Reluctant Heroes

There are nasty rumors swirling about Archers of Loaf and their label, Alias Records, and they go like this: A skeleton crew is running the once-thriving indie label, which has sunk to releasing back order and product that's already in progress; and Archers, the label's last bastion of credibility, will break up after their tour to support their latest--and consequently their last--album, White Trash Heroes.

Eric Bachman, Archer's front man and the mastermind behind the trippy solo project Barry Black, may or may not quell these rumors. He's not sure what to say or how to say it, but he says a lot of it and very fast. From a pay phone at an Iowa Quick Trip smack in the heart of gas-pump America, he makes telling remarks about the rumors--among other things--then takes them back, as if he had his fingers crossed the whole time.

About Alias (the label that was home to locals Trunk Federation before they extricated themselves from their deal) Bachman takes a diplomatic approach. This is probably because even he knows little more.

"I know Alias had that deal with Elektra [bands were being distributed through Elektra Records], but that didn't work out," he says. "The last album [1996's All the Nation's Airports], I think, had a lot to do with why it didn't work out. Elektra said to Alias, 'Well, we're going to work this record.' So Alias said, 'Okay, what do we have to do?' Elektra said, 'Nothing.' So Elektra didn't do a damn thing with it and neither did Alias, which is fine, we don't care. But the fact of the matter is that pissed off Alias, and Alias discontinued the deal.

"Then, I believe Delight [Jenkins], the lady who runs the label, apparently got divorced, and I know there's only like four people working there right now."

If that seems less than satisfying, Bachman's answer to "Is this your last record?" garners an even sketchier reply, although you never get the sense that Bachman's evading the question. On the heels of claiming that five songs on White Trash Heroes are based on the same chord progression because "we ran out of ideas," Bachman's ruminations on the possible demise of Archers seem based more on his own insecurities than on any effort to withhold information.

"Could be, I don't know--but the thing is, I don't want it to happen so that we run out of ideas and then we suck," he says. "People come up to us at shows and they're like, 'Are you guys breaking up?' and I'm like, 'I don't know,' and they say, 'That would be so sad, don't.'

"And I think to myself and I tell them this, too, 'Well, wouldn't it be sadder if the next record we put out is a piece of shit?' So I'd rather stop when I'm proud of everything I've done, and I can't empathize with anybody that says, 'Oh, we'll still like you,' because they're full of shit. They'll be the first people who'll [hate us]."

Bachman's probably right. Indie-rock fans don't take kindly to honored bands that trash the blueprint that made them, and are quick to accuse a band of "selling out" if its sound begins to deviate too much from the original plan. Just ask Sebadoh's Lou Barlow how many times he's heard, "I liked the old stuff better." Since 1993's near-perfect debut Icky Mettle, Archers of Loaf has established a reputation for writing indie-rock's version of pure pop: organic, noisy and full of hooks that fall somewhere between the stasis of Sonic Youth and the accessibility of Superchunk.

Therein lies Bachman's dilemma. White Trash Heroes, though unmistakably Loafish, is a far cry from the power-pop sensitivity four University of North Carolina guys mustered on Icky Mettle, or even the more experimental follow-ups Vee Vee, The Speed of Cattle and All the Nation's Airports. The same Eric Bachman who says he thinks "it's even weirder when bands don't change" later asks pointblank, "Do you like the old stuff better or the new stuff better, or is it so different you can't say?" and then waits for an honest opinion.

I take the easy way out and pick option three, which also happens to be the truth. In his typically ambiguous fashion, Bachman offers this reply: "Our sound guy said it well. Some drunk guy came up to our sound guy at one of our shows and he goes, 'Man, have you heard the new record?' and Dave goes, 'Well, yeah, I've heard it every fuckin' night for the last year.' And the guy goes, 'Well, where are all of the hooks? I can't find any of the hooks.' And Dave says, 'Well, perhaps you're looking in all of the wrong places.'"

Bachman's right to quote his sound guy on this one. The most striking thing about White Trash Heroes, other than the fact that Bachman's singing, "not barking," is this: There's more breathing room. Whereas previous Archers records were filled with wonderfully brash songs that, even when slowed down, were noisy affairs, the new record gives the music space, often letting one phrase build until it exhausts itself, replacing the hooks with tension. If it was a letter, you'd have to read between the lines.

Careful reading also is helpful for interpreting Bachman, who embodies the contradiction of most likable, talented guys--he's so nice it becomes self-deprecation, as if saying the right thing all the time has made him doubt the truth of his words. He admits he's not sure why Archers' newest record has lost some of the band's characteristic playfulness, but suggests, albeit indirectly, that it may have something to do with his own vocational disillusionment.

"One of my friends was talking to me, and she thought I was being bummed out--which apparently is my nature or whatever, I don't know--and she's like, 'Are you all right?'" he says. "And I said, 'I'm fine, whatever.' She said, 'Well, do you still enjoy this?' And I said, 'Yeah, well, I love playing; it's just all the other stuff, the tour-managing stuff, making sure everything's going right and all of that stuff--the logistics of it are kind of a drag.'

"The conversation ended up on this note: 'Well, I have a much better time when I don't give a shit about it, but that'll probably also mean it gets worse.'"

Maybe it's that kind of lingering darkness that gives White Trash Heroes its edge, although Bachman cites another possibility.

"Well, the darkness isn't intentional," he says of the noticeable difference between Heroes and previous Archers releases. "I think it's just personalities. I'm always afraid to say certain things, but I know the recording process gets different. On Icky Mettle, all four of us were recording and mixing and tracking; all four of us were always there. On the second one, all four of us were always there; on the third one, all four of us were always there. On All the Nation's Airports, people went out bowling and drinking a little more; there ended up being only a couple of us there, and the last one even more so. Maybe [the change] has to do with the fact that only one or two people are putting in more input than the whole band."

As if he's said too much, he adds hastily, "I still think the whole band has a lot to do with the way the songs sound."

Perhaps, but Bachman does admit to having a bit of a row over one of Heroes' weirder tracks, "One Slight Wrong Move." The song's got a futuristic, "Mr. Roboto" vocal effect courtesy of a vocoder, and Bachman says that gimmick was not a democratic decision.

"I call it The Big Dilemma in the band--well, not the big one, it's not a big one at all--but half the band likes it and half the band doesn't," he says. "It is gimmicky, but to me it works. [Bassist] Matt [Gentling], [sound engineer] Brian [Paulson] and I liked it. We all came up with the idea, and we did it, and Eric [Johnson, guitarist] and Mark [Price, drummer] weren't there when we did it, and when they heard it later, they were like, 'What is this shit?'

"I respect that; I think it's cool, because in a sense they're right--it's a gimmick," he continues. "The vocoder is fully the most evil, overused, lame thing, and to use it was a big decision, like, 'I don't know, this is pretty dangerous.' We're usually so very organic, that is, we're four guys who play two guitars, bass and drums, so . . . it's a non sequitur for us to do that."

Non sequitur or not, it's there, sandwiched between "Slick Tricks and Bright Lights," a raucously bluesy number, and "Banging on a Dead Drum," which would sound like ZZ Top if it weren't for Bachman's industrial screams. If this is Archers of Loaf's swan song, at least it's an eclectic one.

Speculation aside, Bachman insists Heroes--or any album, for that matter--will not make or break a band.

"Albums aren't these big permanent things people think they are," he says. "To me it just documents where we are right now. And sometimes--not claiming that we've done this--sometimes you'll try to do something that won't work and you won't know at the time, until you've put out something bad. I don't think we did that."

Archers of Loaf is scheduled to perform on Friday, November 13, at Boston's in Tempe, with Swell, and Trunk Federation. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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