Despite what you've heard, the Baptist Generals' new album wasn't ten years in the making
Some of the songs on Jackleg Devotional to the Heart date back to 2005, but Baptist Generals frontman Chris Flemmons didn't like the way the album was going, and so it was essentially shelved. Flemmons then spent two and a half years getting involved in development politics in the band's home city of Denton, Texas, and another three and a half years overseeing the 35 Denton music festival before he and the band revisited the album in December 2011.
While the Baptist Generals have been touring as a trio opening for the Mountain Goats, all six members will be at the band's show this week. We spoke with Flemmons about the origins of Jackleg, why he considers the band experimental when fans sometimes tag the group as Americana, and the story behind "Ay Distress," the opening cut on 2003's No Silver/ No Gold.
Westword: I know you started Jackleg back in 2005. How much material did you have written back then, and how did things change over the last almost ten years?
Chris Flemmons: Well, I'll tell you for your own clarity; the press release is a little misleading. A lot of things that people have been writing are that the album was ten years in the making, which isn't the case at all. The fact is that it was delayed ten years. We didn't make the record until we started working on it in December 2011. So a lot of people are under the impression that we shelved a bunch of stuff and then brought it back it out, dusted it off and finished something, but that's not at all the case.
What we did was that we shelved...we started to make the record in 2005, and I didn't like the way it was going. I didn't like the way it was sounding, and, you know, we'd spent our allotment of money on our studio time doing something that was kind of misguided. And I wasn't happy with it, so that was shelved, and then I got involved with a lot of development politics in the town that I live in, and that ended up taking up two and a half years of my life.
I'd also started an afternoon party in Austin that I moved to Denton as its own festival. It's just that life got in the way. I was creative director of the festival for three and a half years, and once I got out of that, I went back to the guys and said, "Hey, this is the best time to do this since I have nothing going on." My concern was that I really didn't want to have to...what I did learn with the festival is how to delegate, and I had a lot of trust in the people that I play with at this point. I'm kind of a reformed control freak. And those guys took over the administration to get the record made, and I just shut up sang and tried to finish out lyrics.
There were three or four songs that were completely written or partially written in 2005 that are on the album, but for the most part, of a lot of it was written in process or partially written in the years that transpired. We finally got to a place where we could make the record.
It almost seems like the first half and the second of the record have kind of different feels. Was that a conscious thing, to kind of split it up like that?
Are you listening to it on CD or on LP?
Okay. Because it's really apparent when you have a side break with the LP that...Side A and Side B really do have lives of their own. It's not as apparent when you listen to it on the CD. I've heard some complain that the energy that's part of the first side of the record, they wished it had carried over to the rest of the album. I don't know; people can have those complaints about it. All I know is that we made the record we wanted to make.
I do believe that is has like... It's particularly apparent in the sequencing when you actually listen to the LP and you have a side break and then listen to the second side of the album. I don't know if I answered your questions at all.
Yeah, definitely. It was something that I really didn't notice until a few listens into it. I think even on the CD cover track listing, you split the sides into two halves.
Yeah, the artwork that we did for the LP is what's on the CD, so it might well indicate that you go into Side A. The break on Side A, the last track is "3 Bromides," and then you go into the Side B, and it's "Broken Glass" and "Snow on the FM." "Broken Glass" and "Snow on the FM" were the anchor songs that got me writing this whole fucking thing. They were the first two songs I wrote where I was like, "Okay, I've got some area to operate. I have some sort of template or just stylistically of what this could be." And then it expanded from there.
Do you write the songs and bring them to the band and then they flesh them out a little bit?
It just depends. Sometimes the band fleshes them out. Sometimes I come with real specific progressions that I want, whether it be a bass line or guitar lick. Yeah, it just depends.
I was reading about your Trump nylon string guitar that you've had for quite some time. Is that pretty much your only guitar?
It is right now. I went through a financial period with that festival where I had to sell everything off. I had a backup guitar. I'm frightened to death right now that I'm going to break a string during a set while we're were out with the Mountain Goats, and I don't have another guitar sitting there. The other guitars that I've owned were backups for this one, other nylon string guitars. I stopped playing electric guitar when I was in my early twenties just because I love playing this one so much.
Do you find that playing nylon string guitars has a way of bringing out something different in your songwriting, if that makes sense at all?
Yeah, it does. My voice is actually louder than the guitar that I'm playing when I don't have an amplifier. Yeah, it makes you go in different directions. It would be same thing as if I was writing on piano, which I do occasionally but none of it's made it to albums. Just in the songwriting process, I start with piano.
It changes the way things are, and it's also... I mean, the guitar that I play is a pretty primitive instrument. The tuning precision of it like a daily beatdown, when we're playing these shows and stuff. You deal with temperature changes, and plastic strings are lot more susceptible to change. It's primitive. It has challenges to it, but I also like having those challenges.
I was reading about how over the last ten years you've been getting into the Éthiopiques stuff and Archie Shepp...
Our tastes are really broad, and that's speaking for everybody in the band. Everybody has genres that they kind of waver in as far as what they listen to. All of us are fairly broad in like what we listen to. So yeah, I listen to prog, avant-garde, Ethiopian jazz like you said, Tropicalismo from Brazil. It just depends on what my mood is. I think there's good music everywhere.
Is there a common ground where you guys all sort of meet musically?
Not really. I think that's one of the great things about the band. We all have our separate tastes. I wouldn't say that there's one particular genre... We think of ourselves as an experimental band first of all, even though everyone always talks about, like, the undeniable Americana, Southern gothic aspect to what we do, but I don't think there's anybody in the band that doesn't think that we're just trying to experiment with something.
That was something that I noticed more of on the second half of Jackleg, more of that experimental kind of feel.
Why would you say you guys are experimental?
I think the instrumentation and the choices we make in the music, a lot of it's not packaged for broad consumption. A lot of people who are fans of the band tend to think we're doing the Americana thing. People come up and they're like, "Here's my bluegrass band. Please listen to this." It's not really something that I listen to. I'm kind to them. I don't say anything. They just think, "Well, obviously these guys are going to like my music." Well, I'm not really into bluegrass. Sorry, but anyway. But there are some people in the band that are into bluegrass and people in the band play bluegrass. So, we don't judge [laughs].
Going back to No Silver/ No Gold, and I'm guessing a lot of people have asked you about the cell phone going off at the end of "Ay Distress," but I thought that was a great way to start a record. It gave me more of any idea of what you guys were about, if that makes any sense.
Well, yeah, there was a long discussion to whether that would ever make it because we had a clean take of that song. Basically, the recording process of that record was that we'd spent four or five hours per track live miking, with the headphones on, and practice the song, and I'd position mikes all over the room.
We were working with an eight-track tape machine, and the process was that I'd get it the way I wanted it to sound on the headphones by mike positioning, and then we'd do a live take of every song. And that was what that album was. It was nothing but live takes, and we'd run all the channels at once and do a live version of the song.
Well, that was the one that I thought was utterly perfect. Usually we'd spend, like I said, four or five hours getting the mikes positioned, and then, if we didn't get it in the first two or three takes, we'd walk away and maybe come back the next day. And that was the first take, and it was lovely, and it sounded awesome in everybody's headphones. And the cell phone goes off. And I was just like, "Fuck!" I'd forgotten I had left my cell phone on.
I went over and beat on my old door, and it sounds like, I don't know, we knocked over a bunch of shit. That wasn't the case. We were in an aluminum garage. Everybody was just like, "God, we can do it again." Yeah, but that was the one or whatever.
How close were to actually finishing the song before your phone went off?
I think there was maybe thirty more seconds. That's what was so frustrating about it! It was like nine-tenths done, man.