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Friday, June 2, 2006

Former Archer's crooked path

Special to The Japan Times

"I'm going be a strange hybrid of Mick Jagger and Johnny Cash, with a touch of Steve Forbert [singer-songwriter best known for his 1980 hit "Romeo's Tune"] and some animated bear whose name I can't remember. Oh yeah, and some hip-hop too -- the kids love that sh*t," jokes Eric Bachmann when asked what the long-term future holds.

News photo
Eric Bachmann (center) and Crooked Fingers will tour Japan this week for the first time.

The driving force behind pop-folk band Crooked Fingers, Bachmann has already successfully gone through several musical incarnations. He fronted the seminal Archers Of Loaf throughout the 1990s, before setting out on his own in 1999. Crooked Fingers, which has seen Bachmann play with a rotating cast of musicians, bears little resemblance to his earlier efforts.

More Americana than angular like the Archers, Crooked Fingers creates lush, rootsy music that's somber yet hopeful. Bachmann incorporates banjo, cello, steel guitar, double bass, horns and violin into the band's boozy, barroom ballads, giving them a welcome Tom Waits feel.

Over four full-length albums and the 2002 EP "Reservoir Songs," a spellbinding selection of covers, the act has built a dedicated following. Speaking from Guatemala, where he's spending five weeks studying Spanish before Crooked Fingers' first tour of Japan, Bachmann says that most of those fans "either don't know of the Archers or don't really care for them."

This is a welcome contrast to the die-hard enthusiasts who worship his older work. Despite operating under the moniker Crooked Fingers since 2000, some still pine for Archers Of Loaf and don't think too highly of recent endeavors.

"Many old Archers fans would like to see me executed," says Bachmann matter-of-factly.

Formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1991, Archers of Loaf quickly gained a following in the American underground. Along with Superchunk and Pavement, their dissonant, guitar-driven rock appealed to college radio fans seeking the next big thing.

Revered albums such as 1993's "Icky Mettle" and 1995's "Vee Vee" led to major label interest from the Madonna-founded Maverick Records, but the quartet chose to retain their independence. They amicably parted ways after 1998's "White Trash Heroes" tour, citing exhaustion and boredom as factors.

"I don't really listen to my own music after I've finished it," he says. "If I do, I generally like some parts and dislike others. I heard an Archers' song at some bar about a month ago and didn't like it very much, but maybe it was just that song."

Bachmann's 15 years plus as a musician have been marked by a consistent willingness to experiment. Starting out in his 20s as a raging indie rocker with Archers, he's become a weathered troubadour with Crooked Fingers. While in Archers he released two largely instrumental, avant-garde albums under the name Barry Black, and in 2002 he put out his first recording under his own name, "Short Careers," the score to the film "Ball of Wax." In August, he'll be putting out his sophomore Eric Bachmann record, a stripped down effort entitled "To The Races."

Crooked Fingers' first Japanese tour, starting this weekend in Tokyo, is in support of their most recent album, "Dignity And Shame," (June 6 release). Previous Crooked Fingers records were pretty much solo projects, with backing musicians recording their parts separately. With "Dignity And Shame," things have changed -- they played together as a band, creating a truer group sound. This allowed each member to help fine-tune Bachmann's compositions, whittling down what was originally intended to be a double album to a single disc.

"Everything in Crooked Fingers is constantly changing. The record would have sounded very different had it been more of a solo record," says Bachmann. "I enjoy the opinions of other musicians when I'm making a record. It is easy for me to take suggestions and it is also easy for me to tell someone politely that I don't want to incorporate their suggestion."

Recorded in 2004 in Seattle, Washington, "Dignity and Shame" is more optimistic than its predecessors. Lyrically, the focus has shifted from songs about various down-on-their-luck characters to odes to love, and even includes a full-blown pop number, "Call To Love." Lara Meyerratken, who has played with Luna and Ben Lee, provides guest vocals on the track in a light, breezy voice that mixes well with Bachmann's world-weary rasp.

As Bachmann has explored diverse musical terrain, he's learned to appreciate songs with longevity.

"I believe most music that is made is not important. This is not a bad thing, however, or a new thing. Actually it makes it clearer what music is worthwhile and important and enables me to appreciate those rare moments when someone's work reaches some transcendent level."

Although Bachmann may fail to see a purpose in the majority of music released, it's safe to say that with his old fans and new ones, he's hedging his own bets on melodic immortality.

Crooked Fingers' tour begins June 2 at Sandinista, Yamagata and ends June 9 at eM Seven, Tokyo. Eric Bachmann will also be playing solo June 10 at Cafe Goatee, Kamakura. For full tour information visit crookedfingers.com

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