MusicMusic Features

Crooked Fingers

Eric Bachmann’s not usually the sort to sit still. Over the course of his decades-long music career, heading up the bands Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf, Bachmann has settled in and uprooted himself from multiple cities, states and countries. This is a guy who spent more than two months in 2005 recording a solo album while living out of the back of his van. But Bachmann says he can’t help but develop a strong connection with any place he calls home. Athens is the newest entry on that list; he says he’s planning to stick around for a while, though in Bachmann’s world, “a while” may be relative.

“I feel extremely grateful to be part of Denver, to be part of Seattle, to be part of Chapel Hill and Durham, to be part of NYC, to be part of Athens,” says Bachmann. “I feel like the luckiest person. I’ve chosen to live in a lot of places, and I don’t leave and end a relationship.”

Bachmann’s relationship with Georgia spans history both recent and a little less so. Last summer’s Archers of Loaf reunion tour launched in Atlanta with three sold-out nights at The EARL.

“You have to change your relationship with a song. At first I didn’t realize I had to do that,” says Bachmann of the reunion shows for his former band, a heavyweight of aggressive ’90s indie rock. “At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. Instead of obtaining some kind of power and emotion and satisfaction from the lyrics, personally, but now you’re getting satisfaction out of the response live that people give you. It’s been a beautiful thing to have people singing the lyrics along with me, and I am ridiculously grateful. I understand that it’s luck. There are people who are writing better songs than me.”

Bachmann’s latest collection of songs—pretty darn good, even if he’s being modest—is Breaks in the Armor, and was recorded and wrapped in Athens but had its start in Taipei, Taiwan, where Bachmann moved after continuously bumping up against the financial realities of being a professional musician. Independently released Crooked Fingers album Forfeit/Fortune, from 2008, for instance, was the lowest-selling record Bachmann had ever put out, he says, “but it’s also the most profit I’ve ever made from any release, ever.”

But why Taiwan? “Everyone has writer’s block, but for me, I was kinda burnt out with everything,” Bachmann says. “In my 20s, I’d fallen into music instead of teaching English, going to Saudi Arabia or China or something. So, this was kinda my attempt to go do that. I put my stuff in storage, and Taiwan was safe enough because I had a friend there.” That friend was ex-Athenian music engineer Andy Baker.

While Bachmann was in Taiwan, airy folk-rock duo Azure Ray—former Athenians themselves—got in touch and asked him to produce their new album. “That kind of gave me an excuse to come back to the States,” says Bachmann. “[Going to Taiwan] did really make me realize that I missed music more than I would. You know, I thought, ‘I could do anything for a year!’ But it only took me a month to start writing again, and songs, it’s like you have no control. I bought a guitar about two months in, and within minutes of getting home, I’d written the very last song on the album.”

With its subtle sounds and world-weary lyrics, Breaks in the Armor features some of Bachmann’s strongest tunes to date. Its rustic, bare-bones production doesn’t veer too far from past Crooked Fingers releases, and is the product of collaboration with Matt Yelton, an Athens technician whose higher-profile day job is the Pixies’ tour sound engineer.

Two weeks ago, Crooked Fingers digitally released acoustic versions of each song off Breaks in the Armor. “Recording a stripped-down version of a song reveals its flaws. It also lets you hear the space you have to work with before you crowd it with ideas that can muddle the point,” says Bachmann. “I don’t like to add drums or arrange songs with Crooked Fingers until I feel like the writing itself has reached a point.”

When Brian Causey’s Athens-based record label WARM Electronic Recordings released the first two Crooked Fingers releases more than 10 years ago, they set the precedent for that band’s sound as one decidedly more weather-beaten and Americana-influenced. Now that Bachmann has made his connection to Athens a little more permanent, he may be around for a bit. “Liz and I like it here,” he says, “and we’ve talked about other places, too, but I think we’ll stick around.”

That’s Liz Durrett, Bachmann’s collaborator and partner in both band and romantic relationships, and an acclaimed local singer who recorded her 2008 album Outside Our Gates with Bachmann as producer. She handles guitar duties in the current iteration of Crooked Fingers, with local musicians Jeremy Wheatley (Je Suis France, The Low Lows) on drums and Matt Nelson (Sunny 100, White Violet) on guitars, bass and Moog synthesizer.

“I really like the way the band I have now is sounding,” says Bachmann. “The biggest pain in the ass is rehearsing the songs I wrote about 10 or 15 years ago, so it’s really convenient, and there’s a shared aesthetic.”

Says drummer Wheatley, “I think this is a very versatile lineup. Long story short, we can perform the songs in a lot of different ways depending on the room, crowd, or just how Eric feels like doing it. Some nights we’ll play things off the micas, or Eric solo, etc. Eric also writes a different set list for every show, so that keeps it fresh.”