You have a band. It's not just a good band, for a time it's pretty much the "it" band. Your debut release is hailed as "one of the landmark albums of '90s alt-rock" (by Michigan Daily); your subsequent releases — the studio albums and the EPs — are critically acclaimed. You have fans who are not just admirers but who beg (as did YouTube commentor deadredeyes, a mere three months ago), "Please, for the love of all that is holy … please tour!" And then, possibly at the top of your game, you call it quits and get on with your lives. Professions, relationships, rock climbing and other musical pursuits. For 13 years.
Then, just when everyone thinks you'll just be that band — the one whose name is dropped when comparing today's indie rockers to back when bands really knew how to rock — you come out of retirement.
"For me, a lot of it is just the chance to play again," says Archers of Loaf guitarist Eric Johnson.
Which is a pretty blasé explanation following that kind of bombshell. Though, according to Spin, The Archer's reunion/opening set in Chapel Hill in January wasn't the biggest whammy. "It wasn't surprising that the place was packed to capacity, but it was surprising that their reunion performance lived up to and beyond the expectations of even the sunniest optimist," writes the music magazine.
Bassist Matt Gentling says there was no real catalyst for the reunion, just as there was "never really a definitive fracture." The band went on hiatus in 1998 because they'd decided "our friendship was more important that anything else. If it stopped being fun, we'd bail on it." Because the Archers parted amicably, they continued to hang out and play music and eventually — we're talking more than a decade — reunion-talk turned into action.
"We got to the part where we missed those songs," says Gentling. "Our friends would tell us to get back together."
Coming out swinging
It was the Cat's Cradle in Carborro, N.C., where the Archers of Loaf jump-started their reunion. That's fitting — it was at that same venue where they played their last show back in '98.
But it's at the Grey Eagle where the Archers will kick off their tour (that's right, deadredeyes, your wish has been granted). And that, too, is fitting, because it's in Asheville that the band really got its start.
The Archers of Loaf actually formed in Chapel Hill in the early ‘90s, but all four members (including singer/songwriter Eric Bachmann and drummer Mark Price) grew up in Asheville. Johnson, Gentling and Price went to Asheville High; Bachmann attended T.C. Roberson. They're all within two years of each other, age-wise.
"We were always a Chapel Hill Band," says Johnson. "I've always liked the Grey Eagle, but it wasn't around when we broke up, so we've never had a chance to play it."
Johnson says that the idea for a reunion came up, followed by a number of rehearsals to see if the band could recreate its chemistry. "When I first heard about it I thought, 'all right, I get to get back up on stage and rock,'" says Johnson.
Apparently, the Archers did just that. "They came out swinging with the song 'Audiowhore' and didn't let up," writes blog Triangle Music, the night after the band's much-lauded surprise reunion, opening for Raleigh-based The Love Language. "Bassist Matt Gentling bounded around the stage, hammering away at his bass while guitarist Eric Johnson sported his own animated stage moves. Drummer Mark Price was solid behind the drum kit and frontman Eric Bachmann growled like a pro." Most importantly: "The band sounded like they'd never stopped playing.
So the Grey Eagle is where this tour (and, ostensibly, the next phase of the Archers) begins. But where does it go from there? The easy answer is to Sasquatch! Music Festival in George, Wash., joining Foo Fighters, Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse and Wilco (among others). In a way, the Archers should feel right at home with the other '90s bands that dominate the lineup (The Old 97's also make that list; Guided by Voices and The Flaming Lips date back to the 1980s). But Johnson says "I'll finally get to see all those bands I'm not up to date on." (Beach House, Matt & Kim and Fitz & the Tantrums could be on that roster.)
Gentling supposes there's a nostalgia for '90s music, "both for people who listen to it and people like us who play it." He also points out that much of the Archers' catalogue is still applicable in 2011. "Bachmann was really cryptic, even with us, and evasive about his lyrics. That was the beauty of his lyrics: They were open-ended enough to make your own interpretations."
So what do the Archers think about being a '90s alt-rock landmark? "It's awfully flattering, but that's about it," says Johnson. "Especially Icky Mettle has a definite '90s feel because it's low-fidelity" — a sound that's come back around. Or, as Johnson suggests, "If I had to guess, it never went away."
For fans in the know — and for those who have yet to experience the Archers of Loaf discography — there's buzz about a label deal to reissue back albums. That will give the band a chance to redo artwork and liner notes. But, more importantly, "The [possible] reissue thing is what took it from 'hey, let's get together and play a show' to 'hey, let's get together and play a bunch of shows,'" says Gentling.
Which is not to say they'll tour with the same road-warrior attitude as before. The rest of the tour is fairly laid-back with four different two-night stands and (hopefully) a U.K. date — but that's still in the works.
"We played Europe several times," Johnson says. That was in the '90s. "There's a small part of me that's like, 'yeah, let's get back on the bus.' But probably the bigger part of me would say no." He says he doesn't feel old, but if it rained for a month straight and the bus broke down, "I probably wouldn't be as understanding now as I was then."
That was then, this is now
Talking to Johnson and Gentling, the two Archers members who still live in Asheville, words like "old" and "middle aged" pop up with alarming frequency. "Maybe it's old me reliving our youth," says Johnson. There are also the allusions to being done with life on the road: "That was an accomplished phase of my life, but I'm not going to jump in a van again," says Gentling. But it's not like the band split up and no one picked up a guitar or a set of drumsticks for 13 years.
Johnson started the solo project Spookie. Recently, he's been playing drums in local band The River Kings, which he describes as "more mellow. It's not the same as Archers because Archers was so rocking," he says. "That's an aspect of playing music that I haven't felt since our last show."
Bachmann released two solo albums on Saddle Creek Records, contributed to a number of other projects (Azure Ray, Spoon) and started homespun-Americana group Crooked Fingers.
Gentling toured with Chapel Hill indie-rockers Superchunk in ‘99 and joined the Band of Horses tour in 2007. He also played with local band The Poles. "I was always driving those poor guys crazy — same with Band of Horses," says Gentling. "I was like, 'guys, I'm not ready to dive into it again.'" He wanted to rock climb and spend time at home, though he seems as surprised as anyone that it took a whole decade to "get my shit together, get a life."
A lot has changed in that time: There are far more bands on the road making far less money. Gentling acknowledges something akin to guilt at further saturating the music market by taking Archers of Loaf on the road. At the time when they split, they were seeing increasing attendance at their shows and, while they weren't getting rich, they were making money. They didn't quit for financial reasons, Gentling says. "We came up when you could make a modest living driving around playing songs," he says. "I don't think many people form bands these days for the hell of it."
Another difference between the early '90s and 2011: "The level of competency among musicians now is far above the level of musical competency when we were doing it," says Gentling. He says that Asheville has always been such that "you couldn't sling a dead cat without hitting someone with a lot of talent." These days, he numbers such talent among acts like Wages, stephaniesid, Paper Tiger, his former band mates the Poles and Michael Libramento's many projects.
"I can go out and enjoy a show almost any night of the week," says Gentling.
So here's a surprise: For all the excitement about the Archers of Loaf reunion, for mentions of '90s landmarks and for the raw immediacy that they brought to rock, the band never felt well-received by its hometown. "We never did particularly well here," says Gentling. "It was tough to get shows and not a lot of people would come out. There wasn't a whole lot of enthusiasm for the Loaf." He's not upset about it — they were a touring band and they loved Asheville as a home base.
This reunion, though, marks a perfect time for Asheville to embrace its '90s rockers. It's never too late to love the Loaf.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Archers of Loaf
what: Kick-off show for reunion tour
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, May 21 (9 p.m., $20 advance/$25 day of show. thegreyeagle.com.)