The Second (or First) Coming of Lift To Experience
The Texas epic rockers existed only for a brief moment, and now they're back.
Every now and then you will discover an act that basically exist for a split second and then vanish, without much of a trace. Few things pare sadder to a music fan than discovering an album you love and obsess over, and then learning there will never be a follow-up. That was the kind of lamentation fans of Denton, Texas epic rockers Lift To Experience, uh, experienced when they dropped their marathon debut album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, in 2001. Only receiving a release on UK label Bella Union, operated by Cocteau Twins members Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, the album struggled to get heard, especially back home in the US, where it was only available as an import. Not long after its release and some European tours, the band disintegrated from unfortunate circumstances and faded into obscurity, without ever fulfilling a tour of their home country. The experience was over.
A funny thing happened with The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads in the subsequent years, however: the album became a cult hit. The legend of Lift To Experience escalated as new fans stumbled upon them through music blog appreciation and frontman Josh T. Pearson's universally praised, 2010 solo album, Last of the Country Gentlemen. The band's number one fan, Elbow's Guy Garvey, kept telling anyone that would listen that, to quote LTE's tongue-in-cheek song "These Are The Days," they were "simply the best band in the whole damn land." Garvey's public love for the band, along with an invitation to play the Meltdown Festival he was curating in London, helped them realize that their story wasn't over. And so earlier this year they reconvened and set out to give the band another shot.
Along with returning to the stage, Pearson wanted to use the opportunity to give The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads the proper mix it deserved. Originally mixed hastily and on a budget by Simon Raymonde, the band were never satisfied with the results. That "what if?" ate away at them over the years. So when Mute Records came knocking, looking to reissue the album, Pearson saw the opportunity he was waiting for. On February 3, 2017, Mute will reissue a remastered and remixed edition of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads the way it has always meant to be heard. "Full circle, as God intended," tells the press release. The album will also receive a much needed vinyl release, after scarce copies of the original have reached ridiculous prices.
Noisey reached Pearson fresh off his performance at Meltdown to discuss the band's unlikely course, the importance of getting the album mixed right, and why he hopes America finally understands his apocalyptic narrative the second time around.
Noisey: I'm excited the band is back together.
Josh T. Pearson: Man, I'm excited that you're excited.
How did it feel to perform together again?
It went surprisingly well. Still processing it. [The London gig] was huge. The biggest indoor show we've played. We were all shocked by it. I was shocked when they announced it was at the Royal Festival Hall. It was a 2,500-person room and it was seated, which is a lot more daunting than 2,500 people standing around. I've played some rooms that big myself, but to do it again with the band was a different beast altogether.
I imagine the audience is bigger now than it was back in 2001.
In London, definitely. We really had no frame of reference as to what the turnout would be or if anyone cared or what the interest would be. But there was a good crowd excited to see it. I'm very thankful for the opportunity. We had done a few tours in Europe, but on the tour where we were about to lift off it got cancelled because our bass player's wife had an overdose and died, so we had to come home with our tails between our legs. I'm very honored to come back. It feels like a whole new crowd of kids. I thought it would just be a bunch of old, middle-aged dudes who want to talk about pedals because that's what the demographic was before back in the day. When we put out the record it was a little more innovative and shoegaze-y stuff. I was surprised to see more woman and kids in the crowd this time. That excited me. Maybe there are some new fans that have discovered the record and never got a chance to see us. We're just taking it one at a time. That's our end goal.
How smooth has the reunion been between the three of you?
It's been really good for us. I really needed this. It was an emotional rollercoaster, but in a good way. There was an element of surprise. It was nice to be surprised and feel those emotions again I haven't felt in so long: anger, sadness, and happiness. You get to a point in your life where you think you're past certain emotions, but I'm grateful for the opportunity. They treated us like kings at Meltdown. And for the bass player, who has no frame of reference, to hear fans say, "Hey, that's one of the best records ever made," he worked in a sandwich shop in Texas, so he had no idea. So just to see his face light up with a couple thousand people giving us a standing ovation at Festival Hall, that was great. I feel honored.
The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads is such a heavy album, both musically and thematically. Was it tough to get back into the right mindset to perform these songs?
Not as tough as I thought it might be. The interesting thing is seeing how your body remembers the tunes. It's a totally different way I play these songs because over the last few years I've been playing acoustic songs and country stuff alone on the road wherever I can. This is a completely different way of playing: alternate tuning and effects. I rely on distortion on and off for crescendos and fluidity. Playing acoustic, there are finer nuances, with an emphasis on vocals being married to guitar parts within guitar parts. It's been a real joy to play electric again. In a way you feel silly because some of the impulses are more youthful sentiments. You're up there rocking again, and it's been nice to force yourself to get over the ego where you just lose your cool and move around. I get to dig into the guitar and tell myself it's okay to burn that idol and sacrifice myself and have fun. It's also been neat to play with a drummer again and lock in with.
Is it true you've been watching yourself on YouTube to learn how to play old songs?
Absolutely! It's been 15 years, so there is little YouTube footage out there. There's one by a fella in LA that I watched over and over and over. He got all arty at the end and zoomed in on my fingers, which was a nice, fortuitous decision. It's interesting to watch how the mind works, and I noticed there were certain sections I couldn't get when I was just playing with the amp. But once I plugged in my pedals, which aren't many—an RV3 reverb, a couple of distortions, a sampler and a wah—just because the brain is wire, some of those other parts came back to me. It was kind of exciting to remember those chords. There was one in "Waiting To Hit" I just couldn't get and then finally when I wasn't thinking about it the chord came up. It's exciting to see the body remember. I'm doing some stretches now, because I'm using different muscles and different ways of playing the guitar. That tuning I haven't used in 14 years, really. The first stuff was mostly D Major and A, and the next record was going to be D Minor, so…
Let me ask you about that next record. What exists of it?
Nothing. We recorded a practice on a cassette tape, back in the day. I haven't listened to any of that stuff since then. We have no agenda here. I laid that stuff down and switched to regular tuning to hit the road and focus more on the country stuff. It's challenging to me, more from a vocal side of things. It's gut music. But those tapes are there somewhere. A lot of the music was song titles and basic sketches. Originally it was meant to be a trilogy, but it's like the Lord put a hand over that. Don't want to be the hand that feeds.
You've said it wasn't money, so what made you revive Lift To Experience?
David Bowie dying. Kinda. We're having the record coming out remixed, which is exciting for me because my regret with it was the way it was mixed. It wasn't mixed properly because we couldn't be there for the mixing. Nobody wanted to put the record out except Bella Union, and they didn't have any money to fly me over to mix it or send money for us to mix it here. They said they had an extra week to mix it there and put it out, yes or no. And we tried for a year to find some other label, and they were the only takers. So my only regret is that it wasn't mixed properly. It didn't sound like the band. We just had no money. We paid for the recording ourselves. Had we any confidence at all, I would've scraped together 500 bucks and flown over. But it was different times. I was drinking a lot, my guitar and amps were in the pawnshop, and I had a record that I thought was my gift to God. And it was unmixed and unwanted by anyone but the Cocteau Twins, which is just crazy.
We had no plans to get the band back together. I wanted to wait until we put the record out, if there was demand for it. It's not like we were the Pixies. You just wanted to be wanted. We had no frame of reference for knowing that. I had just finished a solo tour in London, and Peter, my manager, mentioned that he saw that Guy from Elbow was doing Meltdown, and I know him from Lift, after doing a short tour in France with him years ago. They actually opened up for us back then, which is funny because they're one of the biggest bands in Britain now. But he said they were doing Meltdown, which is exciting for me because it has the funding to pay us to quit our jobs for a few weeks, practice and fly us three dudes over there with our gear, put us up in a hotel, feed us and basically we would break even. Maybe. So that helps, knowing we aren't gonna have to pay 20 grand to play for some old dudes. But I still would've preferred it had I known that there was demand for it. I just didn't know that. How would I? And I had a talk with our manager, and David Bowie had just died and another buddy died of cancer died at 34, so it was just life, and not knowing how many years we had left. And he said, "Somebody may die." You never know. I think that helped. So I wanted to talk to Andy, the drummer, and see what we could do. It really did happen kinda quick. I didn't expect it at all. I thought maybe a 20th anniversary if we could pull it off. So it kind of came out of nowhere, and Meltdown made it work. Plus there was some context, because we'd played with Guy Garvey before. But I don't know where I'm going to be two weeks from now. This is the furthest thing I've committed to in my life, when we said yes to it, and that was five months in advance. My solo tours are even just three months out.
Guy Garvey called you the "greatest living American rock band" on Twitter . He invited you to play Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall. How did that relationship start?
Just those 2001 shows in France. There was a bill put together by Les Rock Incorruptibles, and we toured five cities in France. It was us, Elbow, and Mercury Rev. So we just hung out and had drinking contests: the Texans versus the Mancs. They were just good, working class, Northern souls. And the North over there is like the South in the U.S. A little unkempt, I guess. And that was it really. It's not like we're Facebook buddies. He became a fan and has good taste, I guess.
I remember the reason why I first listened to the album was because Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde were involved. What did it mean to have those two helping you? Were you a big Cocteau Twins fan?
Oh yeah, huge. That's some of the earliest stuff I heard. Y'know, there weren't many record stores in Texas. There was one in Dallas, which was an hour away. So when I heard the Cocteau Twins for the first time I was about 13, and I'd never heard anything like it. I mean, it was daunting, but all they did was mix the album. I produced it, I put every note on it, they had nothing to do with that aspect. Simon mixed the record and their name attached to it helped us get some press. But we're remixing the record because it did not get mixed the way we wanted it. He's not really a mixer, he's a record label guy. So that was a regret, and it was because we had no other option. And it sounds okay, but it doesn't really capture how the band sounds. It's more for housewives, who are people too. But we had this punk rock, cathartic thing; we were a loud and overwhelming, overdriven band with finer nuances that we really labored hard for. It made us realize how much we cared about our art when we had to tell them, "You're gonna have to remix this song," on the last day of mixing. But it came out, and we were grateful for that.
As you mentioned, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads is being remastered and remixed. How do you think this new version of the album differs?
I think it's pretty different. It's not like one of those money-grabbing things, where a band like Led Zeppelin does it every few years and it sounds exactly like the other ones. This is something completely different. The original version sounds like the balls were cut off. This isn't easy listening stuff. This is meant to juxtapose that sublimeness against a heavy intensity. The other one took the edge off it, and put an emphasis on the narrative, which was really important. This one manages to do both. We're gonna give both of them away - the old mix will be included. Hopefully that will be exciting for people, so they can pick a side. The first one is more like the American version, and we sounded like an 80s band because Simon wasn't really a mixer. It's like, "We need a plumber. Let's get someone who isn't a plumber to do it." Or like Trump running for President. It's not the wisest choice. But Simon didn't do a bad job.
Who mixed it this time?
Matt Pence [Jens Lekman, Midlake, Jason Isbell]. He's a Texas guy. We had a shoot-out, sending it around to several people. One guy had done some stuff for My Bloody Valentine and Mogwai and some pop stuff, but Matt just came back with something that sounded like the band. He had seen us play, and he's been doing it for 20 years, really knocking it out of the park.
How does the album's narrative—about a post-apocalyptic world in which Texas is the Promised Land—holds up after 15 years later?
I think it's just as strong and important as before. I'm more excited about the next 15 years, but hopefully it can stand on its own, independent of whatever is going on. It's been nice revisiting the lyrics. There was such pressure back then, like walking on a tightrope, because there was such religious imagery and the music was pretty different. Then, if you had any religious sentiments at all you'd be catalogued into Christian rock, which is hard to be in because there's no respect for it. That scene is so bigoted because religion is so shoved down throats in America. That's why we did better in Europe, because it's post-Christian over there. They don't have to agree with the subtext. They can just appreciate the art. There is a lot of humor in the album, which is important to me. If you're gonna tell some truth you try to do it with humor, the old saying goes.
What was the idea behind the No Limit parody with the album cover?
That was another thing I was trying to get right, like the mix. I wanted a straight up Pen & Pixel thing, but they were ball-less. I'm sorry, I'm worked up about it. I wanted something audacious and over the top, and they gave us a little of that. I guess they did their best with the technology, but we wanted a straight up, No Limit, Cash Money cover. Like straight up diamonds, shotguns poking out over our heads, and stuff. Now we're talking with them, and if we can get the cash together, that's what we want. That's what we were influenced by at the time. It's a great juxtaposition with calling Texas the Promised Land. Like, have you been to Texas? It's funny because the Brits got the humor but some American reviews called it the worst album cover ever. C'mon, y'all. Work with us.
I think the main reason why I got into this record was because I lived in London at the time.
It was only available here in America at double-disc import prices. Like, our fans in Texas couldn't buy the record without paying 35 bucks for it. We never had a label here. And since we didn't take off here we had no support in America. So the places we did play people were impressed, but the wheels came off before we could really hit the States. So I'm excited to get it out there to a whole new group of kids. Because it's a good record, man. We worked super hard on it. I'm not an idiot, I'm a smart guy. I've been making music for a long time, since I was 12 years old. We didn't get any help. I remember the Pitchfork article locked us into some George Bush, NRA nonsense. It was just absolute nonsense.
Any plans to make a new record?
We'll see. I'm working all the time. I have nine-tenths of another solo country record done. There are no listed plans. We'll put this reissue out and see what happens. If there is demand for it then we will cross that bridge when we get to it. We're just processing everything. Bear is back working in the sandwich shop, so it's back to reality. I'm surprised we're even doing this interview. When I was told the people from VICE wanted to talk I was like, "Why?" I'm shocked by it. I'm grateful.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac