Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The four o'clock load-in had been pushed back to five and there was still no sign of the new contenders. Without benefit of roadies or hangers-on, the Archers of Loaf had been traveling in a Ryder truck and a rent-a-car ever since Seattle, where their faithful $5000 van blew a camshaft three dates into the Weezer sector of a three-month tour that will end along with its Flaming Lips sector on May 20. Good thing Alias was covering emergency expenses--recoupable "tour support," a line of credit in disguise, but how could they have gone on otherwise? As it was, they'd driven the two vehicles cross-country in two weeks while playing most nights. So instead of heading straight down from the Boston show, they'd sanely slept over, doing well to hit Maxwell's by 6:15.

It was Monday night and Oscar night, but the club had sold out in advance. Word is getting around about these four hard-working slackers; maybe not every clubrat shouting out titles considered the Archers of Loaf the best Amerindie has to offer, but with the qualified exceptions of Pavement and Sugar, that's what they are. In two years of existence they've released two high-strung noise-pop-punk-rock albums, 1993's Icky Mettle and 1995's Vee Vee, each brought in under its $6000 budget, each now at around 30,000 sales. They've also recorded a profusion of indie singles and compilation cuts and one covertly anthemic EP, 1994's Archers of Loaf vs The Greatest of All Time. And unlike many alternabands, right up to the notoriously uneven Pavement, they're not so stricken with incompetence, fear, irony, or disdain that their live efficiency or enthusiasm is ever in question.

Ah yes, Pavement. Although the Archers are often described as a cross between Superchunk and Pavement, the Superchunk connection is mostly regional--the Archers are from Asheville via Chapel Hill and have ties to the indie purists' Merge label. Listen to Merge's surprisingly strong, rarely transcendent 5 Rows of Teeth compilation and you'll hear a bunch of bands who sound kind of like the Archers, certainly more than Superchunk do--Bricks, Pipe, Butterglory, the well-buzzed Polvo, even Drive Like Jehu. The Archers are vertical where Superchunk is horizontal--their acceleration is up to speed, but their dissonance is over the top. With Pavement, on the other hand, they share a crucial aural gestalt: tuneful two-guitar breaks that set off unkempt explosions before recombining in brief climaxes soon interrupted by more disarray. The Archers aren't omnireferential pomo hook-quoters--their melodic content is both less pervasive and more organic--and Eric Bachmann's pissed off, speechlike yowl-to-croak isn't as callow or pop as Steve Malkmus's demented, speechlike croon-to-whine. In short, they're altogether less precious than Pavement--they're punker, and they rock more. But of all the bands who've gone someplace special with Amerindie noize-toon, Pavement and the Archers are the densest, and that density defines them both.

Eric Johnson's guitar amp had bitten the dust, so after sound-check he tended to tech while drummer and press coordinator Mark Price handled the fanzine interview the band had missed and I took Bachmann and bassist Matt Gentling to dinner at the German restaurant across the street. Although 'zines often portray the Archers as sarcastic wise guys, that's a reflex--a subculture making its bands its mirror. With me they were well-behaved boys unfazed by weisswurst--both Bachmann's father, an insurance man, and Gentling's, a surgeon, are Northern-born German Americans. Johnson too is upper-middle class; only Price, whose dad doubles as salesclerk and piano player, isn't a child of suburban privilege. Still, I figured they could use a good meal, and was later pleased as a papa when Gentling gave thanks from the stage for the best pig's ass he'd ever eaten.

I could have talked politics or lyrics or what their name means--the unfavorite question of a band whose song titles are so gnomic they sometimes forget them themselves. But the main thing I wanted to know was whether they were enjoying themselves, and the answer was yes. They liked touring, they swore. It was fun to sleep on people's floors or sneak in four to a double, fun to travel if you made it a point to sightsee, fun to perform so much you could quit your day jobs and even put money away--clearing $600 a month, reckoned Gentling, who lives on a friend's porch and only pays rent when he's in town, he could save $50. They were sunny about other musicians, too. The Weezer gig was a bit regimented, the audiences not very well-informed, but Brian Bell's sidemen all had worthy projects of their own and club dates like this one recharged the Archers' power-pack. According to Gentling, the worst thing about success was the temptation to cater to your fans--of heeding "responsibility" instead of inspiration. "I like the way certain people maintain their privacy," Bachmann explained. "Like Tom Waits--he's always done what he wants, right?" Although they heard me when I told them comparisons are a shorthand that don't reduce one band to another, both resisted the Pavement analogy. If they had a musical model it was the Replacements. Bob Stinson ruled.

With Paul Westerberg a late master of the realistic popsong, this notion had never crossed my mind. But though the Archers kept things noisome enough after declining a request for the sludgy "Toast" (which goes, eventually, "There's something wrong with my toast"), I could hear how little their agitated melodies and off guitar harmonies owed to noize-toon godfathers Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Instead it was as if the clamor Stinson unloosed by accident and spirit possession had been planned out--by resident bad boy Johnson and especially by Bachmann, the auteur no matter how collective the song credits, who spent two years studying saxophone at Appalachian State before transferring to North Carolina. Live, neither Pavement nor Sonic Youth themselves so successfully sustain the illusion of harmonic breakdown mitigated by melodic grace and subsumed in forward motion. The show was sharp and rough, tight and loose, its excitement hyper, almost Dennis the Menace, with Gentling a jumping fireplug and Johnson a drunken sapling around the gangly, bespectacled Bachmann. A preemptive "encore" drolly avoided the Maxwell's ritual of instruments lugged back and forth through the crowd, but later there were two real ones, for a total of 25 songs in 90 minutes, with "Toast" the finale. Weezer jokes abounded on both sides of the monitors, and once, when Bachmann introduced Johnson as Brian Bell (in fact, his normal ID reads "Nigel Tufnel"), the guitarist displayed some temperament: "It's a good thing he's not here--I'd kick his ass." "Nah, they're good guys," Gentling put in quickly, recalling a formula I'd overheard during the sound-check gossip: "GGBB--good guys, bad band."

The schedule on the dressing room wall at Roseland the next night said 8:35, and that's when they went on, for 40 prescribed minutes. Although the very young crowd did listen, nothing in its polite passivity promised many instant conversions. But all over the hall little knots of fans cheered righteously. In the theatrical setting, which Bachmann says fosters precision rather than high-risk, high-gain club energy, the riffs seemed as heavy as power chords, and several songs from Vee Vee and the EP revealed themselves as showstoppers even as the show went on: "Audiowhore," "Revenge," and "Greatest of All Time," which had me yelling its foregrounded lyric: "They caught and drowned the front man/Of the world's worst rock and roll band/He was out of luck/Because nobody gave a fuck/The jury gathered all around the aqueduct/Drinking and laughing and lighting up/Reminiscing just how bad he sucked/Singin' throw him in the river/Throw him in the river/Throw him in the river/Throw the bastard in the river."

Words are secondary with this band, but they've always been good for some zingers: "You know I do not think that you could love me anyway/Because you are inferior to me," or "All I ever wanted was to be your spine." Since Bachmann could be detected directing his generic indie-rock anger against a generic but probably specific ex-girlfriend (I say ex because he seems happy enough with the med student he's dating now), it was just as well he kept the tone gnomic, and it's also just as well that as he edges up on realism he addresses that equally generic obsession, rock and roll--the subject has his attention and the songs thrive on it. The writing could end up anywhere--good as he's already proven to be, Bachmann is still getting his bearings. There might even be a time when Vee Vee's distorto guitars and the way the EP obscures its anthems in long intros could seem regrettable excesses of youth.

For now, though, excesses of youth are the idea. The Archers, all 25 or less, won't always enjoy making albums on the cheap any more than they'll always enjoy sleeping on floors, and the hope is that they'll gather the audience support they deserve fast enough to pay for any newfound needs without going into hock with a major. Sensible enough to want to stay a little crazy, they're exemplary citizens of their subculture, slackers by internalized formal imperative. Clearly their name has not much to do with the staff of life and plenty with what several Southern alternaweeklies call Creative Loafing--leisure redefined, working bohemia '90s-style. It honors both them and the subculture that they can make compelling music out of such limited emotional materials.

The big news in the dressing room was a visit from Weezer producer Ric Ocasek and his sweetheart of a wife, swimsuit supermodel Paulina Porizkova. "The most famous people I ever met," exclaimed Bachmann. "It's the happiest day of my life," moaned Johnson. "I'm gonna call Mom." Later, to the background thrash and hop of Weezer, a decent enough novelty act on record whose stiffness live had been thrown into horrific relief, I watched the Knicks-Bulls opus on the bar TV with basketball addict Price, who tried not to root too obviously for the Bulls even though he obviously loved Michael Jordan a lot more than he loved Hubert Davis. Back downstairs Johnson raved about North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse for a while. Then he told me a band was a dream he'd started to think would never come true. His favorite interview question ever: "Do you love the Archers of Loaf?" His answer: "Yes. I must love this band, because I think about them more than I do myself."

At around 11:30, after a few autographs and snapshots outside, Bachmann, Gentling, and I left the packed Ryder on 53rd Street, where it would soon be towed for unpaid tickets, and went to hear Steve Albini's latest manifestation, Shellac. Seemed conceptually tired, especially the sarcastic fuck-you shtick. Impressive, though. Call it BGGB. But not as G as the Archers--not by a lot. They are at Tramps Thursday. Go shout out titles.

Village Voice, Apr. 18, 1995