Article by: Andrew Miller | Photos courtesy of Fruit Bats | Posted: 09/17/2012
Sometimes you have to be careful about what you say in an interview with music journalists. Take, for instance, Eric D. Johnson, the creative impetus behind the folk-rock outfit Fruit Bats, being quoted saying he doesn’t like new music.
“I’m not too sure what I meant when I said that — it may have been a tiny bit misquoted there, as I love a lot of new stuff and ingest it at a pretty regular rate,” Johnson says, in order to correct the misconception. “But I will say, I’m not a ‘read-Pitchfork-everyday-and-make-a-list’ kind of dude. It’s not so much that I don’t like new music, I just like to take my time with how I consume. And there’s so much amazing old stuff floating around. I like a little history behind things. But I love new stuff, especially friends of mine’s music — it’s really meaningful to know the people making the music you like, and I’m super fortunate to be in the music world and know some folks making amazing stuff.”
It’s not enough to be careful about saying what you don’t like, either; you also have to be careful about saying what you do. Another prominent narrative within Fruit Bats articles — namely, all of them, including this one — is Johnson’s love of tracks off of ‘70s AM radio, which has become something of a compulsory topic for writers to ask about:
“My favorite ‘70s AM jams? So hard to say…I never get sick of ‘Baker Street.’ Never get sick of ‘Reminiscing.’ Too many to list, really.”
And after asking about his favorites, it’s required to ask what effect that music has had on Fruit Bats and his songwriting:
“I do love a lot of that stuff (though I wouldn’t necessarily say everything I’ve ever done comes from that),” he says, the parenthetical aside showing obvious boredom with answering the question. “But it certainly had a profound influence on me as a kid, probably in the same way kids who grow up with, say, country or classical in the house. It just kind of gets in there. My parents listened to that and Bill Cosby comedy records.”
Enough already. Those subjects have been exhausted. Plenty has been said of Johnson’s influences, his likes and dislikes. After more than a decade and five Fruit Bats albums, it’s time for the subject to be retired in favor of something far more important: his music.
“It’s been slow and steady,” says Johnson of the outfit’s humble but substantial development over the last fifteen years, from one-man solo project to five-piece band. “The biggest change is that I make a living doing it, which was my modest goal from the outset.”
The group has come a long way from early solo four-track demos, and the key to Fruit Bats’ eventual success was Johnson’s dedication to the music from the very beginning.
“If you want to be in a band, you have to take a poverty vow and be OK with that,” he says. “I was super broke for ten years, but never really thought of bailing. I wouldn’t be compatible in the workforce. I’m certainly not a millionaire or anything now, but I’m super lucky that I get paid to play instruments and sing. But I starved for a long time.”
That level of commitment allowed Johnson to continue to make records that didn’t sacrifice critical acclaim in favor of commercial success, and over time, the albums — old and new — have received the recognition they’ve always deserved. Last December, a limited edition vinyl of 2001’s Echolocation was released to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Recognition for the band’s last two releases didn’t take nearly that long. 2009’s The Ruminant Band was a breakout hit that garnered favorable reviews from Spin, Pitchfork and others, and last year’s Tripper built upon that success.
Both The Ruminant Band and Tripper saw changes in Johnson’s songwriting style, emphasizing storytelling within the songs. (Learned, perhaps, from James Mercer during the years Johnson spent touring with The Shins?) The introspective songs on Tripper are based on the true story of a train journey Johnson took in his early 20s, where a bum offered him acid and threatened to kill him.
“It’s like they say – ‘write what you know,’” Johnson says of the change in style. “When I was younger I was pretty hesitant to ever write ‘about stuff.’ I was pretty guarded about my emotions and was really into imagery-based lyrics, but as I’ve gotten older, I like dipping into the well of my past and singing about it. It gives things meaning, I can sell it when I sing it, you know?”
It’s difficult to know whether fans are picking up on the album’s deeper themes and meanings, but it’s safe to say that the songs have struck a chord with fans during the band’s tour in support of the album.
“I have no idea [if fans are picking up on the album’s themes],” says Johnson, “but people have been dancing and singing along at the shows, so whatever they’re getting from it, I’ll accept!”
One thing is certain about the songs from Tripper: fans don’t care what songs from ‘70s AM radio may have influenced them. They’ve judged the songs on their own merit.
Fruit Bats - "You're Too Weird"