In more than 25 years of performing and writing music, North Carolina singer/songwriter Eric Bachmann has only released two albums under his own name. During the '90s he fronted the raucous indie rock band Archers of Loaf, who released four albums of abrasive, smart-assed anthems. After that group disbanded, he began recording rootsy, Springsteen and Tom Waits-inspired rock under the name Crooked Fingers, with an intervening solo album of acoustic ballads in 2006 titled To The Races. He's also performed as a touring guitarist for Neko Case, and way back when, released two albums of psychedelic pop as Barry Black.
With the Crooked Fingers name more or less retired, Bachmann has just released a new self-titled set of richly arranged folk-rock under his own name. It's a soulful and deeply personal set, with songs addressing family, faith (or lack thereof) and other topics that once seemed off-limits for a songwriter who mastered in abstraction. I caught up with him on a phone call from the road between tour dates to talk about his new album, growing as a songwriter and becoming less self-involved.
CityBeat: The new album has a rich, lush sound—what led you to pursue this musical direction?
Eric Bachmann: One of the first songs I [wrote] was "Mercy," which is the second song on the record...that song has a very real issue that I deal with in my family, which is my lack of faith and their Christian and Catholic background. And I'm not that—I was raised that, but I didn't become that. I knew I wanted to communicate the song to them, and it isn't really referring to my father, because my father isn't really a religious person. It's about other family members. But I knew his favorite music, he's told me a million times: Franki Valli, Motown, doo-wop girls, The Beach Boys. So I knew he would listen to it and like it, and that generation of people I was addressing would listen and like it, if I started it off with a Beach Boys-y, Franki Valli kind of thing. 'Oh that's real nice Eric, I like that sound.' And then you hit them with the message: That you people are fuckin' crazy. So it's a trap.
CB: Was there a particular motivation behind diving into more personal lyrics?
EB: No, nothing that I can consciously think of. I'm a big fan of the novelist Martin Amis, and he says something very intelligent and accurate: Your subconscious is far more clever than any intention you can have. The goal is really to move forward on an endless runner...and don't block the unconscious while you're doing it. You say what you intend to say, but be ready because there are going to be things that happen when you're doing that that are going to be more interesting than what you're doing. You have to grab those things and make that the bigger thing. So I never know intentionally what I'm doing. When you find it, you have to pick the thing and stick with it. And at that point the song is three-quarters written and you just wanna get the damn thing done.
CB: Do you now have a different perspective on songs you wrote 15 or 20 years ago?
EB: Oh, definitely. You just change your relationship with the song. If you're referring to Archers...I don't get a sense of power or a sense of confidence and self-identify with that music because it's from so long ago. This is very shallow, but it's true: I like playing that music for two reasons. It's because it's really good for my ego to hear people sing it back to you. It's just flattering that people like it at all. That's an honor, and it feels good to hear people singing those songs. It's a gift, and I feel lucky—a lot of bands were better than we were. The other thing is that Matt [Gentling], Mark [Price] and Eric [Johnson] are some of my favorite human beings. Hanging out with those guys, going on a weekend tour, because they all work, it's a very fun reward.
It's fun for me to play the Archers songs because it represents a time, and I get to play them with my friends. When I play the Crooked Fingers songs, I get more out of the music because I still remember what those songs are about...and I still have relationships with the people that those songs are about. With the Archers stuff I was drunk half the time. It was the first time I was trying to make sound, but there's something beautiful and primitive and visceral about the Archers, and that's what people respond to, because it's not songwriting. They say that poets are kids and novelists are old men—isn't that how it goes? I wouldn't write a song about toast now, that's fucking ridiculous. But the fact that I did then is kind of charming. We didn't take ourselves too seriously.
CB: Have you changed a lot, personally, in that time?
Yeah, I hope so. As a one-day-old baby, you're self-absorbed. It's all about you. And as you grow older hopefully you get less and less absorbed. If you're an 80-year-old, if you're lucky enough to live that long, all you care about are your grandkids and you don't give a shit about yourself. And that's a good thing. That's how it should be. That's hopefully the trajectory I'm gonna take.
Eric Bachmann plays June 5 at Soda Bar
An Eric Bachmann Primer: Five Essential Songs
Archers of Loaf, "Web in Front"
The Archers' first college radio hit, this two-minute buzz of energy and surrealism is one of their catchiest, with a sing-along chorus of "All I ever wanted was to be your spine!"
Archers of Loaf, "White Trash Heroes"
The moment where Bachmann's solo ambitions crept into his band's work, this seven-minute closer to the album of the same name is a soaring, layered dirge that remains one of their best.
Crooked Fingers, "New Drink for the Old Drunk"
A standout from Crooked Fingers' debut, "New Drink" showcases Bachmann's ability to blend folky grit with lush orchestration in an unexpectedly majestic ballad.
Crooked Fingers, "Big Darkness"
By Crooked Fingers' third album, Bachmann had refined his songwriting even further, as well as his own singing voice. The combination is one of the prettiest songs he's ever written.
Eric Bachmann, "Mercy"
Pairing a "Be My Baby" beat, vocal harmonies, tenderness and good old-fashioned cynicism, "Mercy" is simultaneously tender and brutally honest.