By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Cigar Box studio is in an unassuming strip mall in South Oak Cliff. Inside, its two thin rooms are covered with noise-reducing foam and wooden sound diffusers. There's a large, colorful painting of a gamecock with its handler on the wall. It's a haven, far away from the crowded insanity of a music festival. That's where The Baptist Generals are now, rehearsing for the release show at Dan's. Reimer messes with one of his many effects processors, his Electro Harmonix 2880. Ryan Williams kneels next to him, at his own command station, in front of a board with a plethora of pedals of his own.
Williams, with his ZZ Top beard and three-foot dreadlocks, is both the hairiest and most soft-spoken member of the band. He manipulates the volume knob on his bass. Jeff Ryan is hitting his snare drum at strategic moments. To the right of Ryan is the tall, svelte Peter Salisbury, sitting in front of his diminutive keyboard.
To the left of Ryan is Flemmons, patiently awaiting the hand cue from Reimer, at which he'll begin the soft, handsome folk chord progression that defines the second half of the song "Floating." It's one of the songs that best defines what the band is capable of today — a meticulous mess of noise followed immediately by strikingly minimal guitar melody.
As the crescendo builds and builds, Reimer's open hand surges toward the center of the circle made by all of the musicians. He closes in a clap, and all of the music stops. Well, almost all of it. Williams doesn't quite manage to silence his bass.
"Sorry, everyone. I had too much going on all at once to stop," Williams says, and all of the band laughs. This is their third attempt at nailing this particular transition.
Still, the mood is light — you won't catch any outbursts akin to the one that ends "Ay Distress" these days. Reimer plays brief passages of Boston and Steve Miller riffs in between songs, and at one point jokes that he doesn't need pot; he's already perpetually and naturally high. "Reggae already sounds good to me," he says, and the whole band laughs. They feel confident. The new songs are strange and beautiful.
Planning the festival had forced The Baptist Generals to the back burner. Flemmons had managed to write a couple songs that would end up on Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, even recording a couple tracks in 2005, and they'd played sporadically in North Texas. But that wasn't the trajectory anyone had in mind back in 2003 when No Silver/No Gold was making the rounds.
Flemmons and his friend at Sub Pop, Andy Kotowicz, lost touch. Flemmons just never had the material for a new record ready. "I can only assume that he had given up on trying to get a record out of me," Flemmons says. "Because I was going off and working on the Fry Street thing and the festival."
Kotowicz never did hear the new album. In October of 2010, he died in a car accident. Flemmons flew up to Seattle to perform a song at Kotowicz's funeral, a song that he hasn't played since and will never play again, he says. The next year's 35 Denton was Flemmons' last. He handed the reins to creative director Kyle La Valley and programming director Natalie Davila. They booked The Baptist Generals on one of the main stages in 2012 — it was the band's biggest show in years and most North Texans' first taste of the new material.
Drummer Jeff Ryan remembers the moment he knew there would be a new Baptist Generals record. He'd been busy playing with Sarah Jaffe and his contact with Flemmons was mostly social. "He was busy doing his thing with 35 Denton, and I was doing my thing. ... We all just got busy." But then Flemmons, who had always controlled every detail of the band, decided it was time to make some compromises in the name of finishing the new album. "Chris said, 'I need you guys to kind of take it over, at least as far as logistically scheduling this thing,'" says Ryan.
The band had started recording Jackleg Devotional to the Heart in January 2012, first at the Cigar Box before finishing it at producer Stuart Sykes' Elmwood Studio. Flemmons started working to minimize his life. He recently sold his house on Egan Street in Denton and has been staying with his mother for more than a year. Most of his possessions fit in a portable storage pod, and his only professional focus is The Baptist Generals.
Flemmons finally turned the record in to Sub Pop last October. Label staffer Chris Jacobs was nervous. Sub Pop had loved No Silver/No Gold. But it had been 10 years. Maybe the spark was gone, or maybe Flemmons had used all his good ideas the first time around.
"When we started listening to it around the office, I'll confess that for a little bit, I was thinking, 'Oh man, he finally finished the record. What if it's not good?'" he says. "What do you do then?"