Waiting to Hit
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.
Lift to Experience with Pleasant Grove
"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."
Among other things, the trio shares an admiration for and comfort in the small-Texas-town living.
"To be true to your art, you can't deny your past," Pearson says. "It's a part of you."
No one would ever claim that Lift to Experience denies its small-town roots. Looking at the members of the band--dressed in boots, denim (always denim), and winter jackets made from one dead animal or another--one might believe they're more apt for a life of manual labor on a chicken farm rather than music. It wouldn't be far from the truth: Pearson wrote most of the lyrics and music on The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads while working as a ranch hand. "It was from the end of '97 through the end of the summer of '98 I worked on an Andalusian horse ranch, cleaning out stables and shoveling horse shit," Pearson says. Ah yes, but it takes more than shit-shoveling to get a band this far.
It's been a long--and, at times, difficult--trip for everyone involved. The band may have only come together a few years ago, but it had its first flickers 10 years ago at the nondenominational Restoration Church in Euless. Pearson and Browning made an acquaintance at the church, finding that they had common interests and backgrounds, including the fact that their fathers were both men of the cloth--Pearson's father was a Pentecostal preacher, and Browning's was a Presbyterian deacon. Later, the two would find Young, who happened to be of a similar upbringing; his father was also a preacher. Before the formation of Lift to Experience, Browning had his first foray into the world of rock with the band Carousel. Pearson, too, had a first band, as much as he'd like to forget; some might recall seeing him onstage at Mad Hatter's in Fort Worth with the band Blue Demonstrations. Young, however, cut his musical teeth more traditionally, graduating from an arts magnet high school with a degree in "rockin'" and a minor in "and a rollin'."
Flash forward to the fall of 1997, when Lift to Experience first headed to the studio to record demos. Friend Brian Smith (now bass player in Mandarin) held the position of drummer at the time, and it was these sessions that led to the 1997 release of Lift to Experience's self-titled EP on Random-Precision Records.
"The demo we recorded turned out to be good enough that a buddy of ours who'd started a label decided to release it," Pearson says. "He'd started the label with the idea to lose as much money as fast as he could, and we did pretty good helping him out there," he jokes.
With a four-track EP and enough songs to constitute an entire set, Lift to Experience was a full-time band. And then it wasn't: Reverting to his original calling of guitar, Smith left the band to pursue other opportunities. Fortunately for the band, it was around this time that Andy Young entered the equation. Even though Pearson had met Young almost a year before at the now-infamous Mulberry Street house--Pearson's former residence and site of Denton's Mulberry St. Fair--a slight confusion concerning musical preference kept the two from working together.
"Pearson thought I was a speed metal drummer 'cause my friend who'd introduced us listened to heavy metal," Young recalls. "It was at a party a year later when the two of us were drinking beer out of martini glasses that we found out we liked the same kind of bands."
Coincidentally, the two also liked the same kind of beer. A lot. Despite the trio's love of drink, it was their love of music and performing that fueled the first year together, strengthening their friendship and talent.
"It was great when Andy joined, 'cause he could play loud enough," Browning remembers. "We were so loud, and Andy could really hit the drums, do a little improv, and had real passion when he played." Pearson shared Browning's enthusiasm for the new drummer: "The finesse wasn't there at the beginning, but over the course of the next year, he got more precise. It was that initial passion that solidified it for us."
Throughout 1998 and the beginning of 1999, the band members played in and around the DFW area, gaining a fan base, honing their skills as musicians, and ruining the hearing of countless unsuspecting audiences. Loud isn't an appropriate word to describe a Lift to Experience show; deafening comes closest. But high atop the wall of its sonic edifice is a clear and melodic window into the world of Lift to Experience. A world where guitar riffs are so complex, the tabulature would look something like when an elbow rests on a computer keyboard. A world where cow skulls relax upon whirling amplifiers. A world full of enough Old and New Testament references to make a theology student say, "Hey, that's a lot of references." (Too many references, in fact, for this writer to even begin sifting through his worn-out Bible with a highlighter and a pot of coffee.) Musically, the band draws heavily on the early '90s "shoegazer" movement out of England. The difference being that Lift to Experience is able to assault an audience with echoic layers of guitar that its V-neck-sweatered predecessors needed at least two axe-men to do. And in most cases, Lift to Experience does it better.
In 1999, the band also made its first venture outside the great state of Texas. Early on in the spring, Lift to Experience motored west to San Diego but were momentarily stranded in Arizona, only halfway there.
"After seeing the new Star Wars movie the morning it came out, we stumbled into the first bar we found," Pearson begins. "The sign outside said 'Cocktails,' but the 'tails' was burnt out, so it just said 'Cock.' We knew we had to go in, and we proceeded to get as piss-drunk as fast as possible. In our drunken stupor, Andy noticed a stage behind us trimmed with golden fringe, and Andy was like, 'Dude, gold fringe!' So one of us asked if we could play there and work out a trade or something. Sure enough, that night happened to be open-mike night. So we ended up playing our first show outside of Texas for a case of Budweiser and a room in the hotel next door," he says, laughing.
Unfortunately, the stress and strain of the tour had its downside as well: After Lift to Experience's first West Coast tour, Young decided to leave the rock lifestyle behind. Briefly.
"My dad had passed away about three months before that tour," Young says. "Actually, it was his truck we took that broke down on us. So when the truck blew the rod, I for one felt like he was pissed for taking his truck out on a rock tour. Like he was the one that broke it from beyond the grave. Anyway, I was feeling like I had family obligations and school obligations I had to attend to. Eventually, I decided that this is what I wanted to do."
After an unsuccessful attempt to replace him, Young resumed full-time drummer status at the end of the year, just in time to play Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios on Christmas night. Lift to Experience hasn't looked back since. Not that they did much of that in the first place.
Now, in just a few months, the band will join the rank of other Denton-Dallas-Fort Worth bands such as Centro-matic, the Old 97's, and the Toadies, bands that have graduated to their own levels of success. It could begin for Lift to Experience when the band leaves for England in support of the new album, set for release the first week in April. All three members are ready for that great leap forward.
"At first, we'd decided to make a certain amount of records," Young says. "And now I feel like we don't even have the first one out yet, and I want to go make another 15. When you find someone you can play with and get along with so well, how can you deny doing anything but that?"
When asked what he expected to come from all their hard work, Browning says simply, "For me, I just want it to influence more music. When you're young, you listen to bands, and they become your influences. I'd like to see us have that same lasting effect."
More prophetic, though, are Pearson's own didactic hopes for the band: "Well, I'm just looking for money and hoes." He continues, more seriously, "I'd like to make enough money out of this to try and make at least two or three more records. Have something of a catalog. I'd like to see us earn a living from touring, to be able to make records. Whether we sell five million CDs or 500 CDs, I could really care less, as long as we can still make music."
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