Sing My Songs to Me: Eric Johnson on the Return of Fruit Bats
Having left behind a highly identifiable name in 2013, Eric Johnson embarked on a career as EDJ. The music stayed the same but, Johnson says, a little bit of confusion in the marketplace had to go.
Eric Johnson is aware that virtually every journalist has the same question on their lips as he conducts press for the new Fruit Bats release, Absolute Loser: "How does it feel to be back?"
He jokes that he's prepared with answers in all sizes, depending on the needs of the writer or the radio personality at hand but the short answer, he says, is that he couldn't be more relieved to be working once more under the umbrella of a band that he launched nearly 20 years ago. "I realized I could change two words and go back to having people hear my songs and come to my shows," he offers, reflecting on his wilderness period. "It's been interesting to see how much the Fruit Bats identity means."
Johnson retired the name in late 2013. It was a decision brought on in part by personal tragedy. His wife had suffered a miscarriage and the subsequent pain and healing became central to the record that followed, the 2014 self-titled release from EDJ. "I don't have any regrets about that record but it was a kind of screaming into the void," he says. "Fruit Bats was never huge but there was something there, some audience. During the EDJ period I lost a booking agent and a manager. So there was a lot of swallowing of the pride."
He says that Absolute Loser is about many things, including the work he'd done under, more or less, his own name. "It's like a record about the EDJ record," he says, "the feeling of wanting to be heard but not wanting to be heard. I think that sometimes I write these records as comforting songs to myself."
He admits that the emotional quality to his music was, at least for a moment, one of his reasons for wanting to leave behind Fruit Bats. "I don't want to say that those first few Fruit Bats records were emotionally detached but they were almost like someone else," he notes. "It was like my band from my early 20s and I was singing these songs that were very impressionistic, like I had made a concerted effort to sing about nothing. Sometimes there was a universality that was able to reach people. But I've become more confident as a writer and more confident in singing about myself."
Along with that confidence came the realization that his songs and sometimes even his albums are interconnected. Tripper, released in 2011, was in many ways a road album as was its predecessor, Ruminant Band. The latter focused heavily on dreams Johnson had had had during the time. "I was having these weird hobo dreams," he recalls. "And some of those themes came back on Tripper. I write in twos, I guess. EDJ and this new record are companions. They really should just go together. I'd almost want to package them as one in the future."
He says knowing that fans will connect with the songs on a personal level is still sometimes surprising, though it's something he's gotten used to, especially since penning "When U Love Somebody", which made its appearance on the 2003 release Mouthfuls. "Everybody likes a love song," he says, "but I'd never written anything like that before. It was completely off-the-cuff. I didn't even finish it. It's just a verse repeated three times. But it resonates."
He adds that he resisted doing something in that same style until Absolute Loser. Tracks such as "Baby Bluebird" and "Good Will Come to You" find hope in the pain and "My Sweet Midwest" celebrates something left behind, that home to which one cannot return. "I think they like having something tangible in there with smears of impressionism just to keep it interesting," he says.
When time came to return to the studio he worked again with Tom Monaghan, his studio companion since Tripper. Listeners, he says, have gathered expectations about how the pair work in the studio but, Johnson adds, there's no dogma in matters of technique or instrumentation. "I've been approached by other people who'd like me to produce their records and they say, 'Oh, you probably go direct to tape and it's super tossed-off.' But the truth is we work with digital and we're very meticulous in the process," he notes. "At the same time we don't think a lot about how we'll join up acoustic instruments with current technology. We got into a room, there's stuff there, it's a recipe, there's no alchemy beyond that."
He says that much of his relationship with Monaghan comes down to a shared trust with the music. "If you don't have that trust, your goose is cooked. Without that you should really produce your own records which I could do but I like working with Thom," Johnson notes. "He'll call me on bullshit. And vice-versa."
One of Monaghan's greatest contributions, Johnson notes, is suggesting new settings or tempos for the music. Asked if he could point to a specific example from Absolute Loser, the singer-songwriter says, "All of them," before taking up the first single, "Humbug Mountain Song". He says, "That was a sad, slow Neil Young/Harvest kind of folk song. Then it became this kind of country disco track."
The acoustic guitar is an anchor on the record and an instrument that has been with Johnson from the start of his career in Chicago. "Some guys wanted me to be the singer in a high school band but I was too terrified to just stand there and sing," he recalls. "So I taught myself five chords on the guitar, the band never happened and I just started to play more. I definitely get the folk guy tag but I've always wanted to be in a rock 'n' roll band. And when you see Fruit Bats live it's not a coffeehouse folk concert or anything."
Johnson is in no hurry to release a live Fruit Bats record though. "I'm not a huge fan of live recordings. I think there's be a Pickathon set that will be released eventually," he says. "It's kind of like once I'm done with it I don't want to hear it anymore. A studio record is fun because that's like a puzzle that you're putting together. But a live show is something that you do and then that's it. I don't want to hear it once it's over. So," he adds, "I think we're going to do one. I just won't listen to it."
Johnson has made his home in the Pacific Northwest for the better part of the last decade, owing to the scene and the people who first embraced him outside his hometown. Chicago circa 1997 was deep in the throes of post-rock reverie and although not unkind to singer-songwriters not especially welcoming either. Save for members of the band Califone. "They were almost like a post-rock version of a folk band," Johnson recalls, "and I found my people in them."
Within a short time of meeting up with the group he took to road with them, where he met up with Modest Mouse and an early version of The Shins. "I just kind of met the universe all at once," he says. Before long Fruit Bats had inked a deal with Sub Pop and Johnson joined The Shins in 2006, before returning to his own roost three years later. "My community became the West Coast and it was cool because it was a place that resonated with me."
It was also a different time in the music industry, the final years before the physical media began disappearing from shelves en masse and budgets shriveled to less than microscopic proportions. "If all the circumstances were the same as when I started out in 2000 or so were the same 16 years later," he says, "I would have never been signed to Sub Pop. I would never have had the opportunities I had. I got signed to a great record label right away. I got a totally powerful booking agent right away. I got a really big publicist right away. It was ridiculous. I just thought that that was how it went."
The initial success has allowed Fruit Bats to maintain a loyal audience with newcomers arriving in moderate supply with each record. "There are those bands where they either get huge or they get sick of it and give up and neither of those things happened with me. We have this cult fan base but I've always said that as soon as it scales way back then maybe I should hang it up," he says, "but that hasn't happened yet."