“The Race to Zero”: Justin Pearson’s lyrical works examined

10 mins read

Each year it becomes trickier to say how prolific Mr Justin Pearson is. In ‘The Race to Zero”, his new collection of lyrics written from 1994 to 2018 published by Three One G Records and Pioneers Press, Justin offers an insightful exploration of his imaginative practice by recalling his poignant and intelligent lyricism that will leave you mentally uplifted. Almost one year since our double-interview with Justin and photographer Becky DiGiglio on their collaborative photo-zine called “Born Upside Down“, we sat down with Justin to ask him about his recent European tour with DEAD CROSS, his experience with writing lyrics, inspirations, and obviously, the new book.

Layout and cover design by Brandon Thomas McMinn. Product photos by Becky DiGiglio.

The Race to Zero! book

Justin Pearson is an internationally known musician, record label owner (Three One G Records), author, and actor. He is perhaps best known as bassist and vocalist for bands such as Dead Cross, The Locust, and Retox. Having traveled the world touring in hardcore and punk bands since age 15, Justin has come to know and work with a broad spectrum of captivating personalities and brilliant minds, from being on the soundtrack to John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented, to acting in an Asia Argento’s Incompresa, to playing in Dead Cross with Mike Patton and Dave Lombardo, who he will be touring with throughout EU/UK this summer. The Race to Zero archives Pearson’s lyrics and prose from over the last two and a half decades.

Since his first tour and formation of the band Struggle, Justin Pearson has been bassist and/or vocalist in a slew of subversive and, at times, divisive acts including Swing Kids, The Crimson Curse, The Locust, Some Girls, Planet B, Head Wound City, and Dead Cross. His razor wit and quick retorts have been known to get him both into and out of trouble throughout life, and this casual cleverness, coupled with biting commentary, absurdist imagery, and situationist ideals, are a staple of his writing style as an author and lyricist. The Race to Zero is a collection of all lyrics he has written throughout his extensive career, as well as various examples of short creative vignettes and prose.

The Race To Zero

Hey Justin! Glad to have you once again. How are you? You’ve just returned from your European trek with DEAD CROSS! How was it?

Yes, I did just get back. The tour over all was a success. As far as I now, nobody died, we played all of the shows that we were supposed to, and people seemed to have some sort of reaction.

Can you highlight some of the shows and tell us about your most memorable moments from the tour?

I think the most memorable thing, or biggest highlight was our last minute London show that we attend in Camden Town. The show was announced the day before, it sold out, and had great energy. I’m much more of a fan of club shows than the festival shows that we had on the tour, and the Underworld in London is a great venue. Other than that, it was cool to share the stage with Jeremy Blom of Touche Amore for a cover of “Nazi Puns Fuck Off,” it was great to play shows with Zeus and Dialek, and cool to see friends and family along the way.

After yet another trip to Europe, how do you compare the whole adventure of touring and the live experience with the one you get back in the States?

Its pretty hard to compare and contrast the two chunks of land. Just considering one, there is so much variety and differenced with people, culture, geography, etc. But I will say that in the US, bands on tour are not generally treated as well as they are in Europe. However it was interesting to experience the anti-Trump and anti-American views and rhetoric in Europe. Unfortunately I just missed the meeting in Helsinki of the asshole powers, but I was in London for the baby blimp that was flown around town. I don’t consider myself an American citizen. I’m a world citizen. But it is a bummer to try to avoid the embarrassment of being from the U.S. at a time like now.

The Race To Zero

Ok Justin, so let’s dive into the details of your new book. What prompted you to collect all your lyrics and publish it that way?

The initial thing that got me to compile my works from when I first started playing music till now was people inquiring about who wrote which lyrics for The Locust. Where the band had different lyric writers, I figured it would be informative to show which ones I was responsible for. Then it trickled into a collection of other random stuff that I did with artists such as Qui, DJ Skullcrusher, some stuff with Nick Zinner for a film score, Zeus, etc. Of course, the book has all the stuff I wrote for Planet B, Swing Kids, The Crimson Curse, and so on. Plus there is some weird pieces, like the lyrics that I write for a crappy Some Girls song that were never included with the rest of the lyrics, and a story about Head Wound City.

When you wrote your first lyrics, did you expect it to stay as your relevant skill for decades?

When I first started writing lyrics I had no idea what I was doing, which goes for pretty much everything I’ve done in life. As for calling what I do “skills,” that isn’t a term I would use for myself. I would just say that I’m making some sort of art and if its good or bad, well, that is up to the critics I suppose. However, I don’t cringe at the stuff I’m doing as much as I have in the past. I think I have a much better understanding of what I can do and how it can be done. Plus, I have learned quite a lot of the years as far as delivery, technique, and writing in general.

How did your career unfold to allow you to progress and advance to where you are today? What factors where crucial for that process to begin in the 90s?

When I started singing in bands, I just wrote a few lines and repeated them over and over. Part of that was due to the mostly short songs that I was dealing with, but also part was that I wasn’t sure how to really write. I never really understood things like melody, or even really paid attention to structural stuff for songs, like a chorus and verse. But it wasn’t till much later, once I worked with people like Alex Newport and Chris Rakestraw, and more recently working with Ross Robinson and Luke Henshaw, where I really focused on many different aspects of writing. It has been a constant evolution for me, which I am grateful for. I would rather be moving in some way, even if I have no idea what I am actually doing.

The Race To Zero

What similarities and differences have you found in your various stages of development as a lyricist and musician? Did you go through some different JP eras throughout the years?

I’ve always had a strange thematic element to a lot of the words, phrases, and topics that I have used. I like seeing certain pop up over time with other writers, which give the person style, or a vibe, or aesthetic. I guess the most obvious thing I have focused on when writing over the years started to become an awareness of vocal percussion, as well as vocal harmony. I can’t necessarily pull of elements of harmony and hit notes or find the correct pitch, so I tend to find percussion as my focus, but I have also realized that I do gravitate to certain notes that might work, but aren’t necessarily the obvious route. That might be from being musically uneducated. One thing that I have found challenging is placing lyrics that fit perfectly into a song, and not compromising the meaning or message. That is something that I have really been trying to deal with over the years.

How do you get past writer’s block?

I’ve never really faced writer’s block. With music stuff, it’s pretty rare that I have a large amount of material to write to all at once. Typically I would write to a song or a couple songs at one time as an album is being worked on. And as for the books I have written, I’ve sat them down at times, and revisited them, but I would not say it was due to writer’s block, but more so the fact that I didn’t have a deadline to work with. If my mind was blocked, or full, or if I was stumped on something, I’ve been able to sit it down and revisit it later.

The Race To Zero

Ok, so here’s the obvious question about your songwriting process. What inspires you to write your songs? How are these influences evolving?

This is a great question, and I typically get this with any sort of music interview. So I would like to say this, what is more important to me is what in life makes you gravitate to the stuff that is influential. So where one would be asked, what are your musical influences, and your be expected to list a handful of artists who you really dig. What I think is more relevant and more interesting is why are you attracted to those artists and their work. How did bands like Septic Death, PIL, The Birthday Party, The Cramps, Leonard Cohen, etc all speak to me? But also, why? What was it that made me seek out stuff that wasn’t centered in the mainstream, or pop music, or vague, or obvious? A lot of what I got into when I was growing up was due to skateboard culture. And back then, with stuff like Thrasher Magazine and Skate Rock compilations along with having a dysfunctional family, current politics of the time, as well as culture, class war, and the world that we each live in. Those all were influences into what I became.. For me, I think I just try to push forward, reinvent things that I’m part of, and try to not retreat to what is familiar and comfortable.

What do you hope readers and listeners take away from your work? Do you think that it has an overall message at all?

I’m not really sure. I have low expectations, and typically do what I do for myself. So if there is a reaction, good to bad, I’m grateful that people are paying attention. But as far as what people take away from what I do, that is on them really. Some of what I write is vague and interpretive some some extent. I’m not sure I can be responsible for the outcome in certain situations. But when I hear that I have resonated with someone and whatever I was part of spoke to them in some way, that is extremely flattering and I’m grateful that I was able to connect with someone. As for an overall message, there isn’t just one thing, or one topic. I suppose everything filters into this vat of life, where you want the word to be better, have more love, and add empathy to what we are not part of. I suppose it’s an over all action, or movement. The opposite of love is not hate, its apathy.

The Race To Zero!

Do you write a lot of new lyrics these days? Or is there a secret stash with hundreds of unreleased sketches that wait for you to put them together and use for your future songs and projects?

I’m usually working on something. If I’m not in the middle of an LP, I tend to work on one off stuff, or collaborations. Or I do something else, that might be more visually or some sort of direct action which uses words. But I do have a stash of material that I use for reference and for starting on new pieces. I tend to think of words, phrases, or ideas all the time, and just make note of whatever pops in my head at the time so I can reference it later on when I am working on something.

Can you share some excerpts and pages from the book that you feel are exquisitely dear to your heart?

I’m not sure what is held dear to my heart with the words I write. But these are a couple of pieces that I feel might be representative of this question…

Old Age Lasts Too Long

I give good headaches.
I’m made of mistakes.
A disease is named after me, hurts the adjustment fakes. I’m just a thing, I’ve learned how to fly with one wing. Told to break my own heart.
I do it, but in full swing.

The Beginning is Near

My mom once gave me a $3 bill, told me, “Yes, son, you too can steal.”
My dad died from the heroine epidemic, dick ego is traditionalism systemic.

My folks knew I was born upside down,
an improper noun, fuck you nervous breakdown. My god really screwed things up, done deal
his 2nd chance, listen to the pigs squeal.

The Beginning is near, now watch man disappear.

I stand on the crowded shelf of unstable land,
digested wounded viper’s complementary backhand.
I stood rat-fucked upon the ruins of life,
men watched war-porn and jerked off on the afterlife. I caught whiff after whiff of negative freedom, shoplifted class war’s disposable outcome.
I stole a modern song about love and hate,
and those sheets of music helped me misunderstand.

Future you can counterfeit a half-dollar bill, buy a house on a garbage hill.
Future you can die from a dump politic,
the one where you swim in shit, get seasick. Future jokes will be law and a letdown,

blah blah blah blah… minds meltdown.
Future god’s shit repent, demand repeal,
eating the dog’s food for their life’s last meal.

Are there some writers and lyricists you look up to, whose work you constantly admire?

Off the top of my head; Dave Van Ronk, Nick Cave, Sonny Kay, Travis Ryan, Keith Thornton, Antony Hagarty.

Ok, so what are you working on right now? What can we expect from Mr. J.P. in 2018 and beyond?

I’m currently working on new Planet B and Retox material. I’m sure other stuff will present itself along the way, as far as the future is concerned.

Cool. Thanks so much Justin. Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Thank you so much. I really appreciate the conversation.

Likewise, cheers for your time. The last words are yours.

Perhaps less words and more energy might be suitable for the current times.

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