By Kevin Broughton
Seems like the best country bands these days used to be punk rockers. It’s certainly the case for the Dallas-based Vandoliers, a six-piece outfit formed in 2015 after front man Josh Fleming’s punk band, Phuss, broke up. The rest of the self-proclaimed “Converse Cowboys” (a shame that now nobody can use that as a band name) had done their time in various punk and folk outfits around the DFW. Within three years the band was on the cusp of a storybook achievement: Playing South By Southwest in hopes of signing with Bloodshot Records.
Fleming’s dream came true, and with the iconoclastic label’s backing, they lit out for Memphis to record Forever, an album that combines his focused, fiery storytelling with the raw, rough-edged roots you might hear from Lucero or the Old 97s.
The Vandoliers' sound is truly a tour of the many subgenres that originated in the Lone Star State, from outlaw country to Texas swing, electric blues, and even Tejano. At the same time, it’s a twist on those familiar sounds, delivered with a wink of the eye and a bang of the head.
For all the surge of critical acclaim and the uptick in album and ticket sales, Fleming and his mates remain focused, humble and hungry. We caught up with the lead singer a few weeks back and talked about the recording process, the catching of a lifelong dream, and his genuine affection for Marty Stuart.
Where was Forever recorded, and who produced it?
It was recorded in Memphis at American Recording Studios with Adam Hill.
What drew you to Memphis and that producer?
There’s a couple we met – Bill and Kate -- in Memphis, who own an “band” Airbnb and when we would pass through there touring, we sort of fell in with their group of friends. Bands like Lucero, The Drive By Truckers, The Mavericks -- all the Americana bands -- would stay there; it’s this cool 1960s mansion. And they were really pushing us to record in Memphis, because they work with the City of Memphis; trying to bring in artists and add to the local economy. It’s a great city, but it’s kind of having a hard time.
We just fell in love with the city. Everyone’s super sweet and everyone has a great story; it’s Old South, so there are still some ghosts hanging around. So anyway, we met Adam, who’s a great dude. He gets our sense of humor and had us all laughing to the point of our stomachs hurting. We went and toured a bunch of studios, and it was like walking into a time machine. Like, Don’t mind the cigarette burns on the carpet, Johnny Cash didn’t like holding his cigarettes. (Laughs) We ended up at American, where Wilco’s A.M. was recorded. It’s a great big square room that I just really liked; it could house the band so we could all play at the same time.
And we’re on Bloodshot Records now, but we had a budget that we had to meet. We had a certain amount of money for housing and studio time, which we thought would be about eight days. So we just went in there and got to work. It was great.
A question about the arrangements: It sounds like you have a full-blown horn section in several songs. Did you have other guys involved, or did y’all do some overdubbing of Cory Graves playing by himself?
Cory only did overdubbing on “All On Black.” Everything else was one fiddle and one trumpet, which is what we use (playing) live.
Well, it’s a really big sound, man.
Yeah, thanks. We tried to keep as much “ear candy” out of it as possible. The only other dubbing we did, really, was doubling up the vocals on the chorus on “All On Black.”
I was gonna ask…it sounds like you’re doing the harmony on some of those songs; is that you or someone else?
Cory does a lot of the harmonies. We didn’t have a lot of time, so if we figured out that it was quicker for me to do it, I did. That’s me harmonizing with myself on “Miles And Miles,” but Cory does most of the harmonies on everything.
You know, it seems like a lot of the great Americana bands – The Gourds come to mind, Reckless Kelly comes to mind – there’s a really great multi-instrumentalist who sings great harmony and ties everything together.
Yeah. I’ve got one of those. (Laughs)
Do you do all the songwriting?
Well, yeah, a lot of it; Cory does some, too, but we all pretty much take songwriting credits. There’s four ways to look at songwriting: Lyrical, melodic, arrangements… and, f*ck, I’ve forgotten what the fourth one is. (Laughs) We just worked together as a unit on this album. I do a lot of the lyrics and progressions, but everybody has a hand in it.
Y’all are obviously big fans of the Old 97s, and their influence on your work is clear. You also credit Marty Stuart as being an inspiration, but I think that element is a little more subtle. Did you grown up a fan of his? Did your parents turn you onto him?
My wife turned me on to him, but he was one of the first people to do “rock country,” and break a lot of the rules of traditional country. And at the end of the day he’s one of the biggest time capsules of music history. When he went solo after playing with Johnny Cash and Earl Scruggs, doing his own thing…right now, he’s one of the most important people – outside of guys like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson – in all of country music. Also, you know, he’s a fan of our band and we’ve gotten to tour with him.
Have you seen him live?
Well, you’re f*cking up. Go see him, and every band you see after him will suck. That is the tightest, best band you will ever see in your life.
Well, I’ll make a point of it. It’s pretty cool the way he’s gotten a new wave of momentum later in his career with the Fabulous Superlatives. What have y’all learned from being around them and touring with them?
He’s everything you want a hero to be. He had no reason to be nice to us, and they stopped their sound check to introduce themselves to us on our first tour with them. They’re the highest-class people you’d ever want to meet, and they’re so immensely talented that I don’t even think they realize it anymore. When their drummer is one of the best singers you’ve ever heard…and that’s how talented the rest of the band is.
In this business you get big-timed a lot when you’re young. Marty has consistently been like, “Y’all are cool. I love what you’re doing.” That takes away a lot of the self-doubt.
You’ve also mentioned that you’re a big fan of Bob Wills, whom I’m told is still the king. What is it about his work that touches you?
That comes from my dad. My dad and I loved taking long road trips, and even when I was a teenager who didn’t fully understand him, I would gravitate Bob Wills because I thought it was funny and cool. The guitar and fiddle playing were great; it’s just one of those long-running things that reminds me of my childhood. And it reminds me of my dad, so I’ll always love it. (Pauses) But at the end of the day, I don’t know that this album was influenced by Bob Wills. There’s not one western swing song on there. (Laughs) We just love music. That’s why our band’s so weird: We just like a lot of different music.
If you had to list, say, five albums that you consider albums that are absolutely indispensable for the serious music fan, what would they be?
I’m gonna do this differently and do a round-table with the band, since I didn’t think about it when you texted me yesterday.
(To band mates) Okay, desert-island records…you have to pick one.
“Old 97s, Too Far To Care.”
“Pinkerton by Weezer.”
“Led Zeppelin I.”
“Who’s Next, since our drummer loves Keith Moon.”
Finally, you’ve spoken about how getting signed to Bloodshot was a big-time event for the Vandoliers. Could you briefly describe the nature of your relationship with the label, and how it’s impacted the band professionally?
I mean, we’re halfway through our first run of this record, and our ticket sales are way up. Which is weird. We’re in places we’ve never been, and people already know who we are. The biggest impact, though, is the Old 97s; they’re the ones who sent our record over to them. The folks at Bloodshot listened to it and loved it. And once we played the showcase at South By Southwest last year, they asked us if we wanted to be on the roster. It was like a cliché or a dream: I’m going down to Austin to play South By Southwest and get a record deal. That actually happened to me.
They’re a tight-knit family. They’re hard working and honest people, and I trust them. And we’re excited to be on their roster.
The Vandoliers are:
JOSHUA FLEMING: vocals, acoustic guitar
DUSTIN FLEMING: electric guitar
MARK MONCRIEFF: bass
TRAVIS CURRY: fiddle
GUYTON SANDERS: drums, percussion
CORY GRAVES: trumpet, piano, organ, vocals