A Decade Later, The Baptist Generals Are Finally Ready To Become The Next Big Thing.
When the Baptist Generals released their last record, 2003's No Silver/No Gold, it initially wasn't even available for purchase on iTunes.
That had less to do with the fact that the band wasn't a known commodity — by that point, the band, which had recently signed to Sub Pop Records, was already beginning to earn a small bit of attention both nationally and internationally — and more to do with the fact that Apple wouldn't launch its digital storefront until two months after that album's release.
Yes, the world was a very different place 10 years ago.
Myspace hadn't launched yet. Mark Zuckerberg hadn't even started writing the code that would eventually become “thefacebook.” Monster records like Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and Jay-Z's The Black Album were still months away from being released.
Those were different times for Baptist Generals frontman Chris Flemmons, too. Back then, the Dentonite had no idea that he'd devote the bulk of his next 10 years to projects outside of his band, that the music he would begin working on in 2005 wouldn't earn its release until eight years later, or that, more than a decade after signing to Sub Pup, the Baptist Generals would only have a single album released through the label.
None of this has been for lack of trying, necessarily. In fact, the title of the Generals' new record, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, isn't anything new. It was first conceived by Flemmons back when his band initially started laying down tracks for potential release in 2005. But the band — and Flemmons in particular — was never really happy with the way those tracks turned out. And, months later, the album that was originally intended to be their second Sub Pop release wound up being completely scrapped.
“Sonically, one of the things that went wrong back in 2005 is that we had just come off of a US tour and went immediately into the studio,” Flemmons says. “When we tend to go out and play live, we kind of electrify the acoustic parts of what we do. So we went directly into the studio and recorded basically with an electrical ensemble. I didn't like the sound of it and I didn't know what was wrong, but I wanted an end to it. I put the record on the shelf and said, 'I'm going to get back to this,' and sulked for three months. We ended up playing a house show in Denton at Fry House. We played acoustic and it was like, 'You dumbass, the essence of this band is acoustic. Why didn't you go into the studio and record acoustic?' It didn't occur to me.”
What also never occurred to Flemmons was how distracted he'd become by a handful of wholly different ventures in the wake of that wasted effort. In fact, it would be several years before he and his band would even get the chance to take another crack at recording the album.
To hear Flemmons tell it, around that period, life just sort of got away from him.
In 2006, the 100 block of Denton's Fry Street was purchased by United Equities, which planned to demolish several of the area's historic buildings and replace them with a mixed-use center, and for the next two-and-a-half years Flemmons devoted himself vehemently to helping save those buildings from destruction. He'd score a victory on that front eventually: The firm's plans were derailed when, in 2008, the Denton City Council rejected a permit that would have allowed the construction of a drive-through CVS Pharmacy, which was considered the project's anchor.
But, rather than relishing on that win or opting to use his newly found free time to resume his long-shelved effort, Flemmons jumped full force into his next pet project. For the next four years, he dedicated nearly every waking minute of his life to helping guide Denton's fledgling NX35 festival from fool's errand to a full-fledged annual tradition.
Then a curious thing happened. Last year, when the festival rebranded itself to its current 35 Denton incarnation, Flemmons, a self-described control freak, decided to take a step back, relinquishing his duties as the festival's creative director in favor of a more backseat role.
Besides simply affording him the free time to revisit his long delayed record, the move wound up having an immense impact on the way Flemmons would approach the recording process for Jackleg the second go-round. Basically, after the demoing process, Flemmons decided to employ his newfound appreciation for delegation and leave much of the rest of the record's outcome in the hands of his bandmates.
“The album production ended up being more of a collective,” Flemmons says. “I wanted other people to have ownership of it and part of getting it produced. I really just wanted to show up and record. Stuart Sikes and Jason Reimer were instrumental in scheduling and production. Everybody had opinions — except me. I really didn't give a fuck. I wanted them to decide what was right and wrong.”
Of course, the fact that Flemmons has surrounded himself with such a seasoned supporting cast this time around certainly made them a pretty easy lot to trust. Currently, the rest of the Generals lineup includes names like Paul Slavens, Jeff Ryan, Ryan Williams, Peter Salisbury, and Jason Reimer — men who, collectively, had spent decades playing sidemen roles in such revered musical projects as St. Vincent, Mind Spiders, History At Our Disposal, The War on Drugs, Robert Gomez and Stumptone, just to name a few.
And there's little doubting that the Generals are an improved entity because of these players' sudden increased influence. On Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, this group has produced an album that culls from their collective experiences. On record, they're a band that knows exactly when to hold back and let Flemmons' tremulous, penetrating vocals and delicate acoustic guitar playing shine. Other times, tape loops, electric instruments and an array of percussion add sweeping embellishments to Flemmons' self-effacing song skeletons.
This dichotomy can be found on singular tracks, too, such as “Floating” which begins with a minute-and-a-half of buildup that includes tape loops, the sporadic patter and pounding of drums, vocals played in reverse and the eerie creaks and howls of a waterphone (played by producer Stuart Sikes) before giving way to what essentially becomes a solo track for Flemmons, with his voice and guitar carrying the remainder of the song. Still, at other points, like on the album's closing track “Oblivion Overture,” for instance, it's expertly arranged stings and woodwinds that do all the heavy lifting. This constant push and pull between lush superfluities and bare bones structures are compelling enough to warrant repeated listens of the album. That's by design, too: Limited appeal and a short shelf life really hindered No Silver/No Gold's longevity, Flemmons admits.
“The last record I wrote after my father died,” Flemmons says. “Even I didn't want to be singing those songs a year and a half later. To me, that record is like a really amazing documentary film you might see and be like, 'God, that was really amazing, but I don't know that I'll ever watch that again.' [This time around] I'm just real glad the album is done. That's the most important thing. After years of postponing it, these guys came together and fucking made it.”
Perhaps even more important than simply finishing the record is the fact that, after a decade of inactivity, the management team at Sub Pop never wavered in their enthusiasm for the band.
“There was a lot of points in the last 10 years when we thought there wasn't going to be another Baptist Generals record,” says Sub Pop general manager Chris Jacobs. “We're all very, very happy to be proven wrong in that.”
Were they a larger label Sub Pop most likely would have dropped The Baptist Generals years ago. Jacobs admits this much outright. The fact that his label deals primarily with mid-level bands, though, allows Jacobs and his colleagues to form much closer, direct relationships with musicians on their roster than, say, their counterparts at one of the majors who deal primarily with managers, agents and other intercessors.
“We signed [Flemmons] in 2002 [because of] our belief in the viability of the music he was doing, and how unique and interesting it was,” Jacobs says. “It was just so individually moving to many of us who work here that that never went away. They were amongst the first bands signed to the label by my former coworker and friend Andy Kotowicz, who died a couple of years ago. I think my connection to him and our connection is strong enough that, in addition to totally loving the record, it just seems like the right thing to do.”
Flemmons himself acknowledges how lucky he is to have been kept around on Sub Pop's roster for all these years. The 43-year-old frontman knows that, when his band was initially signed, that move came during a vastly different time for the record industry. During the post-grunge boom, labels were signing as many bands as they could from all over the country and kind of just throwing them at the proverbial wall to see if they'd stick. That's no longer the case, though, and Flemmons has witnessed this often depressing truth firsthand; he's watched countless Denton bands form, toil away unsigned and then eventually dissolve, when, all along, a label's stamp of approval would've been enough to keep them going.
The golden opportunity of having a pseudo-second chance isn't lost on him. And, armed with the best album of his band's career — our gut says Jackleg Devotional to the Heart will likely end up being remembers as the best album released by any North Texas artist all year — Flemmons says the Baptist Generals intend to make the most of their effort this time around.
With festival organizing and historic building saving behind him now, Flemmons says he's finally ready to dedicate himself to the band in ways that he couldn't have when he was younger.
To that end the band, which hasn't toured since 2005, will embark on a 28-date tour with the Mountain Goats beginning next month. What's more, Flemmons has all but guaranteed Baptist Generals fans that they won't have to wait another decade before the band releases their next album.
For now, though, that can wait. After all the distractions and setbacks he and his band have faced in the past 10 years, Flemmons, now unencumbered by his other duties, has finally begun to embrace what he really is: a musician.
It may seem like an obvious realization, but without the events of the past decade, it's a revelation that might've never been made.
And, in turn, the Baptist Generals wouldn't be ready as they now are — for the second, but perhaps finally right time — to step into their role as the region's next truly big thing.
“I had friends that wanted to play music ever since they begged for their first guitar when they were 12,” Flemmons says. “I love music and I love playing it. But it really wasn't something that I wanted to try and make a livelihood from. Ten years later, I'm aware it's one of the only things I might do OK.”