They all just about gave up on Chris Flemmons and Baptist Generals. Everyone, that is, but the Generals' label — somehow, someway, Sub Pop stuck with them, even as sales and budgets took a dive industry-wide. Flemmons hasn't forgotten the solid.
"It's a fool's errand, music. We're really lucky that we're on a label ten years later, that was the one that signed us. I don't think a lot of people would have that," he said. "I've watched younger bands bloom and wither because labels don't have the ability to develop bands like they used to. They focus group it now, because it's a huge risk for them. It used to be that they had excess cash to do those things. I don't have the opinions about labels that a lot of other people have: that they're all evil."
"Everybody thinks that this is the same record it was in 2005, and it's like, no," he explained. "We got through five songs and I just wasn't happy with the way it sounded. And then I went and got involved in development politics in my hometown [of Denton, Texas]. I started a music festival [now known as 35 Denton]. All of a sudden, it's this many years later."
Now, in this second decade of the 21st Century, Jackleg will finally get its moment. Mirroring its labyrinthine production journey, the album stitches Flemmons' Neil Young-esque voice and stream-of-consciousness lyrics with marimba-accented folk, fuzzed-out psych guitars, light reverb and even classical string and woodwind parts. It is an engaging patchwork; one which held this writer captivated in a way he hasn't been since Björk's Post was released in 1995. Jackleg romps all over the place – but it runs well.
Flemmons attributes the diversity of the album to the visual way in which he processes the world. He does not count beats; he writes to ideas.
"I'm very much into the sounds and shapes of words. I'm not a linear songwriter. I tend to write to feelings and imagery in an abstract way," he said. "Words are amazing because you can put two together in a particulate sense and make a whole new idea. I don't have a mathmatical mind at all. Usually there's a melody or one small phrase. I record scattershot – I'll be driving around and record stuff on my phone. There's stuff that sticks and stuff that doesn't. I try to build it out."
"I listen to everything from avant garde to Meredith Wilson," Flemmons proffered. "I feel like we're pigeonholed as an Americana band, but I don't think that we are."
Flemmons readily admits that the long lull between the last record – 2003's No Silver / No Gold – and the new album begins and ends with him. He's not always an easy guy to work with. Having left day-to-day control of the music festival in December, 2011, he suddenly found himself alone in a clear field.
"I had nothing to do. I went back to the guys. Everyone had kind of given up: 'Well, Flemmons isn't gonna do it,' or, 'He's got other parts of his life,'" he said. "I was a control freak when we made No Silver / No Gold – I had very definite ideas of the way I wanted it to sound. What I learned from working in a festival, with a large production going on, was that you can trust in other people. So I went back to the band and I was like, 'I have nothing to do right now. We should go make this record, but I want you guys to be in charge of production. I just want to show up and feel it.' So they took charge of studio scheduling and production and it's been a really rich experience."
That's not to say that he wasn't met with some healthy skeptism.
"Their concern was, 'If we get to the end of this album and you want to shelve it, then fuck you.'" Flemmons chuckled. "With No Silver / No Gold, I wore band members out trying to make that album, and we only worked on it for three months, you know? But you get old, and it's like, man, are you being a meddlesome jerk? They knew exactly where we were needing to go with this or that."
Flemmons wasn't always so enthused about the production cycle. From the very start, with the Generals' first EP, Dog, in 1998, he found the process, "wrenching."
"My father passed away [in 1999] from cancer," he elaborated. "From the time I was 14 until I was 31, he had health issues and they crescendoed. The album I put out was about the feelings of insult upon insult, injury upon injury, watching somebody's body fall apart and just dealing with the grief in that. Being 31 and having a parent die – I was surrounded by people my age who hadn't been through that yet, so I was kind of alone. Making that record was very difficult. I'm glad that this experience was more positive. I'm excited to make the next record [now] because I'm not so scared of that [process]."
"It's weird reclaiming some part of your life ten years later," Flemmons ruminated. There was a sense of joy; he laughed. "It's nice to have it back. It's maybe one of the only things I do okay."
"I love the music we make. I really enjoy being around my bandmates," he emphasized. "So it's certainly not about the income, although that would be nice. And you know it, you're a writer – it's hard as fuck. Anybody doing content now is getting screwed in the ass."
Preach it, Deacon – you're bringin' the Gospel.
"I don't know," Flemmons said. "More than anything, though, you get older and the opportunity to get to hang out with people I care about, and who care about me – it's rewarding."