Living in a van is isolating. No matter how comfortable you make the space, you still have nights when you wake up wondering where you are and how you got there. I moved to Portland and opted to live in a van for the sake of saving money, but gave little consideration to the loneliness of confining myself to a 96-square-foot studio apartment on wheels. I have no visitors, and make a concerted effort to go unnoticed by anyone that could be considered a neighbor. If you want to be left alone with your thoughts, vandwelling may be the lifestyle for you.
That’s exactly where Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf found himself. As the frontman of critically-acclaimed college radio fixture, Bachmann penned serrated power-pop anthems that laid the tracks for the indie scene that broke wide open in the late 90’s. When the Archers called it quits in 1998, he adopted the name Crooked Fingers and entered a dark, desolate landscape lousy with drifters, addicts, and the other seedy characters you’ll encounter in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The heartbreaking orchestral swells of tracks like “Broken Man” and “New Drink For the Old Drunk” make one thing certain about Bachmann’s post-Archers worldview: this is a sad, lonely, beautiful place.
I came across Bachmann’s 2006 solo record To the Races while sifting through a box full of playlist submissions at Ohio State University’s college radio station. I recognized the name and popped it in. The first thing I noticed was the bare bones production, which was pared back to little else than guitar and vocals. The record was attributed to Bachmann, not Crooked Fingers, which gave the lack of adornment a context that made immediate sense: this was a solitary matter.
As I listened to the opener “Man ‘O War”, I skimmed the press release Saddle Creek sent with the disc and saw something interesting at the bottom: Bachmann recorded this record while living in a van in Seattle.
Remembering that little detail as I prepared for my own vandwelling adventure, I scoured the web for details about Bachmann’s choice to live in a van. Finding nothing, I reached out to him. Bachmann, on tour with Neko Case and headed to Portland in September for MusicfestNW, was forthcoming with the details of how he ended up being a vandweller in the northwest for eight months. Here’s what he had to say via email.
Willamette Week: At what point in your career were you when this happened?
Eric Bachmann: It was summer of 2005. I was living in Seattle at the time and had just finished the last in a series of full band tours for Dignity and Shame.
What were the circumstances that led to you deciding to live a van? Did it seem like something that would provide a different outlook on life and maybe some newfound inspiration, or was it simply an issue of a need for a means to get by for the time being? Did you consider it for a lengthy period of time?
I had several months of upcoming solo touring scheduled and I didn’t feel like paying rent for a place that I was not going to be using. This was exacerbated by the fact that I had taken out 8 people for the Dignity and Shame tour and had lost a lot of money. This troubled me because I had always made money on tour, not lost. So I wanted to downsize. It was summer and I knew the weather in the Pacific NW would be conducive for living in my van. I also like working in small spaces and figured the anti-social environment would be good for getting some writing done.
For the sake of mental health I chose not to drink while I lived in the van. The first few weeks I was doing it I was drinking a lot at The Tin Hat and The Sloop Tavern and The People’s Pub. Afterwards, I would go back to park my van on a quiet street in Crown Hill or Ballard and sleep. I became depressed rather quickly: a thirty-five year old man getting drunk every night living in his vehicle.
I also wasn’t getting any writing done. At that point I knew I had to change things, so I quit drinking, joined the YMCA in the University District to exercise and get showers and got on a specific schedule. I would get up by 9am, go work out and shower, then write the rest of the day—usually in Golden Gardens Park or Discovery Park, only taking breaks to eat or walk around and clear my head out musically. When I got into that routine it became very functional and I became very lucid and happy. I did it for about 8 months. I could have done it a lot longer.
What was the vehicle like? Did you put in any amount of work to convert it to a more functional living space?
It was a 1999 Ford E150 white cargo van. I didn’t really do anything to it. The back was wide open and I placed a futon there. There were no windows in the back. It was a cargo van so no benches had to be removed or anything. I had a short stool and a cassette recorder. All of my things had been put in storage at a neighborhood facility so if I needed anything I just went and got it out of storage. I kept a PO box for a permanent address. That was legally a bit difficult to do, but I had a friend who worked at the mail services place that let me do it on the down low. If I had to use the restroom late at night, I would go to the Kinko’s on Market Street, as it was open 24 hours, except Fridays. My routine was so organized, though, so I never had any emergencies that way.
What was the reaction of friends/family when you told them you were deciding to do this?
I didn’t really talk about it with anyone. I was certain my friends and family would offer me lodging and I didn’t want it.
How did you end up in Seattle? Did you have one specific place there that you called "home"?
I had lived in a small, yellow house in Crown Hill for two years before I chose to do it. I knew the neighborhood well. I guess I originally came to Seattle because of Grunge.
That is a joke.
What was it like adjusting to your new living situation?
After I quit drinking, it was very easy and it became a very rewarding way to live. I was living responsibly and living within my means and staying healthy, but I had no financial responsibilities other than getting work done. This was perfect for me.
Did you encounter any interesting people or experiences along the way that you can say for certain would not have happened if you didn't decide to live in a van?
No. I chose to live in a van because I knew I could be left alone to get work done in there. I was also fairly stationary, so I didn’t come upon charismatic wanderers or train hobos or any of that romanticized stuff.
What were the difficulties you encountered throughout this time? Any specific things I need to be on the look out for that were unexpected to you at the time?
I was broken into once while touring solo. In Columbia, MO a seemingly strung-out guy broke in while I was asleep in a hotel parking lot. I kept a tire iron by my side at the time just in case, and when I swung it at him, he grabbed it, pulled it out of my hand and—thank god—ran off with it. Fortunately, he was as frightened as I was.
What kind of effect do you think this living situation had on the process of writing "To the Races"? Did it feel a lot different than your previous work under the Crooked Fingers moniker?
Once I got going the writing happened rather quickly. Usually it takes me a while, but I had a record’s worth in about 2 months. I was touring some while I was writing, too, so I wrote one or two while touring: like, Man O War I nearly wrote to completion while touring in Europe, then finished it when I got back to the van… this kind of thing.
A lot of your songs seem to reference very specific characters that have their own unique sets of virtues and vices. Could you imagine any of the folks from your songs living in a van for whatever reason?
I think yes. Many things are autobiographical with or without lies and/or hyperboles added for dramatic effect.
Where are you living these days? Are you currently involved in any projects? Any touring on the horizon?
Currently, I live in Athens, GA. Currently, I am playing guitar with Neko Case [who is headlining MusicfestNW, get tickets here] for her upcoming tours to support her new record, which comes out sometime this fall, I think? I’m also working on new songs as well. I don’t yet know what will become of them.