The word “essential,” when tossed around by those who talk and write about music, usually means that someone thinks this record or that must be a part of your collection. When it comes to the Baptist Generals of Denton, Texas, the word itself takes on its (ahem) essential meaning.
General General Chris Flemmons has spent at least some of the 10 years between the release of his last record — cult-favorite “No Silver/No Gold” — and his latest, Jackleg Devotionals to the Heart, literally studying what makes us tick. Trading the lo-fi, last-days ethos of “No Silver” for more robust production and arrangements, and less-enigmatic — even hopeful — words, “Jackleg” is a rock record that feels wise beyond its years without ever being too clever for its own good.
AD recently caught up with Flemmons by phone as he prepped for the Generals West Coast tour.
Aquarium Drunkard: Your first record, “No Silver/No Gold” kind of flew under the radar. I discovered it on a trip to the Gulf Coast right as Hurricane Katrina was hitting and it seemed like an oddly appropriate soundtrack at the time. Where was your head when you were writing it, and what were your expectations as far as audience and critical response?
Chris Flemmons: Well, we’d released it in Europe before we ever signed to Sub Pop. No, that’s not right. We hadn’t released it in Europe, but we were already on a label in Europe and then we signed with Sub Pop. The Europe label put the record out and then Sub Pop put it out, like, five months later.
The place I was is, I was recovering from dealing with a serious amount of grief over my dad dying of cancer — he’d been sick for many years — and I started writing songs during the last parts of his life, then I wrote those songs after his death. I was drinking historic amounts of alcohol. It was cathartic for me. It was a healthier way for me to deal with this grief. I knew what the record was going to do. I knew it wasn’t a commercial album. Critically, I was pretty happy with the response to it, but I also knew it wasn’t one on those things that was, like, a repeat listen. I always kind of thought of it as — or explain it as — you know, you might see a really great disturbing documentary film that you love, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to go watch it again. Ever.
We did quite a bit of touring around it for two-and-a-half years. I’m real proud of it. I had a love/hate relationship with it for a while. Sometimes I thought it was a little too revealing and a little too, um, vitriolic at points. The thing I love about it is its honesty, because I think it’s real.
AD: To that point, obviously it was a conscious decision to lead the album with “Aye, Distress” and I don’t think I read a single review of the record that doesn’t make that the central point. What was the thinking there?
Chris Flemmons: Well, the album was recorded live. We would spend more hours setting up mics and listening collectively in our headphones to the sound we were getting than we would actually recording the songs. It was all about mic placement in the room we were recording in. We were recording in an aluminum garage that I had behind my house. We’d spend half a day getting everything the way we wanted it to sound while the rest of the band members were rehearsing the song, and then we’d go for real and try to do a take. So usually if we didn’t get it in two or three takes we’d walk away and come back the next day. That was how intense it was. We got that take and it just sounded beautiful, and then my cellphone went off. And it went off, like, 20 seconds before the song was over. I was, like, “Fuck, man, that was going to sound to awesome.” We did other takes of it and even got a decent take later on, but it didn’t have the quality that that one had.
Matt Barnhart helped me master the record at Echo Lab and he really wanted me to leave that on there. We didn’t have any intention of leaving it and I really didn’t want to leave it, but I let his decision rule on that, so that’s how we ended up with that beginning of our album.
AD: I guess hindsight is 20/20, but it probably got the record more attention than it would have gotten otherwise.
Chris Flemmons: It also got college radio DJs to lose their jobs, because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do, which it preview the song before you put it on the air.
AD: You have a great quote in your press kit where you say: “Occasionally I hear music that is so in sync with me, right down to the alpha level… surely it seeps in. What the conduit makes in the music I write is hard to say.” Can you expound on that?
Chris Flemmons: I think everybody has the things that just totally resonate with them, maybe moreso than other people. It’s very subjective. I think the listening experience, although it’s a collective experience, everybody hears things differently and everybody gets what they want from it.
For the No Silver/No Gold record, I didn’t really do any press about the origins of me writing that, the fact that it was the grief about my dad dying. My drinking situation during that wasn’t exactly public. I didn’t want that stuff public. But we’d go out on tour and I’d have people walking up to me in tears and say that they’d been listening to the album for the last year and it was really helping them get through, you know, there was a parent that they had that was dying of cancer and it was helping them get through it.
I’d immediately tell the origins of the record, but that’s just stuff you can’t explain. I write in an incredibly abstract way, so a lot of times for these people maybe is was more about the feeling [as opposed to] the content, the words they were listening to.
AD: That means you’re doing a good job, right?
Chris Flemmons: I don’t know. I’ve never counted on making a livelihood of doing this, because I think what I do is peculiar. I love the music that I make, but I certainly understand if it’s not for a larger audience.
AD: How was the tour The Mountain Goats?
Chris Flemmons: It was great. We used to tour with them when we’d play to a room of 24 people in Lexington. They’re doing so well, and the have a large audience — that audience, they’re the true believers. John’s audience has every opportunity to not accept us or just act like they want us to get off stage, but they didn’t act that way at all. Every audience really embraced us and we made a lot of new friends. It was a really rewarding experience.
AD: Do you enjoy being out on the road? You were pretty reclusive there for a little while.
Chris Flemmons: When I got signed to Sub Pop, their big question was, “Are you going to tour?” I was already 31. I wasn’t Mike Watt, you know, 19 years old and wanting to get in the van. I had responsibilities at home and I was leery of there being any ability of doing this stuff touring. Now I have fewer responsibilities. I’ve kind of reduced a lot of the clutter in my life and I have the ability to tour. I enjoy it when it’s not breakneck and you’re just not sinking or swimming in doing it.
AD: The narrative around the new record is that you had to give up a certain amount of control for it to eventually happen. How did you get to that point?
Chris Flemmons: Well, when I made No Silver/No Gold, it was a really painful process. It was a really intense three months of making that record. It was not only intense for me, it was intense for all the guys in the band. There were things that I wanted and I had to have my fingerprint all over it. At the end of the process, I really was, just, worn out. I had really just kind of destroyed myself trying to make a piece of art.
I’m older now. I don’t want to — I can’t do that shit to myself. I started a music festival in Denton in the interim between the last album and this one, and a production that that’s so large you have to absolutely rely on other people to do things and you put your trust in them, so I learned to delegate. I have a better understanding of, we’re doing something collectively. I think it’s just maturity that helped me get to that, and experience.
I left the festival in December of ’11 and all of the sudden my slate was completely open, so I got ahold of all of the guys in the band and I was just, like, “Hey man, let’s do this.” It was really easy for me to put my trust in them because they know the music as well as I do. They know what it’s supposed to be.
AD: In the 10 years between the two records, you’ve organized that festival and fought developers from tearing historic buildings down in Denton. That’s a lot of preservation and cultivation.
Chris Flemmons: really love the town that I live in. I’ve been here since ’87 and I love the people here and the community. If, at one point in my life, it was more important to do that with my time and my energy than making an album, that’s my fucking decision. I happen to believe that the time that I didn’t make that record allowed me to make something that’s better than it would have been in 2005. I don’t have any regrets.
AD: What is it about Denton that makes it so fertile for producing great music?
Chris Flemmons: We have an incredibly vibrant music community that exists in the shadow of Austin and still manages, on a regular basis, to turn out some stellar national stuff. It’s very hard to get out from under the light of [Austin], but we do fairly well.
AD: Maybe better than “fairly well?”
Chris Flemmons: When you consider the per capita output of bands, it’s kind of stupid.
AD: And it’s not like there’s a “Denton sound.” Your music bears little resemblance to Centro-matic, who sounds nothing at all like Slobberbone.
Chris Flemmons: And then you have Midlake, Neon Indian…Norah Jones.
AD: I think it’s fair to say that your music, in particular, is pretty heavy and even dark thematically, but there’s always an undercurrent of possible redemption.
Chris Flemmons: I hope this record is brighter than the last one. It doesn’t get much darker than the last one.
AD: Is it going to be another 10 years before we get another record out of you?
Chris Flemmons: No, no. I’ve been working on demos for the last two months, and I have a lot of material that didn’t go on the record. It won’t be 10 years, no. We’ll have something out as soon as possible.
AD: A friend and I were tossing around the concept of a genre called “Sad Dad Rock.” Thoughts?
Chris Flemmons: That’s appropriate, I guess. I don’t know what to call what we do. I have more of a problem being called “trad” than being called “bad.” I believe what we’re doing is experimental, in the purest sense. Somebody wrote about us and called it a “country-folk” record. Who the fuck calls this “country-folk?”
I was talking to one of my close friends who worked on the art for the album about that and I was like, “No wonder he gave us a six-dot-two or something. He called us ‘country-folk.’ Who does that???” And he was like, “Hey, buddy, I gotta tell ya, your voice is fucking weird. No matter what you do, it’s always gonna be there.” words/ j kress