Our Little Hot Rod: Joshua Fleming Talks Vandoliers, Fatherhood & Heroes

For someone entrenched in his first tour since the pandemic began, Vandoliers frontman Joshua Fleming sounds like a soul at rest. The band has released three records of ragged and rustic overdrive since 2016, spreading the word with an equally fervid live show, but the past two years have been challenging. Vandoliers lost their contract– a casualty of the Bloodshot Records collapse– and suffered through other COVID-induced calamities, including the loss of their manager and the questions surrounding the entertainment industry’s sustainability. Fleming and Vandoliers are still here, though, emboldened by a hell-bent fan base, encouragement from their favorite artists and co-conspirators, and the newfound blessings of freedom and possibility that one finds in the aftermath of loss.

Fleming also has other reasons to persevere– home and family. He’s relishing first-time fatherhood and finally coming to terms with a relationship to his hometown. So much of our youth is spent rejecting the familiar, fighting against what all we call home, and after years of wanderlust and what-ifs, Fleming has embraced his roots, finding his muse within arm’s reach.

Vandoliers’ turned any potential downtime into a prologue. Last year’s cover of The Proclaimer’s earworm “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” garnered praise from not only the Scottish duo but also from fans old and new. This year’s releases, “Every Saturday Night” and “Waiting on Train”, are jukebox-ready singles that capture the band at full strength, delivering a blend of muscular hooks and lyrical sincerity.

I spoke with Fleming about fatherhood, capturing a zeitgeist, and his favorite fall records.

CF- As we speak today, you’re loading up the van for your tour. What’s it like packing up, having an itinerary after being dormant for so long?

JF- I feel like I’m on my fifth tour now, so going from nothing to everything has been a bit of a culture shock, especially after having an identity crisis last year. I mean, I’m a new father. I got a little baby girl who is about to be eleven months old. She’s amazing, and I love being home. But I also remember praying every day to be a musician again. So now I’m a musician again. The road has been amazing because I feel like more people know about us now than they did before. The shows have been really, really great. Some shows have really strict, protocols, which are great, and then some shows don’t, so you just have to be really careful from a health perspective. We’re just trying our best, and it’s been great to get back to work really long.

How do you account for the rise in popularity during the gap?

I think it was like putting your thumb over the water hose a little bit, you know? You take things away, and then people are all like, “Oh man, I remember this band that my friend told me about that opened for this one band that I like, but I didn’t get to go to that show and they told me to come see him. I haven’t been to a show in a year, and they’re coming to town and I just found out, so I’m going to go!” It’s kind of like you take away the live music for a minute, and then people appreciate it again.

We put on a couple of singles in 2020. We did a cover of The Proclaimers “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and a self-released single, “Every Saturday Night”, that did really well. We also did “Waiting on a Train”. We just tried to keep putting out material, but also I think we’re writing the best songs that we’ve written so far, and we’re just trying to pick up where we left off in 2019. So far it’s worked out.

How did the Proclaimers cover come about?

You know, there are bands that can cover anything. You see them and it’s like any song, they can just do. I feel like our band… To understand what our band, I don’t know if covers really work for every song, but it really worked out for this one. It was one of those things that started as a pipe dream, and then a joke turned into a song and a version of a song that we couldn’t find. We just enjoyed playing it, and then it became really popular live. Then we got to record it.

That’s one of the songs that I thought was maybe uncoverable. It’s such a singular song for The Proclaimers. They have a such a distinct sound, but y’all make it you own.

Yeah. I was just really happy that we found a way to make the song our own because I’m really bad at covers. When I hear a cover that I really like it, it’s not when it sounds exactly like the original. I was so happy that the band felt the same way, and we got to do it.

The Proclaimers have done some covers as well. Otis’s “These Arms of Mine” from their first record stands on its own. I think they’re an underrated group that unfortunately falls into the One Hit Wonder category.

Yeah, when I was listening to it, I listened to a lot of their other stuff and I thought, “I really like this band.”

What about “Every Saturday Night”? That’s a song that definitely captures the zeitgeist. Could you have written that song before the pandemic?

I feel like I had written some of the lines before. It was something I’d been tinkering around with, at least a melody. And there were a couple of phrases that made it into the song that had stuck with me that I didn’t know what to do with. Then one day… Honestly, that’s a great question, but no, I don’t think so. I was in a pretty low point when I wrote it, and it all just kind of came out. That’s usually a therapeutic-type thing where you really open up, and I needed that at the time. At that point, I didn’t know if I was going to get to be in a band anymore. I didn’t think I was going to. We had lost our label with Bloodshot. We were in a place where we had just lost our agent because he had just quit over COVID. I was just in a really desperate place. That’s one of those things where I just missed my old life. So I don’t think I couldn’t have written it otherwise.

From left to right, Vandoliers are: Dustin Fleming, Travis Curry, Guyton Sanders, Joshua Fleming, Mark Moncrieff, and Cory Graves.

Congratulations on fatherhood! What’s it like being a father, being in band, hitting the road?

For me, it’s something that my wife and I were trying to do. This is our miracle baby. We had experienced a couple of miscarriages that really shook both me and my wife. When we got the news, the pandemic was about three weeks in, so it was scary and the hospital situation where you can’t see anybody. It’s not normal what we’re going through as parents. Usually, we’d be going over to family and having them watch the baby. There’s a thousand different things. But yeah, I love being a daddy. I love it! I’m in a band. That’s usually the career-ender, and it’s not; it’s amazing!

Has it affected your creativity or priorities? Have you pressed the reset in any way?

It’s given me a purpose. I had to make the decision of what this was going to look like– what are my intentions of going out and doing this? I think if I were in a sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll mindset, it wouldn’t work out. I’m going to not drink. I’m in a mindset, “I’m going to try to eat grilled chicken and run a mile and drink less.” It’s a little different when you’re a dad. If you can do the right thing, and you can come home and look your daughter in the eye, I assume you’re doing it right. And I think that takes care of the guilt and stuff. She’s my motivation to do this, so she feels that she can follow her dream, achieve the goals that she wants to achieve.

That’s a beautiful answer. I see how you kept yourself on track, but what about the band? Vandoliers is large band, and I know you consider yourself to be more of a gang than a group of friends, a la The Ramones. How did y’all stay motivated during the downtime?

Our fans did it for us. They started a Facebook fan group, which isn’t very big. It’s only like 250 people. It’s just this group of people who love our band and just started making posts about our band, and they bought t-shirts every month and we made enough to keep our van. It was one of those things that was really special. I didn’t know how we were going to be doing this, and it turned into a beautiful thing. It motivated us to keep trying.

We lost all of our foundation for the band. Bloodshot split up; our booking agent turned into a delivery boy. We kept our manager, which was great– and our manager’s also another answer to this. He is big foundation point for us.
Some other cool thing– I feel like our band is inspired by five really great bands: Marty Stuart, Turnpike Troubadours, Old 97’s, Flogging Molly, and Lucero. I got a phone call from all of them just telling me to keep going.

How was that for confirmation?

Fucking incredible! I mean, Marty Stuart is my hero. He’s like why I started this band. Rhett Miller, also one of my heroes, why I started the band. John C., Ben, and Brian and all the Lucero guys have been a major influence. That’s why we’re called Vandoliers– not “The Vandoliers”– because Lucero doesn’t have a “the”. They were our last big tour– well, I guess the Toadies too– before the pandemic. That was probably one of the biggest things that’s ever happened to us– going on the road with Lucero. Old 97’s were the first band to take us out and one of our major influences– if you can’t tell by the train beats and me playing a giant jumbo guitar by my knees– trying to be a little bit more poetic than the other bands. So them helping me, and then my wife, who’s mainly number one.

There’s always that trope of the lead singer’s wife, like in Walk Hard, who says, “You’re never going to make it, Dewey!” But my wife is the complete opposite. She wants me to be the best self that I am, and I do that when I play music. I enjoy doing this job; it’s the life we’ve decided and live. I have massive anxiety, and I’m working on that. She really helped me in those moments where I’m like, “Aw fuck! Doing this is so fucking hard!” She reminds me of why I do it.

You have a special support system.

Yeah, same with my family, my mom and dad. It really took an army just to keep me afloat. And then I feel like the rest of the band is… They’re in. We all have tattoos for this band. We’ve all said, “This is our last band.” We’re all grown-ass men. We just all we want to make the highest quality music that we could possibly make, play the highest quality show we can make, and do this stuff the right way and not try to follow a trend or an act. We just try to be a great band. I don’t know if that’s the most interesting thing these days, but that’s what we’re trying to do.

How important is traveling to you? Is it essential to your personality and happiness?

It’s pretty essential. My parents tried to take us on vacation. I’d been to a couple of national parks. My grandfather was really into them, so we were lucky enough to go to Alaska once and over to Glacier National Park in Montana, but I was also really rebellious and really wanted to live in L.A. or New York for the longest time. I think the wanderlust part is the big issue with me. I think that’s where a lot of my songs come from, especially when I’m at home, which is funny now because I love being home. That’s the daddy coming out!

A lot of your songs focus on life-on-the-road, songs like “Miles and Miles” and “Tumbleweed”, for instance. I was going to ask you if you were comfortable with the idea of home, but that was before I knew about your baby…

That’s a great question. Yeah, I love being home now, but you know, my wife will tell you differently, like, “Yeah, I guess that’s true, and then he turns into a fucking crazy person!” I think for me, it wasn’t that my parents and I didn’t travel. It was more I felt like I was stuck in the suburbs, and I wasn’t going to get out. And so I moved around a lot when I got out of high school. The line from “Miles and Miles” is actually a quote from, I think a Native American tribe that wouldn’t settle in my town because they thought if the wind stopped, you would get stuck. That’s something I may have heard when I was a kid from my grandpa. That line really stuck with me, so I’m glad I got to put it in song.

My family on my mom and dad’s side is very tight-knit. So everybody lives in the same area, and so it always worried me that I’d just go work some job, live in some house. I used to want to do great things just to be great. I think now I just want to do the best things that I can do, even if it is living in my hometown. I’m totally fine with that now because I have a kid. But I do love traveling; it inspires me. I love the friendships that I get to cultivate and the people I meet on the road.

Texas looms large in your catalog. How does it inspire you?

My thing was that my acceptance of where I’m from and who I am is when I made the best music that I’ve made. With my other bands, I was always trying to sound like I wasn’t from Texas. I had one record where I did it, and that was the most popular one. It’s one of the things where you have to be comfortable with yourself to write your best work, and I wasn’t. I just ended up being derivative at times trying to be something that I wasn’t. I’m not from New York, so I’m not going to sound like the Ramones or a popular garage band or whatever. I’m not from California, so I’m not going to sound like I’m from Orange County. I feel like those were the downfalls of the other bands. So I really leaned into where I’m from and the more autobiographical. Really, I just like how personal I get with these songs.

What’s next for the band as far as recordings are concerned? You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Bloodshot was the ideal label situation for the band. I didn’t know if that would be a topic for conversation…

Well, it fucking sucks because that’s exactly where my band should belong. But also there were things that it didn’t do; it’s not everything. We’ve been recording. I’ll say it like this: We’re working on a record, and so far, I think it’s really special. I assume it’ll find a home because of those factors that I brought up earlier. It doesn’t matter how much planning I do. The thing we’re going to do is going to fall in where it comes. We’re waiting to find out where we land. But while we were waiting, we were just in the studio this week recording two new songs before we go out on a 3 and 1/2 week tour, so we are working, and I’m still writing and I’m just letting it be what it is right now. And right now, it’s kind of like our little hot rod that we keep tinkering and buying parts for.

It’s officially fall, and I was wondering if we could close with you giving us some of your favorite fall records, albums that remind you of this time of the year.

Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, Arlo Guthrie Alice’s Restaurant, The Pilgrim by Marty Stuart, and I’ll say Turnpike Troubadours’ self-titled with the “Bird Hunters” on it. I really love that record. And just for one punk rock record, I’ll say Alkaline Trio’s Good Mourning just for something spooky.

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