Interview with Eric Johnson
Check out the Fruit Bats at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, Wednesday, March 24 2010
The following interview was conducted with Eric Johnson.
Luke Bowden: I guess the first question unfortunately should be do you feel like Pitchfork’s favourably tepid support of Ruminant Band (they’re insight into the recording not overly hasty) has helped or hindered the band? Variously are there any perceptions or misperceptions about the recording or outfit you see being made in the media you would like to point to.
Eric Johnson: That review was really the best review(1) Pitchfork has ever given us. I think they’ve become such a journalistic juggernaut that its typically only the really good or incredibly bad reviews that make any sort of difference. They’ve always been relatively indifferent to Fruit Bats and thereby we haven’t really felt any blow back from what they say about us. Plus, I don’t really think the people who truly follow Pitchfork - young kids looking to feed off the zeitgeist of the moment - are really going to be inclined to like us anyway; we’re not that type of band. I enjoy reading Pitchfork for news and such and getting a shout out (however minor) from them feels nice, but I try not to think about how they (and the blogosphere or whatever) applies to what I’m doing.
Q: Perhaps moving chronologically makes the most sense. Could you, for people well outside the Chicago, Seattle and Sub Pop scenes, recount where you first came into contact with someone like Tim Rutili, I believe I read you were working at the Old Town School of Folk Music (with some other by now notable individuals(2)). Who are the cast of characters associated with Red Red Meat and Califone that overlap with Fruit Bats with whom we should be familiar? Perhaps quickly also how would you describe in your own words the sounds of RRM and Califone and if possible how they inform Fruit Bats.
EJ: I always used to say (when we were still getting tons of Califone comparisons) that Tim Rutili likes to take pretty themes and fuÇk them up, I like to take fuÇked-up themes and make them pretty. There’s plenty of RRM and Califone in my early work, but in a lot of ways my embracing of 70’s AM pop and straighter indie rock and classic sounds was a way of distancing myself from those stylistic comparisons. Tim and company were definitely my greatest backers in the early days and really made me what I am today, completely. The earliest Fruit Bats line up was essentially Califone with me singing. Other people from greater Perishable Records family who have been involved at one time or another are Gillian Lisee (formerly of Orso) and Graeme Gibson (who took over Clava Studio from Brian Deck). Plus Deck himself and again, everyone in Califone. Its a pretty extensive family tree.
Q: You’ve said in a previous interview that Ruminant Band ‘isn’t frothing with sex, Marshall stacks, and amphetamine beats’ I wonder if you recall what album you might have been referring to, I’m presuming Mouthful’s sprawling soundscapes as Spelled In Bones is perceived as a stripped down affair. Or is this remark somewhat true of all your albums from Echolocation forwards. How would you describe if not the differences from album to album than the similarities.
EJ: Did I say that? That’s a good quote! Damn! ‘Frothing with sex...” As far as differences in each record... I was certainly going for something thematic each time. I almost never get it quite right, and that’s part of the beauty of making recordings; that weird thing that comes out of you thats all your own. Echolocation was supposed to be the sprawling psych-folk opus, plus I had NO idea what I was doing; coming from a four-track background and then going in to the studio with a serious pro like Brian Deck. That was very much his record. Mouthfuls was me a bit more confident and obsessed with Nilsson and Newman and pure 60’s songwriter pop, but still letting Deck add his postmodern electronic flourishes. Spelled in Bones was a bit misinformed, a return to trying to do things myself four-track, homemade style, but at the same time make more of an indie rock record filled with pop. I wouldn’t say that record is a failure but its my defacto least favorite thing I’ve done. Ruminant Band is the result of me taking a bunch of time off and getting my rocks off with my groovy jammy side, doing my weird Southern Country rock stuff I’ve always wanted to do but could never find the right people to make happen - still mixing it in with my light rock tendencies which I’m fully just embracing now.
Q: Beyond your affiliations as a sideman and multi-instrumentalist with bands ranging from Califone to the Shins and Vetiver I’m interested to know about the musicians you’re affiliated with personally if not so much through their live or recorded output. By way of a very loose ad hoc grouping it is tempting to slot Fruit Bats into a sub-genre if you like of alt.country purveyed by a younger vanguard of players. In this group one might include bands like Deer Tick, Dr. Dog, The Cave Singers and Vetiver. Beyond the latter whom you have obviously played with do you know any of these other groups or players and would you self-identify with this loose notion of a genre as opposed to some you’ve been saddled with ranging from ‘zoology rock’ to ‘bootgazer’ and ‘pop rustic’. Variously are there current bands that you adore that do not get any or enough play in the media you’d like to bring to people’s attention
EJ: Vetiver are the only ones on that list that I actually know as people, but I dig those other bands. Alternately, others I always see on that list: Megafaun, Midlake, Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes. I like all of those bands. Someone recently told me, “the times have finally caught up to you.” When we were first trying our hand at going out into the world it was 1999-2000 and it was all about the serious garagey rock. There were a few bands from that time period trying to do similar things - Kingsbury Manx, Grandaddy, Beachwood Sparks... I’m totally cool with there being a collective conscious happening. The more kids inclined to like this kind of stuff, the better for me.
Q: You’ve said in the past that you don’t listen to a lot of current music nor understandably read a lot of music publications. You’ve also said that it would take a novel to describe why this is the case. In novella form then how come you don’t listen to much contemporary music?
EJ: I might have been being slightly hyperbolic in saying that. There are certainly bands (see above) that I like from the present day. There are a lot of songwriters (some of whom are my friends, some who aren’t) that I feel influenced by, challenged by, who make me want to make better songs and keep doing what I’m doing. I simply mean I’m not going to be perusing the internet for the hot sh!t new band and make them my deal. I’m too hip deep into the music world to want to make that my hobby in my spare time.
Q: It's clear that what defines Ruminant Band from your previous recordings is that you did a brief tour prior to recording the songs allowing them to take shape and solicit further collaboration. You have also stressed that as a result of this tour and recording process Ruminant Band is truly a band effort.
EJ: Graeme Gibson(3): He’s a Canadian, first off, from Kelowna BC (the Palm Springs of Canada, some say). He’s a drummer I’ve coveted for years; he’s the only one I’ve ever seen of this generation who can play with that country boogie, that weird kind of twitchy stomp thats funky and twangy at the same time. The fact that we’re four Americans with a Canadian drummer makes us the inverse version of The Band, someone pointed out...
Christoper Sherman(4): Sherman is a hidden treasure of bassists from Chicago - a town filled with bassists. He’s super expressive and I’ve never had to tell him a single note or what to do. Plus the dude is a road hog - he’ll never complain for a second if we’re ass-deep into a stressful few road days, he’s quiet and staring out the window. He’s been with me the longest and I always come back to him.
Ron Lewis(5): Ron is one of the most prodigious players in Seattle. He’s been in about a million bands and he plays every single rock instrument (and sings, too). He used to be the Fruit Bats drummer and when I found Graeme, there was no way I was going to get rid of Ron; I just moved him over to an auxilary position because I knew he would shred on anything, and he does.
Sam Wagster(6): Sam is the person I met most recently in this band, and I feel like Ruminant Band is as much about him as anything. He’s an old soul of a guitar player who reminds me a lot of my two favorites - Mike Campbell and Lindsay Buckingham - tasteful but can let loose. Plus he brings some Texas-ness into the mix.
Q: Ruminant Band also represents a return to Clava Studios in Chicago the site of Echolocation's genesis. What can you say about your collaboration in this specific studio in this specific neighborhood with Graeme Gibson and the other members of the band.
EJ: There didn’t seem to be any ghosts of Echolocation in there. I thought it would be kind of like a homecoming, but its changed so much (and so have I) in ten years that it was a whole different deal. Clava is in Bridgeport on the South Side (the baddest part of town as Jim Croce once said). Its a working class Irish/Italian neighborhood (Clava is on the Italian side). It’s gentrified so much in a decade that it was barely recognizable upon my return. Clava is a studio that’s a dying breed. In the new wave of home recording on computers, so many people are doing records at home leaving the multi-million dollar studios the only pro joints left. Clava is part of the old middle class of studios with great analog gear and a dusty homespun vibe. Kinda perfect.
Q: I’m sure you’d like to talk about the songs themselves as much as time provides. The album opens as portentously instrumentally as lyrically with the words ‘oh the time that you woke up and told me that one dream’. Can you tell me why the first chapter of Ruminant Band had to be Primitive Man.
EJ: I think it was more of a sonic choice, really... It has that build to it that feels like the appropriate needle drop. That song was kind of written for myself in the third person, I think - I had been having these horrible nightmares and I wrote that from the perspective of a person comforting his or her lover as they sat up in bed screaming... The part about the Primitive Man came from a dream I had about a murderous caveman...
Q: Following the Primitive Man is a song (like many in the Fruit Bats repertoire) populated by odd characters -in this case Little Sad Tad, Old Zen Ben and Sweet Sweet Pete – as in a fable. Also the lyric ‘he had a blue eyed merle’ seems to have been taken or mistaken as a reference to a specific Merle likely Haggard(7). Each verse like many of the albums hooks in fact contains a little moral aphorism or truism such as the last verse: ‘you won’t lose the beat if you just keep clapping your hands like Sweet Sweet Pete who clapped for the Ruminant Band’. Is there anything you’d like to say about the albums moral compass in light of this song? Or is there perhaps a shared moral condition, affecting everyone including your songs characters, ‘under moon and the sun’.
EJ: A blue eyed merl is a kind of dog, actually. I cribbed that line from Robert Plant, “ain’t no companion like a blue eyed merl.” This is a song based on my dreams as well, sort of a lyrical companion piece to Primitive Man. I was spending a lot of time (still do) riding my bike along the Willamette River in Portland and coming across various hobos and drifters. They started to infiltrate my dreams and I came up with back stories for some of them. These are the guys in the song ‘Ruminant Band’ - guys with hopes and dreams and pasts that are bigger than where they are now; definitely a little fable about old fashioned road warriors, with some metaphysical zen wisdom thrown in there for good measure. Mainly ripped off the top of my head with the hopes that there’s some truth in there; I’d like to think that a lot of good lyrics start that way.
Q: You freely admit to being a 'grass is greener' sort of guy pining for smoky Chicago that you left behind for leafy Seattle and vice versa. One of the most rewarding of the album's songs is Tegucigalpa and it addresses this leaning directly. "My family moved us northward up to the terra borealis along the crooked pikes of the ruminants and voyageurs but my heart belongs to the smoke of Hamilton and Monangahela and all the dirty cities along the way" I'm sure our readers would like to know first of all if you're referring to our very smoky Hamilton, Ontario. Less specifically could you speak to how the psychogeography of Seattle, Chicago and the road in between plays out in the Ruminant Band.
EJ: I am indeed referring to Hamilton, Ontario with that line. That song is pretty cut and dry - it comes from two sources of inspiration: My friend who was born in Miami on the only day it ever snowed there and the notion of people bringing inclement weather somehow, and me missing the Rust Belt. Monongahela is my more poetic way of referring to Pittsburgh, a town I like a lot.
Q: While different fans have different favourites from Ruminant Band it seems self evident that Singing Joy To The World is a cherished part of both the album and live show. I’d like to approach this song – seemingly about a short failed courtship that was nonetheless ‘worth it just to know a little warmth below the snow’- from the perspective of the two song references it contains. The first is the title which I have cautiously reasoned is largely relevant because 3 Dog Night is the sort of band that would be playing at a fairground and everyone would howl along. Nestled a little further in though is the line ‘cause he’d loved her at the ball when he saw her dancing to ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’’. Lacing songs with legendary song titles, while they can rub off a talismanic quality, seems to be a high risk/high gain sort of thing which is to say hard to pull off. Were you at all self-conscious about these specific references, were you intending for some of their magic to rub off or are these just the sorts of songs the characters in your songs listen to?
EJ: It is telling that Singing Joy To The World is about a doomed but damn likely romance that favours the man’s perspective about a ‘woman who never loved him back’. While I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man favours if you like the woman’s perspective, with the man clarifying that he ‘may be qualified 4 a one night stand, but I could never take the place of your man’.
Quick lyrical correction - it’s “a little warmth before the snow,” and “loved her at the bar.” This song has had a really strong reaction from people. I wrote it in one sitting at 2AM which is rare for me, and I was really pleased with how it turned out. I try to throw in one Prince reference(8) on every Fruit Bats album (incidentally, we share a birthday). I’ve honestly never thought about the actual perspective connection between this and “I Could Never...” I more liked the image of this sad sack watching this young beauty dance to this song at a bar. Its really just about that time in the midwest (and I’m sure eastern Canada) when winter is setting in and you’re getting ready for the depressing cold long haul - and the old simple unrequited love story.
Q: By way of closing any good Canadian boy would be remiss not to ask you about the enduring mythos, legacy and influence of The Band. The Old, Weird America is a term that Greil Marcus came up with to describe the cast of characters, preachers, conmen, tricksters, snake oil salesmen, miners and tillers of soil that populate Dylan and The Band’s songs from The Basement Tapes era. New Weird America is a term coined by David Keenan now used to describe bands ranging from Brits like The Incredible String Band whom you acknowledge a hearty allegiance to, up to contemporary artists such as Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective. Fruit Bats then seem to occupy a special ground toiling and tilling over old and new American soil. By way of the most concrete reference possible Ruminant Band closes very curiously with a song Flamingos that seems to drop out of the contemporary sonic identity of the rest of the album and throws back literally to almost exactly that Basement Tapes era (the organ riff is instantly recognizable as something Garth Hudson might play, although anything with a calliope sound will be forever accused of that). Even more curious is that the audible tape hiss and grainy quality may actually have been something achieved in post-production(9) begging the question is it harder to make old sounding music on new equipment or vice versa (a quandary Fruit Bats seems to be closely engaged with). The question then is why did Flamingos have to first sound the way it did and then why did it have to be the last chapter of Ruminant Band?
EJ: The tune “Flamingo” was mainly played on an Optigan, an ancient record-loop organ that reads vinyl records with an optical laser and allows you to manipulate them. So that scratchiness you hear is not post production, but real dust and grit happening in real time. I’d like to make more songs like that - it might be the last chapter of Ruminant Band because it could be the first chapter of the next, who knows?
- (1) Pitchfork ranked Ruminant Band a promising (by their standards 7.4) with the backhanded compliment that the record was "'just fine.' That's not damnation via faint praise-- the record is "fine," as in an indication of precision and elegance. As always, Johnson's gift for grab is subtle but effective."
- (2) During the same time period Andrew Bird was employed as a violin instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
- (3) Gibson is a drummer, bass player, recording and mixing engineer whose credits range from Canadian hip hop group The Rascalz to more prominent American groups including Isotope 217 owing to his introduction to Tortoise' John McEntire.
- (4) Sherman is the longest standing member of the Fruit Bats.
- (5) Lewis is a multi-instrumentalist and member of Grand Archive. On May 6, 2009 James Mercer announced that Lewis had joined The Shins, on January 18, 2010 Mercer announced that The Shins are on hiatus until at least 2011 (with Mercer presumably focusing on his Broken Bells side project with Danger Mouse)
- (6) Wagster has played in or is a current member of bands ranging from Azita, Hotel Brotherhood and the Chicago improv/drone collective DRMWPN. Wagster also composes music for film, video, theatre and commercial projects.
- (7) Pitchfork's review of Ruminant Band erroneously references the "namedropping (of) a 'blue-eyed Merle'".
- (8) The most notable Prince reference in the Fruit Bats repertoire comes from the song Earthquake of '73 in which the female character lost her 'voice singing along to Raspberry Beret'
- (9) From Pitchfork's review of Ruminant Band: "'Flamingo' is post-tweaked with crackle and echo to sound like a Sun Records