Lift To Experience - Josh T. Pearson

Lift To Experience - Josh T. Pearson

interview by Lorenzo Righetto

Hello Josh, thanks for your time. This is the second interview we have, the first time it was for your solo album, you had this enormous beard, and long hair too – I had the impression everybody was seeing a new Messiah in you. Then after that period you cut your hair pretty drastically. In the Hollywood cliché this normally represents the moment a man that finds a new balance in his life, a place in society or whatever. Was that a particular moment for you?
The moment for me was a couple years ago when a dude with a very manicured beard came up to me at an Austin bar selling me on a beard moisturizer he manufactures. I realized the beard tide had finally turned and the dream was over. All my symbols had been hijacked. They’d taken on new forms. It was time to shave.  


We’re now celebrating your debut with Lift To Experience, an anomalous, stunning (in every sense) record. Something that most of your fans probably already cherished. I did, but I also enjoyed listening to the record with a proper mix. How did the reissue come about?

Through very complicated reasons we weren’t there for the original mix session and it has always bothered us. We were a pretty punk gut-wrenching sonic assault and the old mix was safe & sound. We were neither. Bella Union told us they couldn’t afford for us to mix it in Texas in 2001, but they could do it at their studio in London in a week or two and put it out. We took it. The mix was even sped up, weirdest thing, but since we heard Simon’s original mix we wanted to remix it. But that was never an option because Bella Union swore they lost the tapes. Then a copy of a copy of a copy surfaced on ADAT’s through a friend of a friend. And then it took a few years to get to the position to do it and so when Mute offered, we couldn’t say no to it.

lifttoexperience_ivThere is a perceivable subversive charge to “The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads”, in terms of musical style, in the first place. You even say explicitly, more or less ironically, that Lift To Experience are something that had never existed in music. What was your musical background at that time? I don’t think there are many other albums about which so many musical styles have been cited for a comparison.

We wanted to musically mix My Bloody Valentine with the individual instrumentation personality of the Jimi Hendrix trio but then give it a narrative on top. Loveless really changed the landscape of guitar music when it came out, the notes between notes, bending chords constantly. It felt like a new art form. Painting with guitar. Impressionism with electricity. Especially for kids from Texas who hadn’t heard so much. This was before the internet mind you so sounds were still very sacred. I read an interview that Kevin Shields said he never let go of the tremolo. I thought that sounded pretty good to me. Sonic Youth & Spiritualized. This was great composition. People always talk about the boundaries they were pushing, which is true. But ultimately, beyond that, these were deeply Romantic bands with a great sense of melody. I just thought more could be done with storytelling. I thought if you could get to the same psychedelic headspace sonically, melodically etc. then add subtext to it stretched out over time, it might be a different experience all together.

Most good electric music is immediate. It hits you from the gut right out of the gates. I wanted to do that then stretch it out so you could build chords and shapes as well as arcs with stories within the story, a rock opera that didn’t suck basically, but to use humour and other devices so your subconscious could be divided and be hit on a few levels simultaneously.

Everything had been written with rock music. It seemed like the last place to go then. There was still threat. One of the reasons Loveless works so well is specifically because the lyrics are undecipherable. Vague images or imaginings. I thought, make it similar in feel, but with concrete ambiguity so it’s referring to this future event you sort or can understand grounded in reality but just out of reach. We worked out butts off too. The next MBV record was more a barrage of images. Flashes, even less linear. Like a trip. A post-apocalyptic acid flashback of sorts. All this going on while the music takes you places, really so it’s firing at both spots. I guess that’s what all good music does though really so I don’t know that I added anything.

Much of the legend and the cult status of the record, besides its beauty and power, is the imagery of Apocalypse in Texas. But to me, as little as I know you from your solo record, from having met you personally and having watched you perform, “TTJC” sounds probably even more personal than your later output. The irony and the torment mixed together, the cathartic power of music, but, more deeply, you can feel again that you needed to make that record that way, for yourself first of all. Do you agree?
That’s very observant and correct. In my experience, man tends to use metaphors and shadows to hide behind the things that terrify him the most. If I’m wrapping my art in a story, it’s usually because I have something deeper I’m trying to convey. Christ spoke in parables specifically to reach toward deeper truths that were beyond dialectic explanation. If spiritual epiphanies were easily explainable or transferred, they would be.


One thing that has always baffled me is that you are more popular in Europe than in the US. This record was only available as import, if I’m not mistaken. I read that you make a distinction between the kind of religious education we have in Europe, which is interesting. Even though the degree to which religion is ingrained in society is very different from country to country (as I guess it’s the case in the US). I personally think it has more to do with the approach to art, that you also mention when you’re asked about this. Sorry, I’m blabbering. Actually, my question is very trivial: have you ever been bothered by this kind of disconnection from your original scene/audience?

All bigotry bothers me. It’s boring and annoys the shit out of me. Europe’s fairly post-Christian. Mostly. Maybe not in the Catholic south, but most of it. Symbols tend to change the closer you get to the equator, as they do around the world. It’s hotter. People need God more tangibly, they’re reminded of that dependency daily.

America at the time the album was born was very entrenched in right wing/left wing politics. I mean, there was little grace given to ‘believers’ of any kind by the liberal left, especially not within the little fledging indie rock community comprised mainly of rich white kids on the east and west coasts playing in art or punk rock bands. Those in the Bible Belt were shit out of luck. Times have changed considerably. America is much smarter, in control, and informed now despite the current political climate. People have more perspective, awareness. They read. The internet has made the world smaller, killed the idols. But at the time, if you mentioned or used any Christian symbols or tools to express something that wasn’t anti-Christian, you were immediately labelled as a Christian band and put you in a box where you’d spend the rest of your eternity withering away. In fact, they were happy to point you out, like, ‘hey guys, we found another one, this band has a couple Christians it in, they must suck now. It was pretty silly. You could be the best band in the world but the ears couldn’t hear it. And understandably so, religion had been shoved down people’s throats and used for all sorts of negative reasons. But to use simplistic analogy, it would sound completely ludicrous for someone to dismiss the Sistine chapel because of a difference in ideology. But that was the case back then, at least for a decade or so.  If you were white and played rock and rock, you couldn’t admit you shared the faith of what 2 billion other people on the planet believed. It was seen as intellectual suicide even to be a theist let alone an outright Christian.  But Europe’s full of a ‘Christian’ legacy of art, painting, cathedrals, music etc. You have it easier in that regard to separate the two. We don’t have any of that. We’re new as far as recorded history. Religion is/was still shoved down our throats, so people were/are reactionary. It seems easier for the European to separate ideology from art.

I don’t know. Maybe it was just cuz of the language barrier as to why we were liked over there at all. Metaphor doesn’t get in the way as much on European soil. The wounds are/were still fresh here. Religion is still a living thing.

But also, places like Italy, like I said, the symbols shift again, like with something as simple as with a ‘socialist’ beard. We don’t have the political baggage of Rome for example. Rome means nothing to Southern rednecks. The rights of man vs power. Southerners might want the government to make sure Creationism is taught in public schools as a viable option, but they still don’t want it’s involvement in personal areas where it can be avoided. I hope that makes sense.

Also, we never got to really tour the states before falling down. In the US, you really had to tour a lot back then. It’s a huge territory. Lots of people. Anyone who saw us play live was converted. In fact, I remember a couple reviews like that saying it was the only ‘religious music’ if was ok to listen to. How gracious of them. Imagine saying, it’s the only music of Jews it’s ok to listen to. It’s silly.

lifttoexperience_vSometimes I also think the record is too honest, too blunt in a sense, it doesn’t dwell in all the usual imagery of alt-country/southern gothic (lonely wanderers, scurrying herds, deserted drugstores, you name it) that appeals to the “alternative” listener. Do you think that there existed/exists a prejudice that real art/independent music can be made only with a pagan/naturalist or an agnostic/atheist view?
Again, I’m a little older. My symbols have been confiscated. Usurped. New meanings. I hope the landmarks I used with language hold up as signposts. It’s tricky when dealing with weighty subject matter, but it also means the possibility of higher elevations. To be informed from the places where we were coming from back then, poor, religious, white southern bible belt kids, it would have been dishonest for us to not use them. I had a personal responsibility to my maker, to the code that ‘saved’ me, which ‘lifted me up’. It would have been cowardice of me to not at least try in my art to ballet dance around sceptics and proponents of cultural relativism. I’m saying this like it matters. No one was going to hear it anyway. I thought we might sell 2,000 copies locally spread out or years. So, I just set about making it as a private dialog between God and I, and keeping to the own responsibility of the art. Honest atheists have a hard time because they know at the end of the day, there’s no real meaning to any of their symbols other than what they put on it. That’s the chasm. A theist’s value is independent of his own subscription. Again, I’m talking like this matters. It doesn’t. 


What I am trying to say is: do you think that, maybe, the record was too challenging for them, on any possible ground?

Yeah. Again, there was a lot more religious baggage in American then. Reactionary emotive atheists. Pitchfork dismissed us as NRA Bush supporters. They didn’t get it at all. That was pretty much their review, judging the ideology ABOVE and before the music. This is very poor critical form. I don’t know if they even listened to the album or the solo record for that matter. Both reviews read as though their mind was made up prior to hearing the work. But then, if the work’s so polarizing that the symbols split the crowd before they even witness it, it’s impressive. Anyway both these records are solid pieces of work. I know what I’m doing here. I’m casting black magic. I’ve played guitar everyday since I was 12. If I’m not ok at it by now, I need to quit.

We thought the Pen & Pixel-like rap album cover would help with any possible bigoted religious reaction to the heavy handed lyric from the press, give it some humour. I was wrong. And, by the way, I do have plenty of guns now, plenty, but they are mainly to shoot Pitchfork reviewers once America finally gets knocked off grid. I’m working on it :).

There is obviously a lot of work that you all three did to make such a breakthrough record. You won’t be the same person after you listen to “TTJC”. I was wondering how the artwork fits in your design.

Aw. Bless you. Thanks for your enthusiasm.

In regards to the cover, I needed some humor at the introduction. I was inspired by the Pen & Pixel rap covers at the time. Pimps. Southern bombastic nature. Bragging. Speaking to those thing that are not as though they are. Will to be, overcoming. Becoming who you are. All that. Poor people pretending they’re rich until they become rich.

The first cover didn’t really land. The label was afraid to push it, so it didn’t work like I wanted. This time we nailed it. It’s one of those things where, if you don’t go all over the top with it, it doesn’t really work. It works now. Plus, Mute let me do the big cd cross fold out. I know no one listens to CDs, but still, it’s what I originally envisioned so that was special for me being able to realize it. How neat we get to do this at all?

I think if there’s any young kids who ‘discover’ the album, it will be fun for them to sit with the art and look at it while they listen. It hearkens back to a time when that stuff mattered, when you could be ‘freaked out’ by a record cover, with symbols that transubstantiate with the music.

I’m glad they let me push the boundaries. Plus, it comes with a golden ticket for the Promised Land if and when hard times ever come redeemable in Texas.


Does it bother you that rock music has gentrified quite sensibly nowadays? You’re playing rock gigs to a seated audience in theatres, I saw you play solo in Milan in an art gallery…

I like sitting. I get tired of standing for hours in the same spot and concentrating listening to music. What’s interesting to me still is the lack of smoke. It’s a totally different ‘clean’ experience now. Not bad, just different.

When I was a kid, going to a rock show felt like you were venturing into Dante’s inferno. Smoke and fire, drunken worldly characters, people falling down all over themselves. It’s pretty cleaned up now, regulated, ordered. But that’s the new world order, the way of the buffalo. The whole world is getting gentrified. Marked. Numbered. There’s no more illusion/delusion. There’s an answer for everything. And one of those answers is to quit smoking, which you should so you can live long and enjoy more music.

What’s also interesting to me now is how even sounds have become gentrified. In the last 15 years, our ears have grown so accustomed to so many sounds. Nothing’s shocking now audibly. The Internet’s changed everything. People don’t realize what we’ve done. We’ve created one living organism with a nervous system. It’s over. We were making very threatening music when we started. Now these sounds are ubiquitous. Explosions in the Sky are on football commercials. We used to play together in front of like 10 people back in the day. They had open. They’re an indie household name now and have big houses and money in the bank cuz the whole world is listening. So goes the buffalo.

So your first record, as Lift To Experience, was released in 2001. Your solo record dates 2011. Can you make a prediction on the date of your next output? Thanks again for you time.

I’m not about to start prophesying, but if I was, I’d say I was going to start putting out a record every few months. There’s an old Yiddish saying: “How to make God laugh. Tell Him your plans.”

Hey listen, it’s a real honour for me to answer your questions. Thanks for taking an interest in a project that really defined the lives of three men. We worked desperately hard on it, and subsequently, our lives fell apart after for about a decade. Very few people care about this little art rock piece. It’s so last century, but we hope the new remixed version gets out there and opens it up for few more hundred people and does some good. It’d put a smile on our faces.

Music ebbs & flows, symbols get hijacked. I hope our song remains the same. Bless your boots!

***

Interview - May 2011

You know, Verdi? He died in Milan. I read that this morning. In an opera book. Did you know his name was a chant during Italian unification? Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia. You should read that. It's pretty cool. And the themes, the musical themes... Fight for justice, defend your honor. All before recorded music, all before television, just your melodies...

I meet Josh T Pearson in this posh Milan art showroom, which is sometimes converted to music hall for special events like this one. He stands up and walks around with his guitar, playing bits of his songs and covers (he'll do that for the whole interview, actually) among grim abstract paintings and white minimalist furniture. The weary, hallucinated look in his eyes dramatically augments the feeling of alienation of someone who's been overexposed to the audience and the press, eager to find a new character - in his case, almost a new Messiah. This is the fourth interview he's doing during his time in Milan. Everybody wants to see him, wants to listen to his words and his songs, maybe even get to touch him, or drink a bit of his soul. Some of the messianic myth that has been created around him seems, in fact, to be true.
He looks as some of the weight of the world had been put over him, a fraction of all sorrow and sadness there is. Every word is spit out with some effort, momentum slowly flows out of sentences until they are just a self-relevant mumbling. This is all there is from that evening in Milan.

All right, you ask the questions, you're the boss.

pearson_ivI just wanted to start with a quote from you.
Am I in trouble?
Maybe...
Do you like the record?
Oh yeah. A lot.
Stands up and opens up the door. The room is hot and suffocating.
I think it's gonna be a nice show.
Sits down again.
I'm tired, man. It's been a long life. Allright. Shoot.

"If I was outside of myself and heard it ["Last Of The Country Gentlemen", Ed.], I'd think the guy was a real dick for doing it because it's just too bare and honest." I can see why you said these words about your record. I wonder, though, what it must be for you to play them live. Do you need to detach yourself from the songs or, on the contrary, you need to really get into them again?
Oh... A little of both. I don't feel "detached", because these songs are so personal. I know I have to channel certain aspects of myself. On the other side, I feel like they could destroy me.

It impresses me that you can just sit down, pick up your guitar and play this kind of songs [he had just recorded a performance for the Italian Rolling Stone with me present, Ed.].
It impresses me too, that particular switching on and off. You know, I did a few tours with Dirty Three and I was really impressed by Warren [Ellis, Ed.]. He could really go into it like that [snaps fingers, Ed.] with such intense, magnificent... He could just channel it, make that switch. For me it's just a little more personal than what I'm used to. I'm playing and singing... It takes a little while to calm down, to get into it in a space where there's people around. I'd say it's like acting but it's not, it's real, so I guess... I don't know. Sometimes before the show I say: "I'll never do this again" and after, when I see it's good work and people are moved by it, it makes me reconsider. I was worried by doing this every night.

You have played some of the songs throughout the years, before the recording of the album. How has the reaction of the public been, so far?
Oh, good. It's been positive, sort of encouraging. They are painful songs, so... People were touched by them. The goal seemed good as long as they made them happy, enriched the life of someone, encourage them to have, maybe, a slightly larger view on life. I think it's good, I think it's healthy.

Some of the intensity of the record is given by the unusual structure of the songs. How do you usually write music?
Well... Years of practice. Usually I start with the music first, group things into cathegories - a particular lyric line, songs in a particular key, I group those together - and then it's a balancing between words and music. I have to choose which is the better melody and... Let the lyric line or the music obey the song is the first and last rule. Always listen to what it tells you, listen to where the song is going. If it's meant to be short, let it be short,  if it's going to be long, then long, just obey it. If it says "Repeat the pattern"... Space is a... Space, space, space. Space is the key to let it breathe. I think it's the oldest rule to make a song.

You also recorded "Last Of Country Gentlemen" after a long gestation. Were the songs composed in a limited period of time, though?
Yeah, three or four months, if you combine the actual work together. Even if it took years, the actual work is three or four months.

Was this long wait due to material difficulties, or because you didn't feel ready to go into the studio until it happened?
Oh, I didn't think I was going to record these songs. I spent a decade writing song after song, putting them into cathegories. I didn't know if I would share them. I use to treat them as performance art and play them live. These songs that I happened to be working on at the time made me reconsider my aesthetic, my artistic aesthetic. I had a couple shows... So I thought: "We'll try to record it and see if the thing is captured".

pearson_iiSo did you find the recording tougher than live performance?
[Laughs a bit, Ed.] Yeah, yeah. But it's also because I was going through it at the time, the songs... They were so fresh. I hadn't had some time to heal. It was quite as painful than it was the...

And you never changed your mind about playing the songs with such a bare arrangement?
I might. I messed around with some electric guitar, they sound great. It's a completely different song, a completely different interpretation. They sound... They sound good. It's a much liver (???) feeling, a different color. I haven't tried any drums yet.

You started with a completely different musical style, you were fronting Lift To Experience, a band with shoegaze background. How did it happen that you just started back from acoustic guitar when they disbanded?
Well, originally I played acoustic when I first learned guitar, Then I went to electric guitar and alternative tunings and, after six or seven years with them, after Lift To Experience... I went out to the countryside and I lay down my electric guitar and intentionally switched back to regular tunings and acoustic as a challenge. I wasn't into post-rock contemporary music anymore at all, I just went back to country music, folk songs, regular tunings [improvises a standard chord pattern on his guitar, Ed.], that sort of chords. The challenge was just to try to create something interesting out of basic, country tradition, after six, seven years. And somehow  I moved around a regular tune, I mean, I was trying to, at a certain point, to create that sort of rock landscape with one guitar and just reverb.

Can you give us a short summary of the Lift To Experience time?
It was really for the sake of music, to us. Just three kids, really making music that they wanted to make, without worries or fear about anything else. And that seemed to get kind of dirty six years later, later down, because I wanted to keep it pure. It was a symphony to God, it was church music basically. It was a kind of... Love letter. And we got really close to falling in love but.. Things got a little complicated, there were a lot of personal things as individuals... I needed to go and explore some of the world. I thought I'd let what good was there remain... That sounds rough. It was serious stuff. We were really Christians at heart. We were a great band. Great bands break up. We had integrity. It's amazing how any great art just tumbles... We wanted to pursue, it wasn't like there was this huge, huge pressure. And, I don't know, I just needed some more time.

It is a well-known story that you are the son of a preacher, that you started playing in the church, even that you considered becoming a preacher yourself. What is left of that need, of that attitude, or vision, in your life as an artist and normal human being in general?
Well, I think I did [become a preacher, Ed.]! I mean... Spreading the good news! I hope! Good work. With my God's tradition, I'm spreading good things, doing good. It's better to do good, to believe in. I hope I share some of it... If it's good or if it's good work, you're preaching hope and life. There are places where people need encouragement, you know.

How did Warren Ellis get involved?
Oh well, he offered. He offered to... Play.
There was a bet in there, so I read...
Yeah. He lost a bet.

OK, you don't want to say... You're playing a lot in Europe, now. Do you fell more comfortable playing here, than in your home country?
I am respected more, here. People are always more respecting if you come from some other place... It's human nature. They take you more seriously if you're not from around. So I haven't really played in the States in the last times. In March, it was the first time I played solo since years...

I attend every year the End Of The Road Festival.
Oh yeah. Good one. Good people.
What can you say about that experience?
Oh it's about the perfect size, five thousand to seven thousand people. It's the little kind of festival with great music, artist around and hanging out. People get to meet their... Heroes. Which is good. For an artist, it's humanizing. It lets you know that it is possible to keep human. There's a lot of... Peacocks. It's cool.

pearson_ixAre you gonna play a secret gig in the woods?
I did that one year, unannounced. I don't know when I'm playing... Sunday afternoon? That girl is playing... The one who plays the harp?
Joanna Newsom.
Yeah, Joanna. She's playing.

So, last question. I'm very curious if you have any plans for your next record...
I don't know. I haven't thought about it.
What kind of direction will you take after such a particular and painful album? Maybe something more "conventional"...
I have really no idea. These songs have took me years. Yeah, I think I'd like to put out more records. I hope so. I'll have to think about it and see what the Good Lord says. You know, this one seems to be doing some pretty good to this world...
Are you impressed by your success?
I'm shocked... I didn't know there was that much sadness in the world. There are five songs that stretch... It surprises me to be here, to be asked questions. I'm shocked, It's a challenging piece of work. And it's a record "from the beginning to the end", it's the way I wrote it. It's one piece.

It won't be - a few hours later - Pearson's greatest performance. The audience greets him somehow coldly, as if they were disappointed by him being just human, a tired human being, sometimes laughing hysterically out of mere exhaustion. He'll probably never be the kind of artist who can do one gig per night with the same intensity, like Warren Ellis; but that's his strength, the ability to just show himself as he is, to expose of all his feelings and emotions, even the ones he wouldn't be supposed to show.

Discography
 LIFT TO EXPERIENCE 
   
The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (Bella Union, 2001; Mute, 2017)8
   
 JOSH T. PEARSON 
   
 To Hull And Back (self-released, 2006)

 

Last Of The Country Gentlemen (Mute, 2011)

8

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