Josh T. Pearson first gained notoriety as a member of Lift to Experience after that band parlayed a performance at SXSW in 2000 into a record deal with Bella Union. The result was The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, a sonically dense, symbolic work encompassing the mythology of Texas and the biblical apocalypse. Critics were intrigued, but the album would be Lift to Experience’s only significant work. After the band dissolved, Pearson started an odyssey that was half Hank Williams and half Blood Meridian. He emerged a decade later with Last of the Country Gentlemen, out this month, a collection of brutally personal songs melding the traditions of country music with Pearson’s unique vision as a songwriter.
We talked to Pearson by phone as he prepared for his album release at a small-town Texas hostel.
Josh Pearson: Where are you from?
Prefix: I’m from Industrial, West Virginia.
JP: Do they have chickens and goats there?
Prefix: It’s really just a post office. There were about thirty people there.
JP: That’s the way this one is. Around the turn of the last century it had about two thousand people. There about two hundred left. It’s real nice and quiet, though. I was just outside hanging out with a couple of donkeys.
Prefix: First off, I wanted to tell you that I love the album. I think it’s massive. I don’t say that to just anybody. The whole reason I wanted to do the interview was to get it out there.
JP: God bless you and thank you. You just made my day. You sure you don’t say that to everybody just to butter then up?
Prefix: No. I heard the album and knew immediately that I had to talk to you about it.
JP: That makes me feel a little bit better. I’m kind of rusty on this interview thing.
Prefix: Are you willing to talk about what happened to Lift to Experience?
JP: Uh, no, not really. What do you need to know about it?
Prefix: Was it too much too soon, did you realize it wasn’t what you wanted to be doing, or were personalities involved?
JP: I think it was all that. There was a lot going on at the time. Everything happened all at once, and then shit just fell apart, like it does, with good bands at least. People started dying, and then people started using harder drugs, and then we were all angry. We kind of had to go our separate ways for a while. I hadn’t talked to the drummer for a couple of years, I think. We’re friends again now. Just the passage of time helped quite a bit, I think. And I just dropped the ball, honestly. I couldn’t carry the weight. It was a real fragile thing. I had no idea how much it would take out of me. I decided just to sit alone and play the guitar for a while.
Prefix: You’ve played some shows, but essentially been gone for a decade. Where have you been?
JP: I was in Berlin for a couple years. I was out here in the country first off for about four years straight, just kind of not leaving. I didn’t have a car, so I was kind of stuck here. I bought a little house out in the middle of nowhere for ten thousand dollars and started writing country songs. I left very, very few times during those four years and I didn’t really play out. I think I played three shows during those four years. Around 2005 I wanted to go to the World Beard Championship. They were having it in Berlin. Somebody offered a flight over there if I played a show, so I did. I got offered a tour with the Dirty Three while I was over there, and I spent a lot of time jumping into the next van. I went back to Berlin for a while, and then I lived in Paris. I would do a little tour or play shows when I needed to pay bills, fifty bucks here and fifty bucks there. In between I would hole up and write. I got married in Texas two and a half years ago. I don’t know if you’ve ever been through a divorce, but I highly recommend it. It’s really awesome.
Prefix: Uh, yeah.
JP: We’re not sure exactly what we’re doing. We split up a while back, but I can’t seem to file and neither can she. Anyway, so now I’m in Texas and I’m going back over the water in a week or so. I’ll play some more shows and that kind of thing.
Prefix: Why did you decide to get back into the studio at this particular time?
JP: I finally felt okay about it. I felt that for a few years I didn’t really have enough time to put out something that I felt was good enough. These songs just made it over that threshold. For a while there I had a problem with making money at it. It seemed like it cluttered up the art, and I didn’t want to fool with it. I was always writing, and this isn’t the only record I worked on; it’s just the one I finished. Unfortunately, it’s a sad one. I didn’t mean to do that, wait that long and then come out with such a sad, sad record.
Prefix: The word I used was “dark.” Did you have reservations about releasing an album that is thematically pretty bleak?
JP: Yeah, it’s kind of a ridiculous thing to do on a personal morality level. It’s a horrible thing. There’s enough darkness in the world. But I played the songs live a couple of times, and strangers would come up and thank me in a way that I hadn’t been thanked before. It touched them on a level that it made me think that it might be selfish not to share them.
Prefix: Do you think that they offer catharsis on some level, even if not for you personally?
JP: I definitely believe that the deep calls in the deep, but I still don’t know about it. The decision has been made; it’s going out there. I think it’s a piece of shit now, so maybe it’s good I got it out in that window. I was playing in Ireland, and there were a couple of boys that were tough on the outside, but this reached them. I felt maybe I should do it for their sake. I didn’t envision shopping this around. I wrote for myself like always. They say that you should be as honest as possible, but you’re not always prepared for the results. I hope it does some people good, some heartbroken people. I guess that’s more common than we want to admit.
Prefix: What did you think when I told you I loved the record?
JP: I’m kind of saddened of by it. That sounds stupid, but if you really love it, obviously some bad things have happened to you. If they hadn’t, you could be dismissive and wouldn’t need to spend any time with my album. People gravitate towards light if they’re healthy. It’s not natural to go with the darkness. I’d probably tip my hat and pat you on the back if I saw you, and say “I’m sorry brother. We’ll get through this hopefully.” I’m sorry that you like it.
Prefix: That’s how things go sometimes.
JP: It about killed me making it. I would play a song and then weep for twenty minutes. It’s stuff you wouldn’t tell your close friends. I don’t know how I feel about it.
Prefix: Tell me a little bit about a song like “Honeymoon,” which is thirteen minutes long. Was it structured that way, or did you have to get it out?
JP: I don’t know. This is hard. I haven’t even listened to it since we mixed it. It’s just too painful. Usually, I follow the music and obey whatever current it takes me on. I’ll write out a bunch of lyrics, write the music, and then rewrite the lyrics. It’s a battle between the two. You have to get out what you want say within the confines of the song. I guess I have a lot to say, because I go on and on. It doesn’t feel long to me, though; it’s relative to the material. It’s only when there’s nothing going on that you say that something was boring or not worthwhile.
Prefix: The form is something that is new to the thematic conventions of country.
JP: I think it is country if you call it country. I wrote this music without pretense, and that’s what true country music is about. The form is different, but that’s the form the songs needed to take. For instance, at the end of “Honeymoon,” there’s a little minor chord that I put in at the end of the song. I couldn’t have lived with the song if it wasn’t there. Nobody else might notice it, but it would have stuck out to me. I think that strangest thing is about this record is that I waited ten years to put it out, but I didn’t practice enough before I recorded it. They were so painful that I couldn’t play them. I would have liked to have a little more guitar color there, but it was all recorded live. I couldn’t stay in the zone that long.
Prefix: How are you going to play these songs live?
JP: That is a good fucking question. I’ve had about a year to prepare for it, but I’m still not up to it. “Woman,” I can do pretty good. You can teach yourself to disappear into the song, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with these. After all the shit that’s happened to me these last few years, I can’t really play many of the songs that I used to play; they’re something that’s gotten beat out of me. They’re too angry. They take too much energy. I don’t know about the new ones. I hope I can do them live. I don’t know about “Honeymoon.” I probably won’t be able to do that one. My manager was worried about it; he’s been on me all year to write some things that I can do for the live set, but I haven’t done it. It might be a short tour.
Prefix: But you’re going to go ahead with it?
JP: I’ll have to check the MySpace, but I have a couple of weeks scheduled in Europe. All I really need is a good opening band, or rather a person that can run sound and drive a van that wants to work for free. Preferably a girl who can cook and play acoustic guitar. If she ran sound, that would be better. I’m teasing. Sort of. I don’t know. I think I made a wrong decision. I might have sold out.
Prefix: When you say sold out, what does that mean to you?
JP: Recorded song. Something more than live. Putting a song on an album and selling it.
Prefix: Do you have a problem getting paid for a live performance?
JP: No. I guess I do if it’s over a certain amount. I certainly took their fifty dollars over the last couple of years. I got paid a thousand dollars once for a show. That was kind of crazy. I didn’t know what to do with it. I remember going around to strangers for a coupe of weeks afterward saying how strange it was that I got a thousand dollars. It’s a punk rock aesthetic, but it’s kind of silly. You work hard on the songs; I don’t see why it’s a sin to get paid for them.
Prefix: What is your next step?
JP: Counseling, probably. I have to get my teeth cleaned this week. I’m trying to see a back doctor and buy a suit from Sheplers.com. I got a clean up a bunch of crap that I left here, and then start playing, I guess. That’s all I can see in front of me. You meant directly in front of me, right?
Prefix: You have an album that you’re deeply conflicted about, an upcoming tour with songs you might not be able to play, and you don’t know if you want to take money for what you do. I don’t know what to make of it.
JP: That’s all true, I guess. Boots sure look good when they’re new, though. Man, oh man.