If there's one band that totally and utterly defined the Gen X indie-rock idiom, it's Archers of Loaf. Sorry, Pavement, but this Chapel Hill, N.C., quartet, the genre's mischievous mascots, had it all — from their slapdash delivery of crooked, aggressively unvarnished hooks, to singer Eric Bachmann's abstract lyrical depictions of social, sonic and scenic pastures, to their plucked-from-hamper slacker chic. And it would've been a true tragedy if the these scraggly underdogs of the once overcrowded underground didn't get their moment to rouse some rabble in the indie-rock reunion boom of their contemporaries.
Archers, who called it quits in 1998, didn't return to the stage with the same fanfare as peers like Pavement, whose much-hyped reunion tour had them headlining Coachella and the Hollywood Bowl, or Guided by Voices, who headlined Merge Records' 21st anniversary shindig. Instead, in January 2011, the band surprised a packed house at Carrboro, N.C.'s famed Cat's Cradle, making an unannounced appearance opening for Tar Heel State footstep-followers The Love Language. Thus ending a 13-year hiatus with a 12-song set — a self-imposed one-off audition of sorts.
"[We were] sort of testing the waters," bassist Matt Gentling says of the gig. "We were gonna see if we liked it, and if it went over well, and if it'd be fun to keep doing. We thought, 'If it's not, if it doesn't work out, then we can just kinda back away quietly and pretend like nothing ever happened.' "
YouTube made it pretty hard for the band to pretend. Fittingly lo-fi cell-phone videos of the performance went viral, showing the band kicking Carrboro's ass, careening through off-kilter classics like "Lowest Part Is Free" and "Web in Front." Sure, the band members might have had thinner (and grayer) hairlines, but they sounded as loud, brash, dissonant, discordant and messy as ever.
Months later, the band was making the rounds at festivals like Washington State's Sasquatch! Music Festival and All Tomorrow's Parties' Nightmare Before Christmas in the U.K. The band even appeared on NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, performing their charging, lovelorn anthem, 1993's "Wrong." The band also started selling out two- and sometimes three-night stints on the same club circuit they traversed on their 1998 farewell tour.
But the band that once sang "And we work forever / each and every day and we surrender" was now full of dudes with day jobs. In addition to the occasional sideman gig with fellow North Carolinians Superchunk and as-of-late indie superstars Band of Horses, Gentling works at Asheville, N.C.'s Black Dome Mountain Sports, where he specializes in rock-climbing gear. Guitarist Eric Johnson earned a law degree, while singer-guitarist Bachmann cultivated a respected solo career cutting downcast singer-songwriter records under the Crooked Fingers moniker. So instead of getting in the van, they got on planes, doing weekend warrior-style fly-outs to any city that would book them.
"It's been two just amazingly wonderful, really, really cool years, and I don't regret a second of it," says Gentling. "But I wouldn't wanna tour this way regularly. Two years is enough. The plan is next year we'll back it way off." He also says the band has no plans to write and record new material, but not because they don't want to.
"We've tossed it around a little," he continues. "But to be honest, we haven't really gotten any ideas together. ... We wrote really well when we were all together all the time, and our lives have just kinda gotten to a point where that's really tough. ... I think everybody would love to come up with something, but we just haven't had anything burnin' yet.
Starting last year, North Carolina's Merge Records decided to acquire and reissue the band's back catalog — 1993's indie-rock staple Icky Mettle, 1995's sophomore anti-slumper Vee Vee, 1996's darker, more refined All the Nations Airports and 1998's Mitch Easter-produced swan song White Trash Heroes. "Admittedly it's a little bit of an extension of the nostalgia trip," Gentling says. Surprisingly, these rereleases marked the first time Archers worked with their world-famous backyard indie label, now best known for launching Arcade Fire into global stardom.
"We've been buddies with those guys for a long time, but we never really knew what it was like to do business with them," Gentling says of Merge. "It almost makes me mad, like it could have been this good all along."
That said, the band's label situation in the '90s could've been worse. Archers were courted by major labels, most notably Madonna's Maverick Records, during the A&R scrimmage to sign the next Nirvana. The band passed.
"It wasn't so much of a battle plan or statement as it was [about] comfortable working conditions," says Gentling. "I've never had a dark night of the soul about it. ... It wasn't something that ever appealed to me — I don't think it ever appealed to any of us, really. That was almost a non-decision for us as a band."
Still, there's an odd, incongruous beauty to the idea of Archers shedding its indie skin for the majors that almost makes sense. The band captured and bottled up an inscrutable kind of abstract, nervy excitement on their records, a unique kind of catharsis without resolution. Tracks like "Plumb Line," "Vocal Shrapnel" and of course "Web in Front" attest that Bachmann can craft one helluva pop song, but he'll belt it out with a throaty snarl that sounds like an angst-y Captain Beefheart gargling gravel. Where there should be harmony, there's dissonance. Even on rousing anthems like "Harnessed in Slums" and "Fabricoh," Archers' patented clash and clamor sounds like nausea sonically personified. And ear-splitting rockers like "Underdogs of Nipomo" and the brutally assaultive "Audio Whore" employ gut-stabbing, treble-charged guitar parts dueling it out in a jarring, jagged style later copped by At the Drive-In and all the bands that ripped them off.
Tonight's is one of only four shows the band currently has on the books. Gentling says the band will turn up to 11 and max out their stage volume — something that made them notorious at all the nation's rock clubs during their heyday.
"We still kinda roll that way," he says. "We still crank everything."
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