FOREVER, the latest from Dallas alt-country rockers Vandoliers, is the amalgamation of seasoned musicians fine-tuning and honing in on the sounds that have set the precedence for who they are as a band. Borrowing from many veins of country, frontman Joshua “Fireball” Fleming and company have developed a sound and a voice that is distinctly Vandoliers and distinctly Texan. Fleming’s honest and simple approach to songwriting is showcased in his ability to write meaningful songs ranging from reminiscing on days of youthful hooliganism to coming to terms with growing older and walking the path toward a wiser outlook on life.
I start my conversation with Fleming by discussing exactly what two strangers who have never spoken to each talk about: the weather. As I sit at my kitchen counter drinking tea, he puts a brief hold on the conversation at one point to take a bong rip. And from there we delve into FOREVER, the transition from State Fair Records to the larger Bloodshot Records, the growth of the band and their musical style since the first album, and buying shots for the band.
So where’d the nickname “Fireball” come from?
You ever go buy the band a shot? Well that happens like 15 times in a single night so I started shooting Fireball because it has the lowest alcohol content, and I’m a redhead, and I’m a spitfire.
FOREVER will be your first release with Bloodshot, right?
Correct. It’s crazy to be on with them.
So with your admiration for bands like The Old 97s, and their role in your development, what was it like to release albums with State Fair Records and then how that moved to Bloodshot?
Working with State Fair was amazing. Being a local label, they had everything that a large label would have. They had put out a couple of Americana albums, but if you look at their roster, it’s very broad. So coming in with a weird sound like we have, I was like, okay, these guys might get it. And they put out our first two albums and supported us and got us off the ground and moving. It was great. We did a two-record deal with them, and right when we were discussing if we would keep going or would be moving on they started sending out our records to other labels. And evidently The Old 97s had sent THE NATIVE over to Bloodshot, and they had listened to it, and we got a call from them, and it was everything that you’d expect from a record label calling you at random: it was exciting, it was crazy. But it wasn’t an instant deal or anything, they just invited us to play South By. So we knew we had to turn on the jets and be tight and luckily we were coming off a long tour going into South By, which we’re doing again this year, and we played our asses off and everyone had fun and we were loud and fast… we do a lot of different sounds, so we were playing all of our old material and they loved it. They invited us to dinner and we were talking, and at the end of dinner, they asked if we wanted to be on the roster. It was a total cliche South By Southwest experience.
What’s the vibe of South By? I know you guys are based in Dallas, and I’m out here in LA and everyone in LA is alway talking about Austin being the creative space of Texas.
Austin is Austin, and the things that go on in that city are only three hours away from me. It’s kind of the way I feel about Nashville. I have friends there, the industry is there, I play shows there, we tour there, but the only thing missing is my family.
That’s kind of key.
It’s key. When you’re a musician, that’s your support system, because you’re out of town a lot. The main thing I’d say is that Austin is going nuts right now. It’s huge, there are a lot of people moving there, every time we play there it’s packed. When we go down to South By we have a great time. I was just there yesterday, working with Gibson, getting my guitars ready for the road, and it’s great because there isn’t a shop like that in Dallas. I’d say to anyone looking to move Austin, do it.
I haven’t had a chance to ever swing out to Austin. I’ve been to Dallas a few times before.
Dallas as a music city is actually really great. You gotta remember that Austin is a really large pond, but it’s becoming a really large, old pond if you know what I mean. Usually I try to avoid places people go to get famous. Those are usually places you aren’t gonna get paid to play. This is your job, and this is your livelihood, you just have to know those things. When I go to LA, I’m not expecting those things. I’m going to play LA, it’ll get press, but it ain’t gonna pay the bills. Same for Austin: you’ll play for a lot of people, but you’ll get paid the least. Same for Nashville. So trying to move there seems so hard if you’re trying to be a professional, and create a brand that’s viable and can support itself.
Being in Dallas, there’s a breeding ground of musicians that’s going nuts right now. The same time we started, we started with the Texas Gentlemen, Charley Crockett, Vincent Neil Emerson, and Joshua Ray Walker, and we’ve all gone up. And we’ve all gotten signed! Texas Gents are at New West, we’re with Bloodshot, Charley’s with Thirty Tigers, Vincent Neil’s about to explode, and Joshua Ray Walker’s record just came out and it’s a masterpiece if you haven’t heard that. So it’s a really great time to be a Dallas musician, and only 20 miles away is Fort Worth, which is Leon Bridges, Quaker City Night Hawks… I mean our scene is so thriving. It’s a really cool moment. Our sounds are colliding with everyone outside of our area. For a while no one listened to any bands from Dallas or Fort Worth, and now it’s a really weird moment and I’m glad we found or made a place in it when we did.
I know you mentioned you’re getting ready to go on the road. How long are you on the road? What’s the balance like of time on the road vs. being at home to keep that Dallas support system?
Oh, we see our family. They’re all used to us being musicians, some of us have been musicians for two decades, some of us getting real close to it. So they know. We’re the traveling black sheep of the family. But we try and shoot for about 150 shows a year. That’s about where it is where income is steady, where you’re playing for the people who want to see you, and you get a chance to get in front of new people and play places you haven’t been. This tour looks a lot more busy than anything I’ve ever done, and not all of it is announced. And that’s awesome, and that’s why you do it.
What kind of energy do you inspire in your shows? In my experience I’ve been hard-pressed to find a country performance in Los Angeles that moves the audience to the kind of dancing that high-energy music like yours inspires outside of line dancing bars. Have you had any standout shows where you looked out at the audience and were like… “Damn, we did that.”
It happens a lot so I can’t say there’s one in particular that stands out, but first, I’m an entertainer. My job is to inspire people to dance, and to buy beer, and hopefully they’ll get laid. Because if they do have a good time and that happens, there’s a better chance that they’ll come back and do it again. I get to be an artist when I’m in the studio, but out on tour and on stage I become a beer salesman and T-shirt salesman. And part of it is audience participation too. It’s like, you see a girl you like go out there, grab her by the hand, and start dancing.
Any plans to make it out to the West Coast? Can you share or is that still hush hush?
I don’t know what I can and can’t say on where we’ll be because whenever I assume I can, I usually can’t. But yes, we’ll be out there.
I dug a bit on an interview you had done: at the time you didn’t consider yourself red dirt country. But one of the things I noticed most was your lineup was similar to that of Turnpike Troubadours, who are definitely red dirt. While change and growth is inevitable, as Vandoliers has progressed have you found yourself exploring areas sonically you didn’t think you would initially?
I don’t know if you got this from listening to it, but FOREVER is where we feel like we’ve found our sound. You know, on AMERI-KINDA we were only a year old, we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. We didn’t know if we were going to play more than two shows, but we did, and people kept booking us. People have tried to put us in a box. On songs like “Tumbleweed,” we definitely had that more traditional, red dirt sound, but it’s still us. Some have been like, “Oh, Vandoliers is not a Texas band.” But I was born in Texas, lived in Texas all my life, played music in Texas… so yeah, we’re a Texas band.
I’m glad you brought up “Tumbleweed,” because that one really did strike me out of everything on that record. “One of these days you’ll come around, one of these days you’ll settle down.” What’s the approach here? Many folks see settling down as this compromise and an admission of giving up youth and excitement, when in fact it more-or-less is a very integral part of life, where you can’t be on the road forever. There’s almost this bittersweet aspect to it, where one part of life closes but there is an entire new adventure behind that “settling down.”
I talk with my dad very openly, and it was a song that I got to write for him. It was a song where I got to use a lot of dad-isms like “catch up with your life” and things that he had told me over the years. It was also me coming to terms with a lot of my insecurities about being in a band. Like does anybody give a fuck? If we stopped playing and making music would anybody notice?