Eric D. Johnson: Fruit Bats, Bob Weir and Beyond
You paid tribute to The Band last year along with a bunch of other stellar musicians at The Complete Waltz show in San Francisco. You’re bringing that show to the Capitol Theatre on the east coast. What can we expect from the show? What influence, if any has The Band has on you as a musician?
The Band’s has had a huge influence. People’s perspective on The Band is them having these hits. I think the vast majority people think of The Band as this good band from the 70s. Maybe they know they were Dylan’s band. It cannot be stressed their influence on music. When you actually think back to when their records were coming out, it’s just crazy, what they were doing and how ahead of their time they were and how they kind of invented the template for rock in the 70s and beyond. Huge influence on me, I love them.
The Complete Last Waltz is awesome. I’m really excited for people in the northeast to see it. The thing that’s really is cool about is that there are some really great names in the cast of characters who are doing it, but there’s not a huge headliner either. It’s really about the sum of the parts.
It’s a bunch of people really enjoying each other’s company. It was one of the most awesome backstage atmospheres I’ve ever experienced. Everybody’s a fan of each other in that group of people. It’s going to be a lot of the same people returning which will be awesome.
Speaking of influences, I have to ask with Jambands.com, were you a fan of the Grateful Dead growing up?
Yes, and I’m still a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. I got to fulfill a childhood and adulthood dream of playing with Bob Weir last summer, which was totally incredible. I do a small festival in Northern California called the Huichica Music Festival. Jonathan Wilson played who is a friend of mine, who plays with Bobby, who lives in the general neighborhood. Bob showed up and called on the way and said, “Hey this is Bob Weir, I’m coming.” And we were like stoked that he was going to come, and then he said, “Hey would it be cool if I played four tunes.”
He got up and played four tunes. Totally amazing. And then they were doing “Truckin’” and Jonathan who was my buddy was backing up Bobby with his band. Jonathan just saw me in the wings and was like “get out here!” So I just sat down at the keys and got to play keys on “Truckin’” with Bob which was pretty great.
I was just old enough and young enough to come in at the tail end of their career. I did see 15 Dead shows in the early 90s as a teenager.
How about Phish or any jambands that came out of the 90s?
I never got as much into that. For a lot of people my age, I’m 37 now. In the early 90s when I was a teenager and I started to absorb all this music. I think The Dead is defnitely the gateway drug for people and they often to go in a million directions. I’m appreciative of the post-Phish jam world for sure, but it was never really my universe. The Dead spun me off more into becoming a nerdy, psychedelic collector type. Rather than sending me into the jam world, I got into the “deep cut” 60s/70s stuff. So that sort of became my world. I think I have been a would have been more appropriate Deadhead in say 1972. I was Deadhead out of time. I should have been in the 70s.
Going back to The Last Waltz, Sam Cohen of the Yellowbirds was the musical director of the project. I know that the Fruit Bats have toured with Yellowbirds before. What’s your connection with that group?
Sam’s just one of those one degree of separation kind of linchpin guys that not a lot of people out in the world have heard of, but everyone in a band has crossed paths with him. He’s not an old dude or anything, he’s just one of the old souls. Plus, he’s such a sick guitarist. I had run into his old band Apollo Sunshine a couple times back in the day when they were touring.
We had crossed paths a couple of times on the tour circuit. We didn’t get to know each other real well. And then this guy Brian Kantor, who’s the Yellowbirds’ drummer was playing in Vetiver for a while who are my tightest buds. I got to know Brian and then Sam and I got reacquainted through Brian. I did a solo tour of the West Coast this past summer and Yellowbirds backed me up as my band. We are getting to be an interrelated musical family with those guys, which is awesome because they’re amazing.
Speaking of other musical collaborations and connections, I know you’ve also sat in with Guster before, is there a connection with them?
Guster was classic and awesome. Ryan Miller is my really good friend because he was a fan of Fruit Bats and sent me a fan email a while ago maybe ten years ago. It was the nicest thing ever. It was basically like, “I’m in a band called Guster, let’s be friends.” Only Ryan would do that. He’s that kind of dude. I would be so shy to do something like that. Ryan just literally emailed me out of the blue and when he got my email somehow. We ended up hanging out and just totally hit it off. We’ve been good friends ever since.
What’s next for Fruit Bats in the studio and on the road besides the Mouthfuls re-release?
The Mouthfuls release is a smallish thing for this year as a kind of “For Fans Of” thing. If you don’t know the band I don’t know if it’s the best introduction, only if you’re thinking “Wow this band has been around for ten years and I’ve never heard of them.” I’m working on new songs and there will probably be something next year. My next thing might be more of a solo type thing. I’m still formulating that.