Pure X had begun recording Crawling Up the Stairs, their sophomore full-length, before their beloved 2011 debut, Pleasure, had even made it to shelves. But just because the Austin outfit gave themselves a lot of time doesn't mean the LP came without its share of turmoil. As principal songwriters Nate Grace and Jesse Jenkins tell it, Crawling Up the Stairs traces the arc of a personal descent into hell and the slow climb back out of it — a storyline no doubt inspired by a couple of breakups and a skateboarding tumble that gave Grace a gruesome knee injury that left him on crutches for a large portion of last year. Grace and Jenkins, who recorded Crawling Up the Stairs with longtime drummer Austin Youngblood, talked to SPIN from a gas station in northern Texas about the loose, largely improvisational roots of the new album. Stream the record in full and check out Grace and Jenkins's track-by-track breakdown:
- Pure X — Crawling up the Stairs
- Pure X — Someone Else
- Pure X — Written in the Slime
- Pure X — I Fear What I Feel
- Pure X — Things in my Head
- Pure X — Shadows and Lies
- Pure X — I Come from Nowhere
- Pure X — Never Alone
- Pure X — How Did You Find Me
- Pure X — Thousand Year Old Child
- Pure X — Rain at Dawn
- Pure X — All of the Future (All of the Past)
"Crawling Up the Stairs"
Grace: Crawling Up the Stairs was designed so that it's starting out in a dreamy vision and then dives down into this subconscious hell zone and then you eventually find your fucking way up out of it. And the title track started out as a loop that the engineer, Stephen Orsak, made out of one of the jam sessions and we built the song off of that. That was one of the final ones we actually did. It became the title track because for some reason it really seemed to represent the entire record. It came out of nowhere. It literally describes the title and the dream world. The elements in the songs are a preview of all the sounds you'll hear on the record. It really fits the mood of the subconscious dream/ghost world you're about to enter. You're not really sure what's real.
Grace: The song is about wanting to face the absolute blackest of the black part of yourself or just reality. For me it was weird because it was one of those things where I don't know if the song affected my reality or my reality affected the song. I wrote that song and then my leg got busted up. I really got hit by some bullshit. It was weird the universe saying, "This is what you wanted, so this is what you get, motherfucker!" This song showed me how powerful language really can be.
"Written in the Slime"
Grace: It came out of just jamming a riff in my room. It was one of those days where we had some extra time recording. I was just fucking around. I hadn't planned on playing it for the album. I had written it just for myself, but our engineer slowed down the tape on the guitar. We had a vocoder laying around so I sang the lyrics through the vocoder. It works out after "Someone Else," which is about being taken down into hell and then "Written in the Slime" is about sinking down into that hell. Jenkins: The vocoder adds this feeling of sinking into this black tar. You're trying to scream through this slime.
"I Fear What I Feel"
Jenkins: We started that as a late night jam at our house. We wanted to recreate that feeling in the studio so we took it in there. That's the only track on the record that we did live.
Grace: That was awesome recording it. It was 4:00 in the morning. We played for maybe 45 minutes and then took the best little part of it.
Jenkins: I had the lyrics down and the melody down but I wanted it to sound like a broken down, diva house song almost.
Grace: Our engineer was doing a lot of live manipulations. He was running the stuff we were playing through a tape machine into a cassette player and then into a looper. It adds some cool textures in there.
"Things in My Head"
Jenkins: That one I wrote on my own and that was probably the quickest one we recorded. I wrote it and we didn't spend too much time arranging. I think that's where the record turns around and starts crawling back up [out of hell]. "I Fear What I Feel" starts to pick up the pace a little bit. But there's points of sunlight.
Grace: But it's still dark. It's still 5 in the morning. It's still not quite sunlight but you know the sunlight is coming if you stay awake long enough. Sometimes it feels good to be hungover. It's that kind of feeling. It also has this uncertainty and stagnation, but you still have a little bit of hope.
"Shadows and Lies"
Grace: On "Shadows and Lies," the feeling we're trying to get across is like, "I'm so sick of this fucking nowhere feeling. I'm going to try to move into a new zone. I'm making my own way." That one is a weird song. That started as a love song but that wasn't going anywhere so we changed up the lyrics before it ended up what it was.
"I Come From Nowhere"
Grace: That was another one that came out of a lot of improvisation. The lyrics were 100% improvised. It has a lot of unconscious shit. We were just recording and everything just fell into the perfect place.
Jenkins: We had no idea where it was going or what kind of story we were telling until we had most of it together. It has a heart. Like "Ok, I'm aware of what's happening and I don't give a fuck anymore." It has a lot of attitude.
Grace: I think the vocoder is like this other voice that's part of the puzzle. It's like a voice of something you can't ever touch, but you know it's there. You'll never in your life understand what that feeling's about but it's there.
Grace: That has my favorite sound on the entire album. Our engineer was playing a piano with a guitar string. He went into the piano and wrapped the guitar string around the piano and sawed it back and forth. It has this "nails on a chalkboard" feeling. I want to make a whole tape just out of that sound. That's one thing I really like about this album is that we had way more time and that was just spiritual. There's fucking wind chimes and rainsticks and shakers. They all add their little textures to the whole. That guitar tone at the end is one of the gnarliest things ever. Thematically it's like two things in one. I'm "never alone" in the sense that I'm scared of something and I can't be alone and I'm "never alone" but I want to be and I can't be because it's 2013 and there's cell phones and the fucking government and all this bullshit. It's just trying to make sense out of this new feeling.
"How Did You Find Me"
Grace: That one is just screaming it out. You get to the point where you want to break everything around you and smash every window in sight. You're just like "Get me the fuck out of here! Fuck this." There's all this frustration. That's the breaking point of the album. That one is so straight up in-your-face. It's all laid out in that song. There's stuff on this album that I don't even understand. The last album was a lot more thought over whereas this one had a lot more just getting it onto the tape and listening back and thinking,"What the hell was that?"
"Thousand Year Old Child"
Jenkins: Lyrically, it's a breakup song, but what I like about how it turned out is it has an eerily calm feeling to it. That's why it ended up where it was on the record.
Grace: It comes really well out of "How Did You Find Me?" That one is a lot like throwing yourself on the ground and then while you're laying on the ground, "Thousand Year Old Child" is calm because you're so beat up. It's the point where you can start letting go of some stupid bullshit. Larry Seyer, who's worked with George Strait, is an absolute fucking studio genius. He made those acoustic guitars sound like goddamn glass.
"Rain at Dawn"
Grace: I think that's exactly what the title says. You can finally see the dawn and it's this calm feeling. You know, like "Rain At Dawn."
Jenkins: It's like washing away the rest of the album.
Grace: It's a little palette cleanser to prepare you for the last song.
"All the Future (All the Past)"
Grace: You come to this realization where this voice in your head is telling you to let yourself be loved. You finally come to the realization in that song like, "Okay, I've been to hell and back, whatever, I accept that. I'm moving forward. Finally." It's this scream of release like, "Goddamn! The sun is finally here. I can almost taste it. I'm almost there!" And then the album ends. You just have to start right back over.