Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro
Saturday, April 16, 9 p.m., $12–$15
Eric Bachmann is bounding through the woods behind an elementary school in Athens, Georgia, whooping with delight.
“There you go, baby,” the longtime rock ‘n’ roll singer and legend of North Carolina’s indie rock heyday yells in his sandpapered baritone. “Go get ’em, girl.”
With every thudding step he takes on the narrow, leaf-strewn path, his broad-shouldered, six-foot-six frame pounds out an imposing rhythm. He’s trailing Lupe, the dog that he and his wife, Liz Durrett, have owned for three years.
As mutts go, Lupe is an especially perplexing chimera: she stands about a foot off the ground and weighs fifteen pounds, all of which seems to be held in a single ripple of muscle, taut beneath her short, tan hair. Her face and ears are that of a Chihuahua, her body that of a pit bull uncannily crammed inside a too-small frame.
She has all the energy of a pinball game, so Bachmann sprints behind her, hoping to keep hold of the leash that clips onto her bright pink, steel-studded collar. When they emerge from the woods and reach the wide, open field that’s her favorite place to play, Bachmann bends down, grunting as he leans low enough to unleash her.
“Go!” he yells.
She’s suddenly off, kicking up pale brown blades of brittle late-winter grass. He stands still, watches her silently for a full minute, and laughs.
“You’re a big hit, Lupe,” he boasts. “Everybody loves Lupe.”
Bachmann, forty-five, has been married for almost four years. He talks often about having a child with Durrett, but, for now, he proudly, compulsively refers to her and Lupe as his family. In the right pocket of his thick gray coat, he carries a collection of dog treats in much the same way a new parent might clutch a diaper bag. He scoffs at the veterinarian who says he overfeeds Lupe and boasts that, since she’s a mutt, “she’s going to live for twenty years.”
This is, Bachmann says, as happy as he’s ever been. For his entire life, he’s been perpetually restless, whether transferring schools and switching majors midway through college, moving two dozen times, or jumping from the aggressive indie rock of his emblematic Chapel Hill band Archers of Loaf to the elegant, brooding folk-rock of Crooked Fingers because he’d grown to loathe the former. But right now, he’s hoping to not go anywhere.
Just sixteen hours earlier, Bachmann is in a different state of mind.
The sun is setting outside Normal Bar, a popular, two-sided pub in a thriving, postage-sized section of Athens named Normaltown, two miles removed from the University of Georgia’s downtown bedlam. Bachmann seems to loom over a small square table on the less-crowded side of the bar, even when he kicks his chair back and leans against the wall.
For the last few beers at a different bar, he’s talked about his time in Archers of Loaf and his stint as a saxophone major, how his dad still wonders when he’s going to get a real job, and how he doesn’t care so much about modern indie rock. But here, just as the Georgia sky dims, so does the conversation.
Bachmann begins discussing the limits of making music for a living, which is what he’s done for nearly a quarter-century. For years, Durrett was a touring singer-songwriter herself, making twilit folk that conjured the brambles and woods of her native Georgia. But tomorrow she’ll take her last test of nursing school before beginning her clinical work. He seems inspired by the move”She got sick of being broke all the damn time, and she had the courage to just drop it,” he saysbut doubts he could pull it off.
“It’s not rational to think that you can sell six thousand or ten thousand records and make a living,” he scoffs. “Doing tours and sleeping in a Walmart parking lot so you don’t have to get a hotel room and can come home with four grand, that’s not a good business plan. If I had another way to generate income, I’d probably do it.”
Still, Bachmann acknowledges that a complete career shift, even if possible, would not only leave him unsatisfied but also likely drive him insane. He tried once before, in 2009, when he left his home in Colorado for Pingtung, a city of a few hundred thousand in southern Taiwan, to teach English.
Because of Archers of Loaf’s success, he’d never studied abroad as his peers had, so he decided to leave the United Statesmaybe foreverand build a new plan. He didn’t take a guitar or computer. For at least a year, he reckoned, he would make no music. He failed miserably as a teacher, though, and, within a month, Bachmann had purchased a cheap, nylon-stringed guitar and started piecing together new tunes.
Otherwise, the world just got to him.
“If you go to sleep, and every time you have the idea you’re going to put a bullet in your head and end it, writing songs is a distraction. I don’t feel suicidal when I’m working on songs,” he says, hands nervously flitting across the table. “If you always have something to do, it keeps you from going there.”
It’s completely dark outside now. The glasses are empty.
“Why does anybody do anything they do?” he continues. “They’re distracting themselves from the fact all this shit is meaningless.”
Soon enough, Bachmann found his reason to leave Taiwan. Old friends in the band Azure Ray asked him to produce their new record, so he broke his teaching contract and quit the job.
“I could blame teaching children or the fact that I didn’t enjoy it, but the truth was that I felt like I had given up too much of my identity by not writing,” he says. “Actually, I don’t like it, but I always turn back to doing it. I don’t do it out of joy. It’s therapeutic.”
Bachmann’s compulsion to write songs and share stories is an old one. His parents divorced when he was eight and shuffled him through the Southeast, from central Florida and northern South Carolina to eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. His dad sold insurance, and his mom worked as a substitute teacher and, later, a low-paid bank teller.
For Bachmann, rejecting that lifestyle and the possible comfort of a cubicle and steady paycheck meant gravitating toward the arts. He focused on the alto and tenor saxophone, enrolling at Appalachian State University to study them. But he’d started late, and no matter how much he practiced, he couldn’t catch up. In the school’s rehearsal rooms, the piano offered the distraction he’d wantedthe chance to write songs.
Bachmann eventually took his own hint and realized that storytelling, not playing the sax, was his future. He transferred into the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s English literature program and, before long, started building Archers of Loaf.
In many ways, Archers of Loaf was concerned with seeming better and smarter than everyone else in the room, everyone else in indie rock. The sound was raw and jagged, with a savage rhythm section pounding beneath snarling guitars. Bachmann had purchased his first guitar at the age of twenty and soon deconstructed it, restringing it so that it was noisier and meaner.
Above that din, Bachmann took shots at those around him, poking fun at Chapel Hill townies and the music industry at large. “The underground is overcrowded,” he famously reported in “The Greatest of All Time.” “It’s too bad that your music doesn’t matter,” he offered elsewhere. “I can smell the satisfaction on your breath.”
In some ways, Bachmann admits now, he was playing a character that exhausted him, even as the band’s popularity skyrocketed. He remembers sitting in a Chicago recording studio while making Archers’ second album, Vee Vee, and laughing at the self-pity and attitude of his own songs.
“I was tired of being a smart-ass, man,” he says. “It was boring. ‘I’m sorry your band didn’t get a good record deal, you spoiled fuck.’ If that’s the problem you have, you’re lucky.”
So Bachmann did what, to this day, he calls the most punk rock thing he could imagine: he put down his electric guitar, picked up an acoustic, and started releasing lavish folk-rock records as Crooked Fingers and under his own name.
Just as Archers had struggled under the thumb of Alias Records, the label they signed to in the early nineties, and with the expectations of indie rock in general, Bachmann continued to wrestle with the industry after starting Crooked Fingers. A decade ago, he hired a manager to help boost his prospects and bottom line. It did neither. Instead, long relationships with old partners suffered, and his profits flatlined. That’s when he split for Taiwan and, he thought, from music for good.
“I was just burnt out,” he remembers. “I was coming into my forties. I had broken up with my girlfriend. I needed something else.”
When he came home, he booked a series of solo shows and invited Durrett, whose album he had produced just before leaving, to open. The day of their first show together, her uncle, the Athens singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, committed suicide. She canceled. When Bachmann’s run was over, he went to Athens to check in. They fell for each other hard and fast, each clinging to the other in a particularly unsettled period.
“I was the one person coming into her world that wasn’t from Vic’s world and wasn’t asking her about him. She responded to that,” he says. “It was a horrible time, but it was also a really fun time, too. We were falling in love.”
For much of his life, making music has been Bachmann’s biggest source of self-esteem and assurance. If he needed to say something, he knew he could do it through a song. But now he’s got something else that feels like an accomplishmenta little family of three, a little house in the woods, a preferred playground for Lupe.
“I am not afraid now to tell my mother or my father or my grandparents or any family member how I feel, because I have a family of my own. Being with Liz brought that confidence,” he says. “If they want to talk about my faith or something, I’ll tell ’em straight up, ‘That’s a waste of your time.’ Before, I would have been conciliatory. Having my own family gives me the ability to navigate, to say no.”
That ability has empowered Bachmann to write his most direct songs ever, songs that at last tell the truth about himself. In Archers of Loaf, he was screaming at the world. In the early days of Crooked Fingers, he couched social criticisms in metaphors and, as he calls them, “fairy tales for adults.”
But here, you can hear him cycling through his own feelings: he hopes for better things for old friends during the piano jaunt “Modern Drugs” and brilliantly grapples with his own “agoraphobia and anxiety” during “Separation Time.”
“Belong to You” is a slow, poignant remembrance of love, the sigh of pedal steel tracing the arc between the hopeful past and desperate present. Bachmann’s voice lifts to the lip of a falsetto, endearing cracks showing the wear and tear of his croon.
On the other hand, “Carolina”a tune written by Durrettis a magnetic, jubilant celebration of what the right person can do for your worldview, how your eyes can be opened to possibilities you’ve always overlooked. When he speaks about Durrett as a songwriter and singer, Bachmann seems in thrall of her talent. This song is their standing tribute to each other.
“Those early records were gossip about people,” he says. “But the new ones are autobiographical. I’m trying to see the world as I saw it as a kid and reconcile that with being an adult. There is an intention now to say, ‘What am I dealing with?’”
During the next year, Bachmann and Durrett will have to make several crucial decisions about their future together. This summer, she’ll begin her clinical work in a Georgia hospital, the final step in obtaining her nurse license. That will keep the couple in the state at least another year. The long-term goal, says Bachmann, is for Durrett to become a traveling nurse, meaning they can move among different towns across the country every two months.
And after a few short tours as part of Neko Case’s band this fall, Bachmann will quit that rather lucrative long-term post. He needs to be home moreor at least to be around Durrett and Lupe without adhering to someone else’s schedule.
“What I’m doing is gathering some moss, and what I’m doing in my mind is navigating how to deal with it,” he says. “I’m not going to stop being restless.”
There’s also the question of Archers of Loaf, which reunited for several strings of good-paying gigs earlier this decade after a thirteen-year break. But that may be over, too. Bachmann has attempted to eke out new material with his old, oddly tuned electric, but it just hasn’t worked.
“It ain’t coming out, man. I’m trying, but it’s not happening. It would be good for my pocketbook,” he confesses. “But I actually feel good about that. It’s just you being honest, you being in tune with what you want. The new record is what happened when I tried to write Archers songs. I didn’t want to fake it.”
That acceptance seems to be Bachmann’s new mantra. After a lifetime of rejecting one town for the next, one band for the other, one stalled career for a failed one, he seems to have found, if not complete satisfaction, a certain situational serenity.
During the chorus of “Mercy,” he bellows, “Don’t you dare believe them when they try to tell you, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’” It’s a glimpse of that old antagonistic spirit. But standing in the late-afternoon sunlight of the Hi-Lo Tavern, a few hours before the conversation and the sky alike go dark, he leans against a wall, squints, smiles, and offers up his own reassuring cliché.
“You end up wherever you end up,” he says, beer glass in hand. “Well, whatever the fuck that means.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Saving Eric Bachmann”