Closer To God: Lift To Experience’s ‘The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads’ Revisited
, November 10th, 2016 15:00
Tom Hall speaks to Josh T Pearson and Andy Young about why they’re not done with the album that’s defined them.
2016’s appetite for perpetual warfare and shoving rational politics in the bin means visions of the apocalypse have become face-palmingly routine recently. Unlikely, then, that you’d want to add another tale of end times to your burden – or your Spotify. But the second coming of Texan trio Lift To Experience might just lighten that load.
The band’s sole album from 2001, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, a 90-minute, equal-parts post-rock/shoegaze odyssey of biblical proportions set in a post-apocalyptic incarnation of the Lone Star State – will be re-released in early 2017 by Mute Records. Remixed and remastered by engineer Matt Pence at the same Echo Lab studio that the band first emerged from in Denton County, Texas, it follows a set of brief reunion shows that took place earlier this summer.
But when a record is rightly regarded as peerless, why mess with something sacred? Well, though guitarist and frontman Josh T Pearson, drummer Andy “The Boy” Young, and bassist Josh “the Bear” Browning might present themselves as just “three Texas boys busy mindin' their own business when the Angel of the Lord appeared unto them”, the real story of the album is more complex. Studio time costs money; and back in 2001, faced with the stark choice of paying for either the album’s recording or its mastering, the fact that The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads even exists today shows one of those jobs didn’t break the bank. Earlier this year, I met with Josh T Pearson and Andy “The Boy” Young to discuss what’s new and why, after years apart, the world hasn’t really ended for Lift To Experience. You can also check out the newly remastered ‘Just As Was Told’ below.
So it’s been a long time. What was the thing that helped you get back in the same room?
Josh T Pearson: Money. An opportunity where we could do all of this and almost break even after three weeks of work – almost. We’re only losing a couple grand.
Andy Young: [Laughs] Yeah, we’re just starting to know what it feels like to almost break even. Instead of, like, undershooting by thousands.
Did you guys properly split up? Or did you sort of disintegrate? What happened?
JTP: We like to think it was more of a, um, what’s the term?
AY: A trial separation.
JTP: A trial separation, rather than a divorce. You know, you go out, you date a few people, and you realize you made the right choice to begin with.
We joke about the money but to get three dudes in a room who live a thousand miles away from each other, and for Bear to quit his day job for a couple of weeks to come and practice; it costs you. And then you fly three men over, pay for the hotel rooms, the food, and the back line for Marshalls, sound and lights, management, tour management, taxis and food. Just try feeding three dudes for three weeks – I mean, it sounds stupid but it adds up quick. We wanted to do this at some point. But we were thinking maybe the 20 year reunion? This seems kind of rushed – the fifteenth.
AY: Fifteen: it's got a classic ring to it, doesn’t it.
JTP: Guy Garvey was booking Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall, and Andy and I know him a little from touring with him back in 2001 – back before Elbow were the biggest band in Britain. They opened for us in France for some dates over there and we hit it off well. So performing resonated with us because there were personal motivations and friendships. But we did it without really knowing if anyone would come at all.
AY: I didn't realise that we were in the big room. I thought it was a kind of an all-day festival thing and we’d play at 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
Well it’s a different time now – you’re attracting massive crowds.
JTP: One massive crowd. That’s a one off. It was probably all the fans in Britain.
Are you not tempted by other shows?
JTP: We haven’t had any offers. This show has been the end game. I mean someone Myspaced us: “Come play Leicester”… Cool. Is your grandma gonna be there?
AY: [Laughs] Hey man, if she’s got £20, she can come on in. We started with nothing; we got most of it left.
JTP: We did three or four tours in the UK first time around. And the next tour was gonna be bigger-sized venues where we’d finally break even. But Bear’s wife died, and we had to cancel and fly back. Around then was maybe the only time Lift ever played that ever broke even, I guess.
I suppose it was a new era. At the reunion show at Royal Festival Hall you were making jokes from the stage about things that barely really existed 15 years ago – that we now take for granted. You listed cell phones, drone warfare, even the internet.
Yeah. It is a different world you’re playing in now, isn’t it.
JTP: A completely different world.
Are you conscious of the songs being of a certain time and place?
JTP: I am. I don’t know if other people are but I think about that shit way too much. I mean, it is over [holds up his iPhone]. This means the robots win. There’s a great divide that’s gonna come between those who introduce technology into their bodies and those that don’t – I’m not joking at all. The next 15 years is where it’s gonna get really interesting. The internet is just a light flashing east to west; it’s just the beginning of the beast that will swallow us up. And those that don’t take it will get left behind.
Do you miss the past?
JTP: I think we were born in a very romantic age. And if romantic music was supposed to be the birth of tragedy, today really is the death of tragedy. Technology’s gonna end all crime, with everything being watched, catalogued and calculated and stuff. It’s good and bad.
Records are a good metaphor, though. When you were a kid and you got a record on vinyl it was sacred; it was holy. There was mystery to it. Holy fuck! Where did The Cure come from? You’re up in North Texas, you’ve never heard anything like these sounds before. Robert Smith? His hair all done up like that? It rocked my world. I’d never seen anything like that. That was something special. Mystery was still alive and if you said goodbye to someone you might never see them again. When the phone rang, you didn’t know who was gonna answer. And when someone knocked at the door, you’d go, “Who the fuck’s knocking at my door? Shall we answer it? I don’t know.”
But, of course, I finally sold out and bought a smartphone this year and I knew I’d be addicted. I thought it would take maybe two days – and it was about two minutes. It’s incredible. I’ve got 8,000 pictures on this. I got naked women, maps; how do you turn down either one of those things? Those are awesome.
Do you think younger people have missed out?
JTP: We wrote romantic music and were born in that time. Kids today will still feel those impulses, but there’s no way they could possibly catalog it the same. And of course the music’s gonna start sucking now because everything’s gentrified, whereas that great stuff came out of difficult times. So bring it on; bring on the apocalypse. I’m all for it.
You talk a lot in your lyrics in those terms – of apocalypse, God, Godliness. Are you still a religious person?
JTP: It informs my life in the way it absolutely has to – having been brought up with it. And I wouldn’t say it was shoved down my throat. I chose to swallow it hook, line and sinker. Andy did, too.
JTP: Believers! Andy was saying this the other day – he was brought up Baptist which is the, um, I don’t know how to say it…
AY: It’s very conservative.
JTP: Yeah. Whereas Pentecostal is how I was raised, it’s more “hands up in the air”. Andy’s daddy was a Baptist preacher, so Andy’s way of rebellion was to go to church at the Pentecostals, you know?
AY: It was wild . Rolling on the floor...
JTP: Holy rollers, speaking in tongues; physical manifestations of the presence of God.
AY: It was the ultimate form of rebellion because they can’t tell you not to do it.
JTP: Yeah, how do you quantify that, or disagree with it?
It’s funny that you talk about that element of rebellion in there, because when I first encountered your music when I was young, I was initially a bit wary of it because of how Godly it was. But you learn as you listen that it’s done with a bit more tongue in cheek, maybe.
JTP: Yeah. Well you should be wary, man. You should be with some apprehension. But I think Europe is more post-Christian, so they go more from the gut. Whereas in America it was just shoved down your throat. People are smarter now, they can see that if it’s good art, it’s good art. But when we were doing it, we really had to walk a tightrope. We were informed from this tradition and we had to be true to ourselves. But I think we definitely created a sublime enough piece of work. Traditionally, Christian art has always been that way. It can effect you regardless of whether or not you’re in agreement with the ideology. It was difficult for me to tightrope that lyrically.
I tried to put enough humour in there so I got my point across in a way where I could live with myself. I wanted it to be a good work of art while saying all the things I wanted to say, and getting all the scripture out that I wanted. There are worse ways to live than having been brought up in a home that’s trying to love you and protect you. To inform you of the afterlife and to be a good person and to love your neighbour, doing good unto others, and all that. I’m not saying that it really bothers me. But those people who grew up with that background, who now just dog the whole tradition all the way: that’s offensive – they should be smarter than that.
Do you think today it’s more difficult to use spirituality in music?
JTP: As far as lyrics? It may be more touchy, but I’m so out of the loop with pop culture on that level.
AY: It definitely occurred to me at the show that maybe we should think about, you know, having some dudes out front [Laughs]. But we’ve got a while before we probably need that. We’ve got a minute before we’ll be needing to have full-time escorts.
JTP: We’re reporters of the news – we’re not pro anything. We’re just reporters.
So let’s talk about the remastered version of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. The original record feels quite an exquisite thing. Why make changes to it?
JTP: The original record was not mixed by a mixer. He did a good job but he just didn’t really capture what the band sounded like. That was my baby – my teenage symphony to God. It was our baby. We worked really hard on that thing. We recorded an earlier version of it a year prior and it wasn’t good enough. And I really felt the hand of God pushing down upon me, like – you have to do this – and make it a good piece of work.
My only regrets, really, were production-wise. Because we had everything else exactly the way we wanted; song to song there is an elegant framework there. The songs tell a nice poem in the order they were written – nothing was by accident – it’s not experimental music. This was worked out. We just woodshedded the shit out of that fucker for a year and then recorded it in a week and a half. No overdubs. There’s no second guitar parts.
That’s pretty fast for such a big-sounding record.
JTP: I put vocals on it for two or three days – and that was it. A week and a half: we were done. But the studio wouldn’t let us mix it until we paid for the actual recording of it. All my shit was in pawn. We had fallen apart. So just to get it mixed now, more like how we sounded live, is for those kids that never got to see the band before the wheels came off. It was really a punk-rock, visceral , overwhelming, experience. A great band.
I can hear things in the new version that I’ve never heard before. Have you added to it?
JTP: No. With ‘The Ground So Soft’, that you heard, I told the engineer exactly what I wanted: “This is the protagonist. He’s saying his prayer, it sounds like the ocean crashing down – he’s sinking to the bottom of the sea. We want to hear the storm above the protagonist, as he’s sinking to his death. So it gets quieter and quieter, and peace finally comes – the storm is over. But the storm still goes on even though he’s dead. But then I want to lift him up as he enters this sort of ethereal state of delirium, and synapses are firing, and he’s seeing the bright light that people say they see when your body starts to do the death rattles. And then the Lord lifts him up, and as he does, you hear him raise him back up out of the storm and shoot him up, into the clouds."
AY: That was all done with just words. Josh told him pretty much that story, essentially, and then he went home and came back with it, and was we were like, “Yep!” [smacks the table] there it is!”
JTP: Yes, that is exactly how I heard it and wanted it. Thank you. There are no extra parts. No parts added at all.
AY: I think that it will feel that way, though, for some people.
JTP: I hope so, man.
AY: Because it is so much more bombastic and true to the spirit of what was happening in the room.
JTP: There’s so many intricate parts that Andy was doing on his drums and stuff that you just kinda lost, and you could hardly hear my guitar before. That was my regret – I just needed a little bit more accurate representation. And for the album cover; we wanted it to be like a Cash Money Records release, or No Limit – like a hip hop record. Because the lyrics were so over the top, so get some humour in there, fellas. If you wanna speak the truth – do it with humour. We were walking this tightrope, where we were being categorised as “Christian rock” but our stuff was so much smarter. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but we weren’t fooling around. We wanted to shoot for more and miss, rather than shoot for less and be Interpol or whatever. We could have been Explosions in the Sky and just taken off the lyrics; just done it that way and pretend. But narrative is a higher form. And long-form storytelling can really affect you. When you experience good art you really feel elevated. That’s what we wanted.
Do you want listeners to understand the narrative fully? Because I just let the general sound wash over me and I can’t say I fully understand it.
JTP: Good! I don’t care. I don’t mind that. You can’t really catalog it. If you could I’d feel like I was a failure as an author or artist. Like, you may see through the glass dimly, but you will feel somehow elevated. And if I want to insert scripture in there, like, “The word goes forward, it doesn’t return void,” then that does what it’s supposed to do. You might be scratching your head and you don’t know why, but you wanna re-listen.
The words do make you think.
JTP: A compelling story moves beyond language. Narrative has been the most compelling thing since the history of man – and telling a great story, it informs us, makes us better people, and more highly involved. I hope I can’t define it exactly or tell it best for the critics and ya’ll. There’s several things going on in there but it’s just the sounds of words – my lyrics quote James Bond like “shaken but not stirred,” and the King James Bible at the same time; “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair.” So I have perspective on the booing. We get it. We just can’t say this is not where we’re coming from. Spirituality still informs our life. I mean, are we 60/40? 70/30? It takes more faith to not believe in some design for a lot of people than it does to do it. But there’s some sort of interconnectivity, you know. And while thinking and reading the scriptures – I definitely agree that you can will things with your mind. Faith is hope and love. Love is the greatest. So yeah, in that regard – absolutely: I’m a believer.
Would you consider making a second album as Lift to Experience?
JTP: We originally wanted it to be a trilogy, so if we do anything else under the Lift name it’d definitely continue with that apocalypse metaphor. All “apocalypse” means is “revelation” – that’s all it is: enlightenment.
I would never have known that.
JPT: Yeah, you’re not alone. In Greek – it’s loosely just “the revelation” – to be enlightened, or elevated. But you need time to sit with new music. You sit with it, play it, record it, sit with it again. It’s like opera. Back in the day Wagner worked on The Ring Cycle for 20 years. Deadlines and stuff are where it gets kinda tricky – just let it sit. But we wouldn’t put anything out unless it was part of the same stratosphere of quality. With the band coming together again, our end game has been this recent show. We’re shocked people come. Being from the tradition and the impulses that we have such as dreams and visions of the end times – it’s awesome. But people have been dreaming about the end of the world since the beginning of the world.
You live in different parts of the USA now. Is it difficult getting together?
AY: To put it in perspective, where I live in Portland, it’s further away from where Josh or Bear lives – around 25 hundred miles – than it is by road from London to Moscow. And the cultures along the way are completely different, too.
JPT: In America you work 50 weeks out of 52 weeks a year. The system locks you in. The only way that you travel is if you’re wealthy or just a poor artist who wants to see it. I went backpacking when I was 23 – I had to quit my apartment, my car, my insurance, and save up for six months. And then I hit the road and came to Europe and it blew my mind. But only a small per cent can do that. Like Bear our bass player – he had to get a passport to come over for the show. But he hadn’t been over here for 15 years. And what you got? Two weeks off a year? You got your wife, your kids, too. That includes your sick days as well. There’s no socialized medicine like ya’ll got – there’s no NHS, where you walk in and you get seen in one day. I have no insurance, whatsoever. So you got two weeks off; you just wanna go see your friends somewhere.
I’ve got one more. It’s a stupid one.
JPT: Let’s do it. Talk to me.
OK. I went to ATP festival once.
JPT: Uh oh.
And Dirty Three were playing.
JPT: Good band. Great band.
Amazing band. And you were there, Josh. I saw you play. At the time you were rocking some incredibly grand hair and a huge beard. And Dirty Three, from the stage, proclaimed you “The King of Butlins”.
AY: [Laughs] That’s pretty funny.
I just wondered if it’s a title that you’re proud of? Or have you relinquished the throne?
JPT: Warren from Dirty Three’s got good taste. He’s a good dude, man. But, you know, the kingship metaphor has a lot to it. This ring I’m wearing here I got in Paris when I was going through a difficult time and writing those Last of the Country Gentlemen songs after Lift To Experience, and the king metaphor was often reoccurring. And it’s also been reoccurring on this trip to London for some reason: just as a metaphor. I was looking out of the window at the Royal Festival Hall and someone had spray-painted “the king has returned” on the wall or something, So I’ll take that: King of Butlins? A holiday park? I’ve been called worse. It’s good to be king somewhere.
The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads will be re-released by Mute on February 3