Archers of Loaf exploded out of the Chapel Hill, NC DIY music scene almost immediately after their first single, “South Carolina,” arrived in 1992. But it was their first record, Icky Mettle, that set the bar: singer Eric Bachmann’s gritty vocals, the band’s lo-fi, math-y noise predicted the trajectory of indie rock in the ‘90s.
Since their break-up in 1998 (in its initial run, the band only existed for seven years–1991 to 1998), Bachmann has pursued a series of solo projects under the monikers Barry Black, Crooked Fingers, and under his own name. In 2011, Archers of Loaf reunited, and in October 2022, will release their first record 24 years: Reason in Decline.
Below, Bachmann tells CREEM all about getting the band back together, those early Chapel Hill days, and, well, drugs.
CREEM: I have to start with a personal anecdote–I first met you at the Record Exchange [a long-gone Chapel Hill record store] in 1993. I remember thinking, “This guy has no interest in any pretentious rockstar vibes.”
ERIC BACHMANN: In hindsight, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I almost feel like some of that ego is healthy and I didn’t have any of it. I wish I’d been a little more in tune with that [confidence,] because I think it benefits your business, if you can market yourself a bit better.
Did you need that? The Chapel Hill scene was such an organic movement to get swept up into…
It was you’re right…but when you look at the way the world is, in reality, the music business is gross. Bob Dylan is awesome, but he’s lying [about his origins to live up to a certain mythology.] I mean I love him…he’s the best songwriter ever but, like Joni Mitchell says, he’s really more of an actor.
Bob Dylan is awesome, but he’s lying.
In 1993, Archers played Lollapalooza. It felt like the underground was surging forward whether you liked it or not, and Archers got caught up in that wave.
[I was] so excited and so grateful…I never thought I would be able to make a living from music. And then that wave you’re talking about happened, and it gave me the sense that it was all really possible.
I’d never seen anything quite like that moment when the first Archers of Loaf single hit Chapel Hill. It spread across town like wildfire. I’m not sure we’ll experience those organic “tipping-points” again in our lifetimes.
Well, not as a culture, because things move so fast now. There’s no space for that moment to happen. There’s just too much. It makes me feel bad for my kid. So we bought 29 acres of cheap land so he can at least grow up out in the woods.
It's an emotional thing, [hearing you say that, because] I don’t have that experience with our first single. I remember hearing it in the Bruegger’s Bagels parking lot on the radio and just thinking it was cool…I know it touched some people. But I think you can’t appreciate it as much, if you’re too close to it.
Have you heard the story of Simon and Garfunkel hearing “Bridge over Troubled Water” in an old Cadillac on the radio, and how their life changed forever in that moment? I guess it wasn’t quite like that in the Bruegger’s parking lot?
Yeah, [Alias Records] only pressed 1,000 [copies] of our first single, so it’s definitely not “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
And your second single, “Web in Front,” landed on Beavis and Butt-Head and the soundtrack to the cult favorite-slash-college raunch classic, Mallrats.
At that time, I lived in one of eight small rooms with two shared bathrooms above a Greek restaurant in Carrboro, NC called Marathon and I’m a little embarrassed to admit: I didn’t have a television. My entertainment consisted of an old Marantz turntable I’d inherited from my recently deceased step-father, and a Tascam four-track cassette recorder, which I spent all of my time on making sketches for new song ideas. So when those song placements occurred, I didn’t even know what Beavis and Butt-Head was. I remember a lot of friends complaining at parties about how bad MTV was, because ridiculous reality tv shows were replacing music videos. I was so oblivious to all of it because I had never watched it anyway. I think I’ve only seen that Beavis and Butt-Head thing once and it was a few years later. I thought it was great, though. Really funny. I’ve never seen Mallrats.
From what I’ve seen of your career at a distance, it appears as though you’ve experienced several deaths and rebirths in music, with Archers and all your solo projects. Looking across your discography, it looks like you’ve had to continuously shift gears, take stock, and find new things that excite you.
Yes, that’s very true. I don’t know what causes our artistic behavior, exactly. Obviously, we know what causes our dysfunctions and our insecurities within psychology. We often get those from how we were raised and bad experiences…and I think that informs our artistic decisions as well. I suspect they’re always connected.
I moved a lot as a child, so I feel like one of the reasons I’m so restless is because my mom and dad divorced when I was seven, and we moved over 15 times by the time I was 14. That can make you very guarded. It makes you very reluctant to start a relationship, because you’re going to have to end it. It makes you get bored quickly and it makes you want to travel.
But you eventually landed, somewhat permanently, in Asheville, NC in 1984, right? It’s a pretty bizarre spiritual epicenter contrasted against the wild beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It used to be a genuinely weird place, and I can only imagine that after all your displacement, landing there must’ve been interesting.
It was, because I just didn’t know what the place was—and this was back in 1984, so it was nothing like the place it is now. Downtown was empty and there was nothing to do. It didn’t become hip until the ‘90s, when some guys bought the porn theater and turned it into an art gallery, and the restaurants started coming in. But all that stuff is outside of the mystical aspect of the place and I’m definitely in agreement with that idea. There is something [about it.] The natural beauty of it connects you to something that makes you feel better.
And behind all of that, Asheville was the place where Jimmie Rodgers first broke out on the local radio in 1927—in some way, that history is part of the original strain of what you—we all come from the seeds of that early industry he helped create.
That makes total sense...that's so weird! I didn’t know he was discovered there, but yeah, that’s the beginning, because it touched Hank Willams, Ernest Tubb, and Emmett Miller…
When did you first hear about the Chapel Hill scene and decide to leave Asheville? You moved there in 1990, right?
From Asheville, I went to college in Boone, North Carolina at Appalachian State [University.] I was a saxophone major, and I knew I was going to make music, because it was the only thing that gave me a sense of confidence and belonging. But I started late, so I was behind…I wasn’t as good as the other students but I practiced harder than they did. My teacher would always see me in the practice room playing piano and singing instead of playing my horn, and he said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to play and perform,” and he said, “Well, why are you here?...If you want to perform, you move to Chicago or New York or LA or anywhere where there’s a musical scene happening. You can play here…but you’re not going to make a career out of it. If you want to play, then you’ve gotta leave.” I didn’t have enough money to go to New York and I was a little afraid of that. But Chapel Hill was where there were bands. So I transferred to UNC and became an English major.
I was raised in a world where the attitude was more, like, “Shut up and just go sell insurance, man.” I had to overcome that.
When you eventually made a music career for yourself, did you allow yourself to feel proud of what you’d done?
No, I'm too unconfident. If I had known I could do this at age 13, and believed in myself, I might’ve brought a different attitude. You know, you have a kid, and realize later that you don’t want him to have the discouraged attitude that you had. If he’s like, “I want to move to New York and act,” just go do it! I was raised in a world where the attitude was more, like, “Shut up and just go sell insurance, man.” I had to overcome that.
When you were making the first Archers of Loaf’s record, Icky Mettle, were you driven by raw enthusiasm? Or did you have a distinct plan?
It was [the result of] formulating…I definitely thought, “Okay, we have an opportunity to make a record,” and I felt like I had something to say. We recorded it with [the legendary recording engineer] Caleb Southern at the [famed Carrboro, NC venue] Cat’s Cradle after they would close at night. They’d finish mopping the floor at around 2 or 3 am and then we’d come in. I was cooking at [this restaurant,] the New Orleans Cookery at night, and there was a lot of cocaine at that restaurant. I was really private about it, but I’d use it just to stay awake and get through the sessions. We’d record all night, and then I’d have to be at my second job at the Carolina Coffee Shop at 7 am. And if you listen to the record, you can hear that shit…at least in my performances. I know that I was very mindful of the sequencing, and the flow…like, “I’m saying too much in this song, I need to make the next song about nothing” to give the listener a break.
Were you able to successfully navigate through all the self-destructive tendencies and addictions that paralyzed a lot of the other local musicians around you in those early days?
I don’t know what causes true self-destructiveness. I don’t know if you’re just so interested in the thing you love doing that you become oblivious to self-care, or if its darker than that, where you’re really committing slow suicide. I only responded well to one drug. Maybe I responded okay to heroin, but that’s not something you get any work done with. I drank two pots of coffee a day and I could do cocaine and get a lot done. I couldn’t smoke pot. I couldn’t really get away with doing heroin…work was too important. Even today, the arguments I have with my family are all about my workaholism. The happiness I feel in life goes away if I’m not working on something. And it's offensive to your relationships, because it can seem like they’re not as valuable as the work. That’s the big burden of my life, but it's also what has buoyed me up. I used drugs and drinking to get the work going, and if those things got in the way, I would stop.
To return to an earlier comment: if you never saw yourself as falling into the rockstar mold, does that free you from a lot of bitterness over the course of your career?
Yes, that’s the benefit, that’s correct. But that could also mean you don’t get to participate as much if you sell yourself short. I remember being in Neko Case’s band, playing Radio City Music Hall, and meeting Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. We were playing the Croton-on-Hudson Festival. It was really rainy, and cramped on stage, and there’s some fuckin’ guy hitting my elbow with his stomach while I’m trying to play. I finally look over and it's David Crosby. There are times, in those contexts, where you feel like an imposter. Imposter Syndrome is a very real thing, and you realize that all these people that you’re putting on pedestal probably have it, too.
Between fits of debilitating depression that made its creation take a long time—I could sincerely write a rock record.
So what made you decide to do a new Archers of Loaf record, the first in 24 years? What can you tell us about it?
I didn't proactively decide to make a new Archers record. I'd agreed to write a few songs to put out as singles and play a few shows. That was all. In 2019, I didn’t feel I could write a cohesive set of ten songs under the Archers moniker that would feel authentic or sincere. But then Trump was elected president and a global pandemic happened, and those catalysts produced enough anger and frustration within me that I felt like—between fits of debilitating depression that made its creation take a long time—I could sincerely write a rock record. The kind of album I believed the Archers would do well.
The drumming is probably my favorite part of the record. Alex Farrar and Adam McDaniel from Drop of Sun [a recording studio in Asheville, NC where we recorded] pulled an epic sound out of [Arches’] Mark [Prince]’s drums, and his performances are among his best ever. I also think the record has a lot of range, both dynamically and emotionally. We didn’t do the typical quiet-loud-quiet-loud sentences we’re known for, but the record still swells and rages up and down, which feels like a step forward for us and less of a squirm in the sand. We like to keep moving and I think the record does that, in relation to our past efforts.