ARCHERS OF LOAF
Strangled by the Stereo Wire: An Interview with Matt Gentling
By: Pete Crigler
North Carolina's Archers of Loaf were one of the most heralded indie rock bands of the ‘90's. Though they never had a crossover radio/MTV hit like Pavement, the legions of fans and newer bands influenced by their sound is too long to list. Though the band have been inactive as a recording unit since 1999, though they have had reunion tours of the US/Canada in 2011-2 and 2015, and things are moving progressively forward to change their inactive status otherwise. Bassist Matt Gentling, currently kicking ass as part of Band of Horses, took time out of his busy summer to answer a ton of questions about Archers and his current career. So take a step back into a ‘90s indie rock portal and enjoy yourself.
PSF: How did you get interested in music and playing bass?
Matt Gentling: When I was in high school, I had a very tight group of friends. Of these, one was a guitarist/singer, another a drummer. These two had been desperate to form a band and couldn't seem to find a bass player, despite almost constant trying. We hung out together a lot, and shared a lot of the same musical tastes, mainly a love of The Replacements. One day, Matthew, the guitarist/singer, said, "Man, if we're going to be hanging out together all the time, you might as well learn to play bass." I felt like he had a point, so he started teaching me bass lines on his acoustic guitar, while he accompanied on his electric. The first song I learned was "Can't Hardly Wait" by The Replacements. I think the fourth song I learned was the theme song to the TV show Happy Days.
PSF: How and when did Archers initially come together?
Gentling: My high school band wasn't the only one in town. The most popular high school band in Asheville was composed of a bunch of kids from TC Roberson, the school across town. Their singer was Eric Bachmann. He was funny and charismatic, and all their members could really play. They were kind of like a real band. My band opened for them at our only official gig. Another band was based out of my school, they were a blues band that mainly played covers. The guitarist was Eric Johnson.
A couple years after high school, both Erics transferred to UNC Chapel Hill at the start of their junior years. Eric recognized Eric on a bus and introduced himself, and the two began writing songs and playing together. The next year, I transferred to UNC and Eric Johnson found out via my sister Anne. He asked me if I wanted to play with him and Eric. Meanwhile, the other two guys in my high school band were already at UNC and I had begun playing with them a bit. The drummer, Clay, agreed to play drums with Eric, Eric and me. We polished up some songs, recorded a demo, and secured a show; all we lacked was a name. Under pressure, we buckled and saddled ourselves with a name that would prove somewhat regrettable. The first couple shows we played, a birthday party and a gig at the local café, were attended by our mutual old buddy, Mark Price. Mark and I had dabbled in playing music together a few times, and had worked at the same store for a while, and were good friends.
Soon, the strain of being in two bands wore on Clay to the point where he quit Archers and recommended Mark. But Mark still lived in Asheville. One weekend, Mark came to Chapel Hill for a visit. When he returned home, he discovered he'd been laid off from his job. "Get your ass to Chapel Hill!" I said like Other-Arnold in Total Recall. He did, and played his first gig, our third, (including that birthday party), within two weeks of relocating. From there, things just progressed, I suppose.
PSF: What was it like developing the band's sound and what was the scene around the band like at the time?
Gentling: We all came from fairly similar backgrounds: white dudes from Asheville who were just discovering "college rock," and who couldn't really get into the popular music of the time in our town. Within that, there were some distinctions; I was into punk, Eric Johnson liked a lot of British music, especially Big Country, Bachmann had discovered a lot of weird stuff, starting with Sonic Youth, and veering sometimes into morose stuff, like My Dad Is Dead, and sometimes more fun, arty stuff like Tall Dwarfs/Chris Knox. Mark's tastes were quite broad, though he was exacting in what he really enjoyed. But this list is simplified. We loved ABBA, we loved The Ink Spots, we loved Baja Marimba Band, and Nancy Sinatra. We shared anything that excited us. The Erics were doing most of the writing at that time, and Mark and I would come up with parts to fit. We were just trying to make energetic, loud rock that we hoped would be interesting, we tried to make ours different somehow. I guess everybody does that.
We rented a practice space at Lloyd Street Studios and practiced and wrote there on Mondays from 9 to midnight. Often, we would be hashing out a new idea, blasting through it like a house on fire, and Eric Johnson would be standing there nonplussed, thinking. Finally, frustrated, he would suggest a break. Eric Bachmann, Mark and I would walk to the beer store for some Milwaukee's Best, and Eric Johnson would hang behind, worrying his guitar. When we got back, he would excitedly show us what he'd come up with. I couldn't wrap my head around it, this amorphous collection of weird noises and feedback that didn't make a bit of sense to me. The other guys would look intrigued and suggest we all play together, and suddenly, Eric's parts all made perfect sense, and would transform the songs in the most incredible ways. That happened a lot and I'm still amazed by his ability to reform a song so beautifully. Meanwhile, Mark was the arrangement guy. He was tough to please, and often we'd be patting ourselves on the back, but Mark would push us to fuck with the song until it was properly conceived. He was right pretty much every time. Bachmann wrote all of our lyrics and came up with the skeletons of most of the songs.
As for the scene, it was musically diverse and fairly tightly knit. Everybody knows Superchunk and Polvo, plus there were other excellent bands like Zen Frisbee, Blue Green Gods, Metal Flake Mother, Bicycle Face, Finger, Mind Sirens, and lots of others. And that's not even including Greensboro and Raleigh bands. But everybody was pretty close and friendly, and knew each other. Strife was fairly rare.
PSF: How did the band attract the attention of Alias Records and what was that experience like?
Gentling: I think Alias found us as a result of that post-Seattle gold fever that was going on at the time. Several magazine articles mentioned that there were some good bands in Chapel Hill. In fact, there were a lot of great bands in Chapel Hill, and some of them had toured enough, and put out records, that the music of that area had gained some mass and momentum. Some folks from Alias showed up one night and took us to dinner. They came to a show or two. We had a single out at that point too. They offered us a deal. It was the only deal I remember being offered. We talked a friend's lawyer into looking at it. Don't ever do this. Seek out a lawyer who knows your stuff, then sell things, sell your plasma, give hobos handjobs under the bridge, scrounge whatever money you can scrounge and pay this lawyer well. Otherwise, you're falling on the kindness of a professional stranger to perform pro-bono work for a bunch of jackasses who he doesn't even know if they're worth a damn. We learned the hard way. Our friend's lawyer glanced at it in a moment of spare time and said the contract seemed fairly standard. Upon hearing this tepid endorsement, we went for it. The contract was actually a pretty good deal, just not for us. Live and learn, I reckon. Ultimately, we didn't prove a good fit. I think Alias wanted us to be cuter than we were. We basically just didn't get each other. Also, the way the royalties and recoupables were structured in the deal ensured that we would see absolute minimum remuneration for the few records we did sell. Alias did have more funds than most well-meaning labels though, and they did keep putting out our records, and they let us occasionally put out singles on other labels, so I shouldn't complain too much!
PSF: What do you feel separated the band from the rest of the indie rock pack?
Gentling: There were so many great bands at that time. Brilliant bands. I am confident that we were a terrific band as well, but what ultimately separated us from a lot of bands was our willingness to tour. We were always broke and hungry, but we were scrappy, and we toured constantly. You look at bands that did well before, say 2005 or so, it was always the scrappy, cockroachy, masochistic road bands. It isn't for everyone; I think you have to have a screw loose to enjoy that lifestyle. But it can be rewarding, you're forced to fend for yourself and learn a whole variety of non-music-related skills; it's like a safer version of taking to the sea. Personally, I loved it; those years are some of my best memories. I hope I never have to do it again.
PSF: Tell me a bit about the recording of Icky Mettle.
Gentling: Icky Mettle was the first time we'd done anything more than a single or a demo. We had a pretty good collection of songs that we liked and had been honing live. Plus, Eric Bachmann had been working on "Hate Paste," which was the only one we built piece-by-piece. "Web In Front" was originally going to be a song that just Bachmann and Mark would play if Eric J or I broke a string. But we liked it so much we asked to be included, so it came together from there. We didn't know what we were doing. Fortunately our roommate and buddy, Caleb, had recorded albums before. He ran sound at the Cat's Cradle and the owner, Frank Heath, an absolute saint in my opinion, offered Caleb a spare room in the club to put his board and tape machine. Caleb's snake ran through the drop ceiling to the middle of the club. At around 2:30AM, after that night's attraction had loaded out, we would load in. Caleb would fetch a stepladder and move a panel in the drop ceiling and release the snake. He ran the cables to all of our stuff: Mark's kit in the middle of the floor, my bass amp on the stairs to the basement, and Eric and Eric's amps in the lavatories, naturally. We would record all night till it was time to go to work. Mark and I worked next door at the bike shop and we would take breaks to run in and help when we could. Then when it was time to mix, we'd stay up all night for that too.
PSF: Was there any difference when it came to recording Vee Vee?
Gentling: Vee Vee was quite different. But before Vee Vee, we recorded Vs. The Greatest Of All Time, and for the first time, we were in a real studio with lots of cool gear. The studio was in Steve Albini's house, and he had been kind enough to let us stay there. For the first time, we were immersed in a world of recording. We didn't have to think about our jobs for the moment, or social interaction, or anything that didn't have to do with recording. When it came time to record Vee Vee, we went back to the same circumstances.
But for Vee Vee, we hadn't finished writing a lot of the songs. There was a lot of coming up with parts right before recording them. There were a lot more overdubs and songs pieced together. Mark was constantly helping me come up with bass lines, and I'm grateful for it. At the time, I was frustrated, because it didn't fit with my "play it all live" ideal, but in retrospect, it was a great learning experience and a lot of fun.
PSF: What was 'success' like and how did everyone react to it?
Gentling: We were lucky to get some affirmation right out of the gate; our first single, the first release on our friend Carrie McLaren's Stay Free Records, managed to get some notice here and there. We were touring voraciously by that point, and though we would lose money, we couldn't get enough, and a bit of vindication here and there certainly didn't hurt our morale or resolve. We would hit the road for a while and everything would go wrong, but for some reason, it was just exciting enough for us not to quit, and eventually, a lot of the rooms started filling up--a little at least. Plus, we were self-contained, independent, and seeing the world! We figured everything out ourselves and took pride in our developing competency. We made friends with like-minded bands from all over the place. Then, we would go home and go back to work to try and make rent and bills and save up for the next tour. We were all broke as a joke and I was subsisting on $.25 Little Debbie snax, like Star Crunches, or Oatmeal Cookies if I was trying to be healthy. Eventually, I got sick. My parents were passing through for a visit and my mom bought me a few cans of soup and I was right as rain.
In '94, we returned from a tour opening for the Lemonheads. The Lemonheads had been extremely kind and friendly to us, the shows had gone well, and I arrived home happy. A week later, our manager gave me a check. A check! Not only had we broken even, but we had made some money! I was a professional! From there on in, we had a few lean times, but for the most part we made enough money to live on, and we would show up in far flung towns and there were people who knew some of our music and were happy to see us. It was wonderful. We were a well-oiled, noisy machine and we made it to Europe, Australia, and met all kinds of wonderful people.
I suppose there was backlash, some folks felt we had sold out, some folks simply disliked us and/or what we did. For the most part it was great--exhausting, hard work, frequently frustrating, but great.
PSF: What was it like being courted by the majors?
Gentling: Getting attention from major labels was awkward, but kind of fun. We were generally disinclined to what we felt they had to offer us, but we didn't want to reject it out of hand. Our experiences with Alias had often been difficult, and we felt that major labels would likely be like Alias cranked up a few notches. We felt very strongly that our success had come from our constant touring and the relationships we'd made, and I suppose we were fairly proud of this, and didn't feel like the major labels had anything to offer us that would be an improvement, and if they did, it would come at an unreasonable price. For a while, every time our ship passed through LA, we would have a meeting at some big label. They were always casual and friendly. We would take a tour of the office, meet the staff, who were often kind and laid back. Each tour would end at the Big Metal Cabinet. It would be full of the label's catalog, and we could help ourselves to anything we wanted. It was always the best part of every office tour.
PSF: What ultimately sparked the pact between Alias and Elektra and was that any different?
Gentling: Honestly, I have no idea. Alias cut a distribution deal with Elektra, and our distribution did pick up a fair amount. I think it probably helped some? A lot of people thought we had switched to a major label because they saw the name Elektra on our albums. I had one or two awkward conversations over that.
PSF: Any interesting stories about touring with Weezer?
Gentling: Oh, man, quite a few, though not directly related to Weezer. That was a difficult tour for us. We were chasing a bus tour in our van, and that made the logistics brutal. Plus, our beloved van died on that tour. We were playing these large, impersonal venues, and wearing ourselves out. I caught the worst case of strep throat I've ever had on that tour; I was shivering and sweating onstage, trying to sing backups with these gnarly blisters popping in the back of my throat; we were essentially worn out. On the good side, we got to meet Rik Ocasek and Paulina Porizkova, and I can tell you that they are absolutely wonderful humans. I regret that we gave the impression that our bad experience on that tour was directly due to Weezer. In truth, they were good, down-to-earth, friendly guys, and I think we ended the tour on pretty warm terms. Having said that, I hope they don't find out that we were sneaking into their green room during their sets and making sandwiches from their well-appointed spread!
PSF: Was there a shift in the band's sound when it came to White Trash Heroes?
Gentling: I feel like our sound shifted with every album, but definitely with White Trash Heroes. We were getting pretty burned out by this time, especially Eric Bachmann and Mark. We had been touring a lot, over 200 shows a year on average, I think? We were getting older as a band, and our sound mellowed somewhat, but I still felt very engaged. For my own part, it was the first time I felt comfortable experimenting and trying weird ideas in the studio. As tired as we were, I think we had a refreshingly new perspective on our songwriting and recording. I loved that whole session. It's weird, because in retrospect, I guess the band was coming to an end, but at the time it felt revitalizing. White Trash Heroes is still one of my favorite things we did--maybe my second favorite, after the EP. There was more variety in song styles, in tones, in crazy-ass ideas floating around the studio. It was alien to me and very fun.
PSF: What ultimately caused the band to stop?
Gentling: Quite simply, we burned out. We were constantly touring, and had been for years. Our musical tastes were diverging a bit, and it was making problems in our family-like friendship. We were assured for years that if we stopped touring, we would be forgotten and languish, so we hadn't let up. When we first formed, we had a meeting; we were sitting on a sidewalk on Columbia Street in Chapel Hill. What do we all want from this band? We all agreed on three things: we wanted to put out a single, we wanted to play a show at the Cat's Cradle, and when it stopped being fun, we would stop doing it. When the phone call came, it was all about how it had stopped being fun. We stayed true to our rule, and we stopped. Originally, we intended to leave our hiatus open-ended, but people laughed and said we were kidding ourselves, so eventually we just started saying we broke up. Paramount was the friendship, though, and we remained friends throughout.
PSF: How did you come to play with Superchunk and what else were you doing during this time?
Gentling: After we stopped playing, I had a little money, and absolutely no idea what to do. I had been living with my friend/brother Alex in Carrboro for years in a little cabin when I wasn't touring. When I was home, my bedroom was a screened in porch and my rent/utilities were dirt cheap, so my funds built up. I had moved back to Asheville and was playing in other bands, working some retail at my friends' climbing shop, and mainly spinning my wheels. A few years back, Jim Wilbur from Superchunk had offered to roadie for Archers for free, his schedule permitting. I told him I'd return the favor if possible. One day, in Asheville, I got a call from Mac, "Jim says you'd be up for doing some roadying?" I had a special purpose! I went out on a couple of tours with them and they were a blast. I loved roadying. I didn't have to be on stage, but I could still be in the middle of the music. They never let me, but I could've unloaded and loaded all their stuff, set it up and broken it down. I had a system. One evening at home, before another Superchunk tour, Mac asked me if I could play guitar. I told him I was absolutely horrible at it, but it didn't stop me from banging away. He emailed me back, "Are you really shitty, or are you just being humble?" I really wanted to play with them, so I lied. "I was just being humble." I spent the next couple weeks trying to polish my acoustic guitar "skills." Mac was kind enough to simplify the parts for me, and Jason, the tour manager/keyboardist/soundguy assured me "I'll mix you in there just for texture." That's just about the only time I've ever played guitar on stage. It was a blast. I would hide backstage with my guitar tech gear and an acoustic guitar and a little amp. They kept asking me to come out onstage when I played, but I didn't want to; I was happy in my little hiding place. They never gave me a hard time about that. I love those Superchunk people.
PSF: What sparked the Archer's initial reunion and what was the response like?
Gentling: Ever since we stopped playing in '98, we remained friends, and stayed in touch. Our post-Loaf bands would sometimes play shows together, I played bass on a Crooked Fingers tour, we would get together whenever we could. Eventually, friends started bringing up the idea, and we started realizing we were all into it. We got together to play a bit and it was a blast, so we tried it out opening for our friends The Love Language and it felt good, so we went for it. I called it Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp, because most of us had norm jobs and it felt weird going out every weekend to play rock, and then return, tired as hell to your real job. I was working in a retail store at the time and I hate doing retail, so the weekends away playing were a godsend. The shows went really well and the crowds were amazing! I kept joking that the female attendance had skyrocketed to 15%! I reasoned that some of the knuckleheads that liked our band had convinced women to marry them in the intervening 13 years since we'd played last. I also realized we were indirectly pumping lots of money into the babysitting industry. Other than that, it was like old times.
PSF: Do the band have any future plans regarding touring or recording?
Gentling: We've vaguely discussed playing more shows, but nothing concrete. I'd love to write more stuff with those guys. I think if we do, there's a good chance it'll bear zero resemblance to our old stuff. It's important not to waste time chasing what you used to be, so who knows what any new songs would sound like, and to me that uncertainty and potential for discovery is very tempting. Also, those guys are so full of talent, it's always great to write with them. But who knows? We're all pretty busy doing other things, so the options are somewhat limited. We've never discussed new songs in any specific way, just speculation, really.
PSF: How did you come to basically rejoin Band of Horses and what has this last year been like?
Gentling: Ever since I got to tour with them in 2007, we've remained close. Ben is one of those friends I could text at any hour of any day with a stupid joke or random comment, and he'd text me back almost immediately. I would hang out with those guys any chance I got; I love them all. Eventually, Ben asked me to play some bass on a solo tour he was planning. I was working in cell phone towers at the time, and it was tough getting a whole 3 weeks off, but I had to make it happen. The tour was a blast, and we kept in even closer touch after that. One day, Ben asked me to record some bass on a song here in Asheville at Echo Mountain studios, so I came up with a part and recorded it. He asked Eric Johnson to play on another song. It was a blast. The whole time, I thought I was recording on one of Ben's solo projects; I didn't find out till later that it was for a Band Of Horses album. Eric and I were ecstatic and grateful to be a part of an album I've come to love so much, and afterward we were discussing the experience and he said, "You were a fool not to jump on bass duty full-time back in 2007." I had to admit he was right. I replied that if I had it all to do over again, I would jump on that gig and not let go. Oh well, I figured, live and learn. I had a similar conversation with their former guitar tech. About two months after that, I got a message from Ben. I was completely surprised, and it couldn't have come at a more perfect time in my life. I told Ben to count me in, and that I wasn't leaving until he told me to, and it's been wonderful ever since. The tours have been incredible, we just finished recording an album and it might have been my favorite recording experience ever, believe it or not. And now I can't wait to get back out on tour. I love the music and the people, and I'm at a place in life where I really want to be travelling again. It could not be more perfect.
PSF: What is everyone else in the Archers up to?
Gentling: Eric Bachmann was touring as guitarist in Neko Case's band for a while, and he really enjoyed it, but now he's focusing on his own stuff. He just finished recording an amazing new album. Eric Johnson played on several of the songs. Bachmann and his wife Liz had a son a while back, and they're talking about building a home in the mountains of north Georgia, which I will love, because they'll be a bit closer. Eric Johnson lives here in Asheville, and works as a lawyer. He's still writing and recording beautiful music and we see each other frequently. Mark is living in Carrboro and working in the bike industry; I think he's managing a warehouse? I don't see him enough and I miss him.
PSF: What do you hope will be the band's legacy?
Gentling: I've never been too compelled to think along those terms. I'm just an idiot plugging away at life and trying to be the best person I can be. I guess that's an unambitious outlook? I hope we've improved some people's lives in some small way by making music that felt good, and/or was interesting and/or enjoyable. The music has uplifted and sustained me so much, in so many ways, and I'm so grateful for it, if it's had even a miniscule positive effect on anyone else's life, I'm cool with that. Not much, as far as grandiose vision goes, but there you have it.
Also see our 1996 interview with Archers of Loaf
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