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.
On the horn is Alejandro Rose-Garcia. To spare the busy man some time, I skip formalities and attempt to dive into the questions. He is amidst load-in to one of the many shows within his grandest-to-date tour. Before we begin, he imposes a quick pause and multi-tasks, inquiring how I’m doing, while setting himself and a friend up with a whistle-wetter. He’s excited by the little things: “Oh, awesome,” he exclaims, “I love you forever,” he informs either his friend Dan or the beer in a glass that is shaped like a can.
Shakey Graves is the tangible free radical extension of Alejandro. The life of the party, the leader of the pack, Shakey is a man on a mission to rock your soul with the fire of a thousand hells and the sweetness of a honey-soaked bear cub. The best way to understand this is to listen to the music, and the second best way to understand this is to peruse the following insights.
ELEVEN: Legend says you caught a ghost about ten years back. Would you provide some details about that?
Shakey Graves: Oh, okay, well let’s see. How to handle this question. Yeah, I had an experience when I was. . . maybe eighteen or nineteen. I’ve made music for a long time, but. . . I had one of those seminal nights where I “found my voice” and I essentially just sat down and turned on a microphone and like eight songs came out of me. It was a very weird kind of dialogue between me and something else. I don’t know how to explain it. It was the first time I had ever recorded myself singing in a way that, when I listened to it, it didn’t sound like me. These songs came out totally formed, more or less. I’m trying to think if I still play any of them. There’s one called “Parliment” that I play every once in a while, but that’s the only one that kind of survived. Yeah, that was the beginning of me finding something a little bit weirder within my own stuff. It was like feeling that your hands are being moved somewhere, and that if you’re trying to use too much of your brain to write, it kind of counteracts it and you just have to let your mouth go. It’s like a really minor possession.
11: Do you have that original recording? Is it on lockdown?
SG: I do. Yeah, it’s definitely on lockdown.
11: For your creative process, does it vary from song to song then? What’s the origination of a Shakey Graves tune?
SG: It totally changes song to song. There’s certain songs that were out of direct passion [where] something happens to me and I feel emotionally [driven]. . . like that song “Daisy Chains.” That song is a pretty good example of a combination of the two. I got my heart broken by a girl a while back, and if I could howl, I would have. It was just a deep pain that I really just didn’t know how to process, and I sat down and I wrote that song. It was a weird combo where I felt like I let something in and I also let something out. And that song is essentially the story of a man begging a woman to marry him to give him a reason to not go to war, and I don’t know what [happened]. . . that was not what I was trying to do. That song kind of showed up entirely, and I’ve always considered in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way that that song is someone else’s story that I was just in the mood to receive—and for all I know that could be a true story. It’s not mine, but the emotion is the same. That was sort of the harmonic frequency that I was aching in, so it came.
11: In the new album And The War Came, relationships are entangled throughout all eleven tracks. Going into it, was that a theme you had in mind, or is it more of a collage?
SG: It’s both. There’s definitely a theme that [arose] out of it on accident, which is kind of how I like things to be, but it is the story of a relationship and an analogy to war, you know, the concept of an orgasm being a tiny death or whatever. It’s semi-biographical, some of the stuff is, and some of it is a collage of many different experiences in my life. Some of those songs were written in different points about different people, but they all speak about some mysterious Other. The course of the album essentially starts off with breaking up with somebody or having a split and then addressing it. “Only Son” is about figuring out why that happened, and it goes into “Dearly Departed,” which is addressing the home and the space that you have and the lack of that person. And then it goes into “The Perfect Parts,” which is sort of the insanity part of trying to call the person and figure out where you are and where you stand and maybe the rebound kind of situation. Then it goes into “Hard Wired,” which is the clarity aspect of it, and then “Family [and] Genus” is right when you start to find clarity in your choices. And then it goes into “[Big Time] Nashville Star,” which is the point where you’re totally resolved and you don’t feel like anyone could hurt you anymore, and I think that song is where the perspective or the narrative voice actually shifts. “Nashville Star” is the other side, the voice of the female or other person in that action—the response to the first half of the album. “Pansy Waltz” is the response to that response; those two songs are the twin songs. That’s one side of it, which is, “You can do whatever you want and it’s not going to hurt me. I’m over this,” and the other side is like, “Well, you should have been a better friend of mine in the first place.” Let’s see, where does it go from there?
11: “House of Winston.”
SG: Yeah, and then it goes to “House of Winston,” which is trying to date again, or find another person and just really wanting to waste someone’s time and not having anything too heavy go on. And then it goes into “If Not For You,” which is the horrible horribleness of dealing with all your baggage. Then it goes into “Call It Heaven,” which is the happy-sad, letting go of all the shit that happened in the first place, and you know, it could be worse. Things could be worse. We’re still alive.
11: Wow. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a better track-by-track breakdown of the story of an album. That was awesome.
SG: [laughs] I mean, it wasn’t on purpose. That’s just what I heard from listening to it myself. I was like, “Oh! Oh yeah.”
11: Did making the second album light a fire for making more?
SG: Yeah, I’m really thrilled about the next one. Doing Roll The Bones and then doing this one—between the two of those—everything I’ve learned is really exciting me about how I’m going to approach the Shakey Graves III, whatever it’s going to be. We have so much material again left over from this album that we discovered thematically didn’t have any home in the album we were trying to create—a bunch of weird electronic-y stuff, and we did some wild shit that I would really really love. . . some of the best tracks that we made that just weren’t finished or didn’t make it on.
11: Well, your career is blazing through milestones now. How do you stay grounded with that, and is there anything that scares you?
SG: Yeah, I’m afraid of everything. Also, this didn’t just happen overnight. I have a lot of hours logged in the fight. And again, the whole fight/war stuff, I can’t help but refer to it like that because it really is a very personal struggle and it’s also in a very public arena. As much as it’s all petty and doesn’t matter because it is just music, it’s just performance, it’s also my life and it’s me kind of putting myself on the line and having to deal with people [who say], “I think this fucking sucks,” you know? O-kay! Cool. And other people who are like, “I think this is the most important thing ever so don’t change it. EVER,” and you’re like “Well, I’m going to, I guarantee you. I’m going to change it and it might bug you, but just trust me.” So, the scariest stuff right now has also been the most rewarding stuff. “Only Son” is kind of a manifest of that too, regarding me becoming whatever the next type of musician I am. Because I think the one man thing is awesome. I’ve always thought I can really get a lot out of it, and I think there’s something really pure and beautiful about it. But I also listen to so many different types of music, and I listen to everything from Bruce Springsteen to the Wu-Tang Clan (I’m wearing a Wu-Tang Clan shirt right now, I’m totally going to wear it on stage tonight), and I’m very inspired by big shows.
The show I’m working on right now is really crazy. For the last five days, we’ve had a six piece band, off and on, kind of by accident. Just being open to the way the universe kind of pulls you through stuff. This dude that, him and I started playing music together when I was in L.A. and just budding as a musician, we would go in his practice space for his band and I would go and follow his band around. And Shakey Graves didn’t mean anything, and I would like, do lights really badly. I would lug their gear. I was their photographer for a little bit, and I just wanted to participate. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I [thought], “This is great. I get to see every side of this thing.” I’ve been on every side of the musical performance.
11: Now, years later, Shakey Graves ain’t nuthin ta fuck with, and you have a crew.
SG: Exactly, Shakey Graves ain’t nuthin ta fuck with. So, we figured it out, a couple nights. . . The first two were kind of wonky whatever, but the cool thing is that if at any point it starts to get out of hand, I can instantly just get everyone offstage and still maintain a show. It has these peaks and valleys that I really like. But man, we’ve played a couple of shows so far, we’re only on our fifth day, and holy shit, we played in Louisville and it was like a little baby arena show, running around stage. We did guitar antics. We did the Chuck Berry Duck Walk. it was just absolutely insane, and same goes with the show we played in Charlotte the other night. It was a small scale Bruce Springsteen show. It was nuts.
11: How much has your acting background contributed to controlling the live performance?
SG: Oh, tons. It’s just a bunch of physical training. I was trained when I was younger how to do that, how to find my light and work the crowd, and what is appropriate and how not to lose attention and keep going and improvise and be conscious of other people on the stage with you, and how not to shut the audience out. It’s a constant thing.
11: Is acting something you would want to return to in some form?
SG: People talk about it like you have to make a choice or something. Both of these are pretty silly. It’s a blessing to work as an actor, and it’s a blessing to work as a musician. Right now, everything that I have going, the music side of it is much more in the driver’s seat. It’s something [where] there is no reason for me to pull out. I’m not only enjoying myself but I’m deeply fulfilled by expanding upon my artistic ideas and anything that you would want to express as a performer or as an artist. I’m getting the opportunity to do that. So there’s really no question of what I would choose to do. It’s not like acting was ever thrown out the window; I’ve always acted. I love acting, and it’s just as [much] of a lifelong pursuit as this is. Right now, as it is, I’ve put more time into music. So that skill is more honed, and my acting is just less battle-tested. It’s very time consuming, and the benefits and rewards are very different and much more transient or long lasting. . . You shoot a movie over the course of two years, and then you have to wait another year to see it, and it’s two hours long and you have so little control. It’s a whole thing. If and when I ever have time, of course, I’ll act all day long if I can.
11: What does the word Pickathon mean to you?
SG: Well, Pickathon was a very seminal point of me kind of realizing that I’m pulling my head out of my ass. I really had my head down, and I was trying to fight my way into what my show was. I just locked in a holding pattern and clung to what I thought people wanted, and I hadn’t really noticed that [happening]. I went to Pickathon and [it] refreshed me in a sense that I just remembered that there is so much good music being made, and it’s so diverse and there is a through line that good music is good music. If you’re not playing as weird or as big or as small, or truthfully, you should reassess that, and Pickathon helped me reassess that in myself. It made me realize that I was kind of plowing through some stuff that should have been lighter because I kind of afraid of seeing the people or that at certain points I should expand upon other things. It’s done that both years I’ve played. This last year it was a bigger, scarier show, but at the same time I don’t think it had the valleys that I really wanted—or maybe it did but I couldn’t tell. It’s also just the most enjoyable music festival I’ve ever been to, just for the bands that I want to see. There’s so much music that has just changed my taste or musicians that have just shocked me. It’s just a recharge. I hope I get to go to Pickathon every year even if I don’t get to play. »
– Richard Lime