Out of the swirling vortex of the 1970s (or is it the 1070s?) and into …
When Eric D. Johnson decided to hang up the Fruit Bats moniker in 2011, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, it was unclear if we’d ever hear that iteration of his work again. But then, in May 2015, Johnson announced the return of the band and a national tour with My Morning Jacket. The band’s first studio album in five years, Absolute Loser, dropped in May 2016. Full of lush acoustic arrangements and intensely personal lyrics, the album is beautiful and meticulous. Rather than a reinvention, Johnson brings back the folky, alt-country sounds that longtime Fruit Bats fans will recognize, albeit with renewed vigor and attention to detail.
Absolute Loser alternates between foot stomping (“From a Soon-to-Be Ghost Town,” “Humbug Mountain Song”) and balladry (“Baby Bluebird,” “Don’t You Know That”), and it’s clear that Johnson and his longtime collaborator/ producer Thom Monahan picked up exactly where they left off following 2011’s Tripper. Now, along with touring in support of the new album, Johnson released a limited edition Record Store Day full-length in November, and expects a live recording of last year’s Pickathon performance to roll out soon as well.
We caught up with Johnson in the process of a holiday basement purge and got the scoop on his recording process and what it was like to make Absolute Loser, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and using iPhone’s voice memo as a songwriting tool.
ELEVEN: What are you working on right now, musically? Your new album came out [Absolute Loser], you’ve got a new single out there–what’s happening in your music world?
Eric D. Johnson: Yeah! Well, I did the album, and then we did another release for Record Store Day, and then we’ve got a Pickathon album coming, which fully coincides with the show [ed: Revolution Hall, Jan. 14].
11: I read an interview with you from earlier this year where you said you weren’t a big fan of putting your live recorded shows out there.
EJ: Oh god no!
11: So what went with the Pickathon decision?
EJ: Well, I’ll do anything those guys want, because they’re awesome people and friends and everything. And also, that was a fun, memorable show–if any of our shows get put out onto record, maybe that’s a good one. It’s actually culled from two performances at Pickathon last year. I think the reason I don’t want to hear live stuff is that I’m my own worst critic, and you don’t–I don’t know–you just don’t want to hear it because it’s in the moment, and you overanalyze it… it makes me nervous. But I had to scrutinize the hell out of this Pickathon set, which was really fun–and weird. I had to just dig in, and I kept all the weird stage banter in there… it turned out good!
11: Did you notice anything exceptionally interesting that you walked away with, where you thought, “I don’t like to hear myself again and again live like that, but here’s something I’m going to include in future work”?
EJ: You know, there was nothing crazy like that–at least I didn’t want there to be. It’s just weird, like weird little musical things
where I thought, “Oh, that was cool to be able to listen to that up close instead of letting it just fly by you.” But no, it wasn’t some huge journey of discovery going through it. The last time I had listened to a performance of myself was about ten years ago–and not that I had never heard live performances of myself before, don’t get me wrong, if a live performance of Fruit Bats comes on I don’t, like, run out of the room screaming or anything, for the record–but that recording ten years ago, there was some stage banter, and I was so embarrassed by it. But I thought my stage banter for the Pickathon thing was better, so I’ve improved on that at least.
11: Absolute Loser came out earlier this year. It’s the first album in about five years, right?
EJ: Five years I think, yeah.
11: Does that feel like a long time, or a surprisingly short amount of time for you? Were you expecting to ever make another Fruit Bats album again?
EJ: As I get older, time compacts. It doesn’t feel that long to me–it’s a half a decade. I went through all kinds of stuff in the interim of that, so it was kind of like a picture of me coming out the other side, creatively and personally, and it’s definitely the most personal thing I’ve ever done I think because of that, so it took a little while to get it out there. I’m really happy with how it turned out.
11: It’s a great album–I love it! Is it kind of the definition of catharsis for you?
EJ: A little bit–I mean, it always is. But yeah, it’s probably the closest I’ve come to that, making an album.
I kind of wanted to make an album that was 100 percent me and not totally questioning things, and yeah, I think it turned out good. And like all Fruit Bats albums, it seems to kind of fly consistently under the radar, but always kind of hanging in there, too. It’s just interesting in the way it works. I like the idea of making a lost classic.
11: With that in mind, how long were you working on it and how many songs or ideas did you go through? Or was it basically just turning on the tap and having it come out for you?
EJ: It kind of did. I usually take a really long time to write songs, and this time I tried not to, so that was another thing, another switch up, where I was like, “Let’s go a little faster,” versus my tendency to take a really long time and still not have enough stuff. I’m not particularly prolific as a songwriter, as some are, so it’s definitely not a faucet thing like you said. But this one was closer to that because I wanted there to be some immediacy a little bit, but yeah, I mean, it all happened pretty fast–I can’t even remember now how long it took us to make the record. Not very long, like a month or something? Which is kind of how I like to work.
11: Instrumentally it sounds a little bit more stripped down. Maybe a little bit more folky than some of the last Fruit Bats albums. Was that conscious, or were you just feeling specific instruments, or feel that it matched the subject matter better?
EJ: No, none of that was conscious. I always sort of set out to do something, and then people perceive it in
a completely different way. I always kind of thought this album was less folky than the last two, and actually more lush. The instrumentation is actually pretty simple, but everything is very layered, so there’s a lot happening, and that is something that did kind of happen on purpose. I wanted it to sound simple but very thick, so a lot of the acoustic guitar tracks, it’s not one acoustic guitar, it’s eight–like three in each ear and a couple down the middle kind of thing–it’s a little bit of a Jeff Lynn production style, where it’s kind of seemingly simple. So yeah, I never really set out to do anything, and if I do, no one ever thinks that it’s that… I’m not like Brian Wilson where he just hears the music in his head and then can just go and puke it out and there it is exactly how it’s in your head. I like a journey of wrong turns–usually Fruit Bats productions are a series of wrong turns and happy little accidents.
11: Happy little accidents, Bob Ross style.
11: Are there any tracks in particular you enjoy more than others–that you enjoy playing or go back and listen and think, “Damn, that’s a great song right there?”
EJ: I’m happy with “From a Soon-To-Be Ghost Town.” It came out real fast, and that’s always a good sign, when you do something and it just comes out. I like the song “Baby Bluebird,” and that’s the first time in a while I’ve written something that honest and heartfelt, and people really caught on to that one–it’s become sort of a crowd favorite, which is cool. But you know, kind of going back to the live thing, I usually listen to the album a million times when making it, and then you play it live too… I try not to think about it too much either.
11: I read that your recording partner Thom Monahan brings an element of–well, lots of elements– but you mentioned specifically how he helps you figure out tempos, time changes, etc. on the “Humbug Mountain Song.” How long did it take for you guys to build up that dynamic –where’s the push and pull where you stop and he begins, and vice versa?
EJ: No push or pull! There’s a real flow to it. I don’t really know because he and I have worked together on so much stuff now for the past six or seven years, and we’ve just worked so closely together that we sort of have– which, I think a lot of recorder/producer relationships have–you have a language that’s your own. There isn’t really the push/pull; I mean, there are conversations that are hard, but usually we just put our heads down and we trust each other, which is the most important thing when you’re making a record with somebody.
11: During your Fruit Bats hiatus, I know you were working on some solo stuff, but were you listening to any different music at the time? Were there any trends or sounds or particular artists you heard when you weren’t working as the Fruit Bats that stood out to you, or that made you want to get back into the studio again?
EJ: I always want to get back into the studio. I wouldn’t say that there are any–and I’m certainly not implying that I hate trends or don’t listen to modern music or anything like that–but I’m not really looking to ride a wave or anything. It’s always been fairly untrendy, what I’ve done, and sometimes it loops back around to being cool again, but being a singer-songwriter, and having an audience, there’s a fickle relationship with that kind of vibe. So for me, it’s kind of a writing thing, and while I love production stuff, for me, it’s more drawing from a well of things, time-wise, whether it’s super ambitious or you want to make something just weird and personal, it’s all the same to me.
11: Speaking of that, I was going back through some of the other artists that signed with Sub Pop around the same time as you guys…
EJ: Yeah! That was a crazy time! I started doing Fruit Bats stuff in ’97, using that name, and then Fruit Bats didn’t really even coalesce and start doing shows until 2000, and we got signed to Sub Pop in 2002. We made our first record with a label called Perishable–I was playing with a band called Califone at the time, and they had their own label, so they put out my first record. It got some interest from Sub Pop, and we made some fans who at the time, The Shins, who I ended up playing with, being one of them. It was a little bit of a journey–it was a crazy time! There were some crazy bands getting signed at that time.
11: It seemed like maybe there were a few bands that were riding that wave, so to speak, after the music you were making became “cool,” which was a lot different than a lot of the music coming out at that time, especially around Chicago.
EJ: Yeah, we were friends with, and sort of started up around the same time as The Shins and Iron & Wine, and stuff like that, so there was obviously like corollary where we were all kind of listening to each other and figuring each other out. It was cool, but it was also a time that was dominated by The White Stripes, very stylish rock ‘n’ roll kind of stuff, and like any kind of singer-songwriter, Americana stuff was slightly on the margins. Although, Wilco did Yankee Hotel Foxtrot around that time which I think was–I think that’s going to be viewed as a big moment. Actually, I think people do view that as a big moment. That record was really big for that kind of sound.
11: That’s a good point. It’s always easy to look back in retrospect and find patterns, but that’s a great point about where maybe some of those sounds started to bleed into more mainstream areas.
EJ: Yeah. I think we all kind of benefitted from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot –it’s just been interesting and weird.
11: “The Rock Doc” single came out earlier in November, does that mean there’s something new on the way or in the works?
EJ: Well, that was from that Record Store Day LP–it came out right around that time, which was a full-length release, but it was a limited edition thing, so it didn’t come out with crazy fanfare, but I think we’ll have some copies of it at the Portland show. But yeah, so I’m just starting to get together the early seeds for a new batch of songs, but I’m not even, I’ve no concept at all with it– it’s the very early days, which I like.
11: So what do you do when you’re kicking around the seeds of an album like that? I’ve talked to writers who use notepads or sticky notes, what do you do to keep track of ideas and things?
EJ: It’s amazing, I used to use the notepad for lyrics and stuff like that, but now it’s totally all about the iPhone voice memos–they’re so awesome for that because you can also kind of sing if you get an idea. It’s sort of like having a little Dictaphone in your pocket. Actually “From a Soon-to-be-Ghost Town” I wrote while driving through Montana with it. I came up with some of the lyrics and just the little seed of the melody–I was driving down a mountain pass. And I wrote “Absolute Loser” on a rainy drive between Seattle and Portland, so that’s become this just amazing tool!
11: So in the future we won’t be publishing unreleased notebooks, we’ll be publishing unreleased iPhone memos?
EJ: Yeah, totally! I’ve got some to go on the Fruit Bats box set–if that ever happens. »
*See Fruit Bats on Jan. 14 at Revolution Hall. Tickets here.