Story by: Adam Daniels
Photography by: Dorothy Hong
Rock n' roll may not exactly have the same sex and drugs credo it used to, but they still haven't changed the sign at the door. And though Fruit Bats' Eric Johnson may not be the prototype for the image of lead singer hard-on, he still knows how to wear the uniform. Just as Johnson and I meet up to presumably grab a beer or two, he bumps into his old friend and tour manager Dave and Dave's two-year old son Ronan. Together they traded in the tavern for a sunny Brooklyn afternoon at the Williamsburg Waterfront Park, home to the rock daze that is the new Pool Party concert series. So there we sat in the grass overlooking the East River, interrupted a few times by Ronan's general indifference to our interview setup, and it dawns on me: while it can be assumed most every long-haired lead singer has just as many moments like these, playing defender to a be-overalled youngster's soccer moves, it seems rare we actually get to see them. Johnson's tucked in everyday button-down and glasses mixed with his warmth make it just as easy to think you're talking to a nice dude from Portland in the park than the guy headlining the biggest venue in town that night. He just happens to be both.
Johnson has probably enjoyed more headlines in the last couple years than his musical project Fruit Bats have combined since their 2001 debut Echolocation. This is a logical result of joining one of the only three indie-rock bands my Mom has heard of: The Shins. But Johnson treats playing guitar for that famous band like one might treat bussing tables or tutoring 10th grade algebra. "I've always just sort of treated it like my day job," Johnson says. "It pays the bills." That isn't to say he doesn't enjoy the experience (he describes it as a "great ride he would have been foolish to pass up') or value their music; he means day job in the literal sense. Playing music with Mercer and the boys has allowed him to make music as a full-time gig for the first time. "Until then I'd run my own KRAFT catering company," he says. "It was a good thing for me because I was my own boss and could tour whenever I wanted to." And while he supposes his newer gig will do just fine, this does represent the biggest contrast between the two. His catering service, like these Fruit Bats, was just that: entirely his own. He's become much more than just a simple fill-in guitarist for The Shins, but he writes none of the music and likewise makes none of the big decisions, key differences that probably make balancing two such musical projects much simpler. For nearly a decade he's been almost the entire body of one musical project. Now, he's a full-fledged member of another—he just doesn't get all their Albuquerque jokes.
The other thing that makes Johnson's new band mates particularly notable is the fact that when most writers have needed a frame of reference for the Fruit Bats sound, The Shins have been their default name-drop. This is not entirely accurate, perhaps more a crude categorizing of what's become a way to describe the hooks coming from Sub Pop's mid-aughties roster. But Johnson certainly grasps the inherent absurdity of joining the monumentally famous band his slightly less heard of musical labour of love is most frequently likened to. "I definitely thought about it," Johnson says. "The thing with that is, I never really got the whole Shins comparison. I mean I understand the need for classification sometimes. And I just sort of think there was a point in time where it started to become 'If you look like this, then you're this band.' But if you were just a dude that looked like a plain ole' dude playing guitar-driven simple rock then you were The Shins, because they were one of those bands that was big enough to get those assertions but they were also the one that was least defined by sort of visual cues and easily placed distinctions. So for a while, everyone was The Shins. It didn't matter if you were also a little bit Joy Division or a little bit whatever too. You were The Shins." And to be fair, Johnson did allow a little room for comparison. "It's funny though," he muses. "I've been friends with James (Mercer) for years and hadn't really picked up on it. But then Dave (their tour manager) will often hear my voice on the phone and assume it's James and vice-versa. So I guess we do have pretty similar speaking voices."
But Johnson should be pleased to know that his Bats' latest musical effort, The Ruminant Band, is the least Shins-like of the Bats entire catalog to date. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to tie Ruminant Band down to a single musical likeness. There are the sort of poppy melodies that drew those Shins comparisons on the impossibly singable "Being On Our Own." A bit of the sort of alt-country tendencies that have always been dwelt at the surface of Johnson's music seep through much stronger on tracks like "Primitive Man." Their live show can create solos and bridges of near-jam band proportions, but on record here one can find something a bit more timeless, more lived-in. This goes further than just an influence, to the point where you could place some of these tracks decades back without a shred of context. Though long before you ever notice any of these sonic qualities of the record, you can't help but notice how much fun the folks making it are having. While some of that vibe must stem from the fact that Johnson seems to be one of those musicians that heartily accepts the mind view that it's a unique privilege to make a living creating music, the rest might stem from the fact that the Fruit Bats are actually a band for the first time.
In the past, the Bats had just been a title for Johnson's art, featuring a rotating cast of musicians to support his ideas and musical whims. And despite him already being in a "real band" that headlines international music festivals, it's easily noticeable that Johnson is quite smitten with this whole idea that his band is a real band, admitting a similar giddiness to that high school kid that formed a band and calls every single one of his friends to tell them, long before making it safely through a single practice.
"I have to admit I always wanted to be in a band, it just never really worked out like that," Johnson says. "But it feels really great. Everyone brings their ideas forward and we all work out the songs together." The change in members and contributions to this more cohesive group felt like such a relevant change to Johnson, he said he came very close to changing the name of the whole project from Fruit Bats to The Ruminant Band. These changes comes through loud and clear, with Johnson even noting a spontaneous "Woo" being left on the record after a brief moment of shift and improvisation in a track. There is a real feeding off of one another during the live show as well, eye contact and smiles coloring the spaces between breaks and the back-and-forth vocals. It was a friendly crowd in Brooklyn that night, which could cause mostly any musician to feed off such an energy. But at the very least it looked like the beginnings of a band that could enjoy sharing a stage together for a good while, and Johnson's smile made it clear he felt the same way.
I walk over to a bench away from the grass and the recess Johnson is granted with his young friend. The skyscrapers of Manhattan can't help but look a little surreal in the distance, more like a postcard than anything tangible. For a moment, Johnson and Ronan are framed in this postcard as well. They switch from soccer to basketball, and he doesn't pick him up on his shoulders and help him dunk or sink a 20-foot hook shot. In fact, he nearly misses the backboard as a whole on his first shot. "I was never much for basketball," he says. And though Johnson may not have much of a jump shot, it didn't seem to matter much to the kid. This all made it quickly evident Johnson is one of those rare musical personalities that makes just as much genuine sense entertaining a kid's Pele impression as he does playing center stage at Bowery Ballroom, something you can only say about so many folks that happen to play in bands that will change your life.