12th Apr2010

History Lesson: Fruit Bats

by Todd

This one, does not go to eleven.
I’ve never enjoyed going to high-end stereo shops. Invariably, the salesman will put me in a room with the latest John Mayer record cranked up to its’ highest volume. Smiling, he will turn to me and say, “Sounds great doesn’t it?”.
The Fruit Bats don’t believe they need to impress you with volume. They impress you with their beauty; subtle and melodic. This is the antithesis of the mid-80′s Sub Pop band, bashing your brains in with grunge. The plaid remains the same. It just attacks you in a more elegant manner.
Eric Johnson, leads the band and takes a few minutes to reflect on their last record, before sharing his plans for the future.

TDOA: When you were doing interviews promoting The Ruminant Band, you talked about how it differed from previous Fruit Bats records. First, do you think you’ll use the same people on the next record?

EJ: Yes – we’re already making plans for the follow up to Ruminant and its going to be all the same dudes. Which is something of a crazy milestone for me as it’s always been something of a rotating cast of characters. This was the first record of mine that I didn’t approach so much as a solo effort. We almost changed the name of the band during the making of this. One of the choices was “The Ruminant Band,” which ended up as the album title (and a song) instead.

TDOA: You’ve discussed that you took a more passive role on that record. Did those songs still start with melodies that you constructed or did you just add your own touches during the songwriting process?

EJ: I constructed all the melodies. I don’t really have too much of a process – I’m something of a collage-style songwriter. But the melody is usually what happens to me first, and I’ll usually apply that to weird combinations of words that have been floating around in my head. Then I see where it takes me. But I don’t have much of a process. Usually I won’t write anything for months, and then all of a sudden I’ll write five songs at 2AM when I can’t sleep. It’s almost never in the middle in the afternoon when I’m earnestly trying. A couple of years ago I was commissioned to write a few songs for other people – kind of my attempt at being a Brill-Building kind of guy. Nothing ever came of it – I was never given a real reason why, but I suspect it’s because the pressure of having to do something like that – sit down and write a song because someone asked you to – compromises the spontaneous nature of it all. Nonetheless, I’d still like to be a Goffin-King kind of dude. Someday maybe.

TDOA: As you think about a new album, do you think you’ll follow a similar formula and have you begun writing for a new record?

EJ: No, I think we’re going to approach this next one really differently. My idea is to have it be a bit more esoteric, stripped down and woozy. The last tune – “Flamingo” – on Ruminant is perhaps an indication of where I want to go. Weird old rusty soul songs, more country, R&B and folk from the old world, but still hopefully with my pop filter put on there – I can’t really help that if I tried.

TDOA: Do you find that you’re able to write while you’re on the road or do you prefer to write when you’re not touring?

EJ: Writing at home is easier for me. That said, after I’d been on the road with The Shins for nine months or so (off and on) in ’07, I started to write on the road. Granted, it’s easier with those guys because although we’re on a relatively cramped bus a lot of the time, we do have hotel stretches and its a pretty controlled environment. At the end of those tours, when the promo part had died down, I found myself sneaking off to write Fruit Bats stuff – I felt it bubbling up. I wrote “Blessed Breeze” backstage in London while everybody was at dinner. I wrote “Beautiful Morning Light” in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Glasgow. The opening riff to “Primitive Man” was early in the morning on the bus on a US tour. But like I said before, on the couch at home at 2AM is invariably when it really starts coming out of me – “Unusual Friend” and “Feather Bed” came from sleepless nights.

TDOA: Given your role in different bands, do you ever feel conflicted while writing music? When you write something, how do you decide what will become a Fruit Bats song and what you’ll contribute to The Shins?

EJ: I’ve never written with the Shins. I was brought in at the 11th hour to be a touring member after The Shins’ “Wincing the Night Away,” which I had guested on briefly (I did a vocal arrangement for “Girl Sailor”) but nothing more. After a while on the road it was kind of clear that I was in the fold and I was doing interviews with them, signing autographs, being in the pictures at photo shoots. It was pretty organic. But James and I have never written together and haven’t even really been in the studio much. So I can’t say. The Shins is very much his deal in the way Fruit Bats is mine, so I can be sensitive to what he wants or doesn’t want because I’m well aware of his position. Obviously, his position is much more public and amplified… So, anyway, everything I write is Fruit Bats. Anything that comes out of me goes to that band.

TDOA: Can you talk a bit about the video for The Ruminant Band? How much do you get involved in the creative process of making a video and how much do you leave in the hands of others?

EJ: That was the perfect example of great timing on the part of The General Assembly, who are the directing collective that directed the video. I originally had someone else lined up to direct the video, but he ended up getting a deal to do a pretty big feature film and we had to decide on another director. It wasn’t some huge deal – we had plenty of time – but right when I was starting to think of other people, The General Assembly guys (who I didn’t know at all) emailed me randomly and sent me their reel. I loved it and hired them right away. It almost never works that way, but their stuff is amazing and their timing was genius. The video was all them – they approach all of their videos like little feature films and I was so into their ideas and vibe that I put it all in their hands without even worrying about having to tinker with it myself. I’m a film school dropout, so I’m always having video ideas. But more for other people… I don’t think I’d have the emotional energy to work on a Fruit Bats video myself.

TDOA: Interviewers generally peg you as a happy person, but there’s definitely some dark undertones in some of your lyrics. As you prepare for a new album, where do you find yourself on the emotional
barometer and have you considered writing an album that’s more overtly dark?

EJ: I’m not sure where the happy person tag came from. I think it was in our one sheet, something about major chords and positive overtones. I’m certainly not dark or anything – just not this rainbow colored ray of sunshine that I’ve been painted out to me. I’ve got all the same joys and sorrows as the next person, I can get frustrated and angry and depressed and all that. My lyrics are a bit more complex than just about sunshiny stuff. They’re usually about the fucked-upedness of this world, how we’re all alone, entropy, whatever… But I usually like to end them on a hopeful note is all – and to have them be pop songs at heart. I don’t care if people find my music uplifting or not – as long as they don’t discount it, or find it lacking gravity simply because its upbeat, uptempo, major key or whatever… The next record is still gonna come from my brain, so it’ll have the same overtones. Maybe with some textural differences that will make the songs seem like they’re coming from a different place. Which is mainly what people grab onto anyway – textures and vibe – its all about the context you put it in. If its hazy and minor key it doesn’t matter if you’re singing about puppies – its gonna sound more deep and mystical than if you’re pouring your heart out over a little-ditty chord structure.

TDOA: I’ve seen The Fruit Bats twice, once in front of a large crowd and once in front of a pretty small crowd. Yet, the band was just as enthusiastic and energetic each time. How do you motivate yourself to
play live, regardless of the crowd size?

EJ: Playing music is fun. I’ve been doing shows for close to twenty years now, ten years of that time on the road with various bands of every level. I’ve played in front of one person once (and the bar we were playing at left the TV basketball game on – loud). I’ve played at the Reading and Leeds festivals in front of 40,000 or so people. But its all more or less the same when you think about it – someone’s paying you money to play a guitar. I’m not saying I want to go back to playing for that one person. But if someone’s there to see you you owe it to them to give it your all. I’ve seen other artists get frustrated with small crowds. But you shouldn’t punish the people who were clearly the only people in that particular town who give a fuck about you. You should be even more stoked about those people.

TDOA: You may have already addressed this above, but what are your plans for 2010?

EJ: Touring and more touring. I’d like to record some more music, too – we’ll see. I don’t want it to be another four years before the next one comes out.

To learn more about the band visit their website.

To purchase their music via iTunes, click on the candy-like grey button:
Fruit Bats

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