In 1995, Archers of Loaf were touring their second album, Vee Vee. It was a time when major labels still believed—with some justification—that weird, crusty indie rock bands like Archers could go pop. The Chapel Hill quartet had stormed college radio with their 1993 debut, Icky Mettle; Vee Vee had ratified their early promise. They possessed a striking frontman in the bellowing, bear-size Eric Bachmann and a steadily growing fan base built on the toil and sweat of more than 200 concerts per year.
Archers were under contract with Alias Records, but they were being courted—sometimes curiously, sometimes aggressively—by many of the era's big labels. Their most ardent suitor was Maverick Records, home, at that time, to Madonna. She attended an Archers show at the New York club Tramps in 1995.
"She hung out backstage, but was gone by the time I got down," says Archers bassist Matt Gentling, a jocular but laid-back raconteur with a soft Southern accent. "The other guys said it was pretty awkward on both sides, but freaking kudos to her for descending into the cesspool of indie rock."
Bachmann and Madonna discussed shoes that night, a detail that has been reported many times. Longtime Archers manager Shawn Nolan offers a fresh perspective on the legendary scene: Chapel Hill rockers Family Dollar Pharaohs had opened the show, so the late Randy Ward prowled around backstage during the banter. Nolan stood uncomfortably with a Maverick representative, watching Bachmann's conversation with Madonna stall.
"Randy is walking around the luggage strewn backstage, looking really focused," remembers Nolan. "Eric calls Randy over and says, 'Hey Randy, I want you to meet someone—this is Madonna.' And Randy says, 'Hi Madonna. Has anybody seen my toothbrush?'"
Ward's non sequitur encapsulates a surreal moment in the history of the music industry, when the small cogs of insular local scenes, like Chapel Hill, suddenly came into contact with the great, grinding gears of the mainstream. Like many bands of the era, Archers of Loaf were both propelled and scarred by those gears. They produced three deathless LPs and a transitional swan song, White Trash Heroes, as well as several great EPs and singles. They said no to a lot of stuff but still did some things they didn't want to do. By 1998, facing creative exhaustion, shrinking audiences and health issues, they scattered to the four winds, only to reunite earlier this year. The return took time.
Eric Bachmann began an itinerant existence as a very different kind of musician, first as Barry Black, and later as Crooked Fingers. Guitarist Eric Johnson earned a law degree at Campbell University, about an hour away from Chapel Hill, in Buies Creek. Matt Gentling worked as a touring musician with bands like Superchunk, and eventually returned to the band's native Asheville to work at Black Dome Mountain Sports, which suited his love of climbing. Only drummer Mark Price stuck around Chapel Hill, working at places like VisArt Video and Franklin Street Cycles (now The Bicycle Chain).
Archers of Loaf's 2011 reunion came as a surprise to everyone, including the band. They never thought it would happen. In January, they played a secret comeback show at Cat's Cradle, opening for The Love Language and the Raleigh upstarts The Cellar Seas. Then Merge Records released a remastered, deluxe edition of Icky Mettle, supported by a tour that includes two sold-out dates at the Cradle this weekend. This trip has taken them to national television—they played Jimmy Fallon, blasting through "Wrong" in a frigid studio—and to major music festivals, like Sasquatch in Washington state earlier this summer.
The Archers reunion almost happened much earlier, at the Merge Records 20th anniversary festival in 2009. They let that chance pass, but appropriately, the band to whom Archers were always compared, Pavement, again exerted at least a minor influence, according to Nolan. Pavement, after all, did the whole reissue-and-reunion thing last year.
"After the Pavement reunion," he said, "it was kind of fun for everybody to see the comments sections on various articles saying, 'Pavement is great, but I sure wish Archers of Loaf would get back together.' I think we were all surprised at the number of people who were interested. I felt like the legacy of the band was never as acknowledged as it should have been, probably because they weren't on a 'cool' label. I'd be lying if I said it hasn't haunted me—that as their manager, I hadn't helped them to achieve the legacy they should have had."
Now that they're all around the age of 40, Archers of Loaf play short weekend jaunts, staying in comfy hotels and then returning to their own beds for a week or two at a time. It wasn't always this easy. As with most bands, life on the road was one reason they didn't make it work. During their initial run, Archers lived the dream of the young band, scraping by on meager resources. They recorded Icky Mettle with their roommate, Caleb Southern, at his Kraptone Studios, which was actually just the old Cat's Cradle on Franklin Street. They'd load in at 3 a.m., after the performing band had loaded out, and record all night.
During Archers' first European tour, they'd taken an overnight ferry from Denmark to Norway. There were two outgoing lanes from the boat, one for commercial traffic and one for noncommercial. With Bachmann behind the wheel of the van—which was in poor shape, and had to be push-started—they accidentally wound up in the commercial lane.
"The guy at the booth was yelling at us," Gentling remembers, "and sent us back into the compound. We got the bureaucratic runaround from building to building until it was decided, almost arbitrarily, that we owed the equivalent of several hundred dollars for some vague tax. We went back to the gate wondering how we were going to tell him we had to get past him to get the money, and it took a minute for us to realize that no one was there. Simultaneously, everyone in the van leaned forward and yelled, 'Eric, punch it!'"
Indeed, when Archers were too young to know better, they got stuck in the wrong commercial lane. The band and its manager were still in their early 20s when "Wrong" was issued inside the first issue of the zine Stay Free. Despite the single's buzz, labels from Matador to Touch & Go rejected Archers. With no inkling that they would catch on, the band made myopic decisions.
"Early on," Bachmann says, "we didn't take it seriously enough to think it was going to do well. One thing this band has always shared is a healthy sense of self-loathing. When people started caring, it was too late—we had this stupid name, which was never intended to be bigger than our community of friends."
It could have been worse; other early band-name contenders included Fantasy Truck Stop and Amy Carter. "I'm grateful that we [got bigger]," Bachmann says, "but bad things can happen if you enter the music business and you're not prepared. That's where we got in trouble."
Archers signed with Alias Records, as Gentling says, because it was the first label to offer the band a van. When offers started pouring in a couple years later—including big dogs like Interscope and Capitol, whose Gary Gersh said to Nolan, "What's up with that name? It's awful; they'll never sell any records"—Archers were locked into a four-record contract with Alias, which had turned out to be a mismatch.
Sure, Archers didn't want to be on any of the majors that courted them. According to Nolan, the psychological pressure of being given lots of money would have torn the band apart. They were fiercely independent, and sometimes even seemed to view Nolan, their friend, as "the man." But they would have wanted more control over their image, something Alias never quite understood.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't regret signing with Alias," says Eric Johnson, "though I'm not unappreciative of all they did. I think there were just some fundamental philosophical differences. It seemed like they wanted to make us a 'cute pop band' or something."
Gentling recalls a dinner with Alias owner, Delight Hanover, while the band was recording Vee Vee in Chicago. Hanover told the band they could get on a mix made to be played in Urban Outfitters stores.
"We immediately said we weren't comfortable with it. This really gravid, heavy silence descended over the table, and before anyone had spoken, we all understood that it was already a done deal," he says. "They tried to market us as 'cute,' which ... you've seen what we look like. You've heard our music."
The band also felt pressure both from Alias and the general industry climate to make videos, which they generally hated to do—and it shows. "The way these videos usually go," explains Gentling, "is that you plan a bunch of ideas, give them to someone who can film them, and then you get informed of what you're doing and it has no resemblance to your ideas. Then you have to choose whether to be a rock star brat and refuse, or make sure you embarrass yourself on film forever. We have tried both methods, and they are both unsavory."
"To this day," Nolan teasingly confides vis-à-vis a time when Archers took the submissive route, "Richard Jameyfield still apologizes for the 'Web in Front' video."
By 1997, the unfertile relationship with Alias and the monotony of constant touring had taken its toll on the band. Price had developed carpal tunnel syndrome from turning wrenches at his day job. Bachmann's voice was shredded from years of abuse, and his doctor told him that if he continued to scream, he would be mute by age 50. Archers made White Trash Heroes to get clear of their Alias contract, and Bachmann found himself uneasily balancing the raging rocker he was expected to be with the mellower songwriter he was becoming.
"Eric was also doing his Barry Black thing," says Nolan, "and I think it was becoming impossible for him to give his all to one project. There was definitely some dissension around White Trash Heroes—they had debated breaking up after All the Nations Airports."
Bachmann was having trouble reconciling his multiple projects. The Crooked Fingers song "Crowned in Chrome" and Archers' "White Trash Heroes" use the same keyboard sound with a different delay pattern, he confesses.
"Those songs should have been on the same record," he says.
That Bachmann felt compelled to split them up speaks to his dividedness at the time. While Price's carpal tunnel syndrome was the obvious trigger for the amicable breakup, it was only a trigger for the obvious.
Clay Boyer now works at the Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro. But for six or eight months in 1991, he was the first drummer for Archers of Loaf. Boyer had known all the Archers from growing up in Asheville; he and Mark Price played percussion together in the school band.
"I was aware of Eric Bachmann, who was at another high school," Boyer recalls. "He was fronting a band called Iron Beagle. He had this real sweeping, romantic singing style and would play keys and sax onstage. He was a commanding presence; we were definitely jealous of him."
Boyer played a handful of shows with Archers—at parties, at the venue Under the Street in Durham and at Chapel Hill's Hardback Cafe. At the same time, both he and Gentling were also playing music with their old friend Matt McMichael, who would go on to earn acclaim with the Mayflies USA. Boyer found himself more attracted to McMichael's pop style and was thinking of pulling out of Archers. When Mark Price visited Chapel Hill to see Archers play, after being laid off from his job in Asheville, he told Boyer, "This is exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing." Boyer said, "Well, here's your chance."
"I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I stayed," Boyer says, "but I love Mark's drumming style and feel like he locked in with them in a way that was true." Bachmann thinks that if Clay had stuck around, Archers would have sounded more like their later records for their whole career, "because Clay was more cerebral while Mark was like a boxer. Clay floated on top; Mark was more driving. They were both effective, and we changed the way we played around them—so Mark helped us to solidify where we were going to go."
Archers' entire style—noisy, petulant and full of shredded texture—developed through such instinctual compromises. Eric Johnson's trebly guitar sound was inspired by players like the Pixies' Joey Santiago and Big Country's Stuart Adamson, but it was also pragmatic—practices were so loud that he found he often needed to play above the twelfth fret to be audible. In turn, Bachmann had to scream for anyone to hear him. Because Johnson played with such piercing high notes, Bachmann never left that low bellow: "We weren't thinking about arrangement in the traditional sense," says Bachmann, "but it was a lucky decision we made."
Two decades later, when Nolan floated out the reunion idea, most of the band was gung ho, except Bachmann. "Maybe the moment was over," he said. "But everyone wanted to do it, and I realized I was kind of being the holdout. I love those guys, and it would be fun, and I was 40—you can't physically do it when you're much older."
The band booked the secret Love Language show to find out if its chemistry was intact before committing to any further dates. They discovered that their rapport was remarkably unchanged—remarkably fun—though some things were different.
"The relationship you have with the lyrics has to change," Bachmann says. "I used to get satisfaction out of the power and the anger of the music. Now it's seeing people's reactions that makes it fun for me. It's real easy to sing when people are shouting back at you, smiling, glad you're there. As negative as it may sound, I couldn't do this in a room with only six people. Fortunately, right now, people are singing the songs back at me, so it's good."
Archers of Loaf's future still remains uncertain. But given the rapturous reception to the reunion—mounted on their own terms, in their own time—the band's legacy, at last, looks set in stone, and Shawn Nolan can sleep the sleep of the just.