Frontman Eric Johnson never intended for the Fruit Bats to be a solo project. "But because I was the one who put it together and had the most enthusiasm for it, it just ended up being me," he says from a hotel, as his belongings sit packed in a truck for a return to Portland after an abortive six-month move to Los Angeles.
Yet after playing with a variety of musicians and making three albums of graceful, melodious folk-pop by his lonesome, more things are changing than his address. For one, he's settled on a permanent backing band, taking a load off his shoulders during the recording of their latest, The Ruminant Band, and engendering a tougher, more rocking live approach.
"I enjoy the simple pleasures of playing in a band on a stage and finally I was like, 'Why don't I just try that on a record for once? Who am I kidding, that's the music I generally like anyway,' " Johnson explains.
Recording for the first time with a band live in the studio instead of playing by himself to a click track, Johnson filled The Ruminant Band with a vibrancy and crackle that was sometimes missing amid the stately pastoral beauty on prior releases. From "Tegucigalpa," with its greasy guitar outro to slinky cabaret-strut, to "Feather Bed" and the title track's loose-limbed country-folk shuffle, the Fruit Bats forge a new direction while maintaining a similar trajectory.
The twang and reverb-drenched attack should help distance them from the Shins comparisons that have dogged them throughout their career, thanks to the bands' similar musical aesthetic, shared label (Sub Pop) and a longtime friendship. In fact, two years ago, The Shins' singer/guitarist James Mercer asked Johnson to join the band after the release of their latest, Wincing the Night Away. It's an opportunity Johnson almost passed up, just because he worried what people might say.
"When James asked me, it freaked me out a little bit because of [the bands' similarities]," Johnson confesses. "He has way more of an '80s British fixation which he veils in certain ways, that I don't have at all. That's the difference right there, otherwise we'd probably sound alike."
Johnson eventually took Mercer up on his offer, and discovered for himself how similar their voices were when calls from the back of the bus were answered, "What do you need, James?" But overall it was a fine experience, and Johnson suffers no lingering envy for the arena-size audiences or the outsized green room cheese plates.
"I'm not saying being in The Shins and playing to giant crowds gives me an empty feeling, but when it's not your own songs there's definitely something different about it. It's a fun rush, but it's a different kind of feeling," Johnson says. "I've been way happier onstage playing to 100 excited Fruit Bats fans than 5,000 excited Shins fans."
The sudden interest in catchy roots pop music from Fleet Foxes to The Shins certainly caught him by surprise, though. When he started making Fruit Bats music a decade ago after the breakup of Velvets-inspired Chicago indie rockers I Rowboat, it was the last thing he expected. Of course, few anticipate being swept up in a zeitgeist.
"I would get frustrated with how nobody's fucking interested in this. That was at the height of The White Stripes' popularity," Johnson recalls. "I never thought I was going to be somebody that would have something catch up to them. It just didn't seem like that would ever happen to me, but it's cool. But I'm definitely throwing a little more rocking stuff in there now."
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