Last of The Country Gentlemen: a Josh T. Pearson interview By Ian Johnston
“Hey, what do you want to know?”Â asks bearded singer/songwriter Josh T. Pearson, immediately interrogating, in a jocular fashion, the inquisitor. “All about me, eh? I was born in Texas. My father was a Pentecostal preacher. My parents split when I was young. We moved around about twenty times. I didn’t really see him.”Â
Texan Pearson, formerly of the highly acclaimed rock band Lift To Experience and now promoting his stunning first solo LP, Last Of The Country Gentlemen (please see my previous Louder Than War review), cuts quite a striking figure. The 36 year-old could definitely be from, to quote Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1968 country hit, ”ËAnother Place, Another Time.’ Josh T. Pearson seems to have stepped out of the pages of the history of the western frontier, or perhaps its future.
In January 2011 when we met at Mute records’ new Hammersmith HQ, the tall, slender Pearson was wearing gleaming black Justin cowboy boots with white tooling, a black Motorhead T-shirt, black jeans, a black top coat (which was clearly not warm enough for the UK at this time of year), long hair and an even longer dark beard. Only his signature black Stetson hat was absent.
“Can you see the white neckerchief under here?”Â Pearson joshes, lifting up his flowing beard for closer inspection. The man in black was indeed also wearing white. As utterly sincere as Pearson is, concerning his beliefs, obsessions and art, he also has a keen sense of self-deprecation and the absurd that blows any misguided accusations of self-absorbed pomposity straight out of the water.
In conversation Pearson is very friendly, considerate and surprisingly open. He possesses a razor-sharp, gallows humour, delivered in his steady, quiet Texan drawl, which sometimes goes completely over some people’s heads (who on earth said American’s cannot understand irony?). Pearson also carries a deep, world-weary air of intensity, sensitivity and sadness. The man and the spiritually charged acoustic music of love and loss he has evoked on the epic Last Of The Country Gentlemen are definitely one and the same.
Pearson’s first memories of music were from growing up in church. “Just Pentecostal/Baptist hymnal singing and dancing kind of songs,”Â Pearson remembers. “They have a full band, it lasts an hour or so. I think all those songs had a big impression on me. In fact, I think it was the moments in-between songs that had the biggest influence, because it was one long piece of music and the songs would build to an epiphany at those services.”Â
Asked when he began to play and write music, Pearson replies, “Since I picked up the guitar. I was brought up singing in church. Go there two or three times a week. I picked up the guitar, I think at 12, and I haven’t put it down since.”Â Also at the age of 12, Pearson heard the electric rock guitar for the first time. A friend was playing a Sex Pistols song and Pearson could not believe that he was recreating the Pistols’ rousing, anthemic sound. Pearson was shown how to play like Steve Jones and the chords to U2’s ”ËSunday, Bloody Sunday’ on the guitar. “I went around the house playing that for a few days. I bought my first electric guitar for five dollars from a friend down the street. It didn’t have a name on it. I couldn’t afford an amp, so I bought an acoustic.”Â
Pearson had considered his father’s vocation as a path to follow: ““I did. I didn’t really want to follow him, but I did want to go into the church. “ Yet music exerted a stronger gravitational pull upon him. “As a career? No, heaven’s no. I never thought about pursuing a career, it was something I had to do. There were words for it, call it inspiration. There were all sorts of things. It wasn’t a career choice. It was something that got you in trouble and you had to get out of it.”Â
The only contemporary musical inspirational figure that Pearson will offer up is the guitarist Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Echoes of the My Bloody Valentine album Loveless could be felt upon Pearson’s first group, Lift To Experience. “We came together in Denton, Texas in 1997,”Â Pearson recounts. “ I knew Josh Browning (bass) from church and playing in different bands and I met Andy Young (drums) at a lot of outdoor, backdoor parties, wandering in off the street. He said his biggest influences were NWA, jazz and My Bloody Valentine. That sounded good, so I told him to come play with us. He was the sixth drummer that we’d tried out and it was obvious he was the man for us.”Â
Lift To Experience only produced one album, the apocalyptic double LP, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. Released in 2001, before 9/11, driven by soaring guitars and the impassioned collective playing of the band, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads offered a committed vision of Texas as a new Garden of Eden style sanctuary after a global catastrophe. The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads received great critical approbation in Europe (Kevin Shields loved the record and has subsequently given Pearson support slots and a gig at the My Bloody Valentine’s All Tomorrow’s Parties Nightmare Before Christmas festival in December 2009), but after briefly touring the album Lift To Experience quickly imploded. “Well, that was a complicated time,”Â sighs Pearson, with much understatement.
“Complicated politically. I kinda lost my mind on that album. George Bush was kind of fucking with my metaphors. I had planned for it to be a three-album cycle, song cycle. It just didn’t get there. It was a real fragile thing. There were so many contributing factors. I was a little sad for a while. There were some deaths and cocaine, sadness. I just lost heart I couldn’t carry it. I wasn’t getting a lot of help from the other boys. We dropped the ball on it. We needed time”Â¦ I just went out there and prepared for the end of the world. That’s just the way it happened.”Â
Though Pearson describes the band breaking up as “a relief”Â, he obviously retains an abiding fondness for the power Lift To Experience could generate on record and stage. “I miss it, sometimes,”Â he discloses, “the levels that we could get too in that band. Spiritually. There was just a real kinetic energy there”Â¦. But we were really just a cult band. Few people really got it and how great it was. We just stopped before we could start. Broke up. Just fell apart.”Â
After Lift To Experience disintegrated, Pearson retreated to a little town of 300 people in the middle of Limestone County. “I just needed to hide a little,”Â admits Pearson. “I was working, a little for the locals, ten hours, just enough to pay my bills. Work on songs and things. I’d been in that area when I was a kid. I spent nine months working and studying and I wanted to go back there.”Â
During his ”Ëwilderness’ years in Limestone County, Pearson obviously continued playing and writing music but appeared only periodically to perform solo at festivals and occasional gigs. Having abandoned any plans to reform Lift To Experience, six years ago Pearson even considered recording a covers album based around songs about loneliness. This was also eventually discarded, but the selection of cover numbers (including Patsy Cline’s ”ËSeven Lonely Days’, George Jones’ ”ËLonesome Life’, Ricky Nelson’s ”ËLonesome Town’, ”ËOnly The Lonely’ by The Big ”ËO’ Roy Orbison and Dwight Yoakam’s ”ËAin’t That Lonely Yet’), give some insight into Pearson’s points of reference. A 2006 7’inch single, split with The Dirty Three, featuring Pearson’s impassioned cover of Hank Williams’ ”ËI’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ was the singer/songwriter’s sole official release until this year. “The simplicity, the brevity,”Â reflects Pearson upon the subject of what he admires about Hank Williams’ song writing. “That’s what I kind of listen to now. When I listen to music, if I do, I listen to country music. The subject matter: God, love, death, it’s all you really need. Also its limitations, sonically, it’s raw.”Â
Eventually, Pearson left Texas for Europe. “I ended up in Paris for six months, liked it,”Â the singer relates. “I think I followed a girl there. I ended up coming over to go to that European Beard Championship, I didn’t have any money. Lift, we sold some records, but not that many. Then I ended up in Berlin. I was trying to avoid Texas for a while. The last time I was in Paris, I got offered this place, above a bar called the West Country Girl. I liked that.”Â
It was in Berlin where Pearson recorded Last Of The Country Gentlemen, over two very cold days in February last year. “I went there to check out a studio, a friend of mine had,”Â Pearson recalls. “He’d just built a new one. They kinda have makeshift studios everywhere. He’s got it all fixed up. It’s expensive in Paris. London too, I don’t know how you live here. Anyway, I went there and it felt like home. It took two days to record but it took two months to recover between the days. I recorded it one day, recorded it and played it the second day and then we put the strings on it in London. We had to get out of there, wait until I was ready and to say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ The songs were done live”Â¦. It was recorded in Berlin because it was cheap. And the songs sort of began there so I wanted to go back. I spent a couple of years in Berlin. I wanted to go back.”Â
Musically, Last Of The Country Gentlemen strips Pearson’s highly distinctive music back to vocals, acoustic guitar (“It’s hard to get more earthy than that”Â) and occasional violin and piano. “No I hadn’t”Â responds Pearson, when questioned if he had tired of the rock band format of Lift To Experience. Then he reconsiders; “Yeah, I guess I had. I was tired of lugging the shit around. I was tired of carrying amps. To play sonic soul you need about five amps. I mean rock’s good, but I just didn’t want to lift the equipment anymore. Also, the last five years I’ve kinda been on the road. It’s much easier to carry around an acoustic than a bunch of amps in the back of the van. You know it wasn’t that I tired of the format, I got lazy. I tell a story when I write, I didn’t want to tell that story right now. I tend to write what’s in front of me, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”Â
The seven compelling long songs that comprise Last Of The Country Gentlemen are obviously very deeply autobiographical. “It took four to five months the actual work, “ the singer divulges, concerning the time that the compositions took to write. “I guess the actual work. Maybe less than that. I’ve been interrupted so many times, I don’t know how long. I haven’t spent the last decade working on it at all.”Â
The record is a frank, confessional account of a very turbulent relationship, charting the singer’s changing emotions from rage to heartbreak through to some eventual acquiescent understanding. “I don’t think I’ll do it again,”Â Pearson quietly responds when quizzed about whether he had any feelings of trepidation about presenting himself in such an unadorned fashion. “I was on tour (in Ireland) with The Dirty Three and just playing a couple of songs out. I wasn’t planning to do anything but a couple of people where really touched by it. A couple of Irish guys wanted to say something. They came up and expressed their gratitude for playing and I wasn’t expecting that. I think if it hadn’t have been for those guys I wouldn’t have put it out. I weighed up the consequences and I thought it might do some men some good. I don’t know, probably not, but”Â¦ People tell you to be honest but don’t like it when you do it. I don’t know, even just talking about honesty, I’m embarrassed about it. It was a kind of a strange thing to do.”Â
A special guest player on Last of The Country Gentlemen is violinist Warren Ellis, of The Dirty Three/Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds/Grinderman. “He lost a bet and now he’s paying for it,”Â retorts Pearson to the question of how Ellis got involved. “Don’t gamble out there. He was kind enough to offer a couple of times at least. I found that a huge encouragement. I really respect what he does. I think the Dirty Three are the best band out there. I think he’s a real special talent. I met him in Texas a long, long time ago, they come through every once in a while. I’ve toured with them a couple of times over the years and I’ve always found him gracious and very encouraging.”Â
Last of The Country Gentlemen has an enduring quality about it, both in the emotions it exposes and their musical delivery. “I would like all my music to be timeless,”Â acknowledges Pearson. “I’m at an age now where I’m looking beyond rock ”Ën’ roll. I guess cos the music is acoustic and it has that quality. I like it be timeless, I like music that is timeless. I hope it is.”Â
As to whether making the record was a cathartic experience, Pearson has his doubts. “No, I thought it would be, get some of that stuff out there but, man”Â¦. I thought playing it live would help too. I think it helped some other people but it didn’t help me. I think it was cathartic writing it. ”Â¦. I was just lost in songs. I didn’t make plans for that. I’d have a good song, then it would connect to the others, it was part of an arc and you build a house with your songs. Artistically, I thought it might give hope to some people experiencing some of the things I talk about on the record.”Â
Prospects finally seem to be looking good for Pearson. With the full backing from an empathic record label Mute (“They too lost a bet. No, they just made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”Â), Pearson admirably feels free to follow any direction he damn pleases. “Techno, definitely,” he slyly grins. “I won’t take Techno for an answer. I got some hard rock album in me. Right now, I’ve got to sell some records. If we don’t sell any”Â¦ But if we do sell some records, I’ll get a band. Maybe, I don’t know. Classical heavy metal Techno might be on the cards.”Â
Copyright ÃÂ© Ian Johnston 2011
Last of The Country Gentlemen (Mute) is released on March 14th.
Then Josh T. Pearson is on tour:
The Slaughtered Lamb – SOLD OUT
London, UNITED KINGDOM
QUEEN’S SOCIAL CLUB
Sheffield, UNITED KINGDOM
Glasgow, Scotland, UNITED KINGDOM
The Workman’s Club
Dublin, Dublin, IRELAND
Manchester, Manchester, UNITED KINGDOM
Brighton Ballroom (formerly Hanbury Ballroom)
Brighton, England, UNITED KINGDOM
Nottingham, Nottingham, UNITED KINGDOM
Purcell Room , Southbank Centre, London SOLD OUT
London, London and, UNITED KINGDOM