The Flora and the Fauna: An Interview with the Fruit Bats' Eric Johnson
Wherein all manner of fish, beast, and song is discussed, including seals, Charles Grodin, nerds, and the beautiful new record Spelled in Bones.
[Editor's note: Eric Johnson and Michael Metivier know each other from the old days, so they let the tape roll and rambled a bit, somehow making it turn out to be meaningful. All you need to know is that the Fruit Bats have a new album out called Spelled in Bones. After that, we'll just leave it to you to figure out how Eric Johnson's fun personality and zoological bent inform his unique songwriting.]
PopMatters: I wanted to see if you knew anything about the Great Auk.
Eric Johnson: The Great Auk?
PM: A-u-k. Auk.
EJ: Yeah, it's an extinct seabird, I believe. And I know not too much else about the auk other than it's a seabird that went extinct, and correct me if I'm wrong, it went extinct because of feral animals eating its eggs, is that right?
PM: A lot of it had to do with that. I've been reading a book about it, and thought if Eric doesn't already know about this he'll be interested to hear. Auks were also very stupid, unfortunately.
EJ: Like the dodo*.
PM: Like the dodo. Sailors and explorers would put like a plank down between the island and the ship, and invite them onto the boat, and they'd come right over and get whacked.
EJ: And eaten?
PM: And eaten, which is too bad.
EJ: It's funny you say that because I am, I'm really fascinated for some reason by extinct modern animals. Animals that have gone extinct within our, you know, epoch of human settlement. Animals that have gone extinct within the last 500-1,000 years. The one that I'm really into is the Tasmanian wolf. Well, it's called the Tasmanian wolf or the Tasmanian tiger. And the actual scientific name is the Thilocene, so some people call it that, too. It was kind of this carnivorous marsupial that lived in southern Australia and Tasmania. And some people say that they still exist because they're pretty elusive anyway. But they're awesome-looking. Their jaws can become unhinged. You should just look them up, 'cause for me to explain would just, I could take up the entire interview.
PM: How long ago did they become extinct?
EJ: Like the 1920s. So not very long ago. There's photographs of them. They made film. They were able to film them in zoos. I watched this whole special on how [conspiratorial voiceover whisper] they might still exist! Yeah I'm fascinated by the Tasmanian tiger.
PM: To mention some non-extinct animals, you can see seals now [in Tacoma, WA].
EJ: I can see seals now, yeah. Not all the time, but you can definitely go down to the water every now and again and they're hanging out. Sometimes whales come on in here, too.
PM: What kind of whales?
EJ: Usually orcas. There is a resident orca pod in Puget Sound that you can see anytime really. The Sound goes for, I don't know, 115 miles? So you see them anywhere along there, and there's so many inlets and stuff.
PM: Do you ever get a chance to get out on the water?
EJ: I haven't really been out on the water. Except on a ferry. That's usually the only time.
PM: I just went kayaking for pretty much the first time. They don't tip like canoes.
EJ: Yeah, I've never been kayaking. It's like the big thing out here. I've got to learn how to do that.
PM: Then I'm sure you could see everything up close.
EJ: Undersea critters and whatnot.
PM: Speaking of whales, and to bring it around to Fruit Bats, there are quite a few whale references on Spelled In Bones.
EJ: Was there really?
PM: Yeah, more than one song.
PM: Unless I didn't interpret it quite right.
EJ: I never figure these things out until someone points them out to me.
PM: Well, there's the line "There is peace in the belly of the beast".
EJ: That's a whale.
PM: I thought that was a whale. And there was a direct reference to a whale in one song.
EJ: Yeah there's "Gotta have the lungs of a whale". There's a few whale things in there.
PM: And then there's the leviathan on Mouthfuls and things like that. I can understand not realizing on a particular album that there are songs that reference the same thing. But when you write, are you bringing in animals and ideas and images that you're reading about or thinking about?
EJ: I have no idea where it comes from. I used to write a lot of times, like on Echolation, which is the most zoological of all the Fruit Bats albums, I wrote half of that while watching PBS nature shows, sitting on the couch just watching nature shows. My friend Howard Hamilton, who's sort of the one-man band in this band called the Busy Signals, from Minnesota, he writes a lot of his stuff just watching normal TV.
PM: Like Judge Judy?
EJ: Yeah, just letting stuff come in and regurgitating it somehow. I've heard that Bob Pollock of Guided By Voices gets a lot of his song titles by misreading signs while he's driving around. Like Bee Thousand, came from driving by this movie theater where they were playing this Charles Grodin dog movie Beethoven, and [he] misread Beethoven as Bee Thousand. And I think Alien Lanes came from a bowling alley called Allen Lanes. But anyway, I'm digressing here. So Echolocation definitely came a lot from watching PBS and sort of mishearing things I was hearing, or not mishearing them or whatever. The song "Union Blanket" on Mouthfuls came from watching Antiques Roadshow. But Spelled in Bones, not so much. I'm just more in a groove now with what I want my imagery to be, although maybe it all kind of came from that initially.
PM: It seems, in comparison with your earlier albums that as a whole it's a lot wordier in general.
EJ: I wanted to do stuff ... I initially came from the Califone background where the instrumental passages do a lot of the speaking, and I wanted to make it a little tighter and more concise. Like short intros, take an instrumental bridge and make it really short, and just have the words fill in anything. Not as much repetition as I'm known to do.
PM: It definitely came across that way. "Tighter" is the word I've used to describe it, because the energy on the record is more compacted, there's more words in every song, rather than passages that are encased in really round, atmospheric settings. In the way you sing it as well. Especially on "Legs of Bees", there's an energy in your voice that's very different than the way you sound the last two records.
EJ: That's all right, basically. Actually, "Legs of Bees" strangely enough that you mention that one. That is the oldest song on here. I think one of the reasons maybe I gave "Legs of Bees" such an energetic performance on the record is because that's one we've done live for a really long time, and it was always kind of like the barn-burning set closer. It actually, as happy as I was with how everything on the record turned out, I'm probably the least happy with that on,e which I know you're not supposed to criticize your own stuff. I mean, I'm happy with it, but I think live ... that one's just become a live song. We actually tried to do that song for Mouthfuls and it didn't work. It's just an elusive song that I've had a tough time recording.
PM: It kind of floats in between the two separate characters of both those records.
EJ: Yeah, it kinda does. It was sort of supposed to be the central little centerpiece of Mouthfuls, which was supposed to be this album about regeneration or something like that, this concept album about procreation or pollinization. Pollination, I guess, pollinization is not a ... [laughter all around]. It's kind of a cool made-up word.
EJ: Pollinization could be the next album title for us. It's like a cross between "colonization" and "pollination".
PM: Did you feel the same way about Spelled in Bones, that there was a different kind of concept for this one?
EJ: You know, I kind of wanted there to be. I always do. But no. I always have this idea that it's gonna be and it just never quite turns out that way. I think you need to be really disciplined. Although I'm totally impressed and fascinated by Sufjan Stevens' 50 states idea, like man that guy's got focus, you know? I haven't heard the Illinois record, but he's already done two states that I lived in growing up. If he does Wisconsin next, that'll be the trifecta.
PM: I've heard a rumor that he might farm some of the states out.
EJ: Sufjan Stevens if you're reading this, I'll do Wisconsin. But I guess Echolocation probably is the only one that's even close to that really. And that one was the first one and such a long time coming, and such a weird little excited burst created that, that it's probably why it turned out that way. But this one was supposed to have this big theme to it, and it just didn't happen.
PM: The things I felt were key to me when I listened to it, I mentioned this line earlier in our conversation. "There is peace in the belly of the beast". That sums up a lot of what the record seems to me to be about. There's a sense of danger or dark times, but also an acceptance of that, or an escape from that.
EJ: Absolutely, but that's what, everything I've tried to write is kind of like that. "Things are fucked up but it's all right. You're okay, take a deep breath."
PM: And it ends on "Every Day We Wake Up Is a Beautiful Day". Which when I reviewed it, I brought up something I know we talked about a long time ago. This idea of a "new sincerity" movement that filmmakers have. This club, this kind of unspoken club where people are moving in the direction of anti-irony, and being able to say direct things that ten years ago would have seemed embarrassingly vulnerable. And in all your work I've felt that string, but particularly with the last track on Spelled in Bones, it felt like a declaration of "it's okay to feel and say these things."
EJ: Yeah, but I do think that if we're going to call it anything. I think the whole idea of what you just said, as long as you can do it without being completely cheesy. If there's going to be a movement spearheaded with that whole idea in mind, we oughta make sure not to be precious or cutesy, you know? And still be aware of cynicism...
PM: And bad things that happen.
EJ: And bad things that happen. Not be afraid of being emotional or whatever.
PM: Do you have favorite moments ... you mentioned "Legs Of Bees" as being a song that's not your favorite on Spelled in Bones. Do you have moments on it that you're particularly proud of looking back on it, because it's been ... how long has it been?
EJ: It took about a year to do, as opposed to a week for the last two. This was a considerably longer process. I really, I don't know. Because whenever I'm done with one I'm already thinking of ideas for the next one and how I'm gonna improve. I'm pretty happy with the whole thing. But if there was one or two songs that sort of turned out the way I wanted everything to turn out, it would be songs two or three. "Silent Life" and "TV Waves". I just wanted them to sound a little different than anything I'd done, these big romantic statements with lush arrangements, but not so lush that they're overwhelming.
PM: I also love "Earthquake of '73" for that same reason.
EJ: "Earthquake of '73" turned out really good. That was one of the last ones we did actually. I sort of wanted that one to sound like "Oh Yoko". I kind of ripped "Oh Yoko", the feel of that one.
PM: How so?
EJ: Just the rhythm and feel is kind of the same. But without the crazy ragged harmonica solo at the end. Which I almost did but [laughs]...
PM: You play harmonica now?
EJ: I can. I can fake it. Like, can play like Dylan slow in-and-out kind of harmonica. But not like Blues Traveler shredding harmonica.
PM: No John Popper?
EJ: No John Popper, no.
PM: That's too bad. But maybe next record, John Popper.
EJ: James Mercer from the Shins is actually a really good harmonica player, which most people don't know.
PM: You guys self-produced this record?
EJ: Yeah. Dan Strack did it. He's a pretty good little engineer himself, and he'd done little things here and there. I think this is kind of his first big project on his own. I think he did a fantastic job, and I hope that he becomes the next hot young producer, which is what we're hoping. And then Brian Deck mixed it in Chicago.
PM: So the band was you, John Byce, and Dan exclusively.
EJ: Yes. For the most part, with the occasional guest spot. John did most of the drumming. It was the first one where we had a consistent drummer, who was really more of a writing member. Whereas before we sort of had a rotating drum stool.
PM: How's the drummer search going now that John's down in South Carolina?
EJ: Well, we actually ... I did a crazy thing and put a little ad on our website. I've just been trying people out. I think I've found somebody. I don't want to say who, though, although I'm sure by the time this article comes out that person will have been confirmed.
PM: What kind of ... if you're already thinking about what the next project is going to be and how you want to improve upon the last, are you going to go more in the direction of Spelled in Bones....
EJ: No, it's going to be totally different. If I was to record it today, and I know I'm going to say this, I've done interviews for every record and made some proclamation about what the next one is going to be and it never is. But, I'll just continue in the tradition and of saying something and it won't come true. I want to do like Led Zeppelin III for the next one. Two sides, looked at as vinyl. One acoustic, Lord of the Rings, Renaissance Fair, British folk, and then the other, heavy. Not like Zeppelin heavy, but more like T-Rex heavy. It's like the concept of Zeppelin III with the rock side and the folk side, except actually it'll be T-Rex on one side, and Tyrannosaurus Rex, their pre-T-Rex, more folk band on the other side. That's the plan.
PM: Do you have a lot of songs written?
EJ: I have a lot of skeletons of songs written, but nothing really written.
PM: Now, is there anything burning at you that you've been had the chance to talk about in an interview? Could be anything. Could be about the Great Auk.
EJ: There are well, there's about a million things that I don't even want to talk about in an interview. 'Cause they're angry things. And that's one thing ... I could talk about the fact that there's things that I don't want to talk about. For example, there's all kinds of things I'd like to get off my chest about the fate of music and what irks me, but I try to keep a good attitude about things, too. I usually come up with really brilliant repartee with interviewers like, in the shower. Where I'm going to say really profound things about how I'm going to change things, but when it comes down to it I just talk about T-Rex, and the Great Auk. But yeah, there's times I feel like I want to talk shit, but I don't. And I've never really heard a good interview with somebody talking shit, it never really makes them sound good. And I truly don't want to talk shit, but sometimes I feel like I do.
PM: Well, you don't have to talk shit. We could talk anti-shit about something that's really amazing.
EJ: What is amazing. I got some new fish for my fish tank. I set up a brackish water tank, which simulates estuary waters...
PM: So it's not a sparkling blue...
EJ: No, it's sparkling blue. A lot of people when they hear "brackish" they think it means muddy. It doesn't. It just means estuary waters, which is where saltwater and freshwater meet. In some ways you have a smaller scope of fish you can put in there, but you also have certain fish from both saltwater and freshwater territories that you can put in there. Basically fish that live in river mouths or mangrove swamps, in tidal areas where sometimes the saltwater will be rushing in from the tide or freshwater from the rivers. So they have to fluctuate their salt levels.
PM: Big fish?
EJ: Nothing too big. It's a 25-gallon tank. But I've got some puffer fish which are pretty awesome. Two different kinds of gobies. Which if you've never seen gobies, they're the kind of fish that don't have a swim bladder. So they can't float. They swim like a person, or an otter. They can't float around, they don't swim like fish, they kind of doggie paddle around.
PM: I've got a book recommendation for you then. A book called The Scar, by China Mieville, that I read about in The Believer. It's science fiction, but it also goes beyond the normal genre confines, it's also really good prose. And this one takes place on the water, in a huge pirate city that made up of all these old ships and boats tied together. And there's all sorts of real and fantastical water creatures.
EJ: I'm really into the fantastical zoology. That sounds like a cool alternate world. I'm not like a science fiction fan, but I kind of am. I have very specific ones that I like. But I tried to write science fiction when I was a kid, when I used to be into writing. It was the first thing I wanted to do. I actually won the Illinois State Young Author's contest when I was in seventh grade. It wasn't really a sci-fi book. It was more like a thriller/horror book about a cartoonist whose cartoons come to life and attack him. It ended up winning. But there's not actually one winner. A bunch of kids win and then you go to this convention. It was weird because I was good at writing but I was really a bad student and kind of a bad kid. Like a misbehaver, a little hooligan.
PM: Like a prankster.
EJ: A prankster, and I had detention a lot. So I had to go to this convention. But I was a nerd too. I wasn't like a cool kid or something. I was a nerd but kind of a bad nerd. So I didn't fit in with any of these types or groups.
PM: I like the idea of being a bad nerd. I think I was a nerd who aspired to be a bad nerd. Like I aspired to not give a shit about the things that I did.
EJ: I was a nerd who smoked cigarettes when I was 12. I think a lot of the bad nerds end ... I think if you're a bad nerd when you're twelve, you're probably going to end up a musician of something. That's usually a good sign of the career track you're headed for.
* see "A Dodo Egg", from Echolocation