An interview with Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats

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.

Fruit Bats Press Photo 1 by Annie Beedy

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.

Fruit Bats Press Photo 2 by Annie Beedy

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.

 

Califone: Rustic, Ramshackle, Avant-Americana

califone-28In his most recent press photos, Califone’s Tim Rutili appears alone. His former core of backing musicians have moved on, but Califone’s rustic and ramshackle sound remains very much unchanged.

doc080mockup30.11183Stitches is Califone’s seventh studio recording and one of the best releases of 2013, Released on Dead Oceans, the record brings Rutili back to a more solitary state of songwriting. Leaving the familiar confines of his Chicago studio for the first time, Califone’s founder wrote and recorded his new collection of songs on the road and fleshed them out with various friends and co-conspirators along the way in California, Arizona and Texas.

Gathering source material on his phone, Rutili turned to his field recordings to create a patchwork of sound collages and musical mosaics to help fill the void left by his veteran collaborators.

Even with Rutili’s new cast of musicians and recording locations, Califone retain their signature sound of avant-Americana. Gentle and haunting, their abstract balladry and genre deconstruction merge swampy blues with muddy country and dusty folk with the unmistakable pluck, slide and sustained hum of guitars join together with layers of obscure percussion and atmospheric electronics leading sparse arrangements to culminate in crescendos of controlled chaos while rusty, disjointed lyrics come to life as a cinematic montage.

We were lucky to catch up with Califone creator Tim Rutili late last year to talk about what has changed and what had remained the same in Califone’s unique sound and prolonged greatness.

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NG: I noticed you appear alone in your promo photos for the new album. Is there a reason for that? Is the band still together?

TR: No, we haven’t played together in a long time. I made this record with other people. Benny still played on it, but he’s not going to be in the touring band anymore. Jim and Joe aren’t playing with us anymore. Jim might do some recording on the next record, but Joe and I aren’t together anymore.

Was it after the Funeral Singer shows? Did the extensive touring get to be too much?

Yeah, those guys joined Iron and Wine. They joined that band so they could start making some money. But it’s not that weird. I made my first records up until Roomsound by myself, so it’s nothing that crazy of a change.

But there are lots of other people on the record. Who are they? I read that this record was made more on the road than in your traditional studio. Is that true?

This wasn’t made on tour, but it was made in different places.

Did you get people in each place to play on the record?

Yeah, pretty much. There were a lot of people that I’ve played with before in some way or another and there were people that I wanted to play with in one way or another. So it was mostly playing with friends or people that were hanging out or near us anyway.

Who is in the touring band this time around?

The last tour was me and Will Hendricks and this next one… you’re in Boston… it will be me and Will and Rachel Blumberg and Joe Westerland.

BG-43Since you said the album was written while traveling, did the traveling aspect have an unmistakable effect on the music? Did the imagery come from these places, or did it just provide a new way of doing things.

I think it was just a new way of doing things, but the imagery of the places– what places look and feel like– you can’t help but have that leak into the music.

Can you talk about the theme of “stitches”? Is it even a theme?

I don’t know. I just knew this record was called Stitches right when it started. It just felt like making a big quilt to me. Every piece was very different to me and very different than the last. It felt like making a collage from different places and different times. It felt like “stitches”.

As far as stitching goes, you have been known to put sentences together that seem odd from an outsider’s perspective. Do you want to talk about your method of juxtaposing and word choice in songs?

Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about. I think the same thing happens with the way sound is used as well. [Silence]

So you don’t want to talk about it?

Well what’s your question?

When you approach a song lyrically how do you go about choosing how to put these abstract images together? Does it mean something to you when you read through it?

Yeah, it means everything to me, but it means less on a page than it does coming out of my mouth. A lot of songwriting is about articulating things that maybe don’t make total logical sense. And treating lyrics that way and treating music that way can make an intangable feeling or a feeling that you can articulate, relatable. You know what I mean? So I guess that’s what I have always been shooting for with words. Also when I have tried to make too much sense or write a song that is specifically, specifically about something, I didn’t like it. I like it when things are open and there’s room to come in. And room to transpose yourself and your listener into it, and live in it for a little while.

Were these songs generally written around the same time?

Some of the bits and pieces were written earlier, but most of the things were put together pretty much a year ago, between last summer and March.

With the last record you had the accompanying movie. Do you traditionally think cinematically when you’re choosing your words and sounds, or was that just a separate entity that time.

No they’re all part of the same thing. With Funeral Singers, both the songs and the script for the movie were built around the same time and written around the same time. With this, I think all of it is visual. The way the words are, they are all pictures, you know?

BG-15Do you want to talk about your placement of religious imagery in your artwork and song lyrics? What is the significance in the way that you use it?

Well, I’m just sort of fascinated by those characters. I’m especially fascinated by how they are still part of our consciousness. We still read those books and they’re really fucking weird characters and really weird stories, you know. And people kill for those things. Trying to read about those things and trying to understand it for myself, I don’t really have religion. I don’t know if I really believe in God. I don’t know. I don’t know. But I think about it sometimes. I think about it and it comes through in the music. It was fun to think about these characters as timeless travelers with ordinary problems. I mean the story of Moses on the record… Moses going through 40 years of whatever it is, insanity, and then getting to where he’s taking these people and having God saying they can go in but you have to stay here and I’m going to kill you now. [Laughs] Everybody fucking thinks they are that. Everybody has this character where you go through this big fucking ordeal and you can’t enjoy it. You know, that is very relatable to me and it was interesting to explore the intentions of that within a song.

I know you make music videos for other people and your new video is very interesting and original. Were you part of the making of the video for your single?

Well I was talking to the director about it, but it was all him. We were throwing ideas around, but that’s the one that seemed the most powerful.

califone1Looking back was it too big of an undertaking doing the Funeral Singers shows with the live movie soundtrack? Did it get tedious with the repetition night after night? Did it wear on you?

I enjoyed it a lot. It was fun and I think it was a great way to present the music and to present the movie. It was a lot. You’re in Boston?

I saw one in Boston and one in Portland as well.

Those were two really great shows. I thought it was a cool thing to do and I’d like to do something like that again some day.

Was it really strange to play along to the movie night after night? Assumedly you were playing the same thing every night.

Yeah, it seemed to evolve over time. We had beginning cues and ending cues and there were sections that were open to improvisation which I think made it interesting. But I know those other guys were TOTALLY sick of it.

Are you in the process of doing anything else cinematically?

Yeah.

Anything you wanna talk about?

Nah. There are things I’m writing and preparing to do. There are music video things that I’m doing now. I just did a video for David Yao, the Jesus Lizard singer. That should be out there next week. I have a few feature film ideas that have to do with music that I wrote, and I’m just trying to find ways to do them.

It seems like every record you have some strange new instruments that you use. Was there anything especially peculiar this time around?

Not so much. There were strange sounds though. There were some sounds that we recorded outside. We used a hurdy gurdy, that was pretty strange. There’s one song with the sound of rain on a roof. There were collage elements, but I think not being in Chicago—we had our own studio for years—not having that place with all that stuff in it did effect the way this record sounds. I think it effected it for the better. We needed to take a different approach to some of these songs. We had our bag of tricks, but this time we had a new bag of tricks.

BG-38So was this source material gathered with you and a taperecorder?

Yeah, not even a tape recorder, but a phone. An iPhone. Doing vocals in the car while driving.

How does that work when you go into the studio and your putiting that onto tape. Is it hi-def enough to work its way in?

It’s not hi def at all, but it works. A lot of time it’s instinctual. Can you hear dogs barking?

I haven’t heard them yet, but I’ve been trying to go back with headphones and get the background sounds a little more.

There’s the sound of my neighbor’s dogs. There’s one part where I was walking around Chinatown and I just shot video with my phone. There was this weird Chinese opera practice. It’s instinctual. There are always things that catch our eye and our ear and our phone is always with us. When you’re making the thing in the studio it’s like lets see what this sounds like here. Or lets try this there. There is a lot of trial and error. Not a lot of logic or planning in respect to the songwriting, but when you go into the studio you use what you have.

When you go into a song do you think of what you’re going to use or is it something you just build layer by layer?

I just build it as it’s happening. Sometimes I just really wanna make sure a sound gets in there or I wrote it on this guitar and I need this song. This record was more about songwriting and singing and the right words. The way the record was approached was more about how to bring out the songs and how to bring out the words.