When a band breaks up after almost 10 years and a flirtation with real fame, it's understandable when the members want their next project to be as different as possible. For Eric Bachmann, the frontman of Chapel Hill's hard-hitting Archers of Loaf, this meant getting as far away from a loud rock band as possible.
The band's longtime manager and Bachmann's roommate during its 1998 demise, Shawn Nolan, remembers well Bachmann's plans after the end of Archers. "He had all these apparently rare china dolls. What he wanted to do was turn them into robots and have this weird show where he would have all these various dolls that were mechanized that would make different percussive sounds," says Nolan. "He would time them and put them all together with synthesizers so they made a band."
Bachmann's concept couldn't have been further from the Archers' identity. They were a powerful rock act, twisting pop hooks through punk distortion and delivering it with an intensity that caused Bachmann to shred his vocal cords to keep up. But for all its uniqueness, the doll concept failed miserably in execution.
"He almost blew his crotch off," Nolan says, laughing. "He wasn't real good with the physics of the circuitry he was trying to do. He was leaning over this circuit, and apparently he connected something that shouldn't have been connected. It basically blew a giant hole in his crotch. He decided after that maybe it wasn't the best idea."
The robot project is an admittedly extreme example, but it's indicative of an artist who operates best when in flux, passing from place to place and juggling various projects; this year, Bachmann has certainly been in his element. He released his sixth LP as Crooked Fingers, the mostly solo modern folk project that has dominated his recorded output for the past 12 years. In addition to a steady slate of production work, he also reunited with the Archers, touring behind a reissue of the band's now famous debut, Icky Mettle.
"It's really busy right now," Bachmann says, his gruff mumble swelling with the slightest hint of pride. It's late December, and he has taken a break from packing to chat over the phone from his Athens, Ga., home. He and his girlfriend and bandmate, songwriter Liz Durrett, are about to leave for North Carolina to visit his family. "Things are going really well. In that way, I feel very much at home and very good about things."
Home is an illusive concept for Bachmann: Although Crooked Fingers has remained mostly a constant, his location has been a persistent variable. Since he moved from Chapel Hill to D.C. in 1997, he has spent no more than four years in one place, working his way through Atlanta, Denver and Seattle. The latter saw him for a time living literally in a van down by the river.
His music as Crooked Fingers has been conversely dependable, never wandering too far from the deceptively dense guitar parts and marching rhythms that have defined the band since its 2000 debut. His songs, tightly wound gems with elliptical narratives and symbol-rich verses, remain largely the same, but the players shift each time. The constant moving has necessitated a fresh lineup every few years, rendering each release a reinvention of dynamics and collaboration.
On 2011's Breaks in the Armor, Crooked Fingers takes its most stately form yet. Piano and drums clash in lockstep as acoustic guitar backs up Bachmann's roughshod croon, a wowing instrument that mixes Neil Young-style peels with the gravel of his low notes. The sparse folk palette is livened by moments of distortion that echo Bachmann's dark themes of uncertainty and mistrust. It's an impressive and assured combination, surprising given the burnout that preceded it.
In 2009, Bachmann found himself frustrated and ready to move on from his three-year stay in Denver. Touring had become a grind, and he was uncertain of Crooked Fingers' future. He had a friend in Taipei, Taiwan, so he decided to satisfy his restlessness with a trip to the Far East. He left his guitars and equipment in the U.S. and found a job teaching English to pay his bills.
"Taking a complete break, but knowing that maybe in a year or two I would come back to it," Bachmann says, describing the idea behind the trip. "That's a good way to clear your head. I've always done that. My friends make fun of me for this, and they should. I'm very extreme. I'm not extreme like a Mountain Dew commercial, but when I do something I do it 10 or zero. I'm not moderate really, in terms of my behaviors, whether it's smoking cigarettes or drinking or whatever. If I'm going to move, let's move as far the fuck away as possible."
But like all the moves that preceded it, Taiwan couldn't distract him from music for long. Within a month of arriving, he bought a guitar. He would stay up late, traversing the city on his motorcycle and returning home to write songs. Five months later he was back in the U.S. producing a record for Azure Ray and chipping away at the material that would become Breaks in the Armor. Despite all the cities he's left in his wake, music is one thing he can't leave behind.
"The idea of dying on the road is completely not sad to me at all," the 41-year-old says. "It's a happy thing to do because I'm doing what I want to do. I like traveling, and I like living in different places. I don't have any intention of stopping doing that."