- ERIC D. JOHNSON: “Honestly, when I go in the studio, I like having a concept and totally throwing that out of the window and walking down a lot of hallways. The fun part of recording for me is coming out with something that you didn’t expect.”
IN THE midst of the early-2000s indie-folk haze, a little band called Fruit Bats came quietly wafting to the top of the ranks. With the slow-burn success of 2003’s Mouthfuls, "When U Love Somebody," a gently catchy, sweet-but-kinda-dark love song found its way on all matter of mix CDs and playlists, and Fruit Bats suddenly become known as Sub Pop's most underrated band.
A project that grew around the four-track recordings of Eric D. Johnson—former frontman of space-rock band I Rowboat and an eventual collaborator with The Shins, Califone, and Vetiver—Fruit Bats released four well-loved LPs before calling it quits in 2013.
After a couple of years of playing solo, Johnson has decided to bring back Fruit Bats, a decision he announced quietly though a simple Instagram post. Revival Fest (appropriate, huh?) is one of the first stops on the reunion tour.
We chatted with Johnson—a fellow as congenial and warmly thoughtful as the music makes—in anticipation of Fruit Bats’ headlining festival spot.
This was a very quiet, personable reunion announcement over Instagram—is that evocative of the nature of the reunion?
Eric Johnson: It's a reunion, but it was always a little questionable, because Fruit Bats has always been me with a rotating cast of characters. When I did the solo record and didn't do Fruit Bats anymore, it was unclear if the band was breaking up, or it was me changing name—a reunion is even hazier, in a way.
It’s a big, long, crazy, boring story, but I realized pretty quickly that with the solo thing, if I change two words more people are going to come. For me, it wasn’t an internal, emotional change to do this thing. Starting it up again I’m going to play these songs again
When you were writing solo, did you consider that separate from Fruit Bats? Is it a different approach for you?
Eric Johnson: It was a little bit of a certain vibe. I refer to every single album differently every time with the way I write, too. When I was approaching that solo thing, in a way, I was thinking in that way. In retrospect, it could have easily been a Fruit Bats record, just a different kind of one. It was just like, I went out there, did that solo thing, and realized this is no time to start something new right now with how things are. I missed those songs! Every time I would do a solo show, they would have me put Fruit Bats in parentheses—I put a silly thing on Instagram about that—but it's pretty much true! It says it anyway!
What was it like playing those songs again?
Eric Johnson: Pretty natural. It felt easy and really good, and was sort of like getting back together with an old girlfriend. I remember what's good about this...it's nice to be back. It feels like home.
Is there a certain part of your catalog you find yourself returning to the most?
Eric Johnson: For now, it's definitely the last couple records. I think that was a big part of it for me—I've been doing this for almost 15 years, so the first record, I was a lot younger. It's not that I don't feel connected to that material anymore—it just feels a million years away. The more recent stuff still feels like me, or current me.
That's interesting, since you called it quits on the 10th anniversary reissue of Mouthfuls.
Eric Johnson: That seemed like the right cutoff point, in a way. I think so many bands do the reunion, the 'let's go headline Coachella' thing—and obviously we're not going to be doing that any way...we'll probably do a couple tunes off Mouthfuls, people really like that record.
Have you had a particular direction in mind as you write [the new record]?
Eric Johnson: You always want it to be a moving forward while, at the same time, giving people the essence of what you think they might like about you, so it's hard to say. Honestly, when I go in the studio, I like having a concept and totally throwing that out of the window and walking down a lot of hallways. The fun part of recording for me is coming out with something that you didn't expect.
Writing songs, I’m lucky that I get to do this. Something feels innocent and simple about it, and especially I’m at the point now where I’m older, we have a set fan base that’s hopefully still around. In a way, I don’t I’m probably not going to write a Top 40 hit at this point, and that’s good. It’s a low pressure thing, hopefully.
Are these all new folks in your band?
Eric Johnson: All-new people, which is every few years, it kind of is. It's like a high school—every four years there's a graduating class!
You mentioned something a while back about existing in the "musical middle-class"—that stuck with me. What exactly do you feel that means?
Eric Johnson: I wouldn't be able to give other people's perspective, but it basically means that when you're in a band like Fruit Bats, and you meet your cousin's friend from somewhere who doesn't know indie bands, and they can't believe you're in a band. So it's the notion that, for most people, you're either in a band that's blink -182 or Miley Cyrus, a huge band or you're in a band they've never heard of.
You tour in a van, you write your own songs, and you have a fan base that’s not necessarily in the millions, and you make a living doing it, too, without having to do a day job, but you are not rich. For example, me: I’m a renter forever.
I think, basically, the notion is that you’re rich or poor, and that’s not totally true for a pretty substantial amount of people. That’s what indie rock, for lack of a better term, is, or was. I think that’s probably changed a lot; I feel really lucky to have sort have gotten to a certain level by 2004—I feel like I got in the door before it closed.
It’s way harder to be in a band now. I think back to in ’99-ish when I was starting, being really, strangely unambitious and getting signed to Sub Pop two years later—I don’t think that trajectory would happen to me now. If so, I would not be in the musical middle class. I wouldn’t. Nothing would have happened. I feel pretty lucky, but that idea I don’t know that it exists.
Your fans certainly seems ready for your return.
Eric Johnson: I think it's just one of the nice things, the byproducts of being around for a super-long time—you have people that have stuck around, so that's why there are bands that are cult bands. I don't necessarily think Fruit Bats is a cult band, really—people come to shows in certain towns that I literally have relationships with, because I've seen them for decade and a half, and that's cool.
That’s the one thing about sticking around long enough, and that’s what I would tell young bands: you eventually make money. You don’t make money off of songs, but if you have a lot of them, you at least make a little something. Those little numbers start to add up, if you can stick around and stomach the lean time.
Revival Fest is a very appropriately named early gig for y’all to be playing. Why did you choose to kick off this tour in the Southeast?
Eric Johnson: Savannah chose us! This festival was one of the first offers we had.
I'm just super-excited. There's very few places we have left to make a debut. I'm excited on very first run we get to come to place that's totally new for us.