After 16 years and five records as Fruit Bats, Eric D. Johnson decided to retire the moniker in 2013. Continuing to make music, the multi-instrumentalist, and former member of Califone and the Shins, stayed busy scoring films and released a solo album under his initials EDJ in 2014. But it wasn’t long before Johnson realized how much weight remained in the name of his previous project.
I was lucky enough to chat with Johnson over the phone for the Boston Herald the week before his album Absolute Loser was released. Below is the complete interview for all of the Fruit Bats fans out there. And if you haven’t heard them yet, keep reading, and give them a listen—you’ll love it.
photos by Annie Beedy
I remember when you announced when you were retiring from Fruit Bats. What led to that?
That whole thing was kind of weird. I know a lot of bands breakup and they get back together to headline Bonnaroo or something like that. That’s obviously not the case. Fruit Bats is not like that. It’s not a money grab because Fruit Bats never had any money, so there’s no money to grab. I’m a total hundred-aire. I always said Fruit Bats is a band that came out at a weird and interesting time in that five year period after accessible indie rock, but before the digital age. We were a lucky little band and we got to get signed to Sub Pop out of nowhere really and got kind of lucky with the timing. I think I was living in this bubble at the time and had some tragedy in my life and the Fruit Bats have always been me with a rotating cast and it’s always been me. I knew it wasn’t working for me anymore. I was doing film scores and thought maybe I should just record under my own name, and nothing happened with that. Basically I copped to the fact that that was a completely dumb move. And I was going to experiment by coming back as Fruit Bats and see what happened– and a bunch of stuff happened immediately. It really came down to coming back with my tail between my legs and really just changing two words back to something and being able to resume this modest career that I’ve been building for the past 20 years. I don’t know if that’s the world’s most boring reason or what. I think I came back and this friend of mine said when you say it’s an EDJ show you have to have Fruit Bats in parenthesis just to get five more people to buy tickets. This is the removal of the parenthesis.
I remember seeing you at TT’s in 2002.
I bet we were terrible! That was super early on. That may have been the first Fruit Bats show ever in Boston. Who were we playing with? We played at TTs a million times, but I bet you could Google that.
Speaking of the Fruit Bats being only you and the band constantly changing, did the cast of characters affect the sound from record to record?
Yes and no. Definitely with The Ruminant Band. I had put together a band and it was very much all recorded live and it has a band sound and we toured on it in that way. People really loved that and I was surprised how much people responded to that. I think it’s just being a product of being a child of the 1990’s indie rock stuff. I liked bands like Guided by Voices and Palace, where it’s a dude, but it has a band name. That’s kind of where it all came from for me. When I went back to Tripper I was kind of still using these guys, but returned to that veteran type of recording method. It’s more of a headphone record. I think with this one we did a bit of both. It was very organic, but it was also very digital at the same time. I come from that late-night 4-track realm. I like to be by myself for a lot of it. I like to walk down a path and walk down the wrong way before coming back. I don’t think a lot of people have patience for that. I think weirdly the digital age has been good for people like me because you can make a million mistakes and still come back and honing things.
Tell me about the title of the record what led up to such an eerie sort of title?
It’s sort of a play on words. If you call someone an “absolute loser,” it’s a pretty big insult to somebody, but it’s sort of designed to trick you into hearing that, but really it refers to an absolute loss and someone who feels that absolute loss. That’s the title track and it has some darkness in the lyrics, but it has some positivity too. It’s a lot about this whole fruit Bats thing and this clean slate and blowing something up, being let down to zero, an absolute loss and burning down into nothing and the person who has the absolute loss is an absolute loser. It’s not intended to bait people or a bait and switch where they say “Absolute Loser” is an “Absolute Winner”.
I bet you’ll get a few of those.
I hope so. And not “Absolute Loser is an apt title.” The title of the album was up for debate. I was hesitant to call it that, but I polled people and they thought that should be the title.
Do you think it was a rebirth of sorts?
For me I didn’t realize what a rebirth it would be. When I was doing the solo record I just kind of believed that that would just be a continuum. That EDJ thing didn’t get out there much, but I’m really proud of it. I’ve always been in love with the lost classics and now I’ve made my own lost classic. Hopefully it’ll be classic, but it’s definitely a lost album. So, it feels like a rebirth in a dumb sense. After doing that solo thing, I lost a lot of things. I wasn’t in the game anymore, I wasn’t in a band anymore. It was very much a DIY thing and I’m a DIY type of guy, but there were things I couldn’t do. I was curious if there was even an interest in this, and there was. As soon as I got it going again, I got a new manager and everything starting coming together—again proving that it was just those two stupid words of a name that seemed to make a difference. It is a rebirth and I’m super humbled and feel very lucky.
Would you say this album was cathartic?
I had always written from the heart, but it was impressionistic and universal. I always had that way of projecting lyrics out there. They were about me, but I like telling vague stories a little better. It felt super cathartic and it was fun to get a little anger out and a little sadness and a lot of stuff that I haven’t had before in writing. It was fun. It was me throwing some stuff out there. It’s me comforting myself in a lot of ways.
You have a good way of hiding the sadness through the music and your voice. You can make a sad song sound happy or hopeful.
I’ve been told that many times and I think that’s good. It’s weird because on previous records people would say that I was happy all the time, but not really. But this record is about some really heavy topics and some really heavy shit that happened to me. Hopefully it just doesn’t sound like sunshine and rainbows all the time.
Would you say you made this out to be your most personal Fruit Bats record?
Definitely. No it is. It’s always personal. It’s always coming somewhere from your head, but this was certainly the most confessional. It’s personal and I’m being a little more blunt and candid in the lyrics. I’m not really hiding them behind any sort of abstraction. Sometimes songs mean nothing too, but on this record every song very specifically means something.
When you were scoring films did that influence how you wrote songs after that?
Definietly the EDJ solo record was very cinematic. There were some very score-y pieces in it. At the very least, when you’re a singer/songwriter and your scoring films you very quickly have to learn how to engineer and how to use the studio as a tool. That right there informs my music a little more than just sitting down with a tape recorder and an acoustic guitar. I’m starting with a more expansive palette now in what I’m thinking about and I can sit down and use the studio as a tool. But yes and no. I’ve always thought cinematically in a lot of ways and have always been obsessed with making movies and mini-movies with my songs. So that’s always been there. That’s probably why I got film work in the first place, even though I’m not doing orchestral arrangements or anything. Well, actually I have done a few of those now, but they didn’t come from a classical background or anything. I think the first few filmmakers that hired me heard that in there, even in the earlier stuff. It’s always been in there, but it’s had a bigger effect now.