The last time I spoke with Joshua Fleming, he and his band Vandoliers were in flux, a group on the verge of a fate that had yet to reveal itself. Mired in a pandemic standstill, the group faced a touring schedule that was more hiccups than the revved-up hootenannies their resume promised. Perhaps even more unsettling were their label woes. Vandoliers had landed a dream deal with Bloodshot, who released 2019’s Forever, but the label shuttered in 2021, leaving the group without a home, a dicey predicament exacerbated by concerns about the music industry’s efficacy in a COVID-riddled landscape.
With new songs, but no home, Vandoliers could have used label hardships as an excuse to take a well-deserved break or even call it day. Instead, they channeled the “fuck-it-we’ll-do-it-ourselves” spirit of artists like Jim James, Gretchen Wilson, and Jack White who started their own label. Rather than wait around for an invitation, Fleming established Amerikinda Records, whose inaugural release, The Vandoliers, finds his group further erasing the lines that once positioned punk and country as adversaries. The melodic opener “The Lighthouse” confirms Fleming’s tender heart, but afterward, the band never flinches. Its trademark jagged intensity persists on the irresistible “Every Saturday Night”, the feral “Bless Your Drunken Heart”, and the stadium-suited “Better Run”. With The Vandoliers, the Dallas-Fort Worth outfit continues to deal in uplift, combining fiddles with power chords, mosh pits with honky tonks, giving purpose to a fanbase every bit as dogged as the band.
Vandoliers will be LIVE at Grant’s Lounge on Friday, October 14th!
CF- When we last spoke in November, you were all over the place: being a new father, moving back to your hometown, recording without a record label, touring with COVID-related cancellations. What’s happened since then?
We hit the ground running in 2021, and we picked up the pieces, and we worked our asses off. I got everything back tenfold this year that I lost in 2020. I had one Flogging Molly show on the books where we played one of three on an outdoor stage before Flogging Molly played the Palladium inside. I thought it was the end of the world when that show canceled, and then I ended up with a tour and a cruise– one of three on the entire tour. It was pretty much like that over and over again. Turnpike Troubadours came back to life, and instead of getting a show in Lincoln, Nebraska, which is where I was when they broke up– we were supposed to play an after-party, and they broke up right before we went on stage, which I thought that was the end of the world– we played with them at the first and second night at Cain’s and then at The Ryman. And I lost my label [Bloodshot], and I started my own. It’s been incredible, a lot of risk-taking, but it seems to be working.
Talk a bit about your new label…
The label’s called Amerikinda Records. It’s what we’re putting music out through right now. We have a distribution office, financing, and we understand how to make and distribute records. It’s in stores; it’s getting back to me. It’s just like any other label. Everybody said, “No,” so it’s like, “I guess I got to do it myself.” That’s punk rock ethos.
Are there any of those punk labels that you took inspiration from– SST, Dischord, Touch and Go?
Yeah, Epitaph, SideOneDummy, and Hellcat on the West Coast. Matador started an indie label, but they’re almost like a major now. But everybody’s starting in the garage, right? But that’s not even my end goal. I just need something to put out my record, so I called up Stephanie [Hudachek] over at Soundly. We’re really close friends. She worked with me on The Native. I was like, “Hey, will you help me put this record out?” She does distribution and marketing, and that’s what you need to start. Back in the old days, you would sign on with somebody who has a warehouse, whereas l I just call Stephanie and I’m like, “Hey, can you get this thing out there?” So it’s been great.
You were dogged by gig cancellations, the Bloodshot fiasco, false starts in the studio. Did you ever feel like the universe was conspiring against you?
And tack on a worldwide “pandy” where the music industry was probably the last thing anyone should do for their health (laughs)! Yeah, I had a million reasons to quit. It’s hard to describe, but sometimes you just do things because you must do them. I just kept writing and kept working on this record. I didn’t want to give up, but there was a lot of moments where the logical thing to do would be to become a real estate agent or something, not keep spending money on recording sessions, writing songs, and going on tour maybe a little before people were really ready for people to go on tour. But it was kind of like, “If we don’t do this, we’re going to die.” Our first show was February 26th of 2021. We had stopped. We stopped right when it happened in March of 2020, so it was about a year. When “Every Saturday Night” came out, we played one show, reduced capacity, mask-only type thing, and we released the single. Then for the next four months, we would play one show, two shows, three shows, and fall, we started touring again– but even then it was such a toss-up every night. It’s nerve-wracking, but now I get to play with all of my heroes. It’s been fun.
Is this a pandemic record? I know when we last talked, y’all recorded a few songs. Did you add to those?
We had a ten-track album ready to go for a fall release in 2020. We went to a studio for two weeks, and we recorded a record, and then, obviously, that did not happen. We had stopped three-quarters of the way through the session. I had some vocal stuff to do; there was some mixing and mastering, but when we stopped the session, it was because it wasn’t safe to go to the studio. It took six weeks– we thought was it was only going to be two weeks– before I could go in and finish singing. Once that ended, it was like, “Well, what do we do with this?” Because Bloodshot had just tanked, and they told us that we weren’t putting this record out with them. South by Southwest was canceled. My agent at that point quit to be a delivery driver, which was way smarter than being a booking agent at the time (laughs)! So yeah, it kind of sat there, and then we got it into mixing and mastering and all that stuff. Then we started trying to shop it around, but no one was really signing bands. Everyone was like, “I don’t know if any records are ever going to come out again.”
Then I wrote “Every Saturday Night” and went to the same studio to record it because I knew we could get it done. I really liked the song and thought, “Maybe it’ll be on the record if we ever get to put it out. But for right now, we’ll put it out as a single because it’s timely.” Then fast-forward, we start touring again a little bit, and I’m getting further away from home, so I write the song “Lighthouse” and “Bless Your Drunken Heart”. The band loves them, so we go and record those. At that point, we’re starting to figure out that we’re going to be self-releasing this. No label’s going to touch it, so we have to do it ourselves or it’s not going to happen and that’s when I was like, “Okay, let’s put this record together. And let’s do it.”
We got hooked up with a company called Artist Owned. I got hooked up with them through Nathan Maxwell of Flogging Molly, which gave us a backbone and foundation we really needed to put out a record. My family got on board. [Radio promoter] Angela Backstrom and Rob Krauser [REK Room Media] jumped on. They worked with us on The Native and Forever. We’ve all worked together for a long time. Everybody said “ye”s for once. We had a lineup change– we changed our drummer. We parted ways, and my best friend Trey Alfaro jumped in the band. And everything started changing: We got the Flogging Molly Cruise, a new agent, Turnpike in Europe. Everything started falling in place.
The album’s lead track “The Lighthouse” can be heard as a romantic number, but its idea of salvation and security through close ties reminds me of your relationship with your fans and the bands you admire. Camaraderie is very important to you guys.
Oh, yeah. I mean, the only reason our van didn’t go into hock was because our fans were buying t-shirts every month. I’ve tried to thank them as much as possible because it was surreal. Also, we didn’t know we had fans at the time. The Facebook fan group got started while we were in the pandemic, and it was one of the things that was like, “Oh people actually like us.” And then it was like, “Oh, they really like us!” It was 40 people, then 50 people, then a hundred people. and now it’s 15,000 people. It’s just growing. It’s not really like a social media platform. It’s just a place where people go and share pictures and talk about songs and talk about other bands they like. It’s been pretty rad.
I like being a positive force when we’re playing. That’s kind of the whole point. I want the show to be light-hearted, fun, and all that. But I also want it to be cathartic. There are square dancing bands; there are mosh pit bands; I want to be a sing-along band. That’s the kind of band I want to be. Those are the kinds of bands that take us out on tour, like Lucero, Turnpike, Old 97’s, and Flogging Molly. That’s the realm I really love because the lyrics are so meaningful, and people relate to them and then they latch onto them, and then they sing them back.
How important are those relationships you’ve fostered with those bands?
They not only inspire me as an artist but as a person. I hope that I am half as good to somebody as Marty Stuart was to me when I first met him. I hope that I can give somebody what Flogging Molly has given to us. I hope that I can give someone the opportunities like Turnpike has given us. These are records that have been a part of my life since high school, or younger. And the way that they’ve treated us and have accepted us has been so kind. Old 97’s were the first band to take us out, you know? They’re a huge influence on us. So, it’s pretty damned important (laughs)! The reason we’re around as a band is because of those bands, literally and figuratively.
If John C from Lucero didn’t call Nathan from Flogging, this record wouldn’t be out. Moreso than that, if we had not created a relationship with Lucero, I don’t think we would have gotten some of the tours that we’ve gotten since. And their fans have latched onto us because they’re a sing-along band, and like-minded people latch on. They’ve given us new fans; they’ve given us money; they’ve given us opportunities; they’ve given us inspiration. They’re very integral, and it’s surreal to be part of that lineage.
After all you’ve been through the past year or so, what drives you more– success or failure?
Well, I’m not afraid of failure, so it may look like I’m being propelled during those times, but I just know it’s part of the process, even though it really fucking hurts. But it’s one of the things where when you get past those moments, when I get past a point where that voice in my head just says, “Look, you should probably quit now. This is getting really hard,” something amazing happens right afterwards. So I’ve got that in mind, and like anybody trying to pursue something, you’re going to fail miserably so many times. But if you want to do something, you just have to keep doing it, unless it’s detrimental to you or someone else. But I think with what I want to do here, it’s doing a lot of good, and I think it’s worth it, so I keep trying. When those successes come, I don’t feel entitled to them. I think we’ve been working hard enough where it’s starting to click.