"I'm in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Kansas City. Do you know what we're doing, Stephen?" asks Eric Bachmann. "We're livin' the dream. We're at Wal-Mart, on tour, in a van, playing the rock and roll music." It's hard to tell if he's joking or not.
There's a very definite tongue-in-cheek tone in his voice when he says it, but there's more than a modicum of truth there, too. A rootless guy by nature/nurture--Bachmann grew up all over the southeastern states as a kid before settling into a seven-year stint in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he fronted über-indie band Archers of Loaf--the road must seem more like home than home sometimes. A couple of years ago, just before Archers split up, Bachmann moved to Atlanta, because he has a friend in the restaurant business who can get him work for the two months a year he spends there. On tour now under his new moniker, Crooked Fingers, in support of its second album, Bring on the Snakes (Warm), Bachmann's spent roughly a decade on the road in various and wildly varied incarnations.
He formed Archers of Loaf as a student at UNC Chapel Hill University in 1992, putting his English major to use in crafting playfully lyrical pop tunes buried among a barrage of angular guitar noise, splitting the difference between the intelligence of Pavement and the balls-out rock blast of fellow townies Superchunk.
In the course of six years the band released four full-length albums, two EPs and a slew of singles and compilation tracks, most of which was released as the CD Speed of Cattle (Alias, as was the band's entire catalog); a posthumous live album, Seconds Before the Accident, was issued last year. (During the Archers' run, Bachmann also released two experimental solo albums under the name Barry Black.)
The band garnered a devout following and became a darling of the press. At one point the band had enough buzz to warrant a post-show surprise visit from Mrs. Guy Ritchie herself, Madonna, in attendance to entice the band to sign to her then-newly formed label, Maverick. But by the late '90s, the band had simply run out of steam.
"We just thought it was time to stop," states Bachmann. "We weren't as into it as we had been when we started. We just kind of got, I don't know if bored is the right word, but just sort of interested in other things, both musically and in other parts of a human being's life." Which helps to explain the drastic departure that is Crooked Fingers.
Crooked Fingers, in the recorded format, is essentially a solo vehicle for Bachmann, though he works with others on production. (The touring version also includes bassist and drummer Jo Jamieson and R.L. Martin, who plays drums, banjo, lap steel, violins and keyboards.) "I ask them to work with me because I value their opinion, and I want it to be collaborative, just because I think good things can come from that. But I always have the song finished, with the lyrics and chords--the structure--finished without anybody's input, and then from there it's usually a tonal thing. Whether it's me giving a chart to a string section and saying, 'Here, take what I've done and make it better,' or whatever. Brian Paulson (Slint, Son Volt, Beck) recorded the new record; basically I recorded all the guitar parts and sang, and then we built the song around what I sang and played, just the core of the song. I fed (Brian) a bunch of sounds I had on my sampler, and I just let him fuck with 'em until he came up with what we both thought was cool. So that part was really collaborative."
The result, as Bachmann acknowledges, is that without the constraints of writing songs for a band, he was free to pursue a more traditional singer/songwriter role. Thus, Bring on the Snakes reveals Bachmann as a fully formed narrative songwriter, plumbing the dark corners that exist in the world in a starkly evocative storyteller fashion. The record evokes the lyrical deftness of Dylan or Springsteen, the brooding of Leonard Cohen and the sandpapery vocal grit of Neil Diamond--just about as far away from Pavement or Superchunk as one can get.
"I didn't necessarily want to make it mellower and darker, that just sort of came out," explains Bachmann. "I don't really have that much control over what I write. I just figure I'm going to do things, and stuff falls out; if I like it, that's what I'm doing. To me it's more about doing, not thinking. I don't know why the hell (the songs) came out that way, but I would totally be lying if I said it wasn't because I had been in a loud rock band for eight years. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't because I started listening to more Leonard Cohen and Richard Thompson. These things obviously have an influence, but I never really thought about those things."
But there was at least one conscious decision that went into Crooked Fingers, and that, in effect, shaped the songs. "One thing I did know that I wanted to do, something that was a challenge for me and that I was excited about, was making the words a priority. I felt like there was something I could do with that. And so obviously you're not going to put loud noises or guitars or whatever on something that you're trying to keep clear for the vocals to rest on. I basically wanted the music to be an interesting bed for the vocals to lie on top of."
The lyrics on Bring on the Snakes lean heavily toward stories of lives marred by the drag that a substance-heavy lifestyle eventually imposes on its subjects, no matter how much they strive for more. ("Most of my friends in Atlanta are gay coke dealers," Bachmann remarks.) Album opener "The Rotting Strip" documents the disintegration of the lives and relationship of a pair of doomed lovers; the hopefulness of the song's refrain ("...crossed our hearts half hoping/that we could both quit smoking/and kick the booze and blow/and one day go and make something of ourselves") ultimately gives way to the grim gravity of the situation ("So we branded our hearts and we toasted the stars/getting wasted by the light of the moon/You were a two bit tramp and I was a low life lying scam/We were a bad lay coming undone burning for someone to use"). It doesn't get any more cheerful from there, but Bachmann has surely succeeded in reinventing himself once again, through song after song of exceedingly well-documented desperation set to desolate (mostly) acoustic guitar and the aforementioned samples, which add an eerie air to the proceedings.
"In a weird way, whether it was Barry Black or Crooked Fingers, I almost wish that I had never been in Archers of Loaf so that people wouldn't have this preconceived idea of what I would be doing," says Bachmann. "That's something that annoys me, but that's the way the world is. I want it to come across as though someone using their ears alone would never be able to tell that it was the same guy who was in this loud punk band or pop band or whatever, or had ever done this artsy-fartsy Barry Black stuff. I always wanted it to be different, just because it's fun to push yourself that way. All you're doing this shit for, all you're writing for, all I'm doing music for is to entertain myself, to get through life. Tomorrow I could look up and say, 'God, I want to be a stripper,' and I'd work like hell to do that."
Crooked Fingers appears at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 6, at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave. For more information call 884-0874.