Legendary apocalyptic concept album resurrected
When they emerged in the late 1990s, Texas’ Lift To Experience seemed less like a conventional rock band and more like a wild, hirsuite Millennial cult. Although the band was only active for five years, their slim body of work – 15 songs in total, spread across one EP, a split 7” and a double album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads – vividly detailed the end of the world, with their home state positioned as the battleground for the coming apocalypse. After the band collapsed in 2002, frontman Josh T Pearson retreated to Tehuacana, Texas – population: 283 – only resurfacing again in 2011 to document the break-up of his marriage on an album of melancholic country-noir, Last Of The Country Gentlemen. In Lift’s absence, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads has assumed a mythic status – an original vinyl pressing is currently on sale for $1,000 on Discogs –its reputation stoked in part by well-placed admirers like Elbow’s Guy Garvey. When Garvey curated last year’s Meltdown Festival on London’s South Bank, he invited the band to reunite. But increasingly, that show – the band’s first for 15 years – feels like a McGuffin, a trigger for a more substantial reappraisal of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads.
Over the summer, the band returned to the Echo Lab in Denton – scene of the original recording sessions for the album – with engineer Matt Pence to remix the album. Pearson believes the original mix – by their then-label boss, Simon Raymonde, at Bella Union – didn’t fully capture the band’s dramatic sound. To be fair to Raymonde – whose original version is included in the deluxe box set alongside the enhanced 2016 mix – The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads is a vast and uncompromising project for anyone to tackle. The album’s impressive musical palette veers from intense, pummeling riffs to quieter passages that float by like a lucid dream, full of twinkling harmonics and spidery guitar lines. Such striking contrasts frequently create a compelling friction within the songs themselves; a masterful use of volume and dynamics that calls to mind the nascent Led Zeppelin. “Just As Was Told”, for instance, pinballs between gutsy and urgent guitar arpeggios and atmospheric swirls of sound; transcendent and tense. No surprise then that nine of the 11 tracks on The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads stretch beyond five minutes – there’s simply too much going on to contain them in a shorter, more traditional format.
The album was originally recorded live to tape, and Pence was able to create his new mix from those original recordings. There are few eye-catching initiatives, but what Pence’s mix achieves is to reflect the energy of the band playing together in the room. The way Andy “The Boy” Young’s drums suddenly crash into “Just As Was Told” at the 48 second mark like a cannon volley, or hearing Pearson’s hands moving along his guitar fretboard during the hushed introduction to “Down Came The Angels” are gripping. The new mix is an immersive experience – where before it was perhaps enough to be impressed by the swoop of the music.
The deluxe box set also gathers together their first EP – limited to 500 copies, released in 1997 on local label Random-Precision – and a John Peel session dated April 15, 2001, one of three they recorded for the DJ in the space of four months. It’s often a fascinating piece of archeology, tracking the arc of Lift To Experience’s development, as demonstrated by three versions of “Falling From Cloud 9” here. All three tell very different stories. The earliest – from their 1997 EP – is rough and rudimentary. The vocals are buried deep in the fuzzy mix, while the heavy use of tremelo and feedback call to mind the gothier end of shoegaze – Catherine Wheel, perhaps. The song itself is fully formed, but there are subtle differences to the later editions. A friend, Brian Smith, was helping out on drums and it’s not until they recruited Andy Young that the song comes fully into focus. The process by which the song morphs from the EP to the album version is highlighted on Pence’s new mix. He foregrounds Young’s drums – giving the song a muscular momentum – and polishes Pearson’s vocals, so his arcane tale about fallen angels fits more clearly with the album’s narrative. Pearson’s vocal builds, drops and peaks – ascendant flights of singing that recall Jeff Buckley – are cleanly delineated here. The Peel version, recorded at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, sits somewhere between the two. Clocking in at nine minutes, it stretches out to twice the length of the album version, closer to the band’s sprawling live incarnation. The second half of the song showcases the band’s expansive playing – particularly Pearson’s guitar playing, which glides between feedback-drenched soloing and enormous, distorted chords.
A key selling point of the deluxe edition is that EP and the Peel session also round up all but one of the band’s remaining songs. Chief among these is “With The World Behind” – a short (3:03 minute) hymnal featuring a plaintive guitar motif from Pearson. It has historical significance, too. When LA-band The Autumns recorded at Raymonde’s September Sound studio in Twickenham, they covered “With The World Behind”, introducing Raymonde and his then-partner Robin Guthrie to Lift To Experience. The Peel session version is especially low-key, but it’s all the better for it: the sparse backing allows Pearson his most tenderhearted vocal cadences. An intimate song about suicide, it throws forward to Pearson’s solo work on Last Of The Country Gentlemen. The other two songs on the EP, “Arise And Shine” and “Liftin On Up”, revert to the widescreen blowouts familiar from The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads.
A hushed mood, then a noise-rock cacophony. On reflection, it’s possible to see why The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads was overlooked in America when it first came out. Released in June 2001, the same summer as the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells and the Strokes’ Is This It, apocalyptic space rock struggled for air at a time when short, spiky songs prevailed. Astonishingly, the album wasn’t even released in the States. Which is partly why the band’s decision to revisit The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads represents a second chance to get their legacy right. In 2001, George W Bush had just entered the White House, engendering all manner of dire imprecations. In 2017, as a Trump presidency begins to take shape, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads seems, again, a suitable soundtrack to uncertain times.
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JOSH T PEARSON
What made you want to revisit Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads?
The mixing. Through very complicated reasons we weren’t there for the original. It’s always bothered us. We were a pretty punk gut-wrenching sonic assault. The old mix was safe and sound. We were neither. The label was just getting started. They’d put out their solo records, which weren’t doing so hot. They were going bankrupt, getting evicted from their studio. They told us they couldn’t afford for us to mix it in Texas, but they could do it at their studio in the week or two they had left, and they’d put it out. We took it. We’d been sitting on the record a year, no one wanted touch it. The new mix was even sped up. Weirdest thing. The tunes clocked in faster than they were recorded. It just felt like there’s been a veil over it. I owed the Texas studio money for the tracking. All my gear was in pawn, but we were happy anyone was interested at all.
What was your original intention with the album?
To ask forgiveness for sins I hadn’t committed. I wanted to make something beautiful enough that God would hear me. Still hasn’t.
What do you remember about the original recording sessions for the album?
We’d run the stuff so much before, it was only a point of hitting ‘record’. Everything was mapped out, no accidents. It wasn’t experimental music. It was straight hard composition & muscle. We were a little nervous about tracking it all in what space we’d allotted because we had no money to pay for even that. Two or three takes at most. At some point I realized the train bridge behind the studio was one where the first love of my life and I had spent one summer afternoon together years prior walking the lines in bliss. The first love whose subsequent breakup forever bent me on the track called music. It meant a great deal to me then because trains were such a theme on the record. Invisible tracks of unmarked paths somehow secretly guiding us. After recorded, it took a year to find someone to touch it, then another for it to come out. (We’d also done a version a year prior which I canned, because it wasn’t good enough. Which just goes to show you, if you do something long enough, eventually you’ll stop sucking at it.)
Whose decision was it to reform – or did you never really split up in the first place?
We never really split up, we basically just fell apart. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were kids. No help. You couldn’t Google stuff. It wasn’t even like someone could give you a thumbs up on MySpace and you’d feel better about your day. America didn’t care. And I didn’t wanna do that much work again on something if no one cared, so I moved out to the middle of nowhere Texas and went a little nuts for a couple of years. I wouldn’t leave the house for a month, and never the village. The inward journey. That’s the real trip. It took a year to come down after that one. I wouldn’t recommend it. Had to fight tooth & nail for the mind to come back. There was nothing to fall back on. It wouldn’t have been like a cute Brian Wilson story with your own private doctor. It would have been me at the state run funny farm with no possible outcome toward recovery. That or end on the street, which now that I think about it, I guess I did.
Do the themes on Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads feel more relevant today?
The quest for transcendence is just as relevant now as it was back then, so I don’t know exactly what you mean unless it’s that. Time is relative, but I guess it’s probably safe to say we’re closer to the physical in the metaphysical metaphor I was swinging. Twenty more years is where it will really get interesting. Mystery’s dead, God has flown. There are no great pilgrimages to art. Not when it’s a double click. How could there be? Romance is over the way of the dodo. We’ll never be lost again. It undermines the whole ‘I once was lost, now I’m found’ paradigm. Music has changed so much. Nothing is threatening now sonically. Uniqueness is gone. The price for tolerance is mediocre art. Small price to pay… Obsolete. The kids don’t need it anyway. They’ve got enough great art. Click it. We just wanted to uncover this one piece for the digital dig before it turns from dust to dust, just to say FU, some boys born before the internet web did something good with their lives before being all tangled up.
For you, what was the highlight of the show at Meltdown?
Not fucking it up. My right hand man and manager Peter Sasala running backstage screaming “Yeeeeah!” right after, and I knowing we’d done alright. Pressure was tight for not letting the old school fans down. Didn’t wanna disappoint ‘em. It was such an artful band, it seemed like putting on a good gig was authentication for the entire way of life chosen. Like, if it wasn’t as special as was embedded, it would call the whole aesthetic choice into question. We needed to be better than we used to be. We weren’t, but it was good enough to pass inspection. Was neat when the lights kicked on too. We’d never had a proper light show. The crew at Southbank were real gentlemen, treated us like kings. We’d never had roadies before either. It was neat to not have to move Marshall stacks after playing your balls off for an hour. That always sucked. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why I went country. Acoustic. No load out.
What’s next for Lift To Experience? More shows? New music?
We have literally no plans. We had the opportunity to do Meltdown and we took it. We didn’t know if we’d ever have the chance again for someone to offer enough where three men who live thousands of miles apart could quit their money gigs for 2-3 weeks, get in a room long enough to relearn the tunes, fly us over, pay for gas, food, lodging etc and break even. It’s not like people were writing us letters. We aren’t the Pixies or My Bloody Valentine. We are nuthin’. Not even a rumor.
INTERVIEW: MICHAEL BONNER
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