The rabble-rousing Vandoliers rise higher with their new album
Josh Fleming has been to hell and back. He’s got a few scars chronicling his quest — some self-inflicted, others brought on by the elements — but he wears them as badges of honor. Fronting Vandoliers, self-prescribed “converse cowboys,” rounded out with bassist Mark Moncrieff, drummer Guyton Sanders, fiddler Travis Curry, electric guitarist Dustin Fleming, and multi-instrumentalist Cory Graves, Fleming kicks up dust unlike ever before.
Forever, produced by Adam Hill (Deer Tick) at American Recording Studios in Memphis, uproots typical Americana conventions. Soon after 2017’s The Native, Fleming found himself already digging deep into his skin for the next go around and uncovering new layers of self. “I had no idea it was going to be two years before I would enter the studio again,” he reflects. “I grew a lot between that time. I struggled with my mental health; we changed labels; and I found myself in a place of uncertainty.”
“Cigarette and a black-tooth grin / Troublemaker’s the Devil’s best friend,” he snarls between tight lips on the song that ignited the fire in his bones. “Troublemaker” quakes with the galloping, free-roaming spirit of Tejano music — a colorful tapestry that calls back to Fleming’s once-homestead in a Hispanic neighborhood when the band first began. “A Mariachi band lived across the street from me, and on Sundays they would practice,” he says. “I loved sitting outside and listening to them.”
From “All on Black” to “Sixteen Years” to the rambling “Nowhere Fast,” big horn sections play as crucial a role as Fleming’s most intimately-wrought songwriting to-date. 50 songs were born (and reborn) out of the past few years and witnessed apt schooling from such trailblazers as Rhett Miller and Paul Cauthen, whose imprint can certainly be felt in trace outlines throughout the record. “I had an opportunity to listen to my peers, and I took it. I think I walked away from this experience a better writer, or at least I hope I did,” he says.
“Come hell or high water / I am a traveler, born to roam,” Fleming sings, owning up to his position in this life, a wanderer destined for the “miles and miles” that sweep out ahead of him. He’s the consummate underdog at the end of the day, and it’s a distinction that he dons loudly and proudly. “As a band, we relate most with the underdog. As a person, I know that I have had to fight every day for my path in life. Nothing has come easy and sure as hell didn’t happen overnight,” he says. “The same sentiment comes with self doubt, anxiety and heartache, and it’s what you chose to do in those times that define you. I’m just a regular person trying to achieve extraordinary things. And it’s hard, but not impossible. I think the person who will relate to this album the most, will be in the same position, trying to uncross the stars so that a better life can be obtainable.”
Over email, Fleming addresses his struggle with mental health and how it informed much of the music, experimentation and ultimate lessons learned.
In talking previously about “Fallen Again,” you spoke on your “situational depression” that has often kept you in bed for weeks at a time. Even before writing this song, was there a moment you had to confront yourself?
Music has been my outlet since I was a kid, and it hasn’t failed me yet. “Fallen Again” was my way of confronting it. It was my chance to reconcile with myself that I can’t take on life alone. I’m grateful that it has been a talking point, because a lot of people don’t have the ability to divulge in the day-to-day struggle that comes with it. I use the term “situational” because I know what triggers these feelings, where some don’t have that luxury. For some, it’s not about what happened that day; it’s just a chemical imbalance that leaves them helpless, I don’t want what I go through to be confused with clinical depression, but it is a reality that I could be on top of the world one minute and rock bottom the next.
Do you still struggle quite a bit?
I do, but I am vocal about it now. So, people aren’t confused when they see me struggling. I also have a strong support system in place; my wife is my light, and my manager acts like more of a therapist. And my band keeps my head above water when they see me start to sink.
Do you consider this song an important one for your journey, as well as assisting in helping dismantle the stigma around talking about depression?
I think the biggest symptom I face is the feeling that even if I reached out to anyone, that no one would care, or that I would be a burden to them. Neither of those feelings relate to reality. It’s a silent take over. You don’t realize it’s happening until it’s too late, but if you are open about it to the people you trust in your life, they will spot you dipping down before you do and can help reset your mind. I’m conscious that I have my issues with mental health, but I didn’t feel any relief from it till I reached out.
“Cigarettes in the Rain” carries such an evocative image. How did you come to terms with that heartbreak? Where did this image come from?
I carry my baggage from past relationships, as most people do, and before I met my wife, it hindered me from completely committing to someone. I was 18 years old when I fell in love the first time. We lived hundreds of miles apart, and I was constantly sacrificing my work schedule and skipping college classes to spend time with her. We were toxic to each other: “She strikes me like a match / When she comes around, I light up fast. But when we were together, we had unbridled passion for each other. When we decided to end our relationship, the only thing that was mutual was neither of us wanted it, but our lives were being ruined by each other.
That stuck with me for a long time, and I used that as my starting point for “Cigarettes in the Rain.” “Getting me to change / These hard living ways” stems from my problems with drugs back then. At the time, it was a big part of our struggles. I was constantly messed up on a cocktail of whatever was around. “Can’t turn around a mind that’s made / I had to watch you walk away / And acting like this heart of mine / Didn’t just break / Is like smoking cigarettes in the rain.” There’s no going back, and as a male, you are taught that showing your emotions is a weakness. It’s my favorite line because I remember that last moment when she was walking to her car, both of us holding back the pain so the other wouldn’t know that we were ruined. I hope I never live through another moment like that ever again, and I hope she doesn’t either.
With your talk of the song “Tumbleweed,” you spoke about being a mid-level band still cutting its teeth. “Nowhere Fast” also feels as if you’re lamenting where you are right now. Do you feel frustrated with things? Or right at home in this moment?
I wish I could say that we didn’t have to fight for every opportunity, or that we are swimming in a pool of money and our problems and worries are behind us, but that isn’t the reality. The truth is, everyday we sacrifice our health, our relationships and our security to pursue this dream. I will say that writing and performing music is the reason I am on this planet, and I’m lucky enough to find five other guys with the same purpose. We are lucky enough to be making this type of music at the right time, and that’s something no artist can control. I’m grateful that these songs are connecting with people enough for them to get out of the house and spend their hard earned money on our little band. I will say that “expect nothing appreciate everything” is our core value.
In that same breath, you note how “Miles and Miles,” another standout, deals with the wanderlust of leaving home to pursue the open road. Do you still feel that? Or do you often feel jaded and have lost some of that wander along your way?
I am far from jaded, or I wouldn’t being doing any of this. A big part of the drive stems from living in the same house, in the same town, until I moved out on my own. Music was my only way out — lord knows I wasn’t gonna get into an out-of-state college.
What has been the hardest pill to swallow in your career?
Time. Everything takes time — lots and lots of time.
“Sixteen Years,” then, feels like you’re picking yourself up and dusting the weight off. What led to this song?
Nailed it! It’s hard out there, you have no idea how long it takes till you are too far gone, I guess.
In an interview with Dallas Observer, you talked about finally finding your sound. What has that experimentation been like to arrive on this new album?
You learn about your band on the road. You play in different places every night, and you find your strengths. Our trumpet and fiddle combination is what sets us apart, and when we started arranging the songs, we utilized what makes us different than everyone else. This was our opportunity to introduce ourselves, define who we are as a band and what we do live.
Ultimately, what did you come to learn about yourself and as a band through this record?
I had the chance to confront my doubts, my fears, my anxiety, my depression — and survived. Through that, I had a chance to recommit to myself and to music. As a band, we stretched our legs and defined ourselves and found a place. We were unapologetic about who are and what we sound like. We didn’t follow a trend, and we didn’t change who we were. We just wrote the best songs we could, added parts that served the songs and played our best. I think I walked out of the studio a better writer, and we all felt we became better musicians. We also fell in love with Memphis.