A musician without armor: An interview with Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann
Eric Bachmann is best known to many as the frontman of ’90s indie-rock iconoclasts Archers of Loaf. While that band found more popularity than Crooked Fingers have as of yet, Bachmann’s work with Crooked Fingers has eclipsed that of his former group in artistic vision and execution.
As the driving force behind Crooked Fingers and it’s only consistent member, Bachmann’s music has bounded about so restlessly that the only elements unifying each record are peerless emotional resonance and his rich, melancholy voice.
I spoke to Bachmann recently before a Crooked Fingers’ gig in Milwaukee at the famed Cactus Club. (The band is on tour in support of their new record “Breaks in the Armor,” but routing prevented a St. Louis date.) The tiny venue lacked a green room, so we found some space away from the crowd by moving to its basement, where Bachmann perched on a keg of beer near the furnace while I procured the only chair in sight.
Many musicians are eager to pay lip service to the idea of artistic purity, but Bachmann’s gentle, humble and passionate tone belie this virtue that so many of his peers lack. He made it clear that while he’s thankful for every day that he’s able to play music on stage, he’d be just as content to practice his craft far from the madding crowd. We’re lucky that he has, at least for now, chosen the former path.
Chris Bay: Crooked Fingers is a project that’s essentially driven by your artistic vision, so why do you brand it as Crooked Fingers and not use your own name?
Eric Bachmann: I’ve done several records as Crooked Fingers and only one under my name. I think the reason I did it under the Crooked Fingers moniker the first time is because I didn’t like the idea of calling it my name. I don’t like the idea of putting my name on a t-shirt. A band name is just more creative. My grandfather passed away when I was coming up with that band in the late ’90s and I wanted to name it after him. That was his CB handle; he was a truck driver. So that just kind of happened. It was serendipitous with the timing and I decided to call it that. If that hadn’t happened and I couldn’t come up with a better name I might’ve just called it Eric Bachmann.
The last few albums have featured female vocalists very prominently, and not just as background vocalists but in duets and as the main vocalist on a few songs. When you’re writing do you think about a song being geared toward a female vocalist and who might actually sing it?
Absolutely. I don’t like the sound of my voice. It’s not like I dislike it, it’s just that I like to hear other people sing more than I like to hear myself sing. Maybe most people are that way, I don’t know. The songs on the previous record, “Forfeit/Fortune,” those were all B-sides that didn’t make it onto albums that I thought were too good to be put on a B-side compilation. So I just re-recorded them, and when I was re-recording that record I thought, man, I should just have women sing all of these. Of course, I didn’t do it. I sang a lot of it myself. But I do think about that. I do want to make that kind of record at some point in my life, where you just write it and you let other people sing it. So I do think of that. And it’s really not in your control. I don’t write the song in that direction, I’m just writing the song and it happens to come to you a certain way.
Some of your most striking songs are those that are in duet form. “Your Control” and “Sleep All Summer” come to mind.
I think it strikes a balance. My voice is so masculine and I think it puts me off. I don’t like that aspect of it, and I try to do what I can to buffer that. The best thing I can do to buffer that is to add something that’s not so masculine to it.
The seed for Crooked Fingers was planted near the end of Archers of Loaf’s original tenure. You’ve said that you were wanting to do something quieter, regardless of whether or not Archers ended. At the time, did you have any idea that it would become what it is now, that it would have the legs that it did?
I didn’t. I didn’t have any idea that the Archers would have any success either. I’m glad that it did and I’m glad that Crooked Fingers did. I’m often amazed that I’m even still doing it. I’m 18 or 19 years into it and it’s like, wow, how do you pull this shit off? Because I’m not big. I’m not very successful financially, but I’ve somehow been able to do it. I tried to do other things that never work as well and I always get called back into it for whatever reason. So I feel lucky that it has had the legs it’s had, but I certainly didn’t think at the time that it would. And now at this point I don’t know what else to do, and it’s going better now than it perhaps ever has. And I don’t know why. [laughs]
You’re just going to keep going with it, as long as you have the ideas and the energy?
I get tempted to just stop, retire and start a new band. But then it’s just ridiculous to keep changing your band name.
What kind of band would that be?
I would want to be somebody that’s not the frontman. I’d rather be somebody that’s just a musician.
But music is still your main desire in the long run.
Oh my god, of course. I’m sure I’ll make music until I’m dead. The idea that you have to present it in a way is tedious. If you’re going to be the front person you have to present it in a way, and the imaging of it, the visual presentation of it, the personality presentation of it, it’s a lot of work and a lot of thought. I’ve not grown tired of that, I just feel like what would be interesting to me would be to have someone else’s personality [up front]. Because you don’t want to do it with somebody that wants to contrive a personality that’s not you or not them. That’s bullshit. You don’t do that. You just want to find somebody that has the desire to do that instead of you so you can just play. Your personality’s going to be there but they’re going to be the one singing.
Has the thought occurred to you in the last five or 10 years that maybe you should just make music some other way and not necessarily put out records and tour?
Oh, for the past 20 years, man. Absolutely. I’ve done that for two decades. From day one I’ve been doing that. Maybe that’s part of the reason why you only get to a certain level of success, that you’re not confident enough. I don’t know what that is. Kanye ain’t doing that: “Look at me I’ve got something to say.” And good for him. I’m jealous of it, I wish I could do that. Nina Simone was that way too and it was amazing. Some people have that talent and they can do it. Kanye’s not Nina, and so it doesn’t work as well for him. I like him, I’m not saying he’s not great. When people have the combination of that strong personality and an entertaining personality and they have the musical gift that Nina Simone has then it’s ridiculously beautiful, it’s just amazing.
You’ve lived in quite a few places throughout your career: North Carolina, Seattle, Denver. You’re in Athens now. Is this just sort of a restlessness, just wanting to be in a different place all the time? I guess being on tour could feed that as well.
Yeah, it does. By the time I was 10 or 11 years old I had moved 11 or 12 times. I moved so much as a kid. So I think maybe that stayed with me. I like traveling and I like being on tour. That’s the happiest I am. I’ve always had horrible relationships, not because of my personality or the other person’s personality, but because there’s the expectation of, I don’t mind if you’re gone all the time. And then two years into it, they do mind. So I think why I’m the happiest now is that being with Liz now, she travels with me and she wants to travel too. [Ed: Liz Durrett is Bachmann's girlfriend, bandmate and the only other musician given credits on "Breaks in the Armor."] She has the same kind of spirit. That’s great for me. I’m always going to move. The only reason I wouldn’t move is if I could buy property somewhere near the water and just kind of set up a little place to work and record stuff and make things. But I’m still going to want to travel 6 months out of the year.
I’d like to suggest St. Louis as the next place for you to move. It’s a nice place to live and it’s cheap.
[laughs] And it has a lot of nice people. The bars are friendly, the bands are friendly, the promoters are friendly.
We’d love to have you back.
Wait, you’re from St. Louis? Where are we now?
We’re in Milwaukee.
Why are you here?
Because you’re not coming to St. Louis.
Man, that’s ridiculous. Why aren’t we playing St. Louis? We have to get back there.