Not that he's being difficult, but the fact remains that former Archers of Loaf front man Eric Bachmann is giving a pretty crappy interview. He mumbles, talks too fast at times, too softly at others, and seems distracted throughout. With good reason, as it happens.
"We had a rough night last night," he says. "That's why I'm being so weird." His good friend Barton Carroll (a.k.a. the White Wolf), who is contributing upright bass and lap steel on this tour, was badly hurt in a car accident. (Days later Bachmann e-mailed that Carroll had recovered enough to stand on stage again.)
Carroll is a member of Crooked Fingers, Bachmann's current band, which is touring with female dream-pop duo Azure Ray. Crooked Fingers is doing double duty on the tour -- serving not only as the opening act but also as their backing band. (Bachmann has collaborated with the pair as a sort of not-so-silent partner, contributing just about everything but vocals.) Coupled with the gentle sounds of his new band, Bachmann's current career offers quite a placid change of pace from the 1990s, when the Archers and their pointed guitar lines and quirky lyrics were a prime draw for hipsters and various other liberal arts majors.
That band came together in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1991, not long after Bachmann abandoned his studies at Appalachian State University in fairly nearby Boone. "I was a saxophone major until my junior year in college, and then I quit because I didn't want to be a high school band director," recounts Bachmann, who is now based in Seattle and is decidedly not leading a marching band. "Basically I would go to these practice spaces and they each had a piano in them. I would sit there for an hour and practice my saxophone and for the other seven, I'd be writing songs at the piano."
Once free of collegiate constraints, the Archers slogged it out for seven years, cultivating a rabid following among the Pavement set along the way. They released four records before breaking up in 1998, when the quartet determined that their outfit had run out of steam. The end almost came two years before it did. "We were gonna stop after [1996 Alias Records release] All the Nation's Airports," says Bachmann. "We basically didn't feel excited about it anymore. [But] we thought we'd had too good a time with it, so let's make another record, do another tour, and if there's not another spark, we'll split up after that."
So they did, and there wasn't, and they duly broke up. "Sure enough, after the tour we were like, 'Nope, we shouldn't be doing this.' So it was time to stop. The drummer also had carpal tunnel and had surgery on his arm. Everything was weird, just kind of fell out of place," he says.
Bachmann's post-Archers plans were vague at best. "I didn't really know what I was going to do, I just knew I was going to do something." So he kept writing songs, but this time they had a gentler, quieter shape. After nine years of loud guitars, he was sick of the sound of 'em. "It happened organically," he says. "I didn't really force it or go, 'Okay, I want to play this kind of music and change the way I write.' "
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Bachmann is delighted with the new musical intricacy he can display now. "Two guitars, bass and drums, and maybe we can add a weird sample here or some crap like that," he says of the old box he found himself in. He believes that much of his new material would likely have been rejected by the band. Most of the new songs "probably wouldn't have made it because [the Archers' sound] was so dense, so guitar-based, so big-sounding that you couldn't really do a subtle sound or fingerpick, it was so crowded."
That desire to break free from the constraints of indie pop's occasional bent toward overstatement helped give birth to the trio Crooked Fingers. The group is touring behind its third record, Red Devil Dawn, its first full-length release on Chapel Hill stalwarts Merge Records. Sweet and gentle, the new songs -- which deal with beautiful losers and the trashed lives they lead -- are poignant but far from toothless. Delivered in a voice once described a little breathlessly as "choked with sun-flecked dust and grit," the songs on Red Devil call the best of Springsteen to mind; it's Nebraska-quality work -- heartfelt and earthy and not the least bit cheesy.
Through this almost country-fried poetry and the quietly jaunty introspection of his work with Azure Ray, Bachmann has successfully transformed himself from a piss-and-vinegar rock enigma to a sensitive mountain man plumbing the depths of dark human experience. Bachmann's musical maturation mirrors the lives of those who once loved the Archers of Loaf. The college kids who saw them a million times a decade ago are now in graduate school, getting married, having babies. Where there was once a commitment to getting as shitfaced as possible at as many rock shows as they could manage, Archers fans are now committed to other adults, real jobs and 30-year mortgages. Quiet Sundays with the newspaper and the life partner have replaced fumbling with the aspirin bottle on the morning after the night before, and Bachmann has been there to provide the soundtrack for both extremes of adult development.
"A lot of those people have all grown up and stuff, so it's kind of weird," he says. "Azure Ray's crowds look all young, and our crowds look like the Allman Brothers or something. Our crowds have switched over. I think we just draw the ugly people in a very good way."