[Q&A] Before The Lockdowns, Dallas’ Vandoliers Was Primed For Big Things. Now, Frontman Josh Fleming Walks Us Through His Thoughts On What’s Next.
Few Dallas acts were so deep into the process of leveraging their loyal area following into greater mainstream success as the Vandoliers were before COVID-19 put the local — and the national — music scene on hiatus.
Where exactly the Ameri-kinda act goes from here is as much a mystery — as is, frankly, what the Dallas music scene at large will look like in the not-so-distant future.
This all in mind, we recently caught up with Vandoliers lead singer and guitarist Joshua Fleming to chat about music in Dallas and Fort Worth, being mentored by the Old 97’s and how a band in which every member has tattoos that say “VFFV” (meaning “Vandoliers Forever, Forever Vandoliers”) is handling being away from each other these days.
How have you been holding up the past six or so weeks? Where have you been sheltered?
Right before the executive stay-at-home order happened, my wife and I and the dogs all went to my parents’ place out in Runaway Bay over by Bridgeport. We’d go there in the summertime, and it’s kind of off-the-grid. It’s at the end of a very terrible dirt road, but it’s beautiful. Mentally, it’s a great place to be while all this is happening. I didn’t want to be separated from my family.
I’ve been writing. I’m with my folks, which gives me a safeguard of not having freak-outs because I’m like, ‘I don’t want to freak them out.’ I’ve got high anxiety. If I let my mind go, it’ll go. They and my wife have been centering me. But everybody’s hurting, so I just think everybody has their days. My dad has some days where he’s just quiet. I have days where I don’t get out of bed. We just try to figure that out and give those people their space and try to respect each other and love each other.
What have you been working on?
I’ve been recording. The Vandoliers were in the middle of making our fourth record when all of this got started, when South By Southwest got canceled. I had to finish vocals by coming in with gloves and a mask. I looked like a big dork. That was two weeks ago. That was the last time I saw my friends.
What’s the communication been like with the band?
We have a band feed that we text stupid shit to all day. I feel like we’re still talking. We did a band Zoom happy hour together, and that was great. We don’t know where we’re going. We know we’re making a record, so we’re just going to finish it and see what happens.
I hope we get to play shows again at some point. I miss my friends the most. I would kill for, like, a band practice and maybe a couple drinks afterwards — just that. It’s brutal.
I get update messages about shows that were canceled. The other night, we were supposed to be in Chicago. You have other people upset about you not being there — where usually in quarantine it feels like the whole world is in your one house. It’s really weird to remember that there were people who were going to go to those shows. It wasn’t just me going on the road; people wanted us to be there, for the first time in my life. That’s just another layer of bummer. We worked so hard last year to build up these places. The moment people actually wanted to see us — and we can’t be there.
I’m sure having those opportunities taken away makes you realize how far you’d come.
When I was a barber, I had a client who turned into a friend. He was in a band. They had this big opportunity right when 9/11 happened. I remember him telling me about that. I’ve heard those stories of these monumentally history-changing things that totally fuck everything over for a period of time.
The scary part is that this might be everybody’s “What if that didn’t happen? How would my life turn out?” thing. I won’t take whatever I get for granted, but I hope I get to play with my friends again. That would be fun.
I would also take a Three Links show with 30 people. That sounds great to me right now.
You’re from Keller, just outside of Fort Worth. Can you speak to how the music scene in Fort Worth has evolved or changed?
The weird part is that I haven’t been there for the last three or so years. But I can say how I’ve seen it evolve, just for me. I started at a roller rink. Shows were at movie theaters and roller rinks and arcades — wherever you could throw up a P.A. and turn your amp up and the owner wouldn’t care.
I wasn’t around for the Wreck Room days. I was barely allowed in The Ardvark in its prime. I got to play The Moon when I was with [my old punk band] The Phuss. Lola’s has always been a home base for me. Playing Magnolia Motor Lounge with the Vandoliers was great. And, at the end of 2019, we got to play Billy Bob’s for the first time, which… I’ve always wanted to play Billy Bob’s because I grew up loitering outside of The Door in Fort Worth.
It seemed like there were bands that were being formed all the time in an artist-friendly town that was low-rent. It was a place where your city cared about you. They have Hear Fort Worth, which helped the Vandoliers with our first tour of 2019. They gave us a grant for gas money. The city actually wants you to export Fort Worth music.
People from Fort Worth think I’m from Dallas, and people in Dallas think I’m from Fort Worth. Everybody plays the Dallas scene — but once you play in Dallas, it’s like you’re from Dallas. I lived in Dallas for seven years, which was like a demerit against me in Fort Worth [laughs]. But the coolest thing has been seeing Fort Worth bands being able to get outside of Fort Worth and tour.
Touring is a real unknown for musicians going forward.
I don’t know what it’s going to be like after this. Are there going to be venues? Are we even allowed to have a show like we had? All the shows that I wanted to go to were person-to-person, hot breath, sweat — packed shows.
Would putting restrictions on a show make it any less of a Vandoliers show?
No. I’ve played Vandoliers shows to people sitting down. That’s most of the Americana shows; people in lawn chairs in a family-friendly setting. I think you’ll see stuff go outdoors. I think you’ll see capacity restrictions. I don’t know if touring is coming back anytime soon because I don’t know if the idea of someone going from city to city and gas station to gas station and McDonalds to McDonalds and hotel to hotel is a good idea.
I don’t know if I get to be a career musician anymore. I know I get to be a musician for the rest of my life — that’s a done deal. But it’s just at what capacity? I think the Texas scene might open because we’ll have a season where everyone wants to be outside anyway. I think The Rustic is the perfect example of a place I could see maybe opening first. You can probably fit 1,500 people in the whole place — so maybe you’ll be able to put 500 people in there?
It’s going to be risky. Every time you go on stage, you’ll be risking your life again. Like you’re shooting up heroin every morning. That high of a risk [laughs]!
My other profession is being a barber, and I haven’t been a barber in three years. But that is also off limits, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.
I think people are going to demand barbers come back at some point.
At what cost, though? I could sing a song at a stage 10 feet from you. When rock ‘n’ roll is safer than cutting hair, the world is upside down.
How did you originally meet Rhett Miller and the guys from the Old 97’s?
Through State Fair Records and John Pedigo. At some point after making the first Vandoliers record, Ken [Bethea, guitarist for the Old 97’s] and Phillip [Peeples, Old 97’s drummer] invited us to a show with them and the Turnpike Troubadours down in San Antonio. It was the same weekend as Dios De Los Toadies. So we went to that, which was great, then we drove to see Turnpike and the Old 97’s and that was one of those beginning moments when I was like, “Whoa, I love being in The Vandoliers. This is great.”
That was a great weekend. I hung out with Ken. He had heard the record, and it reminded him a lot of the 97’s. From there, we just kept talking. They invited us to go on tour. It was a great time. We loved playing the shows, and their fans liked us.
After that, Rhett and I became a little closer. He opened up and allowed me to bounce ideas off him. He really helped me as a songwriter. I started sending songs over to him. I got a big notepad of responses. Some of the songs that he made notes on are on our next record. It was like having a teacher.
They’re like your hyper uncles who know everyone and have seen the world and write great songs.
Those guys were at the center of this incredible music era in Deep Ellum. Eventually, that faded away — but music came back strong in Deep Ellum last decade. What does Deep Ellum mean to you?
Deep Ellum is my once-a-year favorite show [that the Vandoliers play]. Three Links is my bar that we do that at. We do it on Thanksgiving Eve, usually. To me, Deep Ellum has always been that hub of culture where genius and dangerous meet. You get to have great food, hear great music, and great art is shown there… and you might get stabbed [laughs].
I love the club shows with Club Dada, Trees, Three Links. Vandoliers never played Adair’s, but I played there solo a couple times. I love those burgers. I would kill for a rehearsal and going to Double Wide afterwards with my friends. I miss it.
If we’re talking about musically, in Dallas and especially Deep Ellum, music was always louder. If it was pop, it was louder. Country music was louder. Reverend Horton Heat was loud music. Everything is a little faster. Everything is a little harder. Everything is a little twang-ier. All your punk rock has twang in it — unless they’re trying to sound like they’re from New York or LA. If they’re trying to sound like a Deep Ellum band, there’s going to be twang.
It’s always an amalgamation. It’s like one thing plus this other thing equals this Dallas band. You can’t just be one genre. All the people in the band you’re seeing are really good musicians, and they’re going to have a fingerprint on your sound.
That’s why I always wanted Dallas bands and Fort Worth bands to get on the road — because our sounds were so different. We would get out on the road and kind of get a vibe of other towns when we were touring and having locals open. I always felt like people were actually five years behind us, rather than five years ahead of us. I’ve always loved Deep Ellum/Dallas/Fort Worth music.
I have two members from each member of the Golden Triangle in my band. Two from Denton. Two from Fort Worth. Two from Dallas. With our powers combined, we make a very obnoxious country band.
It seems like the momentum was soaring musically for all three of those cities. Are you worried about the Dallas music scene with everything going on?
I hope that it sticks around. I hope younger people find a way to continue to make bands and write songs. I hope the rock ‘n’ roll dream isn’t dead.
Right now, on April 27, I think it would be dangerous to open things back up with [the risks of COVID-19]. So I have no idea. For me, as a person who has people show up when I play, I think there’s a responsibility on the club and on the artist to make sure that people aren’t getting sick when you play.
But the Texas music was bumping, dude! Money was being made. People were having fun at shows. The bands were good. That’s what it takes. How do you do it? Do you make the band a TV show and broadcast for the people who are social distancing?
I think there will be music that is being made, and it will be really good. It’s going to be coming from home. Music will go on. The music industry? I have no idea. If you can get someone to use the little money they have left to buy your record, you should be very grateful. We’ve had people donate to us and our merch sales are up, and that gives us hope that we might get to do this again.
No one knows what’s coming, so it’s hard to ask you “What’s next for Vandoliers?” but it sounds like you have a record almost finished?
Yeah, we got home from the Toadies tour in December and we went to a month of rehearsals and got in the studio in the beginning of February. I don’t know when it’s going to come out. I don’t know how it’s going to come out. All I know is we’re trying to finish it. It’s so great just to have a project. I’m so glad we get to work on this.
Anything you feel comfortable saying fans can expect from it?
I feel like we’ve matured as a band. I feel like I say that every time we make a record, which is a good thing. You want your band to keep trying to progress. We’re still playing to our strengths, but we’re also stretching our legs a bit. Conceptually, it’s a lot less autobiographical. I’m more or less writing about characters that I’ve made up. I wrote some of these songs when I was in a van while we were touring. I’m getting mixes back, and it’s weird listening to these songs with a post-COVID mindset. But it’s been cool to hear them from a different perspective.
Cover photo by Mike Brooks.