By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
One year ago next month, Denton's Lift to Experience was scheduled to perform at Austin's annual South By Southwest Music Festival. With much of the music industry in town for the week, it's a stellar opportunity for bands to get exposure, if only they can get themselves on the right bill and in front of the right crowd. Lift to Experience was booked at Patos Tacos on the back patio under a plastic roof on a makeshift stage, playing before the band "These guys suck!" and right after "Who the hell is this?" The crowd was made up of, well, friends who braved the evening's sudden rainstorm and bothered to show up, along with a few taco-munching patrons.
Conditions couldn't have been any better.
Why? Among those in attendance were former Cocteau Twins members Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, now running their own U.K. label Bella Union. Raymonde and Guthrie had been tipped off about Lift to Experience by Matthew Kelly of Los Angeles-based The Autumns, who were fans of Lift to Experience from previous encounters. When The Autumns were recording at Raymonde and Guthrie's September Sound studio in London, they'd brought along Lift to Experience's self-titled 1997 EP to listen to, and eventually ended up covering one of the songs. Enticed by what they heard, Raymonde and Guthrie made the trek to Austin to scout some Texas talent.
"It was weird," drummer Andy Young says, discussing the show with his bandmates at singer-guitarist Josh T. Pearson's house. "Like, immediately after we played, I was expecting it to be real businesslike, and Simon came up and gave me a big hug, telling me how much he loved us. Then Robin came up, and I couldn't understand a damn word he said." Pearson and bassist Josh "Bear" Browning concur: "Not a damn word."
One thing was clear enough: Raymonde and Guthrie were interested in working with the trio. With the bulk of its album already recorded in the fall and winter of 1999, Lift to Experience went about selling Bella Union on the idea of releasing its almost-finished album. The band sent a rough copy of the album--recorded and mastered at The Echo Lab in Argyle by Dave Willingham--to Raymonde to be mixed in London. However, Lift to Experience hadn't laid all its cards on the table. When the notion of releasing a full-length album was discussed, the label wasn't told exactly how long the band wanted it to be: just under 94 minutes of music, spread out over two discs.
"We had to sneak that double-disc idea in a couple of weeks after they heard the record," Young says. "We didn't say that right up front."
Pearson adds, "At first their reaction was 'No fuckin' way!' And then they came back a week a later and told us that they'd do it." With both label and band on the same page, Raymonde set about mixing the rough tracks.
"Andy and I had to sort of play 'good cop, bad cop,'" Pearson says. "It was funny having to tell Simon to change something on the record. He'd be up all night working on something, and I'd be like, 'I know I listened to your band in the seventh grade, but sorry, dude: You're gonna have to change it."
"It was strange being in a situation where you're telling your rock icons to fix something on your record," Young continues. "'I don't like that. I want that louder.'" The result, as Pearson puts it, is "a double-disc concept album about the end of the world, where Texas is the Promised Land."
Titled The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads, the album is divided into two parts of a poem. The first disc, tracks one through six, reads Just as was told/Down came the Angels/Falling from Cloud 9/With Crippled Wings/Waiting to Hit/The Ground so Soft. The five tracks on the second disc complete the story: These are the Days/When We Shall Touch/Down with the Prophets/To Guard and to Guide You/Into the Storm. It's an epic journey Pearson wrote at different points of high and low in his life. Each song is meticulously constructed around the idea of motion with direction. In fact, the first and final sounds heard on the record are that of a train whistle Pearson and Browning recorded one evening outside Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton.
"Bear and I waited around for about three hours outside a Will Johnson show trying to record the right sound," Pearson says.
If you've ever been to Denton, or if you've ever lived in a small community outside a large metropolitan area, you'll know this sound. It's the sound of missed opportunities or of a better life passing you by. Lift to Experience isn't the first American band to have the small-town life reflected in its music. John Mellencamp was born in one. The Replacements couldn't wait to leave theirs, and Steve Earle, well, Steve Earle would be hard-pressed to write a song that didn't involve a small town. What sets Lift to Experience apart from the rest is its pervasive optimism and love for the close-knit college town in which it resides. As Pearson writes in the song "These Are the Days," "[Lift to Experience] are the best band in the whole damn land, and Texas is the reason."