The Baptist Generals' Revival
Dan's Silverleaf is the town hall of Denton music. The art scattered around the venue is purposefully random, but one of the first things you'll see is above the merch table: a striking six-foot-tall painting of a naked woman clutching her chest. A winding bar stretches from the stage back to the patio, where just about every musician in Denton has taken a smoke break or found some fresh air.
On a recent Saturday night in the venue's semi-filled main room, all six members of The Baptist Generals are standing on the stage as their new tune "Oblivion Overture" plays through the P.A. Lead singer Chris Flemmons takes a healthy pull from his bottle of Red Guitar wine. No need for a glass — it's going to be that kind of evening. He waves the bottle in the face of bassist Ryan Williams, who playfully pushes it away.
The crowd is growing and pressing up near the stage, and the shaggy white dog that was lying up front during the opening act flees for the back patio. It's a testament to the Generals' place in Denton's cultural and civic landscape: a city councilwoman, Pete Kamp, has a reserved table near the front. Standing nearby is Craig Welch, lead singer of the seminal area metal band Brutal Juice, one of many luminaries of the DFW music scene here to pay their respects.
It's been 10 years since The Baptist Generals celebrated the release of a new album. That was the critically acclaimed No Silver/No Gold, put out by Seattle-based Sub Pop — the label that first signed Nirvana and more recently counted The Shins and Fleet Foxes among its roster. The band wore that record out on a successful national tour, and watched its star rise. Then a string of obligations, unexpected roadblocks and opportunities kept them in Denton, for a year and then five and then 10. Flemmons was always working on music, but he found himself with other battles to fight, against out-of-town developers and the perception that Denton isn't a serious artistic hub. It started to seem like the Generals might simply fade away.
As "Oblivion Overture" comes to a soft, slow end, the band launches into "Machine En Prolepses," the first track on their new album, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, and the audience loses it. Peter Salisbury uses his iPad to trigger a sound like a cricket chirping. Flemmons, dressed in the black button-up formal vest over a red button-up long-sleeved shirt he's almost always seen in, strums his 30-year-old Trump acoustic to the percussive thrums of the beat. The rest of the band soon joins in: Paul Slavens on marimba, Jeff Ryan on drums, Ryan Williams on bass and Jason Reimer on lead guitar.
They finish the two-minute instrumental, and Flemmons takes a few moments for the applause to settle. "Hello Denton!" he bellows. He mentions that they've been recording this album since January of 2012. Reimer doesn't miss a beat: "I think it was January 2004," he says.
Flemmons has a habit of hanging onto things that matter to him. Like that guitar he's clutching on stage: He bought it 25 years ago at a pawn shop in Fort Worth for $20.
Its most visible scar is on the front: The wood is severely worn away in the shape of a kidney just above the soundhole, in the middle of an intricate design of Saturnian rings with a crisscrossing thick ring of diamonds at its center. The neck is thicker than a standard acoustic guitar because it's a classical: It uses nylon strings instead of steel, and you can hear the difference on all of The Baptist Generals' albums. The strings are also part of the reason that Flemmons refers to the instrument on stage as his "plastic guitar." He's taped lyrics he sometimes forgets to the top.
For now, anyway, the Trump is the only guitar he owns. He's spent hundreds of dollars over the years modifying and fixing the instrument. In order to electrify it, he had the bridge bored out and put a transducer pickup in it. One year the neck just snapped in half.
"It's been patched and rejointed," he says. "I can't even begin to name all of the things that have been done to that guitar."
Flemmons had owned it for 12 years already when he started The Baptist Generals with his friend, drummer Steve Hill. They played outside on Fry Street in Denton, in a stairwell near a long-gone beer and wine shop called The Corkscrew. Flemmons, then 30, played his pawnshop Trump guitar while Hill cradled a snare drum in his legs. They filled up that Denton inlet with the minimalist sound that's still the core of the band's music. But life quickly got more complicated than playing in a stairwell.
A year after they formed, Flemmons' dad, Jerry, fell ill. By then, the former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter had been simplifying and getting rid of material possessions. He battled cancer and endured a heart transplant, but in 1999, at 63, they took him off life support. It took eight days for his new heart to stop beating.
A few days later, Flemmons walked into his dad's study. He sat there for a while, then started shuffling through the filing cabinet. He found his father's writings and pored through letters to friends, and an alibi he had to write to the FBI just after the JFK assassination because he was one of the reporters on the scene. Flemmons read through folder after folder, finally looking up at the clock at 12:01 a.m., September 20. His birthday. There, in his father's study, he finally cried.
The band trudged on. They showed up uninvited to South By Southwest, where they caught the ear of the European label Munich, which signed them shortly thereafter. They toured Europe on the strength of their first record, Dog.
But Flemmons' thoughts were still with his dad. He started writing No Silver/No Gold then, and while the album isn't about anything specific, it's dense with emotional turmoil. He recorded nearly the entire thing in his garage, and it has a gritty, static echo, reminiscent of an early Daniel Johnston recording. At the end of the first track, "Ay Distress," Flemmons sings the lines: "Go to sleep tonight/cover up the light/you can dream it right/you can dream it right." Then his cell phone goes off, and he loses it.
The slow, sad notes coming from his old Trump guitar are silenced by his screams. "GOD DAMMIT! ... OH GOD!"
"Stop the tape," someone says calmly, but it's too late.
The phone keeps ringing and then suddenly stops.
"GOD FUCK!" You can hear him pounding some inanimate object.
"Hey, hey, hey, it's OK," someone says. "Calm down."
End track. Transition immediately into the second track, "Alcohol (Turn and Fall)."
It may not have been the happiest time in Flemmons' life, but The Baptist Generals were doing well. By 2002, they had another European tour booked and were playing to expanding audiences.
No Silver/No Gold wound up catching the attention of Sub Pop's Andy Kotowicz, and the label signed them in 2003. Kotowicz and Flemmons became fast friends, and they often shared tapes with each other. "His tastes were so broad," Flemmons says. "Even me having been in a music town and being around people who knew their shit ... Andy knew a lot more about music than a lot of people who I thought knew a lot about music."
That year, The Baptist Generals went on tour with the Mountain Goats and expanded their lineup to include Ryan Williams, Reimer, Salisbury and a new drummer, Jeff Ryan. For a couple of years, they toured on the strength of No Silver/No Gold, and as time passed, anticipation grew for a new record. But Flemmons' focus was shifting away from the band and toward the city where it was born.
Flemmons sits in a wooden booth in Cool Beans Bar & Grill. It's the only building built before 2007 that still stands in the former arts hub of the Fry Street District.
Flemmons is for the moment upbeat. He orders a glass of wine and it takes a while for the bartender to find some. This isn't really a wine bar. But for him, Cool Beans serves mostly as a monument to what happened to the hundred-year-old buildings that used to surround it. They weren't fancy structures, but they supported one of the most important artistic hubs in the city. The area was not just where The Baptist Generals got their start — it was also a critical gathering place for all kinds of creative people. The Fry Street Fair attracted 20,000 people to the neighborhood in 2001. That's around the time when the short-lived record store, Johnny Law, had just opened around the corner from The Corkscrew — it hosted intense in-store rock and punk shows. Cool Beans and Texas Jive, formerly TJ's Pizza, regularly hosted live music of all genres. Professors of all disciplines would walk to the Tomato Pizza, on the corner of Fry and Hickory, for a pint of Shiner and a slice of Chicago-style pizza while they graded papers.
This was the Denton he fell in love with, where his band first played in the stairwell. But that stairwell is gone now, replaced by upscale four-story retail/apartment complexes.
It could have been worse. At least what stands now attempts to keep businesses and foot traffic in the area, whereas when an out-of-town developer swooped in to buy out the area in the spring of 2006, they planned to tear the buildings down and replace them with a flavorless strip-mall nightmare.
So Flemmons fought back. He joined forces with Martin Iles, reluctant director of the Good/Bad Art Collective, and former Denton City Councilman Mike Cochran, creating a blog called Central Denton Preservation dedicated to raising awareness about the area's history.
Ultimately, an arsonist rendered the preservation issue moot by setting fire to the buildings days before they were scheduled for demolition. The blaze started in the corner of the then-abandoned building on the corner of Fry and Hickory streets in June 2007. Thousands of people gathered on the lawn of UNT to watch the inferno.
But the efforts of Flemmons and Central Denton Preservation came to something. The City Council voted down a rezoning of the space, and the developer, United Equities, left town. A few years later, another Houston developer came in to build what occupies the space now. They worked with the city and its citizens, including Flemmons, to bring retail back to the area.
"Preservation-wise, I think that Fry Street will keep anything else from getting torn down in this town," Flemmons says in the bar. "We needed to have a horrible thing like that happen. I mean, there's Burnett Park in Fort Worth. ... When Burnett Park was going to get torn down, all of a sudden there was this concern for preservation in Fort Worth, and now preservationists there are very active. So consequently you have this downtown area that's pretty remarkable. My concern is not having more buildings get torn down."
For Flemmons, the physical spaces of Denton are not incidental. They've shaped his life and his music, and he recognizes that they've done the same for plenty of his friends, one of whom walks in as he drinks his wine. "Hey, Johnny Mac!" Flemmons calls out as soon as he sees John McIntire, former drummer of Record Hop. "How are you, sir?"
McIntire says he is scheduled to have open-heart surgery in June. His aortic valve needs to be replaced.
"Oh my God!" Flemmons says. McIntire tells Flemmons that it's not life-threatening and, in an effort to lighten the mood, Flemmons talks about the cool scar McIntire is going to have.
"Yeah I got a belly scar down here," Flemmons says to McIntire. "I had major plumbing reworking on my intestines.
"I'm gonna get a tattoo of a tree growing sideways, I don't know," and they both laugh at that.
Flemmons started his band in Denton and has always believed deeply in the music that his peers in the city were making. Musicians like Midlake, Will Johnson and Sarah Jaffe, he believes, are world-class artists who deserve a place in a larger discussion about rock 'n' roll. So he brought them to the place where The Baptist Generals started catching powerful ears: Austin, for SXSW.
And ultimately, the biggest impact Flemmons has had on Denton, and its musicians in particular, is not his Fry Street preservation efforts. No, that would be the music festival that sprang from those trips to SXSW: 35 Denton. Like The Baptist Generals themselves, Flemmons started the fest as a small, DIY operation. In 2005, he booked some of Denton's best bands for a day party in the best venue he could find: Big Red Sun, a flower shop. From there, the showcase grew. By its third year, it had moved to Sixth Street.
But even then there were hundreds of showcases at SXSW, enough for an established band to get lost in the noise, let alone a lesser-known Denton one. Flemmons recognized that the way to prove Denton as a music hub was to bring bands from around the world to his home city. So in 2009, the fest moved north. The first year, the biggest band they could get was Monotonix, an electrifying but then-obscure band out of Israel. The festival — he called it NX35 — netted $200.
"It was still highly rewarding," Flemmons says. "Once the first one happened, everybody realized that this was something that was going to be great for the town."
The second year brought respected bands like HEALTH and The Walkmen, and legendary musician and producer Steve Albini gave a keynote address. But it was a headlining set by The Flaming Lips that made it one of the biggest rock shows Denton had ever seen. And it almost didn't happen.
Two weeks before the festival, Flemmons and his team of volunteers were still short of the Lips' asking price. Flemmons made a last-minute drive to Oklahoma to meet with the band's representatives and try to convince them to play for less.
To Flemmons, everything was riding on this show. The way he saw it, if he couldn't bring this show to fruition while his town was in the national spotlight, it would signify that Denton was just another flaky slacker music town that couldn't get its act together.
But thanks to some major cooperation from the Flaming Lips — it's been widely speculated that they took a big pay cut to play that show — the Lips agreed to come.
On the night of the show at the North Texas Fairgrounds in north Denton, thousands of people turned out for the only free show of that year's festival. Midlake played an opening set, and the crowd grew more and more massive.
After all the doubt, all the work, it was finally happening. The band walked onto the stage, and frontman Wayne Coyne began raising his palms to the sky to pump up the crowd. The cheers reached massive decibels. The bright lights of the stage and all of the people on it listened to the cue from drummer Kliph Scurlock. He cracked his sticks together, shouting, "One! Two! Three! Four!"
And then the power went out. The lights went black; the microphones went dead. The crowd was apoplectic.
A few minutes later, the problem was identified and the show was underway. But by then, Flemmons had just about had enough anyway.
"To this day, I'm not sure it was a good idea," Flemmons says of getting the Lips to play. "It was just too much too quick. I'm still glad it happened, but it took years off of people's lives, not just me. It was a highly stressful situation."
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?"
Sub Pop staffer Bekah Zietz wasn't all that impressed on her first couple of listens. As she always does, she brought the new album home to play on the stereo in the living room of her Seattle duplex. She plays her music loud and does other things.
She got to Jackleg's seventh track, "Broken Glass," and found herself setting down her newspaper. In that moment, all she could do was give all of her attention to the song.
"After listening to it [a few times], I realized that this is a record that actually forces you to listen, and that's one of the things about it that I really respect," Zietz says. "I think that it really does force you to look at yourself in a way that maybe sometimes you don't want to have to deal with. ... It's like taking a challenging class in school that might at first appear easy, but you actually have to pay attention."
Jacobs agrees. "It's fantastic, and I think that the depth of the instrumentation and all of the arrangement was definitely a surprise, but a really pleasant surprise."
Theirs seems to be the prevailing reaction among those who have heard Jackleg. The trick now is getting more people to hear it. That means touring, which the band is doing now. The first stop is in Denton, where it all started, at Dan's Silverleaf.
After completing their third song of the evening, the dark and enigmatic "Clitorpus Christie," Flemmons yells to the crowd. "Let's just get trashed tonight." He takes another pull from his wine bottle, and the 200 or so Generals fans scream their approval. "I mean, it's Denton. It's kind of what we do."
The band continues playing the record in order, all the way through "Broken Glass," and then "Snow on the FM," on to "Floating." They still don't nail the transition. Flemmons pauses and laughs for a couple of seconds. They finish up with bonus track "Fly Candy Harvest" and then quickly exit to the left of the stage behind a curtain.
Maybe a year from now The Baptist Generals will be on the road, and crowds who don't know anything about the old buildings on Fry Street or the Flaming Lips show that almost didn't happen will be singing along to Flemmons' odd lyrics and demanding encores just as boisterously as the crowd in Denton is right now. Or maybe not. Chris Flemmons knows better than to guess where his life will take him. And besides, there is this long-awaited release show to enjoy.
The crowd, consisting of government officials and local music heavyweights and enthusiastic fans, isn't going anywhere. They roar for The Baptist Generals, who steal just a few more seconds behind the curtain before they finally come back onstage to perform a six-song encore.
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