I recently received a CD in the mail from an established artist who wanted me to review it for another outlet I contribute to. What struck me as I popped it in and hit “play” was how forgettable it was in its musical sameness. It could have been released at any point within the last 10 years, and the album had made as little impact as anything else they had produced within that period. Candidly, that happens almost daily. It’s rare to find artists to who truly push themselves, or who hear another artist perform and realize that they themselves have to do more, have to up their game, have to work to be their best self.
When you speak with Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats, it’s clear that that’s his daily reality. Across 20 years of working as a professional musician, mostly in the capacity of fronting the musical concept/band Fruit Bats, and as a past member of the Shins, he has been challenging his own boundaries and pushing his music forward, from its origins in low-fi to what has of late been truly well-crafted and completely thought-through expressions of creativity. Johnson’s recent release, A River Running to Your Heart, has a depth and complexity that is often balanced by the lightness of his vocals. It’s as though you matched the Canned Heat vocals of the late Alan Wilson with the arrangements of David Gray or Pete Droge. It’s a reflection of personal growth, and someone now comfortable taking the production reins into their own hands and making records that are truly theirs.
Eric D. Johnson (no relation to the Texas guitarist of the same name) may have gleaned some of this by performing as a steady sideman alongside songsmiths like James Mercer. In that role, it seems as though he earned a master’s degree in arrangement and theory. That comes to remarkable life in his 10th release, A River Running To Your Heart. With songs like “Waking Up in Los Angeles,” he delivers superb songwriting, with melodies that will stay with you long after you’ve left the record.
We caught up with Johnson in advance of his upcoming national tour. The tour will find him performing in much larger rooms in markets that might be new to him. It was an exchange that could have gone far deeper into a number of areas, but which revealed how genuine Johnson is in all aspects of his life, not just music.
Ray Chelstowski: The new record is not a complete departure from your last two, but it’s perhaps the most cohesive to date. What’s different in how you approached the material?
Eric Johnson: I produced it, so maybe that’s part of it. I’ve always had a hand in the production of my records, but this is the first one where I was at the helm. But other than that, I don’t know. I certainly don’t have a mandate when I go into the studio as to how anything is going to specifically sound. The last few records have less “influence” than usual. When I had made records in the past I’d get obsessed with other sounds, and mix them in. For the last few records however it’s been more like “tunnel vision,” and me trying to communicate as strongly as possible. When I was younger I was just trying to create a vibe.
RC: You recorded A River Running to Your Heart at Panoramic House in Northern California. What was it like working in that space?
EJ: I’d been there a few times and I’m friendly with its owners and operators. It used to be a studio in Sacramento called The Hangar where I worked on a few other peoples’ records. Panoramic House is stunningly beautiful, on a huge hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When you are tracking a record you are looking out at a beautiful crescent bay. It can almost be described as a distraction. Maybe the most famous record to have been made there over the last few years was The Waterfall by My Morning Jacket.
RC: Is there a room that you prefer to record in?
EJ: I remember in the early 2000s, when it was the waning days of super-pro recording studios and the vestiges of the salad days of the music industry. I got the last glimpses of that era, but I never got into it. I was a low-budget guy and my first record was made at a studio in Chicago called Clava, which was a great studio and very much of a newer mold. It had great equipment but still had a scrappy element to it. I gravitate toward that and I kind of know that you can do almost anything anywhere. To me it’s always more about whether your songs are any good.
RC: You are very prolific, releasing an album a year for the last few. Is that a schedule you commit to in advance or do you get inspired and record when the material is ready?
EJ: I think that’s something that’s only come about in the last several years. Before 2016 I never would have considered myself to be prolific. Remember, I’m from the old days when it was still like you do a record every two years. The record would have 10 to 12 songs on it and then you [would] tour on it for like a year. Then you [would] take a year off to write and record another one that you hope would be released two years later. I’m not subscribing to the “content era” [of pumping out singles and EPs constantly] but I think I maybe hit a moment where I’m good at churning stuff out at a time when you are kind of supposed to be doing that. But it wasn’t something I [consciously] set out to do.
RC: This is your third record with Merge Records. How have they helped you navigate the world of streaming music?
EJ: I do think you need a [record] label for that. There’s an infrastructure there that I wouldn’t be able to replicate, and I still like the “clubhouse” feel of being on a label. Merge is the perfect combo [of what I need] because they have power and history along with a punk rock mentality. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.
RC: You play Webster Hall when in New York City. In markets like that, how do you pick which venue to play?
EJ: It’s a dark art. I’m pretty involved in the decision making, in part because I’ve been around for so long. But we were like a small club band for pretty much the first 19 years of our career. Then when [our album] Gold Past Life hit things kind of shifted. So bigger rooms are new for me and some those that are on this upcoming tour are real new territory for us, so we’ll see what happens.
RC: You guest on singer/songwriter Will Sheff’s debut album, Okkervil River. How did that come about and what is it like to be a guest instead of leading the creative process?
EJ: I started out that way, and have since always done both. I’ve always said that if you are a singer/songwriter and have the opportunity to guest or join a tour you should do it. I find it extremely refreshing and it’s great to climb inside someone else’s songs in a meaningful way, instead of just listening to them. It’s one of the joys of [my folk band] Bonny Light Horesmen, where I can step in and out of the spotlight.
RC: As a guy who goes it mostly alone with sidemen, I wonder if you follow or are close with artists like Adam Levy of Honey Dogs, or Mark Oliver Everett of Eels, who do the same?
EJ: I am fans of both those artists, although I don’t know either of them. My band name comes from having a boring first and last name. Very early in my career I thought about changing it to a stage name and then I thought it sounded like too much hubris, like what am I, David Bowie? So, [Fruit Bats] became a band name. And at that time, this was a thing. There were Guided By Voices, Sparklehorse, and Cat Power; where it’s a band name but [actually the work of] a single person. Now, that’s [become] fairly common. But early on I wanted this to be a band. I was on Sub Pop Records and they were interested in selling it to the public like that. I just didn’t have the money to pay a band, so in a way it became a solo thing out of necessity.
RC: What did you learn about songwriting and arrangement from being part of the Shins?
EJ: That whole situation was life-altering on so many levels. It was a shift from poverty to actually making music for a living. It was a weekly salary and a proof of concept in becoming a professional musician. That allowed me to hyper-focus on writing. Living in someone else’s songs, [especially those of] a master like James Mercer, taught me so much in a really deep way. Playing a song like “New Slang” every night was never lost on me. This is one of the greatest songs ever written and I get to sing it on stage every night.
RC: You have covered a good amount of musical ground across 10 albums. As you look ahead, is there something you haven’t tackled that you are hoping to do?
EJ: I think about that a lot, and I almost don’t want to say it out loud because if I do it probably won’t come true. (laughs)
Header image courtesy of Eric D. Johnson.