Tall, bearded and bear-throated, Eric Bachmann first rose to national attention in the early '90s as the leader of Chapel Hill, North Carolina's guitar-noise alchemists Archers of Loaf. The songwriter's approach softened and became more rich with his next full-time band, Crooked Fingers, a layer cake of pop hooks, swooning rhythms, strings, keys and Bachmann's straightforward takes on loving and not being loved.
Recent years have found Bachmann becoming ever more troubadouric. Playing solo more often than not and applying a banjo-claw method to the nylon-string guitar, Bachmann has come into his own as a songwriter and performer in the vein of rustic American dreamers such as Jimmy Webb and Townes Van Zandt. His latest record, To the Races (his first proper solo album and his first release for Saddle Creek Records), is sparse and melancholy on the surface. But a quiet listen — preferably with a grove of trees nearby — reveals the kind of record singer-songwriters used to produce after long periods spent traveling, soul-searching and gazing at the sky. Though it wasn't the first time he'd lived out of his van (he did it for eight months two years ago), Bachmann wrote most of the songs for Races during a period of nomadism in the Pacific Northwest.
The Pitch caught up with Bachmann as he negotiated Los Angeles traffic in search of Mexican food for himself and ice cream for his touring violinist, Elin Palmer.
The Pitch: What's a grown man like you doing living out of a van, riding around America writing songs on a nylon-stringed guitar?
I'd do it again in a second. I like doing it. It's fun. Once you get your head around it, it's easy. Once you don't drink, and make sure you stay in shape and don't be beaten down by the idea of it, and once you use it as a way to be alone and work on your work, then it's quite rewarding to do it and fun to do it. At that particular moment [the summer of '07], I was broke, too, 'cause I'd just come back from Europe. I would be lying to say that I didn't have friends I could've stayed with, but I just wanted to get an album written. And the best way to get an album written is to be alone. And the best way to be alone is to just drive in your van and don't talk to anybody.
And not drink?
And not drink, in my case, yeah. Because if you're 36 and you're drunk and sleeping in the back of a van, it's depressing. But if you're sober and going to the Y every day and running and riding a bike and working on songs all day, and you have all this shit that you got done that day, and then you go to sleep in a van, it's like, "I'm camping. This is pretty cool."
Could you have done it 10 years ago?
No. I'd have drank too much or partied too much and not had the discipline to get out of that. You have to have a certain amount of drugs and alcohol before you stop. [Laughs] Or maybe not. I shouldn't laugh. It's not funny to some people.
Your current sound evokes that old-'70s-LP feel — there's a bearded guy on the cover, a sunset in the background ...
I love stuff like that. I love that era, whether it be Jerry Reed — and he's being goofy on the album cover, but he's such a good fingerpicker, it doesn't matter — or old Glen Campbell records like Galveston or Gentle on My Mind. I love that shit, man. I think it's just because that's what my parents listened to. The first record my parents ever bought for me was "Rhinestone Cowboy" with Glen Campbell, and that's so funny 'cause everyone's like, "It's Neil Diamond! It's Neil Diamond!" I'm like, "No, it's not. It's Glen Campbell." That's the same kind of '70s bravado that I like.