Hit the reset button
Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson gets friendly
Sacramento, CA 95814
Eric Johnson says he’s always been something of a loner—that is, until he decided he could get by with a little help from his friends.
So, even as the Portland-based singer-songwriter moonlighted on the road with the Shins and Vetiver, he contemplated change at home. Finally, he decided to “hit the reset button” on Fruit Bats, expanding it from a solo project into a full-fledged band.
“I came from an era in the ’90s when a lot of one-man bands such as Guided by Voices and Palace were making music,” Johnson said of Fruit Bats, who perform Monday at Luigi’s. “[But] I’d toured a lot, seen people with bands and I was a little envious, thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a real band, it has a dynamic.’”
Johnson brought in a group of friends, including the Grand Archives’ Ron Lewis, to help record Fruit Bats’ fourth full-length album, The Ruminant Band. The idea, he said, was to retool, if not quite reinvent, the band’s sound.
“I consciously brought people in so that I could change my approach—I had to change my approach.”
“When I did my first album, Echolocation, I had no concept of what it meant to do a live show. I came from a four-track background, I didn’t care about bass and drums; I didn’t care about playing live.”
The Fleet Foxes epic pop LP helped, in part, to change Johnson’s mind.
“I wanted to do something that would be easy to replicate live, [and I had] seen the Fleet Foxes who sound exactly like what they sound on the record,” he said.
“I thought, if someone bought our record and liked what they heard, then I wanted that to be exactly what they heard [at a show].”
That approach required Fruit Bats to plug in and go electric, recording much of The Ruminant Band live in the studio.
“I wanted the record to be the sound of five people in a room, jamming like it was the ’60s or ’70s.”
Indeed, the album is steeped in a melancholy, sometimes sprawling California rock ethos. The album opens with “Primitive Man,” a series of gentle but jangling guitar chords that build to a crescendo before dropping to showcase Johnson’s sweet whine of a voice on lyrics such as “The sky was a monster made out of tears.”
Throughout, Johnson’s songs unfold like novellas, fully realized narrative with characters and story arcs, drama and detail such as on “Singing Joy to the World,” which chronicles an ill-advised love story between an American Indian-casino piano player and a Mexican-food-joint waitress.
“That’s my Tom Petty song,” Johnson said with a laugh.
“A song like ‘American Girl’ only has two verses; he’s not real wordy but it tells a whole story,” he said.
“That’s something I’ve been experimenting with. I used to have this fear of putting my heart on my sleeve. I was more interested in imagery. These days, I’m trying to tell stories.”
Fruit Bats’ artistic evolution represents personal growth for Johnson, but he dismisses the notion, as some critics have suggested, that his music is now more “polished” or “normal.”
“My first few records came out at a time when the White Stripes and the Hives were big, so here I was, doing this kind of futuristic spin on country and folk, and it was considered weird, and now it’s not,” he said.
“It’s not that we’re incredible pioneers, it’s just that the times have finally caught up with the freak-folk movement.”
Johnson stops short of taking any credit for that current musical trend or, for that matter, even classifying his music as such.
Fruit Bats’ music, he said, is filtered through his “bastardization” of Southern rock and Americana bands that, in turn, bastardized various blues, folk and country acts.
“It just sounds like old stuff.”