Of all the recent indie band reunions, maybe the least likely success story has been that of North Carolina's Archers of Loaf. Unlike the Pixies, Pavement or Guided by Voices, who each quit at the height of their popularity and whose sold-out, big-room reunion audiences belie their ongoing cult status, Archers — who play Tremont Saturday night as part of Recess Fest — never had hordes of fans. The quartet's following was more a dedicated troupe of diehards spreading the word. By the end of the band's four-LP, seven-year-run in 1998, even that group had begun contracting.
More to the point, though, when Archers called it quits, leader Eric Bachmann seemed relieved to put Archers — also comprised of guitarist Eric Johnson, bassist Matt Gentling and drummer Mark Price — in his rearview mirror for good, at least musically.
"When we broke up, I thought, 'No way, I'm not doing this again. I like these people... I love them, they're great friends, but I'm soooo not interested in sounding like this ever again,'" Bachmann recalls.
Bachmann's varied sonic interests had already been revealed in his Archers-era side project, the mostly instrumental Barry Black. Archers' final record, White Trash Heroes, now clearly seems like a transition — albeit a slightly clumsy, contractually obligated transition — to Bachmann's folksier Crooked Fingers and solo LP projects. The other Archers scattered, too: Johnson went on to earn a law degree, Gentling worked as a touring musician (for Superchunk, among others) before returning to Asheville, and only Price remains in Chapel Hill, where all four members met while attending UNC.
Their manager, Shawn Nolan, had floated the reunion idea before, specifically for Merge Records' 20-year celebration in 2009. Since the band had split, their 1993 debut, Icky Mettle, and its 1995 follow-up, Vee Vee, had taken on the status of mini-classics of the indie era. But it wasn't until a secret Cat's Cradle gig opening for the Love Language that the four were on stage together again. That January 2011 gig proved — especially to Bachmann, the last holdout — that whatever chemistry they'd originally bottled still had plenty of potency.
"What I learned," Bachmann says, "is that you can't contrive chemistry. That's the best thing about playing with Matt, Mark and Eric again — we were 20 years old when we started playing together, and there's an innate chemistry there. There are horrible songs that we've written that work because of the chemistry. It just works because there's a magical weird thing between people, and that's what makes a rock band great."
That chemistry was what made Archers a hot commodity in the early '90s, too. Archers' yowling, mountain-sized frontman and fractured song templates, the coruscating guitars and code-blue rhythmic urgency, is what made Icky Mettle and Vee Vee such fledgling classics among college rock fans. The band combined so many different indie rock elements — Replacements' sad bastard bar-rock, Sonic Youth noise, Pavement's inside-out songs — so well that the majors put the full-court press on them. They included Madonna's home, Maverick; the superstar's superstar even attended a New York City Archers' gig trying to convince the band to sign. That episode resulted in an awkward post-gig backstage meeting that's still the stuff of indie rock legend.
But living to the letter of their indie status cost Archers, too. They chose to eschew the majors and their money-piles, and finish the four-record deal they'd made with the California-based indie Alias. But constant touring and the LP release cycle had already taken its toll. Archers were already discussing breaking up after their third, direction-changing full-length, All the Nation's Airports. They decided to give it one more go-round, but they split after White Trash Heroes, seemingly forever.
But time has been kind to Archers' legacy, in part because their first three records were really goddamn good, and in part for the contrast ballast they now provide. As Stephen Thompson's liner notes for the recently reissued third LP, 1996's Airports, put it, the Archers' music pulses with "all the bile, beauty, and bluster of youth, and all the disaffected paranoia of a perpetually worried mind."
Today's indie rock — if you can call this era's Internet fads that — can be distinguished by glo-stick synth pop, afro-beat wannabes, garage rock revivalists and paint-by-numbers shoegaze. It's a mostly tepid popular landscape with virtually no room for vital, song format-busting fury, cathartic cynicism, or, as more than one PC-doctrinaire writer has sneered, educated "white boys with guitars."
But after sold-out shows across the country supporting Merge's reissues of the Archers' catalog (albeit in smaller rooms than the sold-out Pavement, GBV or Pixies reunion tours), clearly an audience for their brand of intelligent rock still exists. If anything, it's grown to include a new generation of young listeners like the two 24-year-olds who run Recess Fest. Casey Malone and Zach Reader credit Tremont booker Lisa Barr with doing the lion's share of work landing Archers, who haven't played Charlotte since their mid-'90s heyday. But they couldn't be happier with Archers at the top of the bill.
"We have been trying to get Archers... for the last couple of years," says Casey Malone, who along with Reader co-founded Recess Fest in 2010. But "since we are always on a tight budget sometimes it's just a matter of waiting a year or two until something seems a bit more reasonable. I will say I have loved All the Nation's Airports since I was about 14."
As for Bachmann, he says he's honored but still surprised at the reunion fuss. "I had no idea there were going to be this many people," he says. "I knew there'd be some that liked it a little bit, but we're definitely doing better now than when we were a band!"
Whether all this activity results in new songs is something that's been discussed favorably, Bachmann says. However, with all four members deep into adulthood and holding down full-time gigs, the logistics may prove impossible. There's also the idea that perhaps it's best to leave Archers' legacy alone, to enjoy this one last look back at one of rock music's most fecund eras.
"It could be really cool, or it could be horrible," Bachmann laughs at the idea of new Archers' material. "'You know that cool thing we let bake for 10, 13 years? We just ruined it.' I'm not against doing anything, but we haven't gotten to that point. That was the one thing that was fantastic about being in that band: everybody had a healthy amount of self-loathing and was self-critical and was very cautious about making decisions. So I trust Matt, Mark and Eric in that way, and I feel like they trust me. We'll know what the right thing to do is."