It’s been 10 years since the Baptist Generals were receiving critical accolades for their Sub Pop debut No Silver/No Gold. But a decade later, the Denton, Texas band has finally released their sophomore disc Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, and the Baptist General singer-guitarist Chris Flemmons is approaching the reemergence of his band with a world-wizened enthusiasm. Flemmons may be little older, but today he understands the true value of things and the rarity of a good opportunity.
“I feel like I have an appreciation for the fact that 10 years after we put out an album our label Sub Pop kept us. That means a lot,” Flemmons says from his Texas home. “And then the guys in the band who have put their time and resources to getting this thing done — I don’t think I can do anything but take it more seriously.”
For Flemmons, the passage of time is only amplified by the fact that his band is touring with the Mountain Goats, whom the Generals used to tour with back in the day. “We’d play rooms with 24 people, and now John [Darnielle, singer-songwriter for the Mountain Goats,] has a much larger audience,” Flemmons says. “The experience of being exposed to this many people is pretty profound.”
The second album’s long gestation is one of those “two steps backwards, one step forward” parables. Flemmons founded the band with drummer Steve Hill in 1998, and they released a couple EPs before signing with Sub Pop (Hill’s since left and the present membership fluctuates). Flemmons admits that during those days he had a negative outlook on life. No Silver/No Gold is an album of gruff, gutbucket indie-blues heavily shadowed by the death of Flemmons’ father.
“I knew the album I made — it would be like a wonderful disturbing documentary that you watch and you think it’s amazing, but you’re not certain you’ll ever watch it again,” Flemmons says with a half-chuckle. “Critically, the album did great, but it just didn’t sell a lot of records.”
There’s a very real sense of desolation in No Silver/No Gold, especially on tracks like “Creeper,” with its rattling tambourine and repetitive intonation, “I had a swell old time.” The whole thing evokes a primordial bar-room ooze. And then there’s the meter-pegging acoustic strum of “On a Wheel,” featuring Flemmons inchoately wailing off in the distance. The album is keenly characterized by the opening track, “Any Distress,” a spare, haunting folk-blues number reminiscent of early Will Oldham. Near the end of the track, the song is interrupted by a cellphone and Flemmons’ subsequent soundroom meltdown.
“Those songs came out of a personal need. I was having a difficult time dealing with my grief in regards to my father dying. In my press I didn’t tell people. I didn’t want to talk about the death of my dad,” he says. “Consequently, a lot of people walked up to me randomly at shows and were like, ‘I have a parent that has cancer, and I’ve been listening to this album for the last year.’
“That was what that was. That was cathartic and only so I didn’t drink myself to death,” he adds. “At the same time you have all those feelings, some of them vitriolic at points, and playing those songs for two years wasn’t exactly the healthiest either. Even though perhaps I had moved on — or had begun to move on — it was very fresh and alive every time we went to play them.”
The band went into the studio in 2005 to record the follow-up, but they didn’t finish the album. Flemmons wasn’t satisfied with some of their early takes on the songs and discovered that the problems weren’t something he could fix with studio knob-twiddling. The issues in some cases were the songs themselves.
The project moved to the side and Flemmons became involved in other pursuits. He worked on the preservation of a building and launched a music festival, 35 Denton. Scheduled a week before SXSW, 35 Denton takes advantage of the Austin music showcase’s magnetism to draw national and international acts. The fest ended up offering a bit of a boon to the Denton economy. Then in 2011 Flemmons stepped away from the festival and approached his bandmates about the possibility of finishing their second album.
Flemmons didn’t want a repeat of No Silver/No Gold, an experience he describes as wrenching. “It was a very exhausting experience — not just for me, but for everyone that was involved in my project. I certainly didn’t want the next record to be another experience like that one was in the sense of just bleeding for art. I’m too old for that shit,” he says.
Instead, Jackleg Devotional is a more nuanced, prettier album that is very different in tone from No Silver/No Gold. The grime of their debut disc has been scrubbed, revealing a rootsy 1970s rock vibe somewhere between Warren Zevon and Neil Young. It’s still dark in a sense but with an underlying strength, not despair. Case in point: in Jackleg‘s “Oblivion,” Flemmons begins the song by singing, “Make no doubts about it, you will lose it, everything you ever had,” yet by the end of the track, the song turns into a powerful ode to freedom.
“I am extremely happy with how the album sounds,” Flemmons says. “We kind of took those same elements and somehow kept part of it and made it more beautiful.”