By Philip Chevalier.
Eric Bachmann is not the first guy to release a self-titled album late in his career. He’s not the first to revert back to his own name after decades of producing music in a band or as part of a project, either. But at the age of 45, the former frontman of Archers of Loaf and architect of Crooked Fingers has done something that is rare: He’s made an album that truly feels like a debut.
Or perhaps it’s that with Eric Bachmann, the singer-songwriter has made an LP of such deeply personal and direct intentions that the history of what’s preceded it is all but irrelevant.
In a way, how this record is being presented hints at what’s to follow over its 39 minutes. Bachmann has ditched every bit of the creative distance that artists typically put between themselves and their audience: the stage name that isn’t theirs, the vaguely suggestive album art, the underlying attitude that the meaning of what they’ve made is at its truest when it’s determined by the listener.
No, each of the eight songs the North Carolina native wrote for Eric Bachmann has a specific, concrete meaning, incorruptible in the hands of his audience. To be able to say that about an album whose lyrics deal with some truly fundamental philosophical questions – Does life have meaning? In what ways does history define us? – means he’s accomplished something both personally literal and universally powerful, which would be a trite observation if that wasn’t such an infrequently replicated combination.
And, sure, we’re free to find our own meaning in the words he’s singing, and speaking with Bachmann a few weeks ago, he acknowledged, albeit perfunctorily, that the activity of doing so is the first line-item of an audience’s job description. He just happens to know, in a very concrete way, what it is he’s written about in each case – audience interpretations notwithstanding.
“All of that stuff is very literal in the song. It’s not meant to be abstract,” he said of the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Mercy”. This is how he describes a song with lyrics that seem squarely aimed at embracing the kind of post-religious nihilism articulated by Nietzsche – an abstract lyrical arena if there is such a thing.
Bachmann didn’t set out to be profound with a line like “There are those who suffer for no reason every day,” he just managed to do so by writing about something he knows is true: “If you have a four-year-old with bone cancer, and you have some right-wing Christian person telling people that everything happens for a reason, that’s offensive to me.”
That same degree of forthrightness knows few boundaries, whether in his music or in conversation, as became clearer with each of his answers during our conversation.
And while it might seem like he’s risking overexposure by consolidating his own identity with the one behind the songs he’s writing, it seems instead to simplify matters for Bachmann. He’s taken on the project of writing what he thinks.
You’ve released music under your own name before. But from the outside, it’s still easy to read significance into what you’ve done here – not only retiring the Crooked Fingers moniker, but self-titling this record. Sometimes that’s meaningful to an artist, sometimes it isn’t. What’s the case with you?
I think there’s a ridiculousness to constantly changing your name, and I am aware of that, even though I seem to keep doing it. This time, I just wanted to say, “Screw any advice anybody’s giving me, I’m just gonna do it.” People don’t advise you to change your name late in your career, but I just wanted to do it.
And I feel like when you write personal things, it’s very honest. Not that it wasn’t honest before, but with this, there’s no story-telling, per se, outside of myself in it.
The album does feel very personal. It doesn’t pull any punches. Was there something about the style of warm, welcoming rock that made you feel like you had cover to explore those darker truths?
I always feel like I have to elbow myself out of corners I create for myself.
If you asked people, say, after the first Crooked Fingers record, I came across as a curmudgeonly bastard – like, “Leave me alone.” And maybe I was that way at the time.
Then, if you asked people after Dignity and Shame, it was more of a pop record.
So with a lot of these albums you end up afterward hearing people say stuff, and you might not agree with it, but you always feel like with the next one you have to back yourself out of a corner. I don’t think that’s changed – I’m still doing that.
But I don’t want to be backed into any corners, so I feel like if I’m going to write as a curmudgeon, it should be welcoming and warm , and less… mean?
A lot of the tracks have a pretty classic, familiar feel to them, as far as American roots rock is concerned. How easily did that sound come to you? Did it kind of flow?
This isn’t my thought – I’m not sure it’s anybody’s one thought – but I just read something by the writer Martin Amis that said your subconscious is far more innovative and creative than your intentional mind. And that’s very true with me in terms of how I write. If I intend to write a song about “this,” if I start to write thinking I’m writing about “this situation” or “this relationship” or “this person,” by the end I end up saying something totally different, that I didn’t realize I was saying about it or that I’ve learned from it.
It’s a real process to get to that point. It takes forever. You kind of have to hate what you do so that you can tear it down and do it over again, and tear it down again and do it all over again, until it’s right. That’s not an easy-flowing process.
That’s also why I feel good about this record, because every song went through that – with the exception of “Carolina”, because it wasn’t mine. It was Liz’s song and I just produced it and sang on it.
It’s interesting hearing you say that, because my impression of the album was almost immediately deeply familiar, like the songs wrote themselves.
That’s certainly good to hear, and I definitely want that to be a result of the work. You definitely don’t want something to sound forced, you want it to sound natural, but it’s never easy.
I get mad at artists I read who are like, “Yeah, man, it just came out.” I’m like, “Fuck you!” [Laughs] That never happens for me. I’ve had the experience of writing something that comes out in one night or in ten minutes, but I’ve had about four of those out of the 500 songs I’ve tried to write.
I’d like to talk about the lyrics of “Mercy”. What does it mean to you for something to be “meaningless”?
In the specific case of the song, if you have a four-year-old with bone cancer, and you have some right-wing Christian person telling people that everything happens for a reason, that’s offensive to me. It doesn’t mean that the four-year-old is learning a lesson. That’s what I’m referring to in the context of the song.
Now, I know that when I write a lyric like that, it should be broad and carry more meaning for other people. But you were asking specifically what I was trying to say in the song, and that’s what I had in mind.
I come from a pretty religiously diverse family. I have a lot of Catholics in my family. I have a lot of Evangelicals in my family. I have a lot of pan-theists or atheists in my family, of which I am one. So you have all these people that you’re navigating and you love them all, and you’re trying to have a good relationship with all of them, and it’s very difficult when they say shitty things.
Personally, do you think religion is crazy, in that it ascribes meaning where there isn’t any?
I think it’s been destructive. I think it’s caused a lot of the problems that we have in the world. If everybody had the same amount of stuff – if everyone had access to feed their children and educate their children properly, and they had the same opportunities – there’d be less people blowing people up. So, in a way, it’s economic, and people use religion as the excuse to justify shitty behavior, whether it’s fundamentalist Islam or whatever you believe in.
I’m not going to say that all religion is bad because, at a local level, in a pragmatic sense, I do like the sense of community it can provide. But I don’t think that you have to have it to foster that sense of community. It’s bullshit in that sense. You can be a totally unbelieving, think-we’re-just-floating-on-a-rock kind of person and still be good to people. You can still have morality and do unto others as you would to yourself and want as much for others as you want for yourself. You can have that without any of the religious crap. Religious people tend not to believe that, but I believe it. If only for the obvious reason that we’re alone here; there’s nothing else. We’re all we have, you know?
All that stuff is very literal in the song. It’s not meant to be abstract.
Where else would you point to as a location for meaning? Relationships?
You can certainly find meaning in relationships, and I do that. On a certain level, that also seems like a human contrivance, though. The universe is indifferent to me. It’s pretty dark. It’s pretty Darwinian. The way our brains have evolved over thousands of years causes us to put value on our relationship with our dog, or our family, our loved ones, our children, our wives, our husbands. But to me, that’s a human contrivance; it’s not innately connected to anything greater than us.
It also seems naïve to say that nothing set all of this in motion. Maybe it did, or not. Maybe it’s infinite, and time is a human construct, and there is no “beginning.” But I’m not confident enough to answer that one way or another.
So I can’t sit here and say with certainty, “There’s no meaning in the universe.” I might believe that, but if I was proven wrong, I’d be pretty happy to hear we aren’t just floating out here. But I do believe that; I do think that we are just kind of floating out here.
It’s tough, too, because you don’t want to sound arrogant. That’s the criticism these sorts of comments get – “You sound arrogant.” But they’re being arrogant; they’re making the jump and saying, “Oh but there was this virgin birth, and he walked on water.” That’s fucking ridiculous, ya know? [Laughs] It’s not science-driven. I have to go where the evidence is.
That doesn’t make me arrogant. You can believe whatever you want. I’m not saying that I know any more than you, I’m just saying that’s where the data leads me.
The lyric “kill your idols and your fables” seems significant. What idols and fables have you had to deflate?
I grew up as a Catholic. My parents separated when I was eight. I was going to Catholic school at St. Raphael’s in St. Petersburg when that happened. I ended up living with my mother, and by court order my father made it so we had to go to Catholic school. I bounced around for a while between Catholic schools growing up. When I went to live with my father, he put me in a Catholic middle school. And then when I was in ninth grade, I chose to go to public school.
But I was always skeptical. When I was in third or fourth grade, I was like, “I don’t know, man, this all sounds pretty ridiculous.” From a very young age, I resisted it, and I was surrounded by people who were Evangelicals, and, of course, within my family, I was surrounded by Catholics.
I don’t know if this is a bigoted thing to say, but I prefer Catholics to Evangelicals. I never get into a confrontational conversation about religion with them. They don’t talk to me about it, they don’t push me about it, they have wine, they drink their liquor, and they don’t bother me. But when I talk to fundamentalist Baptist Evangelicals, I get judged in conversations, and I get pissed off that they’re trying to proselytize.
You sing that you have family “from Alaska to Miami,” and you’ve lived a number of places, both domestic and abroad. What feels like home to you these days?
I live in Athens, Georgia, and I love the pine trees and North Georgia mountains. But anytime I hit the border of Virginia and North Carolina and I leave Georgia, that feels like home.
I also love it out west. I just got back from L.A., recording a video for “Mercy”. My wife was super kind to let me stay out there for an extra day or two, to just rent a car and just drive all around Southern and Northern California, wherever I could get to, because I just love the West Coast. I love Oregon and Washington as well, and I’ve lived in Washington.
It’s hard to say that any one place truly feels like home because, honestly, I feel most at home with my wife and my dog in the car when we’re driving across the country or the world. Wherever I am, when I’m with them, I feel great. But in terms of concrete places, I do feel most at home in the Southeast and the West Coast.
But that’s also a ridiculous answer because that’s basically the whole country. [Laughs]
It’s honest, though, because after my parents divorced by the time I was 12, I’d moved ten to thirteen times. I think that informed why I wanted to be a musician for a living, because I get so bored when I’m in one place. It’s a pathology, and I know it’s unhealthy because it’s good to have roots, but I’ve been fortunate to find a person that I can have that with.
You sing about pine trees a lot. I think I counted four references to pines on the album. You really like pines.
[Laughs] I like pines, I like cedars. I like redwoods. I just really like trees. I should have been a botanist, I guess.
It’s also great imagery because it establishes things so well. It really puts a mood into a song. It’s something of a technical device but it works.
Olfactory suggestions bring you back to your childhood, too. I can smell an art supplies store and immediately think of kindergarten because it smells like the classrooms did back then. The olfactory memory is quite strong.
I heard “Small Talk” a couple days talking with someone who meant a lot for the first time in a while. As a song that seems to be about masking tough subjects with shallow conversation, the lyrics hit me at the right time. But I also get the feeling you’ve accomplished something broadly relatable to a variety of experiences. Was “Small Talk” about something in particular or more of a composite?
It’s about something very specific. I don’t feel comfortable sharing it, because they didn’t give me permission to talk about it, but it’s a very specific song about a very specific person.
I don’t expect anyone to give a shit about it, because the song should be about more than this, but it’s really about somebody dying and everybody being really shitty about the will – just being really insensitive to this thing that just happened. This person’s just gone from us, and you’re being shallow about what was left to whom, who gets what paintings, and who gets what amount of money. I found it really repulsive and a song had to be written about it.
“Masters of the Deal” thematizes some of the darker history of Southern culture, specifically in terms of violent racism by way of an allusion to a lynching. As a southerner yourself, what’s the current state of your relationship to the South?
I gotta be careful here. [Pauses] I’m not a fan of it.
Obviously, you’re proud of where you’re from at some level, and you should feel connected to it, like we just talked about – the location, the pines, et cetera.
But there’s a really deep-seeded ignorance in the South and a lot of contradiction and a lot of hypocrisy. This isn’t news to anybody: There are dozens and dozens – perhaps hundreds – of films made about it and songs written about it. So it’s not a new topic but it still angers the hell out of me.
I don’t have a bad relationship with the South, but I also don’t need someone telling me the argument for why a Confederate flag has a positive meaning or impact to somebody, because it fucking doesn’t. [Laughs]. It’s as mean as a Swastika. So I’ll let you say that, and I’ll let you fly it in your front lawn, and, honestly, it’s great for me, because now I know I’ll never do business with you. You’re welcome to fly it, it’s freedom of speech, but man, I’m not going to ever have any interaction with you now. Now I know. Thank you.
You’ve made an album that will be personally meaningful to me for quite some time, I can tell. This is coming from someone who isn’t familiar with your catalogue prior to now. To me, it might as well be a debut. Did you feel like this is an album that might reach people you’ve never reached before? If so, how would that make you feel?
As someone who’s decided to just do this for the rest of my life, one of the biggest compliments you can get is to not rest on your laurels.
I knew specifically when I did Crooked Fingers after Archers [of Loaf], I wanted Archers fans not to like it. I don’t have any hostility toward Archers – that was a great experience, and those guys are great friends, and I’ll always have fond memories of that band. But to me, the proof that you’re not a hack is if you can do a completely different thing and still get a response, or communicate with another demographic of people or whatever you want to call it.
So for me, when you say you don’t know the back catalogue, it means that you’re not liking this because of the other stuff; you’re liking it because it’s a new thing you heard, and you like it. That proves to me that I’m not a hack.
Maybe I’m being insecure by having that attitude, but I have it, and I’ve always had it. Even from Archers album to Archers album I was attempting to do something fundamentally different each time, as were the other guys; we were all onboard that way. The break from Archers to Crooked Fingers was a very deliberate departure, where I didn’t even want the same people to like it.
And that’s the same kind of attitude this time around. At some level, you want everyone to like it, but at another level, I kind of always want it to be a debut.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.