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Archers of Loaf announced themselves with “Web in Front,” a two-minute wiseass anthem considered to be one of indie rock’s finest songs. Its key line is not the oft-quoted “All I ever wanted was to be your spine,” but “I’m not the one who let you down / But thanks for offering.” Sounds pretty Nevermind in retrospect, doesn’t it? Like Nirvana, the recently revived Chapel Hill, North Carolina, band had a worldview defined by guitars and whatever territorial pissings happened to fuel them. But their anger came out in diffuse, unexpected ways, the product of a musical upbringing as askew as the noise they made.
“I didn’t know who U2 or R.E.M. or the Cure or the Replacements or any of that stuff was,” says frontman Eric Bachmann, who spent the last decade performing as the folkier Crooked Fingers. “I was looking at MTV waiting to see a Men at Work video, and it was late at night—and then they started playing what I thought at the time was very strange music. That was probably ’82, ’84, ’83, somewhere in there.”
“I was kind of being introduced to indie rock about the same time I was playing it,” says guitarist Eric Johnson. “On Big Country’s first record, [vocalist/guitarist] Stuart Adamson just plays that shit up in the high registers and it just sounded so cool. At our first practices, we played so fucking loud, and I felt like I needed to create some separation so I started playing a little higher.”
These oddball infusions didn’t go unnoticed. “That first record’s just completely amazing; the guitar playing is just bonkers,” gushes Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav. “It’s the way Seth [Jabour] plays in our band: Any time we stop and just hear him playing by himself, we’re like, That doesn’t make any sense, it sounds semi-terrible. But the way it all synthesizes together, being informed by more noisy guitar stuff then somehow leading back into these really poppy, hooky guitar parts, I think is a cool—and easy to underrate—legacy.”
The Archers’ other legacy was in wordplay; lyrics like “There’s something wrong with my toast” and titles like “Let the Loser Melt” ran the gamut from inscrutable inside jokes to scrambled signals of relationship distress. “We had sort of a punk-rocky song called ‘Bathroom,’ ” recalls bassist Matt Gentling. It came about “when we were at the [North Carolina club] Cat’s Cradle and Mark [Price, drummer] wandered off to take a leak and when he came back he said, ‘I forgot to go to the bathroom.’ “
Bachmann adds, “[The lyric] ‘The underground is overcrowded’ came to me when I was in a subway and it was overcrowded.” He calls his Archers-era lyrics “mindless”: “I did not intend anything lyrically. We weren’t fucking Gil Scott-Heron.”
But Gentling is more sanguine. “I don’t think his lyrics were mindless as much as they were cryptic; they were cryptic for his own use, but mindless for everyone else. Bachmann’s got lyrics that hit closer to home. . . . There are just ones he will not play, that are a little less mature. He’s not embarrassed or anything, it’s just not where he is now. ‘Fat,’ ‘Learo,’ ‘Quinn Beast,’ I think.”
And Bachmann concedes the bulk of the songs were “about relationships or just parts of myself that I didn’t like.” “Back then,” he says, “I attained a sense of power by playing the songs onstage. As embarrassing as it is, I think my anger was sincere.”
Archers’ initial run produced the trials and triumphs experienced by many bands of the alt-rock era. They opened for Weezer, braved a joint-label stint with Elektra, and experimented with film-score instrumentals and moody electronic jitters before The Soft Bulletin and Kid A. But most obligatorily, they recorded their second album, Vee Vee, with Steve Albini.
Price recalls, “There’s a picture disc by Killdozer called For Ladies Only, with this oil painting of a woman with a sheer top on, that was hanging on the wall in Albini’s living room. He’d press the nipple, which activates a garage door and raises a bookshelf, revealing the upstairs and the boudoir and everything. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
During a seemingly endless stretch of touring, the limitations of Archers’ contract with Alias Records, which put out the four albums the band released between 1993 and 1998, became manifest.
“Just making it from gig to gig and making sure the van was working was a full plate for us,” says Price. “We were poor and dealing with broken equipment all the time, and Alias wanted to buy Flying V guitars for radio stations to hang on their wall. Are you kidding? We’re struggling to find a way to pay for sticks and strings, amps that were dying. And of course, all of this would’ve been billed back to us.”
Personal strain followed the business issues. “When we’d come home from these ridiculously long tours, the last thing we’d wanna do is hang out with one another,” says Johnson. “And that’s not saying we didn’t all get along great. It’s just not natural to be in someone’s presence that often.”
But after 13 years in absentia on good terms, and Merge reissuing the Alias albums (starting with the remastered Icky Mettle, annotated with liner notes by Robert Christgau), the band has returned to touring—as a luxury, not a necessity.
Gentling says, “Making music for a living is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my life, and it’s not what I want to be doing anymore. It’s not that I don’t want to revisit it; I’ve got other stuff. I’m gainfully employed, I don’t need the business end of this.”
“I thought now’s as good a time as any,” says Bachmann, “because it’s kind of a physical, visceral thing. I’m 41, so if we’re gonna do a reunion, we’d better do a reunion. I can’t be 70 or 80 years old onstage and singing ‘Audio-whore.’ I’ll have a fucking aneurysm.”