Fruit Bats’ first new album in five years arrived in May of 2016. In this month’s cover feature, we speak to Eric D. Johnson ahead of his Jan. 14 show at Revolution Hall.
Comfort can be a fickle thing, and we take it for granted once we no longer have it. We seek it more often than we realize, and it’s the reason we have best friends, favorite albums, fond memories. It can manifest itself both physically and mentally; your favorite spot on the couch comforts you in a remarkably similar way to when our minds wander, and we reminisce on the first time we went to our favorite beach, the first time we met our favorite person, the first time we heard our favorite album. They’re the things we rely on when life gets, well, uncomfortable.
The old adage is that good art comes from misery, but Beach Fossils proves otherwise on their latest record, Somersault, out June 2 via Bayonet Records. The Brooklyn indie-rock trio of Dustin Payseur, Jack Doyle Smith, and Tommy Davidson have found their comfort zone, both musically and with one another as people. Somersault represents the first time Payseur fully opened Beach Fossils up to his bandmates input, and it’s obvious something’s different.
Beach Fossils debut self-titled record is full of doubt, insecurity and anxiety. It’s a record of coping, discomfort, and angst. With 2013’s Clash the Truth, we find Payseur slowly approaching that comfort. The album sometimes displays a confidence he had lacked while recording the self-titled record. We grow comfortable alongside Dustin through their discography, and it’s done in very subtle ways. The lyrics shift, they become more about Dustin himself than the situations other people put him in. His passiveness is no longer the forefront. His voice, almost entirely faded and indecipherable across the self-titled album, turns into an easily understandable focal point on Clash the Truth. His guitar is less muddled, he experiments more with his instruments.
When it comes to Beach Fossils, we’ve come to expect a certain sound, a certain style. We’re comforted by Dustin’s often faded vocals, the dreamy guitars and the droning drum and bass. For any fan of the group, a Beach Fossils song is immediately recognizable by sheer style. With Somersault, we find that same comfort we’ve been looking for, and so has Dustin. It’s an incredibly vulnerable record, but it’s done so with a confidence previous records lacked.
No one but Dustin can fully know if this was a conscious decision, or if each record has been natural growth as both a musician/songwriter, and as a human who is fully comfortable with himself. Comfortable enough to turn a large part of an album to friends. Comfortable enough to be vulnerable to his audience without the insecurity.
Frontman Dustin Payseur took some time to chat with ELEVEN about music, touring, and their latest record, Somersault.
Eleven: I know it’s been your band and your child, but now Somersault is a collaborative record. What was the process like creating it? What role does everyone in the band fulfill?
Dustin Payseur: Before, yeah, like you said it was just me on all the previous records sitting by myself writing songs, and now with Somersault it was more like we’re all sitting together in a room just fucking around with different ideas. Tommy will start playing something on the keyboards and I’ll pick up the bass and Jack will go on the drums and we’ll come up with a little something like that, and then we’ll switch and I’ll go to the drums and Jack will get on guitar and Tommy will get on bass or something like that. So, it’s really different. Not even just a song by song basis but even more specifically like a part by part basis. Like just a chorus, or just a verse or something like that. It’s always different.
11: So in that case there’s not a whole lot of writing, it mostly comes from an improvisation area?
DP: Like if somebody touches on an idea that sounds good then we’ll all just kind of go with it. It’s definitely all based on improv and intuition and stuff. None of us have a technical musical background by any means so it’s definitely all just based on how it feels.
11: So how long have you been involved in music? Did you grow up in a musical household?
DP: Exactly, yeah I did. When I was a kid my parents played music and stuff and there were always instruments around. I started playing when I was like eight years old, and I got a 4-track when I was 11 I think. I just started self-recording songs and then from there, I’ve literally just been recording on a really regular basis.
11: On Somersault, there are a lot more strings and orchestral sounds than before. How is that going to translate to the live shows? Are you going to have a full string section on stage?
DP: For certain shows, yeah, we do plan on doing that. But only for like a handful of special shows. For the most part we’re working right now on translating everything to the live show and kind of doing different variations. Basically, a lot of the strings will be on synth, and we have a fifth member that’s going to be touring with us now. We’ve never had somebody at keyboards before. We’re actually going to have two keyboards with us so we’re going to do all we can to fill it out and make it as much like the record as we can.
11: As a band, what do you think is more cathartic for you? Do you get more involved in the writing and recording of the record and all the little details you can tweak here and there, or are you guys more inspired by what you get out of your live shows?
DP: I think they’re just such different things that it’s even hard to compare. When we’re in the studio there’s just a certain vibe. Like in our studio, it’s just really vibey in there. We have a really mellow lighting situation, and we make the whole room feel really comfortable, like a living space almost. We’re just in there for hours and we can sink into working on music and it’s almost like meditative in this way where you’re not even using your brain anymore. You’re not even aware you’re playing anymore. We just play for so long and before you know it we’re like “Oh shit, we’ve got something here. We should record this.” We do get really into the details, like every specific second of something we’re like “Oh we could do this, and then change it here.” Then live is such a different animal cause when you’re just there, and you’re in front of this big loving crowd it’s more based on just energy, and it just uses a different part of your brain. When you’re writing you have to focus on what’s coming out. But they’re both really fun in completely different ways.
11: What was the transition like for you from day job to touring musician, and does any one moment stand out to you as an “Oh shit, I can do this for a living” moment?
DP: When I was first living in New York I was just kind of working retail while I was working on the album. I was just doing it part time because I wanted to keep my schedule as open as possible so I could be playing live as much as possible. We were probably playing out in New York like four nights a week. I had this offer to take a full time job but I said no, cause if I take this full time job then I can’t do the music as much and that’s the main goal. I guess the transition was like at the place that I worked, it was really sweet. Whenever we would get something written up in a magazine or whatever I would come into the break room and they would be hanging up all these little write-ups about Beach Fossils. It was really cool. When we had our first tour booked I told them “I can’t work here anymore. I have to go on tour,” and I thought they were gonna be upset at me but they were like “Oh, that’s so cool!” It was really nice actually.
11: Speaking of, you guys are spending some time on the road pretty soon. What’s that like with you guys? What’s the off-stage relationship like with all of you?
DP: I mean we hang out pretty much constantly. I’m with them right now and looking at them right now and they’re flipping me off. (Laughs) I mean, we’re together all the time. I definitely look at Tommy and Jack as family at this point. I think we’ve looked at each other as family for years at this point. So it’s just really natural. When we get back on the road it’s not like we even have to ease into our chemistry together cause it’s already there.
11: So I have to ask also, how did you guys get the spot performing for the show Vinyl, how did that come about?
DP: It’s really crazy. It’s actually this music supervisor that worked for the show had seen us before and knew that we had an energetic live show and she was like “Hey, we need a band for this show and I think you guys would be a good fit.” And I saw the details of it, it was Scorsese and produced by Mick Jagger and there were just a lot of people involved that are really respected. I was also a huge fan of Boardwalk Empire and a lot of the same people that were working on that were working on Vinyl. It was just like “Okay, let’s do it!” I guess it was kind of surreal. There was one point where we were on set for this scene where we’re at the label office or whatever, and we were just hanging out with Ray Romano and we were just kind of shooting the shit and we were telling him that we were in a real band. He was like “Oh, so you guys are like all in a band together and you’re all actors?” I was like “Well, we’re in a band together but I never said that we were actors.” (Laughs) It was kind of surreal. It was one of those things where the whole crew working on the show thought we were actors. It was a different director for every show. I made sure to find the director every time we were starting something so I could say “Just so you know, I’m not an actor.” I didn’t want them to think I was an actual actor and I was just fucking up or something. I was like, “If I’m doing a bad job, it’s because I’ve never done this.”
11: Who have you been listening to recently? Have any records stood out to you recently and sort of influenced your direction?
DP: I feel like we’re always listening to a lot of different things. One thing that’s always been on heavy rotation for me is Bach. I’ve been listening to a lot of Bach. I’m just like obsessed with the harpsichord he did so much work with the harpsichord and I think it’s like the most beautiful instrument. So I was just like “We have to get fucking harpsichord on this record.” And we ended up using it on a couple of songs. We’ve been listening to a lot of soul, a lot of trip-hop. Stuff like that. I guess a lot of those ideas had found their way into the writing process. We purposely try to not go for a genre when we’re working on a song. It’s more about focusing on production ideas and sounds and stuff than it is an actual style.
11: It’s been four years since Clash the Truth came out. What have these four years been like, have you been working on stuff the whole time or does it just come in waves?
DP: A little bit of both I guess. The first year after Clash the Truth came out we were pretty much just touring non-stop and staying on the road. After that I started a record label called Bayonet with my wife, and I released two different side projects on that label of my own music, collaborating with other people. And then the focus kind of came on Somersault sort of after that. But I think during the whole process we were working on Somersault. We were trying to get this record going but we didn’t give ourselves a time frame. There was no deadline where we had to get it done by a certain time. We were like “Let’s just keep working on stuff and when it’s done we’ll know.”
11: I know for some people, they can just sit and work on stuff at will, and they don’t need to feel anything or be in a moment. Do you have to sit and wait for the inspiration or can you just say “Hey, I’m going to work on this now,” and have something good come out?
DP: No I can’t. Like if i’m not inspired I won’t even let myself try and work on stuff because it’s just going to be frustrating and disappointing. I think that’s another reason it’s been four years since the last release. I just won’t work on something if I’m not feeling inspiration. But when it strikes, we can nail out three songs in a week or something like that, and we’ll be completely in love with the way they’ve come out. There are times where there are dry spells, writer’s block, and other times where the floodgates just open and the songs and ideas just keep coming.
11: I have to ask, where does Portland rank on favorite places to perform?
DP: I love it, man. I think it’s great. Everytime we’re there we always have an awesome time. Last time we were there we did, I can’t remember the name of it. (asking Tommy and Jack) What was the thing we did in Portland, last time we were there? Lose Yr Mind fest? Yeah, that’s what it was. It was cool, they had like a lot of local businesses involved and stuff. They had dudes screen printing shirts there. And they gave us this goodie-bag of stuff from all these small, local businesses. It was awesome. There was all kinds of good stuff in there. I got really hooked on the Aardvark sauce, is that from there?
11: Yeah, that’s like a staple of Portland at this point.
DP: That is like literally my favorite hot sauce of all time. I put it on everything now. I just buy it online in bulk now.
11: I love hearing that.
Beach Fossils play at Holocene in Portland on Wednesday, July 12th. Tickets are available here.