Few bands last longer than a decade.
While spectacular flame-outs might grab headlines, in reality, most musicians call it a day due to a far more mundane culprit: the grind. As the joke goes, it’s not creative differences that end careers, it’s that 600-mile van drive between gigs in San Francisco and Portland.
After nearly 20 years, the band Fruit Bats is a remarkable exception.
The folk-rock outfit, led by Eric D. Johnson, just released its ninth studio album, “The Pet Parade,” via indie rock label Merge Records, and the group recently performed new music on Late Night with Seth Meyers. A re-issue of early recordings and rarities celebrating their two-decade milestone is also planned for later in the year.
But the journey here wasn’t effortless. A lot has changed in the past two decades for the project. Bandmates have come and gone, with Johnson the only constant. And Fruit Bats hasn’t always been the songwriter’s primary focus. The musician has found success on the side with several prominent bands, including an extended stint as a member of The Shins and a recent run as part of the folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman (who were nominated for two Grammys this year).
In fact, Johnson said in an interview with OPB that he’s truly surprised that Fruit Bats made it this far.
“It’s been a weird 20 years,” said Johnson of the band’s meandering path, which included a decade living in Portland and other locations around the Pacific Northwest. “And in a way, it’s felt like it’s really only been cooking for five or six years, which I think is a good thing.”
A big part of Fruit Bats’ more recent success is rooted in a pivotal moment that occurred in 2014. At the time, Johnson was overwhelmed by grief after his wife suffered a miscarriage. In response, he briefly retired the band name in favor of a solo project that he thought was more stylistically appropriate. Fruit Bats had always been a bright, quirky, sun-kissed folk-rock project, and it just didn’t feel right at the time.
“It was a reset for me, sonically and otherwise,” said Johnson of that period.
But he found that it was hard to completely separate himself from the band that had defined his career. Instead of abandoning Fruit Bats altogether, the musician decided to reinvent it for 2016′s “Absolute Loser.” That album chronicled and unpacked the trauma his family experienced years before. It also included a more balanced sound that allowed him to reconcile his misgivings.
“I think the albums kind of got better after that, too,” said Johnson of his band’s ever-evolving sound. “But it’s also weird putting out records for 20 years because I’ve listened to the earlier ones and that was just a different person and a different project.”
Eric D. Johnson chatted with OPB about the new Fruit Bats record, his bizarre 2021 Grammys experience and his continuing work with Bonny Light Horseman.
Jerad Walker: I really love how you announce yourself with the opening lyrics on this record.
“Hello from in here to all you out there / It feels like it’s been years / And we’ve all been whispering too / To anyone who will hear”
That song, which is the title track “Pet Parade,” has very literal origins. It goes back to your childhood in Illinois, right?
Eric D. Johnson: Yeah. It’s literal origins, which is always the best kind of songwriting, [but] also completely oblique and metaphorical, too, at the same time.
JW: So what goes on at a pet parade?
EDJ: It was this thing that my grandma used to take me to. It’s like going to a costume party with your dog or cat, but also in parade form. It’s just the most Americana thing you’ve ever seen, and yet also very psychedelic and kind of weird and kind of ridiculous.
JW: Did you know this was going to be the opening track to the record when you wrote it?
EDJ: No, not at all. And in fact, I have to say I was feeling very freaked out about a slow, two-chord, seven-minute song to open a record. But Josh Kaufman, the producer, my dear friend, he was like “You can’t open a song with that line, with those lyrics [and not make it the album opener]. Those are the opening lines to a record. Period.” He was very adamant.
JW: This is your ninth studio album. It’s a big milestone for the project, but you personally have had a long and winding career. You’ve worked with numerous bands, including, most notably, probably the Shins. Are you surprised by the staying power that Fruit Bats has had throughout the years?
EDJ: Very. Yeah, it was certainly very meandering for about the first 15 years. And then like 15 years in, something kind of clicked and the cult [fans] and more people kind of got on board. So it’s felt like it’s been a weird 20 years. And in a way, it’s felt like it’s really only been cooking for five or six years, which I think is a good thing.
JW: It’s funny you say that because I recall like seven or eight years ago, you suffered a personal tragedy and briefly retired the band name in favor of a solo project. You seem to have had like a total disassociation with the sound of Fruit Bats at the time. Was that a pivotal moment in your career?
EDJ: It was. I’ve been asked about it a lot, and this kind of 20-year retrospective has forced me to think about all these kind of little turning points. And yeah, I think it was a good one, too, whether I knew it was happening or not. It was a reset for me, sonically and otherwise. I think the albums kind of got better after that, too. But it’s also weird putting out records for 20 years because I’ve listened to the earlier ones and that was just a different person and a different project.
But yeah, that moment of changing the name and then changing it back was really big for me, and I don’t exactly know why.
JW: Was it a realization that you are the band and the band isn’t you? You don’t necessarily have to write all these sun-kissed California country-rock songs. You can write sad music.
EDJ: Yeah, probably. And there’s both in there now. But I’m learning there’s [always] going to be something in what I do that just feels like rainbows to people. And that’s fine.
JW: A side project that you worked on in the last couple of years is Bonny Light Horseman. You’re one-third of this folk supergroup along with Josh Kaufman and Anaïs Mitchell. You released a record last year that got critical acclaim. There was overwhelming love for that album and you received two Grammy nominations. Did you get to — and I’m putting this in air quotes — ”get to go to the Grammys” this year? What was that experience like?
EDJ: I was sitting exactly in this spot where I am right now at my dining room table.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true. It’s an honor to just be nominated, as they say.
Yeah, it was great. It was. It was definitely weird. It was a bit of an anti-climax because you don’t get to go [to the awards ceremony physically due to the pandemic]. So that was just cool and weird. And my mom is very excited, of course.
JW: There’s some continuity from that project to this new Fruit Bats album. Josh Kaufman produced “The Pet Parade,” and this record is certainly rootsier than some of your past few records. You guys wrote most of this pre-pandemic, but the songs still seem to fit. Did you adapt or reinterpret any of these based on the current climate or is this just a time capsule?
EDJ: No, I absolutely adapted them, and there were some weirdly prescient lyrics in there. But it’s not a pandemic record. It was informed by that. I don’t know how more to describe it. Really. I’m still sort of trying to figure it out.
JW: When you were combing through things that you’d written before, were there some that stood out? Listening to the record, “Discovering” seems like one to me.
EDJ: No, that’s the oldest song, strangely enough. That song, Josh and I kind of wrote that together. This was pre-Bonny Light Horseman even. I think that one’s from, like 2017, which is very strange when you listen to the lyrics.
“He has lived through another night, and it’s quite likely to wake up again.”
It’s a song about death pretty much and sort of fear of death and dying in your sleep more or less. But, yeah, that’s an old one.
JW: Holy Rose might be my favorite song on the album. It’s got a very classic rock sound. And by classic rock, I mean like 1958 classic.
JW: But it’s glazed over a terribly dark song. It’s about the Sonoma, California wildfires that happened I think back in 2017. Were you there for that?
EDJ: I was not in Sonoma at the time. But my wife is from there, and we’ve all been experiencing these fire seasons on the West Coast.
JW: Especially the one here in Oregon this past year, which was just devastating.
EDJ: It was super devastating and kind of unexpected. And then my wife is from down there [in Sonoma], and they’ve been getting it in her home region kind of the worst of anywhere. It’s just the Northern California fire season has been nuts the past few years.
There’s something so symbolic about fire more than water or wind or any of the elements. It’s the hell element. So, I wrote that song — it was really meant to sound kind of sad and a little more like a ballad. But when I gave it to Josh and Matt Barrack, the drummer, they turned it into this angry kind of fire song. They interpreted it in this totally different way. It turned into this really aggressive, really fuzzed-out kind of song, which I think is cool.
JW: Yeah, it’s like if Buddy Holly found an overdrive pedal.
JW: I watched a recent interview where you mentioned that you’ve been unusually productive during the past 12 months of the pandemic. Can we expect more material from you in the coming year with Fruit Bats or Bonny Light Horseman or any other projects?
EDJ: Yeah, we’re starting work on a new Bonny Light Horseman record soon.
JW: Then this is not a one-off? You guys are going to continue making music?
EDJ: Yeah, it’s not really like a side-band anymore. It’s sort of a concurrent primary project for all of us.
And then with Fruit Bats 20th anniversary stuff, we’re still kind of formulating this, but there’s going to be some kind of a retrospective thing happening later in the year with a lot of rarities and cool, weird stuff that people haven’t heard. Some kind of remastered, reissue [release].
I wish I had more to tell you, but we’re still formulating the situation right now.
JW: I think everyone in the music industry is taking a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude right now…
EDJ: Yeah, there’s so much stuff where I’m just like “I think that’s happening.”
JW: Well, I can’t wait to hear it. In the meantime, the new album is “The Pet Parade” by the band Fruit Bats. It’s out now via Merge Records. Eric D. Johnson, thank you so much for chatting with us.
EDJ: Thanks for having me!