If you haven’t yet, make sure to RSVP for our upcoming Bonfire Sessions in Seattle at www.jansport.com/bonfiresessions. The event is this Friday, August 17th and will feature intimate sets from Tacocat, Seapony, and of course, the Fruit Bats.
With the show just 2 days away, we took a few minutes to talk with Eric D Johnson, the man that’s spent the last decade performing as the Fruit Bats, about everything from his Midwest origins, scoring movies, playing with the Shins and Vetiver, acid freaks on cross country train rides, and the Fruit Bats’ aptly title most recent release, Tripper.
Q: I read that you grew up in Naperville,IL. Did you spend time in Chicago? Do you think growing up in the midwest influenced the type of music you create now?
A: I went to Junior High and High School in Naperville (living alternately there and the next towns over, Lisle and Woodridge) after moving around the Midwest a bunch. Then like many others in that area with eyes on bigger/better/weirder things, I got the f*** out of there as soon as humanly possible and moved to Chicago. Chicago versus the suburbs versus the greater Midwest at large are all pretty different places on the spectrum. But yeah, I’m still pretty Midwestern even though I’ve been on the West Coast now for nearly a decade, even though I’ve grown to be pretty Cascadian, too. I think the first few Fruit Bats albums were me writing about getting away from the cold winters and hot summers and the rust belt grime, basically longing for where I’m at now. For the more recent stuff I didn’t have that longing anymore. I’ve moved into stories. The last couple of records have been all about my weird obsession with drifters and drug culture, which I see you’re asking me about a few questions down… so more about that in a second.
Q: You worked on composing and performing the score for James Ponsoldt’s film “Smashed” with Andy Cabic of Vetiver. What was it like to work on a soundtrack? Was that the first one you’ve done?
A: It was super fun. I’ve actually scored five movies, working on sixth right now (also a collaboration with Cabic). “Smashed” was amazing, an altogether kind of perfect experience. Definitely different than my other scoring in that we had six days to do the whole thing. Scoring a movie is about as different as an experience from making a record as you can get and still be doing music. You generally have to be fully collaborating with at times a pretty big pile of people – a director, producer, sometimes various music department people, of varying levels of musical knowledge. There’s a lot of parameters in there. But I kind of like that, the parameters, that is. I can only imagine somebody like Dylan doing “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” score. He probably just ran roughshod over that whole thing. I can’t imagine him sitting around all night doing edits.
Q: You’ve played with the Shins and Vetiver. What was it like to tour and record with them?
A: My tours and recording with Vetiver were all pretty casual and friendly (I’m way more of an auxiliary member). More of just me being their buddy and hopping in the van from time to time if my schedule permitted. My time in The Shins was obviously way more involved and truly the most life altering experience I’ve had besides meeting my wife. Before 2007, I had a day job catering film sets, which was the only job that would permit me to tour with Fruit Bats, who have never made money on the road. I went from slinging eggs at 5AM for a bunch of union grips to traveling pretty luxuriously around the world in literally three weeks. It happened pretty fast. The Shins stuff was fun as hell, really good memories, got to see the world, play Saturday Night Live and get screamed at by thousands of people every night. It was also kind of like the graduate course in being in a band, and I pretty much vowed after my tenure with them that I’d find a way to just do music for a living, which even though its been tricky, I’ve managed to do since then.
Q: What’s it been like to be the bassist for the Shins but then the frontman of your own project?
A: I was the keyboardist/guitarist for Shins (for the record)… Anyways, differences between being in Shins or Fruit Bats? Apples and oranges. With The Shins, there was a pleasant removal from things that I miss quite a bit sometimes. There’s a lot of infrastructure with them, for starters, and then I was by far the least important member and thereby never really subject to any of the bullshit that comes with being in charge. With Fruit Bats, since I’m the main dude, I get to experience all the highs and all the lows in a more straight to the gut kind of way. You’re way more in it on club tours, you get a real sense of what’s happening with you… One night in New York is sold out, the next night in Buffalo there’s ten people. Kind of an emotional roller-coaster sometimes. But its super satisfying singing your own songs to people who are digging it, especially on those good nights.
Q: A lot of the songs from your past two albums, The Ruminant Band and Tripper, seem to tell stories. What was it that caused you to start writing songs that are narratives?
A: The aforementioned move to the West Coast kind of tripped my reset button for songwriting. I opened it up a bit more. But it may have just been that I got older and more confident, worked with other people, the usual. I set out a goal to write “about stuff” more… More than just painting abstract pictures. The themes from the last couple of albums came from when I first moved to Portland and would ride my bike down by the river, and see all the tent encampments and tramps and drug casualties. I found it endlessly interesting because we didn’t really have that kind of shit where I come from. You’d never choose to be homeless there. But the West Coast – its the last bastion of people who are still on the Great Adventure (regardless of the common fact that it was getting super f***ed up on drugs that got them there – I’m not so naive as to romanticize them that far)… Its goes back and forth between dark and beautiful, and spaces in between. I’ve always been drawn to that weird place. Which is why if my music sounds all rainbow and hippie, its really coming from my morbid fascination with the black hole you can get sucked into in that world… like getting swallowed up by the earth or pulled into a neverending acid trip.
Q: Tripper is based off a train journey from Chicago to Olympia, and you were approached by a hobo who offered you acid. Did you take it? He also threatened to kill you. How did that go down?
A: I was twenty years old and still in that seriously exploratory phase. This dude got on the train, which was empty, and sat down RIGHT next to me even though he could’ve sat anywhere. I was pretty scruffy and I think he identified me as a brother-in-arms or something. It was pretty much a generational clash – young idealism (and misinformed mysticism) clashing with an old guard dude who was just completely burnt out to the core. He was basically the grown up version of Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider. I tried being nice to him for a while but he was insane. The story is way too long to get into here, but essentially we rode together in this mostly empty coach car for twelve hours and had a lot of bizarre conversations, like two people having two completely different conversations – he tried to get me to trip with him (I had already been kind of in an acid phase but was NOT gonna trip with this freaker on a train). He almost got both of us kicked off at one point (because he sat right next to me, I was implicated as an accomplice and was too young and dumb to explain I didn’t know this dude). Which then led to him trying to fight me, which included him threatening to then kill me. Finally when he got off at 4AM in freezing Fargo, ND – he hugged me tenderly and gave me all of his leftover food, which I later threw away. In a strange way it killed the dream of Kerouac’s “On the Road” for me really quickly, though I regrouped and rebounded after I started touring in bands. The song “Tony the Tripper” and the whole album is kind of an alternate reality version where I end up going on the road full time with the guy.
Q: The video for ‘You’re Too Weird’ has some serious 80s vibes, though the song is pretty folksy. What drew you to that style for the video?
A: It’s folksy, but more in a Hall & Oates “Abandoned Luncheonette” kind of way. It was originally way, way folkier – I based the arrangement off of this semi-obscure (less so in the UK, I think) tune by Peter Skellern called “Too Much I’m in Love.” Which totally sounds like a disco-folk-Robert Wyatt. Or a precursor to The Sea and Cake. The style for the video was because we had no budget. So the guys who directed it – really amazing directing duo called The General Assembly – decided we’d just make it look cheap as hell because it was gonna be cheap as hell. It was pretty much all them. It was intended to look like a pre-MTV video, like the weird stuff the BeeGees did in their heyday. And yeah, the band is actors from central casting… People were very confused by this video in some pretty funny ways.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the kids’ shows you guys did last fall? YoGabbaGabba and all of that. What was it like? Was it difficult to write and perform for such a young crowd?
A: Our guitarist/keyboardist Dave Depper wrote the song we played for YoGabbaGabba. It was called “Hey There Mr. Martian” and was an ode to tolerance. It’s super catchy, I have it in my head right now due to the fact that I’m answering you about it. We played it on YGG’s live touring show, which was incredibly surreal. I’ll make it short to say we were pushed to the front of the stage on a moving riser while 3 year olds screamed and giant puppets danced around us.
Q: The Fruit Bats have been a band for a good 13 years now. Is there anything you expected to happen that did or didn’t during this time period?
A: In the 90’s, indie rock success was being able to sell out small rock clubs and sell twenty- thousand albums. So I kind of had these small goals. Even that goal seemed crazy to me. I just wanted to be able to tour at first. It was all baby steps. Then pretty quickly, all of my friends bands started to get huge. I sort of expected that was going to happen with me for a second, back when I was young and impatient and cocky. But I’m super glad of how everything turned out - slow and steady wins the race in my case. I’ve reached my 1990’s goal. I’m living the Clinton era dream!
Q: Tripper came out just a bit more than a year ago. What’s the future look like for you guys?
A: I’m diversifying. More film scores, more this and that. The future is now.