Archers of Loaf: Reason in Decline | Merge Records; Oct. 21

“Matt, my name’s Eric Bachmann, and I’m here to interview you,” the Archers of Loaf frontman says to bassist Matt Gentling, who’s been painting slanted harmonic stripes on Bachmann’s racing rhythm guitars for more than three decades.

At first, I think this is a shtick for my benefit. It would be such a classic ’90s indie band thing to do, hijacking an interview to make a mockery of the whole bullshit consumerist hype machine, and Archers’ avidity in this kind of role made them the ultimate ’90s indie band. I mean, they’re on the soundtracks of both Mallrats and My So-Called Life. By the time I realize they’re just joking with each other and don’t know I’m already on the call, the old friends are deep into catching up about their lives on tour. Mortified, I draw an interrogative breath, waiting for the slightest pause, before finally interrupting.

This was my mistake: I had mixed up the new Archers—who just released Reason in Decline, their first album in 24 years—with the old Archers, whose original run defined one serrated edge of the famed Chapel Hill sound and left behind enduring classics like Icky Mettle and All the Nations Airports.

The old Archers wrote cramped, careening songs, but the new Archers peal and glide, their music smoothed and embellished by Bachmann’s two decades as a folk-pop singer-songwriter. With his shredded throat rehabilitated, he projects from the diaphragm, and instead of coded grousing about scene politics and grievances, his lyrics are connective missives about world politics and wellness.

But some things never change. Though lead guitarist Eric Johnson and drummer Matt Price pop up in interviews on occasion, Bachmann and Gentling remain the band’s de facto spokesmen, and their contrasting dynamic—with Bachmann as the gruff-voiced contrarian and Gentling as his agreeable, self-deprecating comic foil—somehow distills the contradiction that scorched the band’s catchy, splenetic anthems onto Gen X hearts forever.

In ’90s indie, suspicion and snark were just in the air, but Archers’ particular brand also partly stemmed from their contentious relationship with the ambitious indie label Alias. They broke up after 1998’s White Trash Heroes and left Chapel Hill, though they still think of it as home. Bachmann, who now lives in Athens, Georgia, embarked on his second act as Crooked Fingers. Gentling eventually joined Band of Horses and now lives in the band’s native Asheville, where Johnson, a criminal defense attorney, also lives.

An alternate timeline where Archers signed to Merge, which just released Reason in Decline, was inaugurated in 2011 when the label began to reissue their albums, sparking a reunion that spanned secret Cat’s Cradle shows, major festivals, and late-night TV. But the new music that everyone expected, the band included? It just didn’t come. After the refinements of his solo career, Bachmann found his smart-ass, griping Archers voice too callow to revive.

“I never got there,” he says. “As a young guy, I wasn’t really thinking it through, just letting it out. But you better be complaining for a good reason if you’re a 52-year-old white man.”

When Archers did eke out a new song, 2020’s comeback single, “Raleigh Days,” it wasn’t by letting go of the past but by tweaking it. The lyrics, in their classic style, seemed to congeal the chatter overheard in a rock club—in this case, Raleigh’s Fallout Shelter in the early ’90s—into a clot of dreaming and scheming and thwarted ambition, though now at a certain wistful remove.

“At that time, it was very uncool to be ambitious,” Bachmann says. “It was lame to be in a band and want to be financially successful. I was kind of making fun of that attitude, which I used to have. Even as a kid, I was like an old man.”

“He wore wing-tip shoes!” Gentling interjects.

“Raleigh Days” came out one month before the pandemic, and after three decades on the road, Bachmann suddenly became the stay-at-home dad of a toddler while his wife worked as an ICU nurse. The high stress led to the mental health crisis he sings about on “Human” and “Breaking Even.”

“When you’re in the throes of a mental issue, you don’t write, and all the songs came in 2021 after I got help,” he says.

“All these amazing new songs came flooding out of nowhere,” Gentling recalls. “He was sending demos that didn’t have drums or bass or secondary guitar, and I love that he left it like that so it wouldn’t color what we came up with. It was really fun to just go berserk with them.”

“The truth is, half the cool guitar-texture stuff that happens is what Matt adds to it,” Bachmann counters. “I don’t know if you know what you’re doing, Matt, but you make the chords sound more innovative than they are.”

Gentling, of course, says that he definitely doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Reason in Decline is an antiwar record, an anti-Trump record, but in true Archers fashion, it reserves some of its sharpest barbs for guilt and privilege within.

“While I enjoyed the batch of songs we did before the pandemic, the new record definitely has a more focused approach, singing about the sociopolitical climate and mental health,” Bachmann says. “I thought that if I was making a rock record, which is what the Archers would do, it was gonna have to have a sort of antagonistic energy to it. There was plenty to be frustrated about, which was a curse but inspired me to come up with something I thought would honor the Archers’ past.”

Though the new songs sound unmistakably Archers, born as they were in the fires of frustration, the droning no-wave influences of the early days have given way to broader pastures.

Archers are taking the new record on tour, though Asheville is the closest to the Triangle they’ll come until a yet-to-be-announced local date in the spring. But if the stakes feel lower than they did in ’90s Chapel Hill, the purpose gleams clearer than ever.   

“The reason we’re doing this is that we like each other, and we have chemistry,” Gentling says, and Bachmann jumps in.

“That’s the thing right there, Brian. Chemistry is what makes legendary bands legendary. You play for 20 years without realizing you have it and then miss it when it’s gone. The liberating thing was to stop worrying about it”—all of it, the Archers brand, the whole heavy Chapel Hill alt-rock legacy—“and focus on the chemistry. I thought I didn’t want to do rock records anymore. But what I realized is that I really didn’t want to do it without these three.”

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