For Eric Johnson, the past few years have been a whirlwind of sorts. A longtime friend and fellow music maker of Shins frontman James Mercer, Johnson was asked to join The Shins in early 2007, directly after contributing to their Grammy-nominated third album, Wincing the Night Away. As the lone stable entity behind the Chicago-based Fruit Bats, Johnson was more than thrilled to take Mercer’s offer-but not at the cost of his own musical baby.
“When I got the job with The Shins, I had a lot of people say to me, ‘Congratulations, man,'” Johnson recalled. “I was sort of like, ‘Why? What did I do? I just got hired in somebody’s band.’: There was kind of this idea that people were like, ‘Well now you don’t have to do that Fruit Bats thing anymore. Good for you! You’re off the hook!’ It was this American idea of, as long as you’re on TV : It’s not really just about creating stuff. It’s sort of about visibility, or whatever. I absolutely love being in [The Shins], but I like writing my own music too-it’s really fun.”
While not always upbeat, one can tell by listening to Johnson’s music that he has fun making it. With three Fruit Bats albums (2001’s Echolocation; 2003’s Mouthfuls; 2005’s Spelled in Bones) and a record deal with Sub Pop under his belt, Johnson seems to have mastered the art of upbeat, guitar-driven folk. His songs vary from straightforward sing-a-longs to abstract bluesy jams to country-tinged indie pop without ever sounding unapproachable.
And it’s with a whole new bag of tricks that Johnson has gathered (and reorganized) his fellow Fruit Bats (Graeme Gibson, Chris Sherman, Ron Lewis, Sam Wagster) and booked an 11-date West Coast tour, which rolls into this town on Sunday, February 1. The outing will be the Bats’ first in three years, and an opportunity for Johnson and Co. to flesh out a whole slew of new tracks.
“The most important reason for this tour is that we’re recording literally like a week and a half after we’re done with it,” Johnson explained. “This is like the working the kinks out of the songs thing, which I’ve never been able to do. It’s always, go into the studio, fly by the seat of your pants, and hope this works. This is going to be [a venture] where everything is really blueprinted out.”
So the band will not be arriving empty-handed. Following a “crazy, frenzied” 15-hour-long stint in the studio a few months back, Johnson emerged with five brand spanking new songs. Following that, Johnson re-teamed with his Chicago cohorts for a second round of recording. From it, the frontman has pieced together a full-length demo of sorts, which he promises will be up for grabs during this first leg of touring.
“I’m not Mr. Prolific,” said Johnson, laughing. “Sometimes people will write me and say, ‘Can you put a song on my compilation?’ or ‘Can you do a seven-inch for my label?’ and I’m always like, ‘Uh, I don’t really have anything.’ So, it’s been long enough now that I actually do have some odds and ends-but I’m keeping ’em for myself,” he said. “They’ll be for the folks who come out and come to these shows.”
While it’s doubtful Johnson will have a tough time packing the small-by-comparison clubs he’s scheduled to play, one has to wonder what the transition will be like. Following the release of Wincing back in January of ’07, the Shins were booking nearly every festival in sight, not to mention venues the size of San Francisco’s Greek Theatre and our own S.B. Bowl.
“I have no illusions,” Johnson asserted. “Of course I was having a blast with those guys, but I was really fantasizing about the off-the-cuff [aspect of songwriting] the whole time. But the grass is always greener. I’ll probably miss the incredibly lavish backstage cheese platters when I’m on this tour,” he joked. “You want to have it all.”
And while Johnson may not have it all just yet, few would contest the notion that he’s come a mighty long way. Since forming the Fruit Bats in 1999, he’s persevered through numerous in-band personnel changes, joined one of the most famous indie acts in the world, and all the while still manages to find time to pursue his own songwriting career. Not too shabby for a folk rocker from Chicago.
Following their West Coast jaunt and studio sesh, the Fruit Bats plan to release their fourth album and take to the road for a full-blown tour. But ’til then, Johnson remains humbled by the prospect of what the future might hold. “I have no idea who’s coming out [to these shows] anymore,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been on tour. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Club Mercy presents Fruit Bats and Sera Cahoone at Muddy Waters Cafe (508 E. Haley St.) this Sunday, February 1 at 9 p.m. Call 966-9328 or visit clubmercy.com for details.