Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (October 2002)…
One Texan Band, Under God
Lift to Experience, the greatest art-rock band since Sigur Ros, talk about the Passion with Jay Babcock
Josh Pearson, the 28-year-old singer-guitarist-songwriter for the extraordinary Denton, Texas-based art-rock band Lift to Experience, works in a world positively drenched in Judeo-Christian allusion and metaphor. So of course he’s conducting a mid-tour interview on a cel phone from a Manhattan pub called The Slaughtered Lamb.
“Yeah, it’s perfect,” he says, with a chuckle. “It’s like, ‘Where do we go? Oh, there’s a spot.’”
Lift to Experience are in New York City on their first-ever extended tour of America. It’s a tour that’s been a long time coming, in support of a debut album—the audacious, double-CD concept record The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads—that itself was a long time in gestation. The songs that made it onto the album were originally composed in 1998, after Pearson had moved out to a ranch to work as a farmhand.
“It wasn’t a career move,” he says. “I just needed a place to be alone and not have to talk to anyone, to have enough time where the good ideas could become great ideas. I was alone and isolated and living in this little barn. It wasn’t glamorous, it was just mindless work: shoveling up the shit and taking the horses out to pasture and feeding them hay. It’s real therapeutic working with horses…”
Soon, the songs came. And with them, the concept for the album. No brief summary of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads can do it justice, Texas-style or otherwise. The album’s opening, spoken announcement is: “This is the story of three Texas boys busy minding their own business when the Angel of the Lord appeared unto them saying, ‘When the Winston Churchills start firin’ their Winston rifles into the sky form the Lone Star State, drinkin’ their Lone Star beer and smokin’ their Winston cigarettes, know the time is drawin’ nigh when the son shall be lifted on high.’”
Pearson says Texas-Jerusalem is “a concept album about the end of the world, where Texas is the Promised Land—the final battleground in the war between good and evil.” But it’s about more than that. The double-album’s lyrics are full to bustling with freight trains and incoming storms, strange prophets and fallen feathered angels, blood and fool‘s gold. Its protagonists are an ambitious Texas rock band desperate for a smash hit, ready, metaphorically at least, to deal their souls to the devil at Robert Johnson’s crossroads in exchange for material success. But Satan doesn’t show. Instead it’s the Angel of the Lord, announcing “just as was told/Justice will unfold.”
“Don‘t you boys know nothin’?” the angel asks the band, puzzled by the news of imminent holy conflict on Texas soil. “The USA is the center of JerUSAlem.”
Then, the music volcanoes. The rhythm is muscular, spacious, dynamic; the guitar is meditative, gossamer drone parted by noise mass and riff shapes; and the vocals are uniquely full and rich—triumphant yet resigned—sung in a beautiful voice of steady comfort. The lyrics—the metaphors, the literary and contemporary allusions—are relentless and poetic: the simple word ’star’ means, at once, the Lone Star state, the Jewish Star of David, the Christian Star of Bethlehem and, of course, Rock Star. A lot of work was put into this album, obviously. Taking it all in is a dizzying, overwhelming experience.
“It worked out real well with what I wanted to do with the metaphors,” says Pearson. “Texas being the place of last stands, from the Alamo. And Texas being an individual nation in its own, with freedoms that it celebrates that the other states don’t have—it can secede at any time, the only flag allowed to fly the same height as the American flag, that sort of thing, cuz it was a nation before it merged with the States.
“I started writing songs and they were all pointing to a place and then one night, I realized where it was headed. It made itself known. It’s one of those things where your body is just sorta following intuitively. I wouldn’t say you’re channeling it, but you’re trusting in your intuition that it’s headed in the right direction. Sometimes you never know why you’re headed that way, but it works out. All the pieces fall into place.”
* * *
Incredibly, Lift to Experience does the album one better in a live setting.
The first time I saw them was at 7:15 on a Saturday night in a small bar on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. A stained and horned bullskull sat at stage-center; a Texas flag draped over a bass amp. Behind and above them was the bar’s neon-lit sign that read (of course) “Salvation.” As the sun dipped into the smog horizon outside, Lift to Experience began playing to an audience of no more than 100, most of whom were unfamiliar with the band‘s music.
They began suddenly, with almost notice. And they began with a no-vocal, power trio cover of—I shit you not—“Kashmir.” It was intense, immediate, absolutely massive. There was Josh (The Bear) Browning—a bass throbber of burly frame, serious beardage and eyes-closed close concentration; there was Andy Young, a drummer with the build of the sturdiest steakhouse either side of the Rio Grande, leaning forward off the stool Keith Moon-like, switching between mallets, drumsticks and handclaps, his cymbals in perpetual perpendicularity; and there was Josh T. Pearson, a gangly lanky framed, scraggly-haired guitar-vocalist in biker Nudiewear and bracelets, his beaten cowboy hat ringed by thorns.
They seamed straight from “Kashmir” into an instrumental version of their own majestic “Just As Was Told,” without breaking. It was that rare kind of performance that dapples your skin with goosebumps. All the stuff on the album was there: the long builds and graceful a cappella interludes, the churning muscularity and psychedelic overload. We’re talking presence.
“We were influenced by all the early ‘90s shoegazer stuff,” says Pearson. “Ride, Pale Saints, Swervedriver, Medicine, My Bloody Valentine. I think Loveless is the best record of the ‘90s. What I wanted to do in the band was be a combination of My Bloody Valentine and Jimi Hendrix—Hendrix in the sense that it was more personality in each instrument, it wasn’t noise for noise’s sake, everything’s there for a purpose.
“I play in an open tuning called DADGAD. There’s three Ds there so I can do a lot of finger picking on top and just keep that low, solid note going throughout the song. One of the things I wanted to incorporate was the one note sustains, where one note is throughout the entire song, because I think it’s not just Eastern music but a lot of the Western music too, when that’s resolved, in classical stuff too, that’s my favorite thing is when there’s one solid note that’s just held and held and held. A droning. But it’s not a droning to lull you to sleep, it’s to take you to a higher place.”
It’s not all earnestness and bombast. Pearson’s vision integrates the solemnity of a believer (he counts himself a Christian) and the necessary humor of one who’s being overwhelmed and knows it. The album’s purposefully cheesy cover is an attempt at undercutting any hint of self-importance.
“From the record cover on, you know, we knew we needed an element of humor. We wanted it to look like a rap record, something so narcissistic… but at the same time be self-deprecating, you know? So we took out a pre-emptive strike against whatever people might have against the album [due to its content]. There’s lines in there that were intended to be funny. ‘Best band in the whole damn land.‘ That’s just funny. It needs humor in it to pull it off.”
With the album finished, Pearson went looking for a label. He found no takers.
“There was a year there where no one wanted to touch it. this record. I sent it out to indie rock labels, no one responded, not even a ‘don’t quit your day job.’ I knew that I could do a lot less and get a lot more. I could’ve dumbed it down quite a bit and just made some stupid-ass indie-rock record that might’ve been good for the times but no one’s would listen to in a decade. And I was like, Fuck it. This is the only thing I’m going to do with my life. Doing less would never satisfy me. I’m going to go for the higher good, try to create this piece of art that maybe no one will get, and shoot for much higher and probably get much, much less. But I’m glad I did, because that’s the only thing that would satisfy. I didn’t think that anybody would get it. I’m still surprised that somebody put the damn thing out.”
Pearson’s stubbornness and commitment seems to come from his family. He’s spoken angrily in interviews about his father, a man who went so deeply Christian that he stopped working and eventually abandoned his family.
“He didn’t leave,” Pearson corrects me. “We left him. He had gotten involved in this faith movement that sort of swept through after the Jesus movement in the late ‘70s. There was a lot of talk about the power of the Word, faith, speaking things into existence—basically believing you can get anything you want from God. It got to the point where he wasn’t working at all, just trusting in the Lord to provide for all his needs. After a coupla years, my mother had to leave because we were hungry. So she moved to Washington state. I lived with my grandparents for a while, and eventually came back to Texas. My father never paid his child support, and I couldn’t wrap my head around that. So the last conversation we had, it was just…basically I told him if he wanted my respect, he would have to earn it, and pay back that back child support. My mother just busted her ass, working three jobs at a time just to provide food for my sister and I, and he’s got a fucking master’s degree, and continues to be a preacher man. It’s completely justified in his mind. And that’s the frustrating thing, cuz he really believes he’s in the right, that he’s living righteously.
“I still have issues with him.”
* * *
In 2001, Texas-Jerusalem was finally released—by Bella Union—to critical acclaim and modest commercial success…in England. The band’s relative success there and in other parts of Europe, while remaining an almost unknown quantity in their homeland, is a point of frustration for Pearson.
“You read an American review and it makes them angry, cuz they can’t pigeonhole it and don’t know what to do with it, and whenever they have a problem with it, it’s always because of the religious references. They’re saying, This is not good art because I don’t agree with their worldview. It’s ludicrous. But we’ll get great press in the UK and France. I think it’s because over there, they’re surrounded by majestic art full of religious symbolism, by cathedrals and museums full of Judeo-Christian art, they can appreciate the beauty of something without being pissed off because they don’t agree with it. They can see Michelangelo’s angels and not have to believe in the existence of angels and still be moved by ‘em, because it’s a thing of beauty. Whereas, over here in the States, religion is shoved down people’s throats. They don’t wanna hear it. So if anything approaches that, it pisses them off. It’s ludicrous. If it’s good, it’s good. Good art exists in and of itself.
“At the same time, you know, fuck it, I don’t care. I’ve got full confidence in what we’re doing and our ability to write a song and the future of it. If it takes America 15 or 20 years, I could give a fuck. We’ll keep putting shit out, and our sound will bury ‘em. I’ve got about ten tapes filled with ideas in a general direction of where it’s gonna go, it’s called The Post-Apocalyptical Blues Volumes 1 and 2. Sort of like Use Your Illusion. That’s a joke. Well, it is kinda like it—releasing it might cause us to disappear as quick as that record did them…”
The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads is available in North America through Bella Union/NAIL.