Icky Mettle: Archers Of Loaf

“Our music is not intended to be smart. It’s intended to be visceral.”

In retrospect it was a mistake to ask Eric Bachmann his favourite colour. He and his band have been stuck on the M5 all afternoon, and from the moment we meet, it’s clear that incremental boredom is yet to disperse. He fixes me with a steely, disdainful glare and leaves my ill-judged enquiry to prop up the tension. Ice ages pass.

“Black,” he eventually replies, with as much disdain as can feasibly be fit into one syllable.

Suddenly, the ice cracks and he breaks my gaze, grinning to himself.

Eric Bachmann doesn’t like to give much away.

* * *

Archers of Loaf were amongst the cavalcade of bands that appeared on the early 90s college circuit in the wake of grunge’s burgeoning popularity. In 1993 they released their debut full-length ‘Icky Mettle’ – a “tantrum set to music” as self-styled ‘dean of American rock critics’ Robert Christgau put it, and indeed the album often comes across as one big whine, echoing the faux-nihilistic irony and navel-gazing angst that engulfed Generation X. This is far outweighed by the album’s plus points, however: Eric’s knack for a concise, caustic sentiment meshes perfectly with the almost-overpowering volume of the band. And boy, is it ever LOUD. Two guitars scream and squall wildly at every turn, occasionally careering into each other with thrillingly destructive results, while raw-throated hollers pepper the chaos with knowing venom. The tunes ain’t bad either – their most enduring song ‘Web In Front’ ensured that Archers’ entry in the alternative rock songbook would be bookmarked with at least one classic. A switch to major label territory followed in 1996, but the band failed to make the transition from rabidly-received underground heroes to genuine commercial concern. In 1998, with all four members exhausted and drummer Mark suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, they agreed to call it quits.

Fast-forward to January 15th 2011 at Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle club, where unsuspecting fans of local heroes The Love Language were treated to a surprise Archers reunion set. The ensuing internet buzz reached fever pitch. Before too long a full US tour was announced, alongside plans for Merge to reissue their back catalogue. As your humble correspondent spends some time in the company of Bachmann and drummer Mark Price, one question springs swiftly to mind: why come back?

“I told the guys I wanted to do it,” grins Mark with the giddy delight of someone who loves telling this story, “But only under any circumstances.”

Mark’s thoroughly endearing persona is warm, forthcoming and visibly excited to be back on the road. This is a pretty stark contrast to his Eric, who is polite and funny, but occasionally gives the impression of a man who has been snarky all his life and doesn’t know how to turn it off.

“I don’t think it had even entered the scope of possibility until Merge decided to reissue the records,” Eric muses. “It seemed logical.”

Mark: “Eric made the point that we can’t do this when we’re fifty.”

Eric: “We might be able to, but you risk looking like a jackass.”

It’s a fair point. No-one wants to be the Stones, right?

Eric: “Hey, I like the Stones! But they don’t play ‘Audiowhore’.”

Maybe they should…?

Eric: “They’d have an aneurysm.”

That tallies up with your admission that you missed the physicality of playing with Archers.

Eric: “Our music is not intended to be smart. It’s intended to be visceral.”

The pair dismiss notions that their reunion was inspired by the latent success of acts like Pavement or Dinosaur Jr, with Eric concerned it would have been “too obvious”.

“We missed the hell out of hanging out with each other and playing music, you know?” explains Mark. “I just wanna make sure people who come to see us have a good time. This has been one of the best years of my life, just because it’s so invigorating and affirming.”

Well, surely at this stage, you no longer have to prove anything.

Mark nods. “Who would we prove it to?”

* * *

One thing that ticked off Eric Bachmann throughout the 90s was the phrase ‘indie rock’. It’s difficult to argue that, even with the term embedded in popular culture for a quarter of a century, the term is redolent of little more than boys with guitars who don’t play metal, punk or classic rock. So how does he feel about it now?

Eric: “Indie rock changed immensely when bands like Bright Eyes started selling 200,000-250,000 records. That’s a different world.”

Do you think your own songs like ‘Plumbline’ (“She’s an indie rocker / Nothing’s gonna stop her / Her fashion fits”) acquire any new meaning with that context?

Eric: “I don’t think it takes on anything I didn’t mean then… I don’t get mad at indie rock any more either though.”

There was a Guardian article last summer than referred to you and Suede as “the hype bands of 1993”.

Eric: “Mmm. I usually disagree with people when they write about my music. And I made it, so…”

Mark: “You read it or you don’t. It doesn’t matter. Although when we played Reading Festival [in 1994] there was this NME thing that said ‘Archers of Loaf – baguette a life’ which I thought was hilarious.”

You’re not avid readers of your own press then?

Mark: “They don’t dictate anything. It all kinda rolls off, good or bad.”

Eric: “Bill, our sound guy, was talking about how lucky we are because we don’t have anything to fucking sell! I mean, we don’t have a new record out, so there’s no pressure.”

Mark: “The only pressure is that we wanna be good.”

Eric: “That’s the best we can do. We don’t give a shit about growing our audience at this point. Back in the day we were told we should care, and we were like, ‘how come all this shit doesn’t work then?’”

I ask how it feels to play songs that were written from a much younger perspective and Eric sighs, embarrassed by the question.

“You have to change the relationship with the songs, in the sense that you used to get some sort of confidence and power out of singing them, and now you’re just glad people are singing ‘em back at you.”

Mark: “For me it feels as good if not better than ever. The time off gave me a whole mess of perspective.”

Eric: “It doesn’t feel ridiculous, does it?”

Mark: “No!”

And will this newfound perspective motivate the foursome to create something new together? Tellingly, Mark shoots a hopeful glance at his friend, who hesitates.

“Uhhh, I dunno,” the singer replies, disappointingly. “If it happens, it happens.”

Man, that Eric Bachmann doesn’t give anything away. With time running out, we’ve got one more important query left: what the hell does that name mean anyway?

Eric: “It’s a riddle. It means something in Russian, but we intentionally mistranslated it. Work it out.”

That sounds like the sort of response you’d get from a band with several different ludicrous answers to that question.

Eric: “Oh, no. That’s that only answer.”

Well, at least that’s one thing we got.

– – –

Fire Records recently re-issued Archers Of Loaf’s debut album ‘Icky Mettle’.

Words by Will Fitzpatrick

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