters -- the kind of guys who weren’t fill-type drummers, but were feel guys. I wanted to get closer to those kind of guys [with this album]. When I played a groove, I wanted it to feel like me.”
Taggart certainly put his stamp on songs throughout the album, the most evident of which came in the form in “In Repair,” a track featuring a polyrhythmic ghost note pattern on his snare drum that was done completely live, with no delay effect. And while listening to the song may suggest otherwise, the beat maker insists that the recording features only a kick drum, snare drum and hi-hats.
Because the song was called “In Repair,” Taggart explains that he wanted to make a beat that felt as though it was never going to get into a groove so it would fit the title. The bells, chimes and other percussive instruments you hear on the take are all prominent fixtures that Taggart acknowledges the band has been guilty of over-using at times.
“We’ve always been crazy about adding interesting sounds, and not ridiculous sounds. It’s just live percussion stuff,” the drummer says in a clinic-like tone. “It’s just us in there banging on everything from pots and pans to trash metal. Sometimes, we go way over. For instance, on Clumsy, there’s way too much of that stuff, if you ask me.”
Regardless of the added instruments, Taggart is happy with what the end result became. He notes that, in spite of being mugged during the recording sessions, he’s proud his band was able to persevere through the hard times and come away the type of album that came as a result.
“There’s a lot of really good stuff in there,” he says in a sober tone of reflection. “A lot of those songs are fun to play. Although there seems like a lot is going on, there are a lot of really similar kinds of feels that happen on Spiritual Machines. There are only three different feels, with the exception of ‘Wonderful Future,’ that are pretty continuous, and the bridges and the shots are kind of familiar. Once you dig into it, it kind of gets the same thing, and it’s easier to get into.”
Maida echoes Taggart’s words of praise, adding that the popularity of the record is a bit of a surprise when looking back on the release of it.
“I like every song,” the singer says, as he brings a plastic cup of ice to his mouth. “‘All My Friends’ is pretty heavy. ‘If You Believe’ is amazing, and we lost ‘Life’ for a while, but now it’s a pretty powerful song to me. I like the whole concept of it and that it actually worked. The songs are very joined, and I think those types of records just work better. I don’t know if we appreciated it at the time, but now, when we play it back, it’s amazing, and I’m very proud of it.”
Coutts agrees with Maida, pointing out that though the band was going through an incredible amount of obstacles, highlighting quite possibly their most tumultuous era ever, he can now accept the album for what it is.
“Spiritual Machines definitely works as a whole piece,” he says before taking some time to collect his thoughts. “But I’d be hesitant to say it 100 percent is my favorite record because there are so many other great things about our other records. Spiritual definitely has a through-line thematically with the Ray Kurzweil audio clips.”
Then, as though looking back on the time surrounding his band’s most influential release brings back moments of question, fear, insecurity and reluctance, and after taking another, even longer break in between words, he picks his head up from looking away, subtly shakes the thinning blond hair that lies on his head lazily away from his eyes, and continues.