CROOKED FINGERS, ARCHERS OF LOAF AND… Eric Bachmann

With a
new album just out, Bachmann, pictured above with partner Liz Durrett, reflects
on his busiest – possibly best – year ever.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

To claw a two-decade-long living from the meager margins of
indie rock – music arguably already on the margin – takes a person of
contradictory strengths and frailties: stubbornness, pride, resignation,
perseverance, self-awareness and self-delusion.

 

These chinks in the psychic armor have always stoked the
songwriting fires of Eric Bachmann, the imposing (6-foot-6, 240-pounds
imposing) tunesmith behind decade-old Crooked Fingers. Breaks In the Armor is Bachman’s sixth – and arguably best –
Fingers’ full-length since his stint in front of ‘90s indie rockers Archers of
Loaf. The 11 songs here read like a downcast but ultimately redemptive catalog
of struggle – with life and its oft-unrequited promise, yes, but life as an
unrequited musician, too.

 

Business as usual for Bachmann, you might think. But after
the oft-bloated, un-Bachmann-like arrangements of 2009’s self-released Forfeit/Fortune, and his near-retirement
from the music business afterward, Breaks
in the Armo
r is the scaled-back and considered work of an artist
acknowledging that the struggle itself defines who he is and what he’s supposed
to sound like.

 

With the reissue of AoL’s 1994 indie rock classic Icky Mettle and a reunion tour, too,
2011 has been one of Bachmann’s busiest and best years. That’s quite a turn of
events, too, considering that just two years prior he’d all but retired
from the music business and was teaching English in Taiwan. Throw in a new relationship
with fellow Athens
musician Liz Durrett, whose voice graces much of Breaks in the Armor, and Bachmann sounds almost content – or as
much as a creatively restless musician ever will. Bachmann chatted with BLURT
from his home Athens, Georgia…

 

***

 

BLURT:
Congrats on a gorgeous record – it was a little shocking to read in the one-sheet
that this one might never have existed…

ERIC BACHMANN: I’ve done this for about 19 years, and I’m
fairly self-loathing (laughs), so I just felt like maybe it was just time to do
or try something else. I know I’m not going to quit making records, but I don’t
know if anybody gives a shit about hearing them. Moreover, I don’t care if
anybody does, in a way, you know? I know there’s some bullshit in that, but at
the time that’s how I felt. And now I think going and doing something else,
well, I kind of like trying to pull a living out of music, I like the struggle
of it, I like doing it. Obviously the creative process is innately woven into
my personality and my lifestyle at this point, so it’s hard to get away from
it. I know I’m not the only one – I’m sure there are countless people who have
done it and get to the point where, ‘this is ridiculous, what am I doing? I
could have a fucking dog. I could have these things that I don’t have because
I’m doing this.’ But you come back to it because it’s more rewarding than the
alternative, at least for me.

 

 How close were you to hanging it up, and did
you have anything else in mind?

 Well, I went to Taiwan
to teach English. I’d put everything in storage, sold a lot of gear but kept
the essentials of what I usually have, my favorite guitars and amps and stuff.
So I just went thinking, ‘I’ll just take a break. I know that I’m not going to
quit making music, obviously, but I’m not so sure I want to go on tour for
seven months this year, so I’m just going to Taiwan and do something else.’ I
went with no guitar, and within a month-and-a-half, I had to have a guitar, so
I bought one, and all of a sudden these new songs started coming out. I was
working from like 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. I couldn’t find a job in Taipei where I wasn’t teaching kids, so I
wound up in Pingtung in the South teaching children. I love children, and I’m
pretty good with my relatives and everything, but I’m not trained. I don’t know
what I’m doing. I’d see a kid with a hockey stick about to smack another kid in
the head, and what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to stop them and tell
them they’re not allowed to do that. And what I would do was watch them, ‘oh,
man, this is going to be amazing.’ I know that sounds terrible. And then I
would get in trouble with the people that hired me. Like, ‘oh, yeah, I never
went to the school where they teach you that,’ though I guess you’re supposed
to know that. But I’m just not innately savvy that way.

 

How
long were you there
?

 I was there for a
total of seven months, maybe. I left early because Azure Ray, the band, had
asked me to produce a record, and I’d said ‘no’ back in the States. I told them
I was getting out for a little bit and I went to Taiwan. I stayed at a friend’s
house, the guy whose house I recorded Breaks
in the Armor
in here in Athens, but he was
living in Taiwan
then. I stayed with him for a month-and-a-half in Taipei, then I moved to the
far South end of the island, worked there for four months, and then came back
to record Azure Ray. Also, I came back because I had about seven or eight new
and finished songs, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll be ready to do a new one here
soon.’ And of course it took me about two years to get it done.

 

 What was the time-frame?

 I went to Taiwan
in July of 2009, and got back the next January. The Azure Ray (Drawing Down the Moon) was recorded in
February. So in that six-month period in Taiwan, I wrote seven songs, and
about four of them made it onto the new record. The others probably won’t ever
be heard just because your personal editor has kicked them out. But I continued
writing, and those other three ideas became something else, you know?

 

 Did the Taiwan experience color those songs
at all?

 For me, to keep from
falling into stagnation or writer’s block area, I have to keep moving. So where
I am has a big significance on what comes out. But it’s also unintentional, or
unknown, you don’t really realize it, it’s in your subconscious more how it
affects it. But that song “Typhoon,” was written during typhoon Morakot, it
blatantly affected it, even in content, for sure. Have you ever been to Taiwan?

 

 Nope.

 It’s really
Westernized, you can go to Starbucks and the grocery store, but it’s also very
bizarre. One of my favorite things to do, when I was there it rained a lot that
time of the year, and I would get on a scooter – which for me was more of a
motorcycle because I’m 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, so I don’t fit on a normal scooter
so I have to get a motorcycle, but they call it a scooter – and I would drive
around in the rain late at night around midnight before going to bed. It’s just
an inspirational kind of place because it’s so oily and polluted and there’s
old men sitting outside their houses and smoking cigarettes playing Mahjong, there
are all these oily lamps and good-looking girls everywhere. It’s just an
interesting place, visually. When you go there, they tell you, ‘oh, it’s a lot
different, it’s a weird cultural experience.’ And culturally, just the cultural
norms, it is very strange – and the language barrier, too. And where I was, in
the South, Taipei’s got English speakers all over, but once you get further
from away from there, you’re definitely alone, and the Ugly American, kind of.

 

 Especially at 6-6, I imagine, you can’t really
blend in…

 Yeah, exactly. But I
really loved it, I would go back in a second.

 

 Were you tempted at all to add any local
flavors sonically? I know you added a bit of Iberian stuff on Dignity & Shame…

 No. I don’t think I
was for fear of being ridiculous. In the sense that that’s such a strange
sounding, distinctive sounding music compared to Western ears. But I also would
argue that when I did Dignity & Shame,
and Red Devil Dawn, people talk about
it like ‘oh, you started using Latin influence’ and whatnot, to me it’s not
really that severe because that’s very American. I’m already getting that when
I go to the mall or the store – that stuff is here as well now. And I’m not
playing Flamenco guitar, I’m using nylon-string guitar because my hands are so
big on a fret board, it’s hard to find an acoustic guitar where my hands will
fit. That’s originally why I started using that guitar. But to answer your
question, if anything, I tried to make sure I didn’t. (Laughs.) That would’ve
been pretty funny though.

 

 Was there a thematic red thread through those
songs, or does that show up in hindsight typically?

 If there was, it’d be
more thematic. But I don’t know what that is yet, I haven’t had that time yet when
you come back and revisit it. I almost feel like what I want to say is that I was
actually avoiding trying to have that influence – being Taiwan. It’s
almost like I wanted it to sound more…I don’t know, more like home. I didn’t
want it to sound like I’d gone away.

 

 Does it help that I even get a weird Brit folk
feeling from a couple songs?

 I like a lot of that
music, too, so maybe that’s a bigger influence in general because I do like a
lot of Anglo Folk music as well, whether it be Fairport Convention or stuff
even before that. I love that band, I love the sound of it, the sentimentality
of it. I like things that are not afraid to be that way, sentimental or
whatever. But I didn’t strive for that if it’s in there, not intentionally. If
I was striving for anything it was, ‘okay, I’m in this place, I want to sound
like a tall American guy.’ I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to be Mandarin
or Iberian or anything; I want to sound like I do. I’m not thinking that
consciously, but looking back I remember thinking, ‘nah, I’m not going to do
that, I’m going to do this because this sounds like me.’ Which makes sense,
going back to the Fairport Convention thing.

 

 Tell us about the arrangements. Forfeit/Fortune had more elaborate
arrangements, this one feels more stark, but not as stark as the solo record
(2006’s To The Races) — were you
shooting for a middle ground? Or is because of financial constraints
?

 No, it’s not
financial. I probably spent more money on this record than I did Forfeit/Fortune. I try to think, in
terms of the way records sound, two or three or even four albums ahead. I knew,
when I made To the Races, that it
would just be guitar and a little piano here and there, and Tom Hagerman (DeVotchKa)
and Miranda Brown singing on it and Tom playing violin. When I made that record
I thought, ‘this is cool because this is setting me up for my next record, I
want to do something really produced, really arranged.’ Because you do this a
long time you try and find new ways to do it for yourself, you know? With Forfeit/Fortune, those songs were not
new songs. With the exception of “Your Control,” that I did with Neko Case, and
maybe one other song, all those songs were outtakes from previous records. But
I didn’t put it out as a b-sides compilation because I didn’t think it was fair
to the songs – God, that’s a ridiculous way to say that – I felt like it
warranted more than just a b-sides thing. So I thought, ‘what if I re-record
all these and make ‘em try and fit on one record and that way I’ll just put it
out as a record and not have this b-sides compilation?’ It just presented the
songs in a way that felt unconfident or something. So that’s what all that was,
I just thought I’d go all-out and have fun, so when I was doing that I was
thinking, ‘oh, cool, the next record I can just do eight tracks – four for
drums, bass, guitar and vocals’ and that’s it. Which is what happened with Breaks in the Armor. The next record —
it may be with Liz (Durrett), it may not — will probably be a quieter thing.

 

 It’s interesting that you’re thinking that far
ahead – I think some music listeners forget what a drawn-out process it can be
to make a record.

 A lot of it is
self-created. I know for Dignity &
Shame
, I wanted to do something I didn’t normally do – I want to make this
record and it’s going to be positive pop songs on here, which I don’t do.
(Laughs) I haven’t done that. You do that and know, ‘well, this isn’t going to
go well for certain people.’ For you, as the person doing it, it can be the
best moments you have, when you break out of the corner you’ve boxed yourself
into. As I do this longer, I don’t like it when you’re boxed into a corner –
‘you’re kind of this indie rock curmudgeon guy.’ I’m actually not – even if I’m
coming across that way, you’re fighting to define yourself more than they’re
defining you.

 

 Is there this push-and-pull between doing the
same thing – you have that reliable fan base, whatever it is – and trying to do
new things?

 That’s exactly right.
That’s true. It’s difficult to do. If I’m selling 10,000 records – as one guy,
I can pull that off, I can make a living doing that. But it’s a very stripped-down
living. It’s cool that people like it or think it’s credible or whatever, but I
don’t give a shit about that that much either. I kind of like having the idea
of having some comfort. Especially after not having it, and after living in my
van for a bit and people commenting about how funny it is. But the reality of
it is, I’ve got $4,000 for the next six months – so you can think that I’m
being funny or whatever, but that’s the reality of it. I’m getting sick of
that. Now, lately, it’s gone a little better. It comes in waves – sometimes it
goes better, sometimes it doesn’t go well. And I never had the intention to
stop making records. I’ll always do that until I’m dead or whatever. But I do
think the struggle to pull a living out of it is annoying. It’s become
annoying. Then again, I say that, and every time I try something else I fall
back into it.

 

 It’s a worthy struggle, though, no?

 Even if it’s not, you
don’t have much of a choice. Even if I was doing it because I wanted to do
cocaine off a stripper’s tit, even then I can’t not do it.

 

 A different kind of incentive, I guess.

 Yes. (laughs)

 

 Let me switch gears and ask about Liz
Durrett’s presence on the record – didn’t you produce her last couple records?

 Not both, I just did Outside Our Gates, the last one.

 

 I love that record – she’s so underrated. How
did you guys meet? And how is it working with her on this record?

 She’s on Warm (Records),
and the first two Crooked Fingers albums came out on Warm Records. I think all
of hers have. I met her through that, and she opened for Crooked Fingers on the
Dignity & Shame tour up the East
coast. I didn’t really know her that well then – I said, ‘hi,’ we were
friendly, but she was playing solo with her husband at the time, the two of
them kind of traveling quietly. They’re quiet, and she’s very quiet anyway. And
I had an eight-piece traveling entourage, and I was tour managing and playing,
so I didn’t get to talk to her much. And then about two years later Warm asked
me to produce her record. So I listened to the demos and we proceeded to make
that record, Outside Our Gates. And
so through that, we became friends. Then, after that, when I was in Taiwan, she had a show in Taiwan and she
was in the process of getting divorced, so then she and I got closer then. And
when I came back from Taiwan,
I scheduled some shows just to get back into the swing of playing, and I asked
her to play on them because I’m a fan of hers as well.

        Unfortunately,
that’s when her uncle, Vic Chesnutt, passed away, so she had to cancel those
shows. That was a bad time, and she and I got closer through that experience
and other things, then we sort of started seeing each other then, and we’re
living together now, so she’s just kind of involved in everything I’m doing.
She’s real stubborn, real cautious and stubborn, and it’s a pain in the ass,
but the result is fantastic because she gets to the right spot. Because of the situation,
it was a weird time – we were doing great, but it was probably the saddest
time. So that’s what was happening. It’s turned out to be good, and a good
working relationship as well. It’s just very – when you say she’s massively
talented and underrated, I couldn’t agree more. So I’m thinking, when I talk
about thinking ahead and future stuff, I want her to do some more. She hasn’t
made a record since then – I think she was done playing, and Crooked Fingers
enabled her to play music but not be the center of it, which made it easier for
her to step back in after all that.

 

 It hit that hard that she was not thinking
about doing it anymore, huh?

 Yeah. I think so.
Being the uncle, and the only kind of progressive musical influence, being from
rural Rome, Georgia, it was very important to
her musical upbringing. That said, it was good in a way because she’s been
playing with me and she’s been really enjoying not being the center of
attention there, although she’s happy it’s just the two of us at this point.
But it’s my thing, she’s not writing the songs, she’s not in charge of it.

 

 Let’s delve into the Archers of Loaf reunion
stuff — how has the reaction to the reunion colored your view of that era?

 It’s been extremely
fun. I’m honored – I had no idea there were going to be this many people. I
knew there’d be some that liked it a little bit, but we’re definitely doing
better now than when we were a band! I don’t know why that happens, or whether
it’s nostalgia or what. But when we broke up I thought, ‘no way, I’m not doing
this again. I like these people, Mark and Eric, I love them, they’re great
friends, but I’m so not interested in sounding like this ever again.’ With
Crooked Fingers, I’m always able to change the arrangements – every time I go
out I play the songs differently a little bit. I can play them acoustically, I
can play with it a loud band, four people, three people, six people, whatever.
I can mix it up. With Archers? We played it the same way … for eight years. I
got really burned out on that kind of aesthetic. But what I learned, and I knew
this, but you don’t really know it until you experience it, is that you can’t
contrive chemistry. That’s the best thing about playing with Matt, Mark and
Eric again is that we were 20 years old when we started playing together, and
there’s an innate chemistry there. There’ are horrible songs that we’ve written
that work because of the chemistry. (laughs). It just works because there’s a
magical weird thing between people, and that’s what makes a rock band great.

        Crooked
Fingers is more of a chamber pop band than a rock band, so it’s a different
thing. So that’s the best thing that’s happened for me, is rediscovering that
feeling of being on stage and the thing that you’re making is based on this
intangible kind of energy. And people really respond to that. I didn’t think
that we’d be able to sell out anything. When we thought about doing it, Shawn
Nolan, the guy who managed the Archers back in the day, it was his idea, and I
was the holdout because I think I’d just got back from Taiwan and knew that I
wanted to get back and play music and knew that I wanted to maybe more
production, maybe do more projects – I didn’t think, ‘well, I can even reunite
my old band.’ But when he called and asked me, ‘do you think it’s time to do
that? I think I can get Merge to reissue the records,’ I thought, ‘this is a
good opportunity, this is something that’d be fun to do, I miss Mark and Eric,
I’d like to try it.’ So when we played in January opening for the Love
Language, it was a test – let’s see how this goes. And it was a great time.
It’s been good, it’s been positive. I don’t know what will happen – we’re done
with this year’s touring except for two dates in England in December – and I’m obviously
changing gears to go into Crooked Fingers land. And next year I’m hoping we’ll
do some shows to support the rest of the reissues that Merge is doing.

 

 Any plans to record?

 There will be shows,
we’ve talked that much, but that’s all that we know. We don’t know what’s going
to happen beyond that. Again, for me, it’s rewarding – for whatever reasons –
to have a lot of different avenues to make stuff. So if I could have the thing
with Liz, the thing with Crooked Fingers, the thing with Archers, and keep
creating with all of them, that’d be fantastic. But it’s hard enough to do that
with one band, so I don’t know if I could. There was talk of writing, but
people are adults now, and this isn’t their main thing anymore. Back in the 90s
it was our main thing. It’s hard to find time – even if I could write new songs
and get them to the point where I could present them to the band, when would we
rehearse? If I’m on tour and they’re going to work? I think everyone wants to
do it, but then there’s also the idea, ‘let’s just let it be what it is.’ Just
stop. It happened, it was a great moment for us.

 

 It does seem like it would be a weird thing to
add the catalog 15 years later…

 It could be really
cool, or it could be horrible. (laughs). ‘You know that cool thing we let bake
for 10, 13 years? We just ruined it.’ I love the people in that band, and I’m
not against doing anything but we haven’t gotten to that point. That was the
one thing that was fantastic about being in that band: everybody had a healthy
amount of self-loathing and was self-critical and was very cautious about
making decisions. So I trust Matt, Mark and Eric in that way, and I feel like
they trust me. We’ll know what the right thing to do is. If we write one song
in practice and do it and then be like, ‘eh, let’s just do the old songs,’
we’ll know.

 

 Has the Icky
Mettle
reissue been, um, beneficial? I’m trying to find a polite way to ask
if you’ve made any money off it?

 (laughs) I don’t know
– it’s a new era. I know that it was No. 1 on Amazon downloads last week for
the nation, or the world, I guess? So that’s pretty cool – but that’s like
5,000 downloads. And Beyonce’s record is $9.99; ours is $3.99. The industry’s
changed so much since we started doing this, the touring’s obviously been
lucrative. But again, we’re not the Pixies, or Pavement – we were never that
big. With a name as ridiculous as Archers of Loaf it was never going to happen
anyway. So we’re playing 1,200-seat, 800-seat, 600-seat rooms – we’re not playing
4,000-seat bigger venues. We’ll play two nights and sell ‘em out, because
that’s more the aesthetic of what we do, we’re more of a straightforward bar
rock band or whatever.

        It’s going
great, but we’re still a smaller band than some people realize. So, yeah, we’re
making some money, but it’s not changing my life.

 

[Photo Credit: Gary Isaacs]

 

Don’t
miss the new print edition of BLURT, issue #11, for a special Crooked Fingers
feature.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply