Eric D. Johnson: Fruit Bats, Bob Weir and Beyond
Earlier this week the Fruit Bats called it quits after 13+ years as a band. The term band is used loosely, seeing as the project has always centered around singer-songwriter Eric D. Johnson, who has also played with a number of other projects—most notably The Shins. John released a statement about the groups’ dissolution, saying:
Hey All. So, after 13 years, 5 albums, bunch of tours, and lots of laughs, Fruit Bats is calling it a day. There is no major or dramatic reason – I’m not gonna launch into one of those “the changing face of the music landscape in the digital age,” things. Especially since I don’t even understand any of that stuff. It’s been a long run and time for a change. I’ve been fortunate enough to start scoring movies and producing bands and I’m super excited to continue on with that. Plus I’ll still write songs and make records and play shows, which will scratch any Fruit Bats itch that you’ve got. I mean, Fruit Bats has always ostensibly been a “solo” project, so this is just the start of chapter two, really… But anyway, new music from me still! More on that soon, so please don’t lose touch. This means that these shows next week will be our last (though I think we might plan some kinda epic last gig in Chicago one of these days, but that is to be determined)... So come on out and blow us a kiss goodbye. I know artists always say this but, seriously, thanks for listening, it has been amazing sharing this stuff with you. More to come (from a different angle) soon.
The “shows next week” that Johnson refers to are a series of special gigs in the Pacific Northwest, during which the band will perform their 2003 album Mouthfuls in its entirety. That run will kick off tonight with a performance at Neptune in Seattle, and the shows will now be even more special than fans previously assumed. We spoke with Johnson a couple of weeks ago—before he announced that the Fruit Bats would be folding—about the Mouthfuls shows, The Shins, playing with Bob Weir and Jonathan Wilson, the Complete Last Waltz, making friends with Guster’s Ryan Miller and more.
You’re re-releasing your 2003 album Mouthfuls on vinyl and you’ll be doing a few shows soon in which you’ll be performing the album in its entirety. What made you want to revisit the album in these ways?
It’s a small release and it’s just kind of one of those things. It all came from a fan request. There’s five Fruit Bats records and we had done Echo Location. Mouthfuls was the second album. Those were from the early 2000s, kind of before the hugeness of mp3s. It was still very much about CD releases at that time. Obviously, mp3s were happening during that time, but it wasn’t as much as a thing. It was really before the little bit of a resurgence in vinyl releases. Neither of those got issued on vinyl and I’ve always wanted to have the whole catalog on vinyl.
People especially really wanted Mouthfuls on vinyl. They kept asking me about it. It was sort of closing a chapter on having the whole Fruit Bats catalog on wax, as well as celebrating the 10 year anniversary.
What about those shows? What made you choose Mouthfuls of all your records to perform in its entirety?
I think just to go along with the reissue and go along with ten year anniversary. In a lot of ways I always felt that when we toured on that it was so scrappy. I’d like to think we’ve become a much better live band at this time. We do some of those Mouthfuls songs in new arrangements. It’s really fun. We’ve turned it into this very epic thing.
It’s going to be kind of like the Bob Dylan “Rolling Thunder Revue” in the 70s kind of version of Mouthfuls. It’s like very muscular and big sounding version of the whole record. It’s this Dylan style reinvention into a rock-juggernaut vibe on these folk songs.
Is there any reason why you picked the Pacific Northwest as the region to hold those shows in?
That’s where we live, so it was just easy. We have a strong fan base in big cities, but they’re “islands” for us in a lot of ways. We do fine in New York, Chicago or California. As far as touring goes, I’m not kidding myself to think that we’d be able to do a thirty city tour on this and be able do it the way I wanted, in slightly bigger rooms. We chose close to home, in order to do some things in front of the natural fanbase. I wish we could do more, but this was sort of a mini thing.
You used to play keyboard and guitar with The Shins. That was sort of James Mercer’s project, but Fruit Bats is very much your own. How is leading your own band different than being a member of one?
It’s more or less the obvious things. What I’ve always said with Fruit Bats and with what I’ve seen with James of The Shins who is still a very dear friend, is that when you’re the leader of a band you really absorb all the highs and lows more than if you had a set “band.” It’s even more so when it’s a one man band with a rotating cast of characters You carry the big joys of the small victories stronger than anyone else. But when you get punched in the side it hurts more for you. You’re absorbing everything as one guy.