by Craig Howieson
Come on in: Eric D. Johnson opens the door to his new record, The Pet Parade, and talks about the community he’s thankful to be a part of
‘I’m always saying I’m as much, or more, Barry Gibb as I am Woody Guthrie’ laughs Eric D. Johnson as we begin our call. Despite having been based in L.A. for the last four years, I now find the man behind the Fruit Bats’ moniker sitting in the guest bedroom of his mum’s house in central Minnesota – as he enjoys the chance for the two to catch up following her recent COVID-19 vaccination.
His affinity with the Bee Gees’ star will come as no surprise to those familiar with his 2019 release, Gold Past Life. A sumptuous record that tapped into his love of 60s and 70s pop radio, it paid homage to the music that seeped into him as a kid. However, despite his pop sensibilities, Fruit Bats have long been thrown in with the folk scene of the early aughts and on new record, The Pet Parade, Johnson has doubled down on those preconceptions. ‘I have a very split musical personality,’ he says. ‘The Pet Parade is like the most distilled Fruit Bats’ records I’ve ever made… something that’s very myself and very much for fans.’ It was also, he explains, ‘a chance to tap into my folkier side.’
This fuller exploration of his folk tendencies has been influenced in no small part by Johnson’s involvement as one-third of supergroup, Bonny Light Horseman, with Anais Mitchell and Josh Kaufman. Released in 2020, the trio’s stunningly beautiful self-titled debut of traditional folk covers was studiously nuanced evidence of how deeply the three had immersed themselves in their subject matter. Describing the process as being almost a research project of sorts, Johnson is elated when describing the freedom he found in arranging and performing the tracks. ‘You are jumping on someone else’s train… knowing these songs will go on forever.’
Bonny Light Horsemen are now a fully-fledged band in their own right, but Johnson’s experiences have inevitably bled into his work as Fruit Bats. ’All these kind of very connected, ancient things that Bonny Light Horseman were doing really seeped into this record.’ The relationships he has formed with his bandmates have also helped to shape The Pet Parade; from the way in which Mitchell approaches lyrics, which has pushed him to work harder himself, and Kaufman being recruited to act as the LP’s musical director and producer.
Not unlike the Bonny Light Horseman record, The Pet Parade features a host of collaborators – something that has been an integral part of Johnson’s career. ‘Every good thing that’s happened to me has come from community and from friends who step up to help in one way or another,’ he says. ‘Whether it’s playing on your record, or taking you on tour. It’s incredibly important to me.’
‘I’ve got this side to myself that – I like being part of a world, and someone like Josh Kaufman, he has his own world that he’s invited me into and I’ve made all these new friends through him. It’s all a growing family tree you could say.’ This family tree now stretches far beyond that of his peers and those with whom he shares road-worn relationships. Johnson, whether he would like to admit it or not, is now a role model for a new generation of songwriters coming through, who he invites to play on his records and support him on tour. He is quick, however, to distance himself from the tag of mentor. ‘It’s certainly not the type of thing where I am the older brother figure saying “good job little buddy, keep working.” These songwriters are so good now that I am intimidated by them. But you need that – you want to feel inspired and freaked out a little bit by people cause it kicks you in the ass to try to do better.’
When pushed to name a small sample of artists, he’s a particular fan of he describes being ‘floored by’ Kevin Morby, and his admiration for Christian Lee Hutson and Johanna Samuels. He is also buoyed by the recent success of Phoebe Bridgers. ‘We haven’t seen the success level she has gotten to – making really legitimate singer-songwriter music in a generation. The fact you are seeing artists like that do well is very heartening for me.’
It can be challenging to put a life devoted to music in perspective. And given that it has now been twenty years since the release of Fruit Bats’ debut, Echolocitation, it is a period Johnson struggles to make sense of or define in terms of a career arc. ‘It seems to have all gone by in a blink,’ he says. ‘I spent the first 15 years of this project playing to nobody, and having it be a pretty obscure to cultish band. Then four or five years ago, I had some breakthroughs.’ The wider success and attention he is now deservedly receiving has been hard-won – not that he feels like stopping any time soon. ‘It feels strange to celebrate a 20 year career when I feel like I’m just getting going in the last five years or so.’
One thing that comes across when chatting to Johnson is his constant desire to improve. He has spoken in the past of how he fell into the life of a singer-songwriter. But it is a life he has committed to, and now practices with iron-clad devotion. ‘I am very meticulous,’ he says by way of explaining that he will never be the most prolific of writers, before joking that ‘in the earlier part of my career, I was neither meticulous nor prolific, but I’ve gotten a little better with both of those things.’ There is a considered reflectiveness in his voice as he talks about his past output and he is resolutely focused on making his new material the best version it can be. ‘You hear those earlier records of mine – they are kind of simpler. I’m saying less and I’m a little scared to tap into my emotions. But the last few, I’ve doubled down on that and I just feel I want to get better.’
Those who have followed the Fruit Bats’ trajectory from its genesis will know that each record has held within it a therapeutic element. It is often found in the music itself, the melodious quality of Johnson’s voice, or the painstaking care with which he stitches together his soundscapes. At other times, it lies in his song’s lyrical content, and the themes Johnson is working though are often as a catharsis for himself. With each release though, the therapy increasingly feels like a group session as Johnson breaches the fourth wall to reach the listener. ‘I think they’ve become more like that,’ he agrees and The Pet Parade may be the most overt example of him providing a safe space for fans to date. In fact, the opening lines of the title track and first song on the record are ‘Hello from in here to all you out there,’ as Johnson stretches an outreached hand to welcome you in. Speaking of the optimistic tone he adopts on the record and the themes of positivity and self-acceptance that are likely to resonate with his listeners old and new, he says, ‘I don’t place this much importance on myself,’ he says, ‘but in the microcosm of people who appreciate me, I felt like a responsibility, almost, to make something that was like that.’
‘I have this very fortunate situation where I have these stalwart fans from 20 years ago who are this much smaller cult, but are very passionate mixing in with this younger crew who found us through streaming and things and it’s created a larger audience.’ This somewhat unique melting pot of fans has left Fruit Bats in the enviable position of having their most recent work as lauded as their early records. A position that Johnson is grateful to be in. ‘You always want to feel like the best thing you did is the thing you just did, I feel closer to that anyway because it’s coming out of who I am right now. So it’s really exciting to look out there and see people who are mostly excited about the newer stuff. It makes me feel very accepted.’
The acceptance he has found from his peers, collaborators and fans is perhaps one of the reasons why a career he fell into has become a 20-year love affair – with the thought of doing anything different not even crossing his mind. ‘Lately, I’m realising music is what I do; it’s my bird in hand. I have other interests: I like to watch good movies and do crossword puzzles and go hiking, but I’m not gonna say I make canoes or something like that. I’m not deeply honing another skill right now. I feel like I still have to hone music. It’s like a tool that I need to keep sharp. I clear my mind from music by doing other music. I guess you could say I never take a break from it.’
’I always had very small goals,’ explains Johnson towards the end of our call. And yet through dedicating himself to his craft and immersing himself in a community he continues to invest in, he has come further than maybe he even imagined. With a sense of pride he concludes, ‘where I have gotten with it now would be very exciting and impressive to my 20 year ago self.’
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