With The Pet Parade, Eric D. Johnson heads into Fruit Bats’ twentieth year with a rolling, easy charm. While his main band has remained at the core of his musical practice, Johnson has spent the past few years expanding creatively, scoring films, touring with The Shins, and joining up with fellow folk explorers Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman in Bonny Light Horseman. These outings offered new perspectives, which subtly shade the nostalgia and reflection at the heart of the new lp. Johnson joined us for a discussion about the new album, home recording, the pandemic, and how it feels to walk his musical path for two decades.| s goldstein
Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve played in The Shins, Bonny Light Horseman, composed film scores, worked solo, and now you’re at the 20 year mark for Fruit Bats. How has creating music changed for you over the years?
Eric Johnson: Things have certainly changed in twenty years with streaming and all of that, but for me nothing has changed. I still sort of have the same process. I’ve just gotten better at it, as far as the creative aspect goes. I’m doing this twenty-year anniversary stuff and I’m having to go back and go through all of this old stuff. Of course you’re like “Ug, that verse, I should have changed it,” you know? It’s hard not to be so critical about twenty-year-old songs, but then at the same time I’m like “Oh I can hear what I was going for there. What a good little dude I was back then.” It’s a weird thing looking back on twenty years of stuff, that’s for sure.
AD: Are there certain ideas you’ve slowly been working at over the past twenty years?
Eric Johnson: There are some songs that are like a collage. A lot of times it’s just fragments of ideas both musically and lyrically that are all over the place that I’m stuck pushing them together. Some songs take ten years to write, which is like not to say I’m sitting and pouring over a song for ten years, but it could be a ten year old idea that collides with a brand new idea. There was a song on my Absolute Loser record called “None of Us” which was actually a twenty year old song.
Sometimes when I hear the first Fruit Bats record, which again, I need to stop being so critical of it, but when I hear that, I think about this Bonny Light Horseman record I just made. Granted I’m only one third of the band, but I think I actually achieved what I was trying to go for with some of those first Fruit Bats records. Just tapping into some super weird multiverse, I’m like, “I finally did the thing I was trying to do back in 2000.” I just know more about how the world works. There are songs I come back to, but it’s more like concepts and ideas. It’s become clear to me that there are some things that work for me and push my buttons, in a good way, emotionally. Feelings and concepts that always come back to me.
AD: Do you feel like working on a variety of projects helps contribute to the process?
Eric Johnson: Yeah. When you’re working in a side band, like when I was in The Shins, there is no way that you don’t get the DNA of the music. It seeps into you. I got to totally climb inside of those songs, it was a good influence on me because those are amazing songs, and it was proof of how things work. That showed me the inner workings of a successful band with songs that are super connective, so The Shins had this effect on me. I started thinking that I can be doing more. I really grew up being in that band. It was a total education for me.
AD: I feel like that would bring a lot of hope being in a band like that. A lot of people enjoy the music, but you’re also able to create very personal and intimate connections.
Eric Johnson: Absolutely, it was a total game changer. I’ve always been into letting other people learn. I’ve seen it with Bonny Light Horseman and working with Anaïs Whitman and Josh Kaufman, who are both totally brilliant. I’ve been watching Anaïs, not because I’m not meticulous, but I do take broad brush strokes. She really gets in there and assembles things while leaving no pebble unturned. It’s like watching people and how they work.
AD: You said the title track of Pet Parade is about “The beauty and absurdity of existence.” It was written before the pandemic, but did the state of the world changing affect the decision to make this the title track?
Eric Johnson: Yes. Right now, we are all going through this together, I feel like anything anybody writes is going to feel like it’s speaking to us in this context because it’s so all encompassing. I wrote some of these songs before, and, interestingly and weirdly, the theme I was thinking about was connectivity in isolation. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to write some concept record about the internet, but [I wanted to touch on the] social media age and the anxiety of that. I was writing these really broad topics about connectivity along with melancholy songs. I had a handful of those written before the pandemic hit and some of them really started to make more sense after. Josh Kaufman, who also produced this record, wanted to do these Van Morrison Astral Weeks song cycle songs, where it’s like two chords and you rip out lyrics. That first lyric came out as “Hello from here, to all you out there,” and that is some Coronavirus writing right there. Even though I was freaked out about having a seven-minute, two chord slow song open a record, Josh insisted that I can’t write that lyric and not have it open the record. There were other songs I had written that were simpler love songs that I did adjust as we were going through all of this. Rather than songs about a person in love with another person, they became more about self-love. Instead of singing about “you and I,” I started singing about “we.”
AD: The production process of this record was unique. People recorded at home in different places and sent parts to you. It kind of sounds like music pen pals. Did you enjoy that way of working?
Eric Johnson: Yeah, it was totally music pen pals. Once Josh and I had finished the Bonny Light Horseman record, I knew that I wanted to work with him for this record. I wanted to see what this guy’s mojo would be like for my new Fruit Bats project. The thing that’s awesome about Josh is that he’s this real band leader kind of person. He can get people in a big, beautiful room somewhere and it’s this vibed out process. But we both come from this 4-track bedroom recording background. He literally has a closet as his recording space. So, we knew how to do this. With modern technology, people just make records in their bedrooms. This was a bedroom record. All of mine are done like that in some way, even if they are being done up and hi-fi. I like to think that they’re all handcrafted in some way. It was weird because it wasn’t what I was expecting to do but at the same time, we were ready for it.
AD: The virus forced people to drastically readjust things, but it seems like all that set up really allowed it to work for you.
Eric Johnson: I tell anyone starting off now to get a rudimentary recording set up and learn how to use it. It’s not expensive anymore and you can make records. It’s like those Billie Eilish records. That’s bedroom music, but it’s massive pop music. It’s all really possible now.
AD: The “Balcony” music video employs a very different feel than the album cover. How did the idea come about for the visuals?
Eric Johnson: I tend to always want to do funny videos. There are very few videos of mine that aren’t weird in some way, even though the music is not intended to be funny or weird. My wife Annie Beedy and I worked on it together. She’s a visual artist and photographer. She’s done all my album covers too. We were just at home and there weren’t really the obstacles of the normal things you do, like hiring a film crew. I have directors that I work with and it’s this whole process. I think we were applying our longing to be out in the world and thought, let’s create our own weird world of little Styrofoam puppets.
AD: Did your Annie take your album cover as well?
Eric: No. She took the last one, for Gold Past Life, and she’s curated, designed and taken most of the record photos since 2011. This one was a photograph that her mom took probably, before she was born from the early ’70s, I think. It was a family photo of her late father and it’s been hanging on our fridge forever. I almost didn’t want to have a 1970s looking album cover, having it look all retro. But the emotional vibe of that picture was undeniable, and I realized that her family dog is looking directly at the camera. The Gold Past Life record cover also has an animal looking directly at the camera, so that’s a weird little thing I’ve got going that I’ve never thought about.
AD: Did you decide to use the album cover once all of the recording was complete or was the picture something you had considered using in the past?
Eric Johnson: We had a pile of pictures and that one was in the mix, but it was probably the fifth choice or even lower. There was actually this one picture that I always thought was going to be the album cover. Maybe we’ll use it again or have it become an album cover at some point. But no, we didn’t really know. That’s usually how it happens for me. Some artists are really good at having an album cover picked and having the name even before they finish it. I can’t do that. It has to reveal itself to me and it usually doesn’t do that until it’s done.