MOVIN’ ON UP: “It was fun getting to play Muddy Waters and just sell it out. I’m hoping there’s some sort of sweet spot where we can at least fill up SOhO,” laughed Fruit Bats frontman and Shins guitarist Eric Johnson, calling in from his home in Portland to discuss the Bats’ return trip to Santa Barbara. Almost a year ago to the day, Johnson and his Chicago-dwelling cohorts stopped in town to play an amazing—if slightly claustrophobic—show at the Haley Street coffeehouse for a room of rapt fans. The goal of the tour: to work through a selection of new material for the band’s long-awaited fourth album.
The result of Johnson’s curious plan, last year’s The Ruminant Band, is easily the Bats’ best showing to date. Filled with bluesy guitars, parlor-style piano, and Johnson’s signature open-chord approach, the album reflects a more experimental, optimistic take on what Fruit Bats have always done well: craft poignant folk pop that has both heart and backbone.
“That was kind of the whole point of that West Coast tour,” Johnson recalled. “I wanted a live record feel, songs that were road-tested, to use a horribly clichéd term. It did what it was supposed to do, I think.”
Along with its more fluid live sound, the album marks a splendid return to the musical roots Johnson has long looked to for inspiration.
“I’ve always loved that ’60s and ’70s L.A. sound. I probably wear that on my sleeve a bit,” he laughed. “I think I’ve been tinkering with various versions of interpreting that since the very first record. … But I don’t want to be one of those people who’s just an imitator, either, so I hope there’s something sort of contemporary and vital and right-now about it, too.”
Truthfully, between sweeping production values, intricate instrumental layering, and Johnson’s always thoughtful lyricism, The Ruminant Band feels anything but stuck in time. And while many have pegged the disc as Johnson’s “happiest” recorded work yet, he’s the first to point out that everything isn’t always as it seems.
“I’ve got some darkness in me, too,” he explained. “But I write in a lot of major chords, too. … I write about dying and the end of the world and stuff, but I always try to add an undercurrent of happiness or whimsy or hope underneath it. I think people generally only see the happiness part, but it’s sort of intended to be a twist on something darker or bigger. But I’m fine with people labeling me as optimistic or happy, as long as they’re buying the record and getting some kind of legitimate enjoyment out of it. That’s all you can really ask for.”
DEEP IMPACT: Also this week, Santa Barbara post-rockers The Depths unveil their latest labor of love, City of Blight, with a CD release show at Muddy Waters Café (508 E. Haley St.) next Thursday. Despite its description (the band have dubbed the disc “a companion while exploring the world through the mind of the tortured, hopeless, and enraged”), Blight is no hardcore screamfest. Slow builds, grinding guitars, and epic percussion mark the majority of this eight-song offering, calling to mind everyone from genre starters Fugazi to contemporaries like Thursday and Poison the Well. Through it all, frontman Brian Mathusek holds down vocals that fluctuate from guttural to haunting with a purpose and rawness that simply is hard to come by. The Depths play Muddy Waters on Thursday, January 28, at 7:30 p.m., with Santa Barbara’s Quiet Giants and San Diegans Boomsnake. For tickets or show info, call 966-9328.