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How Pure X made a pandemic- and career-defining album

The Austin indie rock band’s Nate Grace and Jesse Jenkins discuss the bumpy and blessed path to their first album in six years, which is streaming in full on The FADER.

April 29, 2020
How Pure X made a pandemic- and career-defining album Pure X by Ashley Thomas  

Nate Grace is looking on the bright side. Their band Pure X (Grace uses they/them pronouns), an Austin-based rock project with a cult following, are releasing their self-titled fourth album and first in six years in the midst of a global pandemic. Tour plans are on hold, and that’s “kind of a blessing,” Grace says. Neither they nor their co-lead songwriter Jesse Jenkins, who joins us on the call, have any desire to return to the band’s relentless performance schedule. Then again, Pure X were never going to do a traditional 2020 album rollout; like true aesthetes, they would rather let the work speak for itself than push a viral TikTok challenge. “We're not trying to force this down anyone's throat,” Jenkins says empathically. “We're trying to make records that we are proud of. Playing the game does not jive with that at all.”

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This anti-establishment streak is one of two reasons you may not have heard of Pure X. The second reason is more practical. Soon after the release of the band’s 2011 debut LP Pleasure — an album of lo-fi, shoegaze-adjacent garage jams recorded with drummer Austin Youngblood — lived up to lofty blog expectations. Then, Grace badly injured their knee in a skateboarding accident. The band’s tour was canceled, and Grace was unable to walk for six months. These dark days would influence Pure X’s sophomore project Crawling Up The Stairs, a tortured photo negative of Pleasure created with new member Matty Tommy Davidson. 2014 saw the release of Angel, a polished blend of Skip Spence and Donny & Joe Emerson. It didn’t sell. The band was dropped from their label, and the members spread out around the United States to have kids, lay roots, and finally make some money.

The future of the band was uncertain, but gradually, each member began to find their way back. The self-titled album — streaming below exclusively on The FADER ahead of its release this Friday, May 1, via Fire Talk — was written over a period of three years. Songs were sketched as each band member lived remotely before being fleshed out in Jenkins’s studio in Corpus Christi, and eventually recorded live in six days in a studio in the Texas countryside.

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The resulting album is a triumph. Its 12 tracks of windswept rock and roll are unhurried and contain as many tracings of the personal and the painful as deeply calloused fingerprints. The music is unflinching yet optimistic in spite of itself, assembled with the sounds of early Neil Young, Galaxie 500, and stretched-out versions of Dunedin sound pop melodies.

Grace says the lengthy hiatus and new experiences allowed Pure X’s members to rediscover the band’s naturally progressive energy. “[After Angel], as far as the world was concerned, we were broken up. That was a great place to be because I can live my fucking life and write my songs as I go and let them marinate. That's why we chose to have it be self-titled, because this is the most natural record we've ever made.” Both Grace and Jenkins were still relishing the newfound liberation in their old band as we spoke about the bumpy path to its creation and its poignant themes.

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The FADER: Was there a specific moment after Angel when you both decided to make another Pure X album, or was it always just a given?

Nate Grace: From my perspective, I don't think it was a given. Everything was up in the air after I left Austin. We were all just doing our own things. I don't even remember how it happened, because we had been keeping in contact the whole time. I think I suggested it, then started flying down there to Corpus.

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Jesse Jenkins: I had made a solo record, and then I had some songs left over that were Pure X songs. So, there was always some kind of lingering intention that we'd do it. We just let it let it play out naturally, and then as soon as we started getting together, it was like, “We have a theme here, we have a record, let's do it.”

Grace: Yeah. I remember the first time we jammed, it was like we didn't even miss one single day. It was like, boom, just right back in the groove, just killing it instantly. That's when I was like, “Oh, yeah, I forgot, we have this telepathic fucking music shit going”. It's so easy. When we were first working on it, we didn't know exactly what it was going to be, and then it just developed out of the songwriting. And then we ended up doing more and more songs.

The album has a strong theme of redemption, of picking up the pieces.

Jenkins: I think redemption is a great word. Peace is another good word. There's no angst or chaos, really, in the record. All of the previous records had a paranoia kind of feel.

“Chaos” especially applies to Crawling up the Stairs. You sound like a very different band on that album.

Grace: Oh, yeah. That's why I love our albums so much — they encapsulate each of those time periods so well. Crawling up the Stairs, yeah, that was dark and paranoiac and...

Jenkins: Extremely dark.

Grace: I feel like that one was ripped straight out of the unconscious. That's a big thing with this album, because in Angel, it was like pulling out of that and going up towards the light more. With this album, I feel like by this point, I've gone so fucking deep into the shadow, I've come out the other side. I've burst out the subconscious into the conscious.

I've been doing so much work on myself. I'm a father now. I'm forced into taking on my trauma, taking on my shit, and really looking at that stuff in the face, and I've been doing that hardcore for years now. And so, I feel like for me personally, the album, lyrically, is redemption. It is redemptive. It's an acceptance of my own life, of everything that's happened in my life that's brought me to this point.

Grace: On our other albums, there's been a distance to it, in a way, like an anger about it or frustration, and fear. This album, there's anger, but I feel like the anger's a little more grounded. For me, the song that I think speaks to me about this is “Grieving Song.” Something about it is just being with the grief, being with the negative feelings, being with the challenges of life, the death, the fucking sickness. Accepting it as part of the trip, like this is what it's like to be alive. Everyone says pain is a given, but suffering isn't. Life is full of pain, and life is full of hardness, and life is full of death and sickness, all kinds of shit. And, I'm at a point now like, okay, I get that. Let's build on that. Let's make something beautiful. Like this album.

It's interesting that you say that because one of the lyrics that really stood out to me was on the song “Stayed Too Long,” where you sing, "Heaven is a waste of time, it can't even change my mind."

Jenkins: That's my song. I was coming from a place of like, don't get comfortable in a relationship, is where that song came out of. Just because everything is nice and pleasant, heavenly, it's just bullshit, really. You’ve got to keep moving. But also, I think it has a bigger meaning than that, like focusing on right now and keeping moving forward.

“Life is full of pain, and I’m at a point now like, okay, I get that. Let’s build on that. Let’s make something beautiful. Like this album.” - Nate Grace

Have you resolved the tension between that feeling of wanting to constantly challenge yourself and to move forward, against having that stability and being there for your family?

Jenkins: I think for me, that's what music and art are for. I'm always going to try to push forward, push the boundaries, and that's what we've always tried to do as a band. We're not going to make another record that sounds like this or any of the other ones. Personally, I feel more free to push harder.

Grace: As a band we have four albums, plus EPs and all kinds of 12 inches. We put out so much stuff already, [so] I guess we feel comfortable to keep pushing the envelope or keep growing. I know we can go to a studio right now as a band and make another record, make some songs and whatever. That's never going to change. That's what this record really solidified for me, that the energy is real.

Have there ever been any challenges being in a band with two main songwriters?

Grace: I think so. I think that's part of what happened there with Angel. There was some tension there, and, for me, it started getting overwhelming. But through the process of this, of us getting space from each other, and through the process of each of us growing individually, we were able to flesh out all the resentments. Those things build up for sure, especially I think in a band where you do have multiple people bringing songs. It does have a space where if you're not careful, then things can get out of hand quickly.

Jenkins: I never felt any real resentment, but we were brutal with each other. We know each other so well, and we push each other so hard, we've always pushed in the direction of the album or the song or the part of the song or whatever being the best it can be. So, yeah, there are times when it's like, “That fucking sucks, we're not going to do that.” But I think that's where the strength is. When we work on something together, it sounds like us.

Have your experiences with the reception of Angel prepared you for the possibility of pandemic overshadowing your new album?

Grace: It is fucking weird that the [release] is right during the fucking global pandemic. But, at the same time, it also feels really poignant and right. I feel like these songs really speak to this moment in a way that people will, number one, resonate with, but number two, I think they'll find some kind of... I don't know what. I want to say healing...

Jenkins: They'll find some kind of connection.

Grace: Connection. There we go. Because for me, it's like, our albums end up in this paranoiac, scared, totalitarian world, for a while. So, even us as a band, this is our landscape. It makes me think of the album cover as well. There are the themes of death through the album, and the themes of death that are in my own life in this very moment in this fucking crazy-ass shit that's going on right now, and the themes of death in so many of my friends' life right now, and the themes of challenges.

It's just a really hard fucking time right now, for me personally, dealing with all of this. I had a very good friend of mine pass away right at the beginning of this pandemic. I haven't been able to get with the people that love this person and celebrate this person's life or anything. It's fucked up for a lot of people right now because people are passing away all over the fucking world. They can't even get together for a goddamn funeral? That shit's there for me, personally. So even for myself, [the new album] has already taken on these new themes. That's one thing I love about songwriting: writing a song, it can mean something to me in that moment when I write it, but then watching it over time morph and meld and getting different perspectives on it, hearing other people's perspectives on it, it's interesting.

I feel like I [have] way less emotional investment in [the reception]. We have [much] more stable lives going. I personally just feel like we've put so much work and so much intentionality in this album, [and] I feel so proud of that. I don't feel as tied to the reception, because to me, it was like a triumph to finish it.

Jenkins: Absolutely. I've already popped the champagne and chalked this one on the legacy. It's like, we did it. I don't give a fuck.

Grace: We triumphed over some shit making this album, man. I feel excited, and I do think it will be received well just because so much of our heart and soul and life and knowledge of music and knowledge of how to record music, all of that has built up to this point now. I feel like this is our best album.

Jenkins: This is definitely our best album. This is like old head wisdom.

Grace: Yeah. We've been playing this band for over 20 years. This is some shit we're bringing to the table, and it's like we're throwing our cards down and be like, “Damn, royal flush, get the fuck out of my way.”

How Pure X made a pandemic- and career-defining album