If we were to compile a list of bands whose music doesn’t match their name, the original incarnation of Austin, Texas three-piece Pure X would be quite far up there. The name Pure Ecstasy suggests MDMA-heavy nights of loved-up bliss, maybe some euphoria … but that never fit the sound this lot made. Pure X are the comedown side of any drug experience: a hazy, claustrophobic and often not a lot of fun.
Their 2011 debut Pleasure, while at times a nocturnal, sensual experience, was layered with a fog of isolation and some bad times. The sound of that album was located in the 90s; there was a bit of shoe gaze, some slowcore, loads of reverb, pedal-heavy and astonishingly good guitar work and mumbled vocals, courtesy of de facto front man Nate Grace. It was recorded live in the studio with no production trickery (the product of having no cash) and remains a loud, uncompromising (yet still a bit mellow) listen.
Cycle forward a couple of years and Grace, bassist and co-vocalist Jesse Jenkins and drummer Austin Youngblood are preparing to release their second album Crawling Up the Stairs. Recorded amidst medical and personal issues, and with money problems still dogging the band, this record is more of an uncompromising listen than Pleasure ever was.
Influenced as much by psych rock and shoegaze as it is by heartbreaking country music, Crawling Up the Stairs is Pure X’s dark night of the soul, an honest and raw musical experience and an often agonizing look at Grace and Jenkins’ personal issues. This time around there’s some musical clarity: again, the record sounds great turned up loud, but with a little more time in the studio we can actually hear Grace and Jenkins sing a bit in their cracked-yet-wonderful way, and those guitars – while still draped in a cloak of reverb a lot of the time – have an added crystalline edge. You can hear this confidence in two of the tracks we’ve heard so far: the organ and guitar strum of ‘Things In My Head’ and the wracked and powerful ‘Someone Else’. The rest of the album is just as good, setting it up to be one of the essential listens of 2013.
After some failed phone calls while the band had no reception on a west-coast tour we finally managed to get a word or two with Nate Grace and Jesse Jenkins to talk us through the creation of Crawling Up the Stairs.
So if Pleasure was the hazy, sexy one, is Crawling Up the Stairs the comedown and the sound of the cold light of day?
Jesse Jenkins: To me Crawling Up the Stairs is even more of a night time listen than Pleasure. It intentionally has the same arch as a dusk that leads you down into darkness then slowly lets the light pull you back up. I also think it has some sexier moments than the last record. Maybe a different kind of sex though.
Where does the title come from, is it a nod to the troubles leading up to the recording of the album, but also a positive note – about slowly ascending towards something better?
Nate Grace: The album title and song with the same name came from a vision I had. It’s a long story but the short of it is that I was laid up for almost 6 months with a bad leg injury. One night I had a true battle with what Jung called the “shadow self” and what I would call a demon. After it I fell into a dream vision where I was in hell crawling up infinite stairs amidst the worst fear and torment possible.
It’s a very honest record, maybe agonizing and very dark in places – was the album ever likely to sound any different given the personal problems?
JJ: Well the record is a product of a complex series of events and circumstances just like everything else, so in that sense, if one of those minute circumstances was changed in any way, the record could be completely different. Each of our evolving tastes, evolving musicianship, and subconscious minds impacted the sound just as much as any problems we were working through.
How close did it come to not being made, given the issues with injury and medical insurance?
JJ: There’s never been any doubt. Making records is what we do. Those issues helped us stay locked away and obsessed, possessed even, with/by this record.
How hard was it to write an album, or get the motivation, after the money problems and illness?
JJ: Money doesn’t motivate people to create; it provides comfort which is the enemy. NOT having money helped us write this record. Money is nothing but paper. Its not even paper anymore, it’s almost completely imaginary.
What was the recording process like compared to the first album? Did you have more time and money to experiment a bit more, given you’ve said the first album was recorded in the way it was due to a lack of funds?
JJ: There was no sense of urgency this time around. We didn’t have any more time or money – we TOOK it. We did not want to go in and make another record the same way we made Pleasure. We won’t make the next record the same way we made CUTS.
Are there any records or musicians that influenced the sound of Crawling Up the Stairs?
JJ: Desperate country music had a big influence. People like Johnny Paycheck and Gary Stewart that can make you FEEL. Golden era Nashville production aspects were big for us too. Like making acoustic guitars sound like glass knives slicing though your eardrum – in a way that feels good.
The vocals are more upfront this time around; was this conscious due to the personal nature of some of the songs?
JJ: Everything is more up front. This is mostly due to the types of music that we were all listening to at the time. We just wanted to make a really good sounding record and we made production decisions based on what each song told us to do.
How is the song writing divided up between you – how does the band work generally?
JJ: For this record, we did a lot more collaborative writing in the studio, a lot more experimenting. We both had some fully written songs that we brought in, but several of the songs on the record came out of nowhere in the studio.
You’ve been touring since SXSW – how has the record been received by the crowds? Are you still working out any kinks in the music as you go along?
JJ: It’s fun to play songs live that no one has heard before. It’s a lot more challenging for us and for the audience. The best response I’ve heard so far is people being like “wow you guys actually sing!” We try at least.
What’s next – is it touring for the foreseeable future? Are you keen to keep writing and get new music out there while you can?
JJ: Yes definitely a lot of touring, which is great. We’ll always be writing though.