At twenty years and running, Eric Bachmann has lived a full musical life. In fact, with his success both in seminal shredders Archers of Loaf and as the more tempered Crooked Fingers, it seems as if he’s lived a couple. After a few years away from music, Bachmann returned this summer with Reservoir Songs II, the sequel to his beloved 2002 covers EP. And now he’s hitting the road, showcasing some new material from a nearly finished LP. Tonight Crooked Fingers plays the intimate – and seductively illuminated – Iota Club in Arlington.
We called Bachmann earlier this week to talk about the tour and his upcoming album. The conversation turned to the unsung benefits of being on a record label, his restless nature, and parenthood. Bachmann is about as honest and forthcoming as his songs, if not more so.
You’re hitting the road tomorrow for a string of shows up the East Coast. What can audiences expect?
We’re recording a new record, so there’ll be a few new songs. I like to try them out before we record them. We’ve actually already tracked them. We’ll mix them and stuff after we get done with this tour. So, there will be a bit of new material. It’ll be drums, guitars, samples, and stuff like that. It’s just a duo, but we got a lot going on.
Are you recording the album as a duo as well?
Well, we’re cheating, but we are. [We do] basically the drums and guitar, and then I’ll have friend come in or I’ll do other things, like bass or samples or a guitar lead, or something like that. But it’s way less overdubby than the last couple of records. It’s more or less play lived, with a few exceptions.
How’s the process going?
We tracked most of it last weekend. We’re still tracking the rest of it, and then we’ll mix. We still have a lot to do, but that all goes by pretty quickly. We’ll finish up in the next month.
Do you have an idea of when you would like to release it into the world?
As soon as it’s done, I want to get it going, but I got to find out how I’m doing it. I don’t know if I’m going to do it again myself. I don’t know if I’m going to put it out on a label. I feel fortunate in a sense that I can do either. I just have to find out exactly how I want to do it. I miss the community of being on a label, to be honest with you. The last record I put out, I did it on my own, and it was cool for the money, I guess – because you make more money – but I really miss the sense of community, especially now that everything’s so digitized and virtual. I have all these Facebook friends, and that doesn’t mean shit.
How does being on a label foster a sense of community?
Just in a traditional sense, like, “Hey, I’m on this label and there’s this other band on the label and we’re going to go tour together.” And you’re actually friends. As opposed to not having a tactile relationship, where it’s sort of…. [laughs]. I guess I miss the human part of it.
I guess it’s somewhat of an abstract concept to explain.
Yeah, it’s just MySpace and Facebook, that shit just isn’t stuff that I came up [as a young band] with. I didn’t come up with that stuff. For me, it’s nicer to have real [relationships]. Going on tour with [Saddle Creek’s] the Mynabirds is way more fun than being Facebook friends with like six other bands that I don’t really know that well.
Have you made overtures to any of your past labels, or do you have any in mind?
I would be happy to be on Merge. I would be happy to be on Saddle Creek. I’d be happy to be on Warm. I mean, the Touch & Go thing changed things a lot, since the last time I was on Warm, Touch & Go was their distributor, so I don’t know if I would do that. I mean, the obvious ones would be a Merge or a Saddle Creek or a Sub Pop – I’ve only done a 7” with them. And then I have other labels too, like the new label Artisan; I’m friends with that guy. So, there are a lot of people I could talk to. And, yeah, I like the idea of doing it myself, but it’s a lot work, and like I said, the community stuff. So, it’s the usual suspects, but I don’t know if they would do it. I think they would, but I haven’t spoke with them about it. I want to finish it. At this point in my career I like to go in with a nearly complete thing.
And I’m sure that would make it easier for them.
Easier for them, and you have to deal with [others’] opinions less. You just show them: “This is what I did.” And then they know what you did. They don’t have to have any expectations for it.
You described it briefly, but how does it compare to your last albums?
Well, it’s far more straightforward, spare or whatever, than Forfeit/Fortune. I guess Dignity and Shame was kind of a live thing too, and it is more like that, but it’s not nearly as bright. You know, you don’t have a whole lot of control over these things. I hate talking about it, honestly, because I don’t know how to talk about stuff you die on. [Laughs]. You know what I mean? I just don’t know how it’s different. I know it’s different in the sense of how I’m recording it. The last one I went really all over the place. I really had not made a record where I did everything that I heard. And it was so much fun to do, and I’m glad I did it. And so I always tend to do not the same thing next. But at this point, however many record I’ve been involved with I don’t even know, but you always say, “I want to do something I’ve never done before,” and you don’t even fucking know. I can say the process is definitely different than the last two or three. Like, To The Races, was just me and a guitar, and then I just overdubbed little stuff. It’s more than dense than that, but not as dense as Forfeit/Fortune.
The last thing you released was a covers collection (Reservoir Songs II), and Forfeit/Fortune was a collection of mostly songs you had written for previous albums. Does it feel different to be putting together an album of original material again?
Yeah, it does. And that’s a good point. I had forgotten about that. The last record was kind of cleaning house, of things that I thought were better than b-sides, but for some reason didn’t come out on the records that they were written for. So, it does feel good. It feels really good. It’s been a long time. It’s been three years. I guess 2008 is when Forfeit/Fortune came out, and then I went overseas to work for a little bit. Just to get out of music for a little bit. I went to Taiwan. Then I came back from that. So I’ve had a long time to write. I have about 21 songs: 18 made it to the recording, and 15 will be mixed, and I’ll probably pick 12 of those. It’s just a difficult thing to do. It’s just I haven’t done it for at least five years, so it feel good to do again.
Did any of that time overseas make its way into the music?
Yeah, it did. I don’t know how, but I have to assume it did. I just don’t know how.
Getting back to Reservoir Songs II, what goes into picking a good cover song?
I have to be at some point – be it twenty years or five minutes ago – have had some kind of connection to it. I really like what the song is saying or what it does to me if I listen to it. I have to make sure I can sing it. Or know that I can’t sing it – like on the first Reservoir Songs, I picked a Queen song, because it was ridiculous for me to try to sing like Freddie Mercury. [Laughs]. So that was interesting, and it has to be interesting in that way for me to do it. They’re also all songs that at some point I had played live or covered or thought about or whatever. A lot of it is just people ask you to do another covers EP. A lot of it was just sort of, “You gonna do this again? You gonna do this again?” And it was like, “No. No. I don’t have time.” And then finally you feel guilty enough, because you’re flattered that people want you to do it at all. So you just kind of it to satisfy that. And it just buys you time, man. To be really direct, you know, it buys you time to keep on working on the original material. “Hey, I’m still here. Here’s a little EP of cover songs.”
And it gives you an excuse to tour.
Yes. Exactly. So, there’s economic, political reasons we can call it, besides that it’s fun creatively to do it.
What goes through your head when you hear one of your songs covered? What did you think of the National and St. Vincent cover on one of the Merge 20th anniversary discs?
I thought it was great. It’s a real kick for me. I like both of those artists. I was real flattered. I don’t know if I would have the capacity to be critical about it, because I’m so flattered that they would do it. They did a cool thing with it. I like what they did with the horns, and even decision they made in the process of recording it. You know, technical decision they made that I liked.
Had they or Merge given you a heads up before they recorded it?
Merge told me about it, and I didn’t know them. I didn’t know those folks. Then I played in Brooklyn at the Penthouse, maybe two years ago, and one of the guitar players from the band was there – I think there was another band [playing that they knew] – and we ended up having pints and he was real friendly and said they had done it. I had not heard it yet, so [laughs], he was just being nice, saying “I hope we didn’t ruin your song.” And I was like, “I’m sure you didn’t. Don’t worry about it. Thanks for doing it.” Any time someone covers your stuff, whether its really talented and respected people like that, or even people that you never heard of, it’s still cool that they did it. So, I don’t know. I’m honored. I’m so self-loathing, I never assume anyone would do that shit. I assume everyone hates me. [Laughs].
Speaking of a different Merge compilation – and this is only tangentially related – I loved your contribution to their 15th anniversary package, “La Maelta Fea”, but never read where it come from. What was the origin of there?
I was living in Guatemala. My mother lived there for years, and my mother lives there right now, and she comes back occasionally. I was writing Spanish there and I had an assignment to write a song.
I hope you got a good grade.
I wrote that song and I took it to the guy – and he was my teacher, so he was going to bust my balls anyway – and he made fun of me, but he helped me fix it. The version that’s on the Merge compilation actually has a lot of errors. I rereleased it with the grammar corrected after that guy heard it, on the Forfeit/Fortune vinyl. And I kind of – I don’t want to use the word regret, because I don’t typically regret anything – I often forget that people don’t give a shit about you learning Spanish. I’m amazed that you even mention that song, because I look back on that song and think that it was fun for me, but I don’t know if I’d ever put something like that out again, because people don’t give a shit. They want to hear you sing in English because you’re a fucking American, so stop doing that.
You mention living in Guatemala and Taiwan, and you’ve called Denver and North Carolina home in the recent past. It seems you’re a bit of a nomad. Where is home now, and why bounce around so much?
Right now I’m living in Athens, Georgia. I came back from Taiwan, and my Dad lives in Ashville, Carolina. And I have a lot of friends in Atlanta and Athens, so I thought this is just a good central location to kind of come back to. I’m here for now. I’m sure that I will move again. I don’t know when. I just get bored, and I figure that if I’ve got forty years left, if I’m lucky – it’s probably closer to thirty years left – that I treat it like an amusement park: I’m here, I might as well as see much shit as possible before I’m dead. So, for me, it’s “I want to live here. I want to live here. I want to live here.” I want to live in as many places as possible, just for the experience of it. And when I say the experience, I just don’t mean the way a place looks or the food, I mean socio-politically. Guatemala was so fascinating because that is politically, a very fucked up place. The history of the area is very fascinating to me, and it’s still a very highly-charged area. The Mayans are still treated like shit. It’s just a really fucked up place. You gotta be careful, living there as an American, because you are part of the government that is the problem. You are from that government, when you think about what Reagan did and the death squads. It keeps you in tune with how small you are, and how you’re very lucky. I tend to have a depressive nature, so you have find ways – it’s very self-serving – or find environments to make me feel grateful.
What were you doing in Taiwan?
Teaching English. I was horrible at it. I was teaching children. I love children, and I was horrible at it. I was very good with them as a friend, but a horrible disciplinarian.
How old were they?
Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. I had students that were kindegartners, and I had eleven- and twelve-year old kids. It didn’t matter. I’m horrible at telling kids they can’t do something. You see a kid with a hockey stick about to hit another kid, and you’re supposed to stop them, but my attitude was, “Why is he doing that? I want to see what happens here.” And I wouldn’t stop it, because I’m just a horrible disciplinarian.
Well, I hope that if you’re looking to get back into that profession, that this doesn’t turn up in a Google search.
[Laughs] Yeah, I won’t, man. I’m not going to do that again. I’m just not supposed to teach kids. And the thing is, the people that ran the place knew it. They knew there was a certain type of personality that doesn’t do well giving discipline. I don’t think it means I’d be a bad parent or anything, it just means I can’t take twenty five kids and tell them to behave. I would just rather say, “Go nuts. Have fun. I don’t give a shit. Do what you need.”
Do you want to be a parent?
I don’t know. I would in a way. I do like the idea of something else being the most important thing in your life. I do like the idea of having your ego shrink because you have a child. The idea that when you have a child, it’s all about the child and not about you anymore – that’s very appealing to me.
But that would perhaps limit your mobility.
It would. I’ve had this conversation with other people, and they seem to think it doesn’t have to. But I’m more in the camp with you. I would argue that what you’re saying is true. I moved around a bunch as a kid. I lived between my mother and my father. I lived with my mother until I was eleven, and then I lived with my father. I travelled so much betwsen the two with visitation and what have you, and living all over the Southeast. I look back on it and it was fine. It didn’t bother me at all. And I think, as a kid, that it would be really cool to live in Europe, then live in Australia, then live in America, then live in Guatemala, then live in Taiwan or whatever. But at the same time, I would never do that. I would never subject a kid to that. Because I think it is important to have stability, and develop healthy social behaviors. I don’t know the answer. It’s a really fascinating thing to think about, because if you did have a child and you did raise them all over the world, every year you moved, that kid would be friggin’ smart, man. That kid would have a lot of experience. That would be really great for his brain in a number of ways, and what it would do for his ability to develop relationships and sincere bonds. I don’t know.