Eric D. Johnson will go where he’s needed.
With this year marking the 20th anniversary of the first Fruit Bats release Echolocation — those early days would go on to set the template for the way he would navigate the industry right up to the release of his newest album The Pet Parade, out Friday, March 5 on Merge Records.
As a prolific songwriter in his own right, Johnson would go on to work with numerous collaborators to satisfy his own vision, but also frequently lent his talents elsewhere. He briefly joined The Shins from 2006 to 2011 and is currently experiencing success as a member of the Grammy nominated supergroup Bonny Light Horseman with producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman and singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell.
With The Pet Parade, Johnson had wished to continue the same winning streak he had been experiencing while working in the producer seat with Kaufman. In March 2020, the two were hard at work shaping the material in Johnson’s Los Angeles when the emergency break was pulled as news of the looming pandemic forced Kaufman to head back home to New York immediately.
Shifting their approach, the two worked on fleshing out these songs — with the help of friends like drummers Joe Russo and Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Fleet Foxes and Muzz), singer-songwriter Johanna Samuels, pianist Thomas Bartlett (Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens) and fiddler Jim Becker (Califone, Iron & Wine) — in different bedroom studios with an entire country between them.
With two distinct batches of songs that touch on the societal disconnect before and after a global pandemic, The Pet Parade is a poignant commentary on the times we are living in. It’s very easy to focus on what’s in front of us right now, but knowing where we’ve been can help us understand how we are able to cope with it all. Of course, like any Fruit Bats album, it comes full of heart and a display of pop-song-crafting mastery.
Ears to Feed caught up with Johnson to talk about the new album and his long, winding journey as a musician over the past twenty years.
The new album has a huge spacious feel. I was shocked to find out that a lot of the parts were recorded separately and not in a huge live room. How was it recording The Pet Parade with Josh Kauffman on different coasts instead of hashing out ideas in the same room together?
It’s interesting because, besides the Bonny Light Horse record, I hadn’t worked with Josh before as a producer. We’ve worked a ton together on music. He’s one of my best friends. As a producer he’s a real bandleader, and he comes from a singer-songwriter background. I was really excited to do this like, “let’s get some people in a room” and it’s going to have this whole feel to it and obviously, we were not able to utilize that side of him at all.
But he and I both come from a background as “bedroom recordists.” So I think we were able to collectively tap into that together. We’ve always tried to make mini-epics in these tiny rooms. Mine was in a guest bedroom that is 70-square feet. You make it work. I started off making things that way. All of my records — even before that — they’re always coming from that realm. I’m glad it sounded that way to you, too. My hope is that other people will hear that.
Long story short, it was coming from a very natural place for both of us to sort of do a record in a room and make it sound like it’s expensive and of the world.
You’ve said in the past that demoing is a big part of your songwriting process. Since Josh comes from a similar background, did you notice a difference in how you both approach demoing material? Did you learn anything from him?
Yeah, I’ve worked almost all of my records over the past decade or so with Thom Monahan. He’s one of my closest collaborators and we will work together again. My demos with Thom are really jumping off points for him. I give him a lot of components and maybe 70% of what you hear on the albums are just much, much better sounding versions of the initial demos that I worked up.
Josh doesn’t really work that way, because he’s such a singer-songwriter. I wasn’t just handing him things to put through his filter. It was a very collaborative process on the demoing itself. That’s why he was out in L.A. at my house early on. That was pre-production, him helping me birth these songs. It was really different and that was why I really wanted to work with him after Bonny Light Horseman. He has a real broadstroke touch with things and I was really interested to see what he would do with my album.
How did the Bonny Light Horseman project come together?
Actually, I was just cleaning out photographs on my phone and I found the photograph of the moment when that happened (laughs). Josh and I were working on this tour called “Alone & Together” where we’d do this kind of “songwriter in the round” tour. They’re really, really fun. This one was with myself and Elvis Perkins, Sam Cohen, Josh Kauffman and Joe Russo. It always puts me in this collaborative mood. It’s this whole different feeling where I don’t have to be in the spotlight all of the time but I can step into it occasionally. I’ve always enjoyed being a side person and a frontman at the same time.
I’m on this tour and we were sitting in the back of a sprinter van driving somewhere and Josh was talking about this thing he was doing with Anaïs Mitchell, that he didn’t even know what it really was. I was like, “I wanna do that” (laughs).
I actually invited myself along.
He said, “We’re doing this thing with old folk songs.” I had been really longing to tap into something older like that, folk-wise. He’s telling me about this folk project and I love sitting in this van with him, too. I’m like, “I want to be in a band with him more.” Anaïs and I had just kind of met online — in the dumbest way possible — through Twitter. We were shouting each other out. It was one of those funny little serendipitous things. I like to say that I more or else invited myself along for the ride on this project they were doing.
It must have felt crazy to just fall into this project and then be nominated for two Grammys.
Yeah and that was so fun. I hadn’t been in a new band for years, you know? And I’ve never been in a band where you’ve felt like the prom queen. I say that with all due respects to Fruit Bats. That has been sort of a slow burn over the years. It’s starting to do better now, and that feels really good. But the Bonny Light Horseman thing was this real natural, simple thing. We did it and it has this real instantaneously emotional impact with people.
You always get done making an album and say, “I think this is really good.” But when we made that one I was like, “I think people are going to love this.” I think it was partly because I was able to look at it from the inside but also slightly from the outside because it’s folk and it’s collaboration. I was almost able to be a fan of it in a different way than I would be of my own music. Nonetheless, the depth and the excitement for it has been surprising and totally cool.
This year marks 20 years since the release of Echolocation, your first album as Fruit Bats. Could you paint me a picture of young Eric D. Johnson at that time? What did you hope to accomplish?
I have this picture of myself and I’m not 100% sure if it’s accurate or not. When I listen to those records I think, “Oh, man I could have done better.” It’s hard not to hear stuff from your much younger self and think, “Man, I should have finished that a little bit more.” When I made that record I didn’t have any expectations. It was a very different time. The ambition of an indie rock person at that time was not the same as what it is now. You could have pretty small goals back then. I think I just wanted to fill a rock club in Chicago on a Friday night or something and just make a record in a studio with older guys, who I thought were cool.
I describe myself as non-ambitious back then, but I’m not sure if that’s the word for it. It’s just the ambitions were small and that’s what I hear on that record. I was also like, “I can’t believe I’m in a studio.” It was all so new to me. I had written all of these songs over the years and I kind of thought maybe I’d never do it again. So I can sort of hear that it’s a jumble of ideas in there because I’m trying to cram in everything I can. I had a lot of weird ingredients in the refrigerator and I made a very weird tasting soup. That’s how that record sounds to me (laughs).
I had played four shows in my entire life. I played in Califone and went on tour with Modest Mouse and saw them take off. I had a bit of a proof of concept that there was this thing that you could do and it could work. I remember coming off of tour in 2000 — my first tour — and having really seen the country for the first time and had met all of these people thinking I could really do this. A year before that, I had literally only played four shows in my whole life. I had no ambition and no drive whatsoever.
So coming up with these people and seeing it start to happen and then making Echolocation with these older guys, who were ushering me into this universe was incredible. That record was not perfect, like I said. But it was enough that it had something to it because Sub Pop came knocking. Then it was off the races.
Do you view the break from the moniker with your solo album — EDJ in 2014 — as a dividing line with the world of Fruit Bats? Do you view the releases that came before and after differently? What made you want to go “solo” and then ultimately come back to using the band name?
Early on, there was definitely a feeling. I wanted it to be a band. I thought there would be a “band” with a lineup. That’s weirdly hard to do since the days of the Beatles where you have this merry band of brothers and sisters and you go out with a common goal and write together. Or it’s like the Monkees, where you live in bunk beds all in a house together. There are bands like that, I just didn’t have any success with that. I could have just stopped because it didn’t work, but I kept going.
There was already a precedent for bands like Guided By Voices, (Smog), Palace — the single guy as a “band” thing, just not going with their name. I also have a very boring name too, so I couldn’t. And there’s already a recording artist with that name (laughs). There’s a lot of reasons!
I remember at one point, when The Shins were doing so well circa 2004 or 2005 — before I was in that band — obviously they had great songs and they were James’ [Mercer] songs but they had this awesome cartoonish four-piece Beatles-y quality. I remember Sub Pop was like, “You’ve got to have a band. You’ve got to have the guys.” Even on the inside jacket of the Spelled In Bones there’s a band photo of me and three dudes who had never toured with me once. It was just who was in the band at that minute. I think we played a show or two with that lineup. It was pretty funny.
When I stopped using the name, I just felt like a different artist after a certain point. I felt like I was saying something different, and I wanted to change the name. But I quickly learned that was a huge mistake because people are attached to names. I changed the name and no one came to the shows anymore. It was like I either had to choose between that name and not being able to do this anymore. For me, the choice was obvious.
I love that you mentioned characterizing certain bands as “cartoonish.” You could say that Bob Pollard’s (Guided by Voices) projects are certainly this way because he envisioned several of his monikers along with their album art ahead of actually recording them. It adds this larger than life aspect to it. When you approach a project like Fruit Bats, do you view it as its own specific world separate from any other projects you are involved in?
Yeah. Fruit Bats is a “world.” That’s the one thing that I can’t give to those early records. I love writers that have their own world, a cinematic universe. It has to be a world. It doesn’t have to be, but for me it does. There is definitely a world for that, which is the best way to describe it. It’s kind of a place like how we have dreamscapes that we come back to on a weekly or a monthly basis. That’s definitely where I write. There is definitely a landscape to it.
Jumping back to the new record — The Pet Parade has a really “of-this-moment” feel to it even though a lot of it was written pre-pandemic. A line that really struck me as being prescient for this time is from “The Balcony” where you sing, “A two-point-eight is still a quake and it can shake away what you believe. Soon the drought will become a flood and it will drown out the feeling.” I think a lot of us are feeling that way where the concept of “time” may be gone, but we still feel conscious of it. Does that feel prescient to you while revisiting the record?
Yeah, I did write a handful of the songs before the pandemic and there was no way that wasn’t going to inform it, after the fact. I’m sure everybody is going to make their “pandemic record.” And they should. It’s a huge crazy thing that’s happened and everybody is dealing with it in their own ways.
The theme — because I try to start off with some sort of little idea or emotional throughline to the songs — was about connection and isolation. It’s not a record about the digital age or the internet or something like that. It’s not getting into some high-concept thing about how we’re living in a computer simulation or something like that. It was just more about how we connect with each other. That was my real baseline idea and that was before the pandemic. So obviously that has magnified what that means to us now. So I had written all of these songs that seemed prescient but they made sense before too and made way more sense after (laughs).
I always end up writing more songs as I make a record. Because as it takes on its character, I get more informed. So, you’ll have a later batch of songs that is informed by the earlier batch as you’re making it. That’s always how it works for me. I don’t know if everybody does it that way. I always feel like you have to have songs to beguit other songs. This was an extreme example of that because it was a true before and after as far as the writing process went.
For a while, I have been avoiding watching bands perform live streams because I’m resistant to having that format replace the joy I get from seeing a band live. But lately I have been watching full concerts on YouTube of bands like The Hives, who had the most tremendously joyous live shows.
The Hives are one of the best bands I have ever seen live. Back when The Shins were playing a bunch of European festivals, I got to see them side stage. Man, they were incredible!
Do you enjoy watching live streams? Would you do one yourself?
It’s funny because I don’t like doing live streams. It’s been hard for me. You’ll notice I haven’t done a lot of them. I like doing them and I’ve had a couple of good ones, I just find it totally weird. Some people dove right into it and were made for it or something and I am not. I can’t get used to not having audience energy for it. It just feels very weird to me not to have that. I don’t need worshipful feedback, but I need that exchange of energy. That’s everything that a live concert is for me. If we didn’t have that, why wouldn’t we just stream shows? It would be cheaper just to record live streams and that would be your tour.
That’s why people were like — even before the pandemic — “people aren’t going to go to concerts anymore, they’re just going to watch them on YouTube.” Maybe? I’m not a great future prognosticator. There is something that you’d miss from that.
As far as missing concerts; I miss them so bad! I was burned out on them before. So it’s certainly an absence that makes the heart grow fonder kind of thing. I love touring and I love playing but it definitely wears on you after a while. But now, I would give anything to be back out there.
There were times in 2019 where I had tickets to see shows and I didn’t go just because I wasn’t in the mood. Now, I’m kicking myself.
I’m the same. It’s weird when you tour a ton and for as long as I have, you develop a slightly different relationship with going to concerts. I don’t mean that in a bad way or that I don’t like them. But I probably don’t go to a lot of concerts voluntarily that I’m not involved in somehow. That’s only because I’m at them all of the time.
This has totally changed my perspective on it as to how wonderful they are. I miss it.
Is there anything outside of Fruit Bats or Bonny Light Horseman that you would like to work on, like more film scoring gigs?
I’d love to. I loved doing that. It’s gotten to the point — luckily — I tend to go the bird in the hand route. What are people interested in me doing? The past few years it’s been very much about Fruit Bats, shows, tours and Bonny Light Horseman. I go where I’m asked. But every few years someone will call me about a movie that tickles my fancy in some way. Hopefully that happens again soon. So, yes and no. I’m trying to be content with the whole “bird in hand” idea.
Is your reaction usually to say “yes” to these projects and then figure it out as you go along?
Yeah. I mean, that’s everything I’ve ever done. That’s the only way to do it. It’s a total cliche of “fake it until you make it.” When I first started to play with Califone and did those crazy tours early on, I was really shy and again had never really played shows in front of people and was thrusted into this world. You have to pretend like you belong until you do.
Once that DIY work ethic gets into you, there’s no looking back.
I do feel fortunate to have started in the ‘90s when that ethos was still available. I just set small goals. I feel bad for people starting now. It’s both easier to do things as far as recording and getting yourself out there. There’s a bigger platform but there’s also way more noise. You also have to kind of be fully formed out of the gate now. Whereas back in those DIY days, there was a boutique sensibility on everything. It felt developmentally that you could get to this place where you’d have a big sprawling body of work and now you just have to be amazing otherwise no one will notice. Everyone has a soundcloud or bandcamp page. They all have a platform.
This interview has been edited down for clarity.