Eric Bachmann, Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf

Sure, Eric Bachmann is strong: he benches 240 lbs, according to his bio on the Merge Records site. But what I'm more impressed with is his mental strength.  The Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers frontman has been known to exist on a torrid two-week writing schedule, aided by lots of coffee and easy-to-prepare food: 40 hours of writing followed by 6 hours of sleep, then repeating this cycle for up to 14 days. And it's not like he's looking over a wonderful vista while he's writing, since his ideal writing environment is a small room with confining walls painted in a dark color.  But this desire for confinement is at odds with how Bachmann lives his life: he never stays in the same place for more than six months, always moving from place to place in his van. So while he's in Athens, Georgia now, he'll be gone by spring. This nomadic lifestyle is reflected in his creative process as well, because Bachmann never likes to stay too comfortable with the same method of creating songs.

Crooked Fingers has a new (and fantastic) album out called Breaks in the Armor that will be released October 11 on Merge Records. And they start a tour in mid Ocrober. Read my interview with Bachmann about his songwriting process after this trailer for the new album.

Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?

I don't really write as much outside songwriting anymore.  When I was a younger guy in my 20s, I wrote a lot more, including some short stories, but they weren't very good. I think it's easier to write a song than it is to write a short story, at least to me.

I like to build little sound sculptures.  I did that for one song in the past and now I'm trying to make an entire record where the drum beat or the rhythmic pattern is a sound sculpture. 

What do you mean by sound sculpture?

Something where you take an electric motor, plug it into the wall, and create sounds with gears, pulleys, and belts.  It's a music box that gives you a drum pattern to play along to. I'm always enamored with sounds that have a natural stimulus.

Why do you think songwriters always have other creative outlets?

I think it's just energy that needs to be released.  And we are compelled to clutter the world with our stuff. I'm not very good at certain things, so I'll probably never write a novel.  I want to, I have the energy to, and I have the stories to tell.  But I don't know that I have the attention span to finish the thing. 

What do you start with when you write a song?

I don't really start with anything in particular. Generally speaking, I'm most excited when both the lyrics and melody come at the same time, when I pick up the guitar or play the piano, and words and melody just come out at once. Even if it's just a line, that line will be a lot more efficient and the song will be better than if I write a song with deliberate intent, like if I said, "I want to write a song about a shark." That's a lot harder.  I also actively avoid trying to find a process that I use for a long time.  I'm sure there are people who can prove me wrong based on their own experiences, but in that way you become too formulaic, just pumping things out.

Do you think there's any common element among those rare moments of creative spark?

They aren't random, but you have to be dedicated to the process.  I have to say to myself, "I'm not going to watch The Daily Show now; instead, I'm just gonna lay here and wait for it."  And you're not lying there lazy, because your mind has to be ready to grab onto it.  I have moments in my life where I am absolutely exhausted after playing on the road, and I come home and do nothing but watch The Daily Show and cook.  And if a song idea comes, I ignore it because I'm so burnt out. I need that break. Of course, that lasts about a week.  Laughs.  Then I decide to write. 

That takes amazing discipline to not capture those ideas, but instead to let them pass.

Well, this is a new development that I've gone to therapy for and worked on considerably.  Laughs.  It's not something that comes easy.  I used to be really uptight about it, but that was when I thought that this shit mattered.  Of course, I realize it doesn't at all, even though I still do it and it governs my life.  I do have to be disciplined to be making space in my brain and in my life for my relationships and other things in my life.

It seems like the common element among songwriters I've talked to who have been around for over twenty years is that they treat the process with discipline.

True, but what you're doing is training your brain to be prepared when inspiration comes.  You can really waste a lot of time if you go into your office every day from 9 to 5 and force stuff out. It's never going to be as good, at least for me. I'd like to think that what I'm doing is making myself available for those things to hit me.  I mean, there are times when I've thought to myself that it's a job and it's what I've chosen to do and that I'm grateful that I can do it, so I'm gonna do it every day.  But when I do that, what comes out is not very good because it sounds too forced.

There was a recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.  And he says that to really be creative, we need more space in our lives for times of boredom, when we have nothing to do and no access to technology.  Because if all you have is your brain, you can't help but think and create.

That makes sense, but it's not how I would word it. I wouldn't say that the creative process arises out of boredom. But I do agree with the space part of it, that you need no distractions.  I know David Cross the comedian fairly well, and he told me one time about how he loves to live in New York.  It's a great place to be a comedian because there's so much stimuli to react to, but he said that it would probably be a horrible place for a songwriter because there are so many distractions. It's almost like you have to leave in order to be able to write about what you see there.

That's what Hemingway said, that you can never be in the place you are writing about.

That is so true.  It's like being depressed.  You can't get anything done when you are that way, but you can write about it later.  It's tough to get perspective when you are that close.

But do you worry that if you are too far--either emotionally or physically--that you can't really write about it since you aren't in it?

Maybe it's a balance.  You have to write about it soon, but not too soon. 

I wonder if that's where journaling comes into play.  You can write about misery or whatever emotional state you're in, then write a song later.

And that's a great idea because by waiting a bit, you have perspective.  You are no longer incapacitated by what's bumming you out. 

photo courtesy Merge Records

photo courtesy Merge Records

When you write a song, how important is it to start and finish a song in the same sitting?  Is it important to preserve that original raw emotional state?

I like to stretch it out because of that perspective we were talking about.  There's a song I wrote called "Sleep All Summer" that The National and St. Vincent covered.  I started writing it in 2002 or 2003, but I couldn't get it right.  I didn't have the words; I wanted it to be a beachy-sounding song, but it just wasn't coming together. Then six months later I was working on another song, and the part I came up with for that new song wasn't working there.  And then "Sleep All Summer" just popped. Everything came together: the lyrics, the chords, and the melody. That new part became a verse, then three months later the chorus came out.  Sure enough, three years later, "Sleep All Summer" was finished. 

That's one thing about my songwriting: the parts seem to come out in chunks. I take forever to finish things.  It seems like I have seventeen things in the oven at all times, and I'm always going back to them.  With that perspective, I have the perception that they're writing themselves, so they are easier to approach and not so overwhelming.

It doesn't sound like it bothers you that a song might take a long time to finish.

No, because it's just a part of my process.  But all of this is happening while other songs are popping quickly, so I am getting satisfaction in other ways when that happens.  When one thing might not be working, something else is, so I never get too discouraged.

I imagine that's also a good way to prevent writer's block, since you're always being productive with something.

Yeah, or I can draw something or build a robot to play a beat.  Getting rid of writer's block is all about distracting yourself.

A lot of writers I've talked to do something similar by reading other writers.

Yeah, that's great.  In a way, it's the same thing that meditation does. Writer's block happens to me because my ego's gotten too big.  I start to think to myself that what I am doing is more important than it really is.  And that's ridiculous.  I could get hit by a truck tomorrow and you'd think, "That sucks," then you'd forget. It doesn't matter.  It's a dark thing to say, but it's true, and it's very liberating to think that way as far as the writing process goes once you get over that feeling of self-importance.

I get writer's block all the time, but I get out of it when I strike my ego and just have fun with it. I mean, it's never as easy as that, but thinking that way is always the first step in starting to write again.

How important is getting that first line down when you write?

It's not the first line that's important, but the first chunk.  It depends on what I'm trying to do.  Early in Crooked Fingers, I was trying to be comedic and write funny fairy tales, like limericks for adults.  I'd try to end phrases with funny lines, like Jack Handey.  It was a great way for me to write at the time because it was about coming across as entertaining, not as a great writer.  So it's all about my intention.  I learned a lot about myself doing that because I was in my 20s and taking myself too seriously, and writing that way allowed me to relax.

I'm impressed by your ability to write one chunk, then come back a couple of months later and write another chunk that's connected.  That would seem to be difficult.

It is hard, but it's all about patience.  You have to start again at the beginning of the other chunk you wrote five months ago and play that for two hours.  Just sing it over and over.  It's like Hemingway having to read the entire completed manuscript up to that point in order for him to start where he left off.  So if he wanted to begin writing on page 81, he had to read the first 80 pages again.

How important is writing environment to you?

I don't have a particular space.  I do better at night and in rooms where the walls are close together.  It makes me feel like I'm shut into a space, like I'm in here and everyone else is out there.  I was visiting someone once in Richmond in an urban loft. It was a big, open space where I wrote for a couple of weeks.  And I just couldn't stay productive because it was too open. And I like darker colored walls that make the room look even more confining. 

Are you able to sit for long periods of time and write?

Back in the 90s, I'd get back from a tour--and I still do this--grab a pound of coffee and some food, and go like 40 hours without sleeping.  All I'd do is write and record.  So writing for me is more physical that just having a pen and paper.  It's also about playing the guitar and recording and tweaking sounds.  It's time consuming, but it's fun and rewarding.  I do that while writing words and chord progressions at the same time.  If I had two weeks, my cycle would be work for 40 hours straight, sleep for 6 hours, work for 40 hours, then sleep for 6 hours.  Just continue like that. And then I'd do something manly like go to Alaska and not touch a guitar. Some bullshit like that.

I know you've lived in a lot of places, so does your songwriting process change depending on where you are living?

That's a big thing for me.  By the time I was 11, I had moved like 13 times.  When I was 8, my parents split, so I lived with both of them. That translated into some sort of comfort zone for me.  I'm living in Athens now, but I won't be here in six months.  I don't like to sit still.  I'd rather buy a van, put a bathroom and a loft in it, and drive all over the place.  In terms of writing, that's the whole goal. All that moving makes me not fall into a process, a formula, of doing the same thing every time.  Because being in those different environments changes my mind, and that changes my writing.

How active are you when it comes to seeking inspiration?

I don't do it intentionally, but it seems to work out that way.  I do love film and I like everyone's work better than mine.  I'm very self-loathing. I'm always going to movies and seeing how other people do things.  I'm not a big rock n' roll fan, which is weird since I'm in a rock band, but I love jazz.  What they are producing is an effortless language, like what we are doing right now.  We're not really having to think too hard to connect our thoughts with our words. When people create art like that, I get so floored and inspired by it.  When you talk about artists who last a long time, I do think that they expose themselves to a lot of other art.  It's easy to work so hard that you forget all the other stuff that's around you, and that is dangerous.

Do you have any literary inspirations?

I'm not really a fiction guy, though of course I like Hemingway.  But I love biography.  The last book I read that I really loved was the Dmitri Shostakovich biography written by his son. And I like to read political biographies as well.  I just read a great book by Francois Bizot called The Gate.  He was a prisoner under Pol Pot, the only known Westerner to have surived imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge.  It's a bunch of stories about his time there.  And I like poetry, but not any that takes itself too seriously.  So that's why I like poets like Philip Larkin and people with a sense of humor like Martin Espada. 

Do you think songwriters would benefit from reading poetry?

Absolutely.  There's be a lot better songwriting if people did that.  I guarantee Kris Kristofferson reads poetry. 

With the new Crooked Fingers album, was there anything new to your writing process this time?

I wrote it mostly in Taiwan, where I was teaching English.  I had gone over to not write at all, because I had burnt out.  Within two months, of course, I had bought a guitar.  Laughs. So those songs came from that experience.  I was in the south, where there's no English spoken.  It's easy to feel alienated there, though I found that being alienated was helpful to my process.   I think that's related to my desire never to stay too long in the same place.

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