It’s been a great year for road trip music. First it was Kurt Vile’s dazzling Smoke Ring for My Halo (which I’ve had on heavy rotation since its release in March), then The War on Drugs’ Springsteen-channeling Slave Ambient. Most recently, though, it’s Fruit Bats’ Tripper that’s vying for some behind-the-wheel play. The full-time project of sometime Shins guitarist Eric Johnson, Fruit Bats have been plugging away for over a decade now, moving from folksy acoustic guitar act to polished and ’70s-inspired rock outfit somewhere along the way.
For Tripper, Johnson picks up right where 2009’s The Ruminant Band left off, channeling the AM radio greats of his childhood with the type of guitar riffs and lyricism that scream “open road.” It also helps that Johnson’s high-pitched, increasingly tinny vocal approach calls to mind luminaries like Brian Wilson and The Bee Gees. Perhaps most telling, though, is the record’s concept which is based at least in part on an encounter Johnson had with a drifter during a train ride from Chicago to Oregon.
I recently caught up with Johnson in anticipation of the Fruit Bats’ New Noise-closing show this Sunday, November 6, at SOhO. Below, he talks train rides, Yo Gabba Gabba!, and his aspirations for cult success.
How did the show go yesterday? You played a Halloween gig for a bunch of kids, right? It was cool! I don’t necessarily think that Fruit Bats are going to embark on a career as a children’s performing band or anything. [Laughs.] One thing I realized is that my lyrics are way more adult than I thought. All my songs have some sort of reference to blood or broken limbs — there’s a lot of violence in my music that I didn’t really realize was there. So, I’d have to change my lyrics if we’re really going to do that, which I don’t think we are. [Laughs.]
How did you guys get hooked up with that? Those shows are put on by Chris Funk, the guitarist from The Decemberists, who’s a buddy of ours, and he always maintains that the last band is for the grownups as much as anybody. It’s basically for people who have kids and maybe can’t go see shows at midnight anymore. It’s his own little selfish thing that he’s put together with his partner, and he gets all of his friends to play it at one point or another. It’s really awesome.
And you guys have another kids’ show coming up? We do! And the fact that the first two ever in our 10-year run are within a few weeks of each other is so weird and completely random. The next one is through Yo Gabba Gabba! Have you ever seen that show?
Yeah! That show is amazing! It’s just kind of a weird stoner show, too, if you think about it. But we booked it through multiple strands of randomness — I don’t know even how we ended up doing it. YACHT did it, The Shins did it. The founder of Yo Gabba Gabba!, I believe, was in the band The Aquabats, so he comes from a sort of musical background. Biz Markie was on the show.
I want to talk a bit about Tripper. A lot has been said about this album being the so-called “logical next step” to The Ruminant Band. Would you agree? I don’t know. I guess someone referring to something you do as “the logical next step” is probably a good thing. “A blindsiding left turn” is almost more exciting, but I’ve always been pretty subtle with things, for better or for worse. And I’ve definitely been criticized for that. I try not to sit around thinking about my place in the universe or my career arc too much. It’s been long, and I don’t want to become one of those self-obsessed weirdos. But you think about what you’re saying, how you’re building on what came before. I think I was looking for a “logical next step.” The Fruit Bats fanbase has kind of coalesced into this sort of serious group of people who’ve stuck it out for a long time, so in a lot of ways I’m kind of playing to them now, which is cool. We’re not going to get on the Top 40, and we’re not going to get blog approved either; we exist in this weird never-region. My dream was always just to be a cult figure. That always sounded way more attractive to me than not being able to walk down the street.
So I know the lead track “Tripper” is based on this interaction with a guy on a train. When did this happen? I can’t remember if I was 20 or 21 when it happened, so it was either 15 years ago or 14 years ago. I was young and in that time period of figuring out who I was and starting to explore the dark side a little bit, in a good way. So I met this person who had obviously been living on the dark side for a long time, and I kind of realized what that entailed, to be sort of a vagabond. And then I sort of became a vagabond, really, just by being in bands and stuff. There’s weird details of the story that have been lost to me. I was old enough to be aware of the weird sociological impact of it all but also kind of naïve at the same time.
So you’ve known you were going to do something with this tale for a while, then? Yeah. I always wanted to make it into a movie, because it would actually be pretty funny. I’ve never been really good with long-form stuff though — I always wanted to write a book or a screenplay — but I think I’m too impatient or ADD or something. I’ve always wanted to create something, and writing songs really spoke to me because it was so immediate and short-form; you can give something a pretty epic scope in two-and-a-half-minutes, and that always appealed to me. I’d been interested in telling that story for a long time, but it is pretty epic, so I decided to play to my own strength and put it in a song. But now that I’ve revisited it, I’m pretty confident I could tell the long version. Who knows, maybe there will be a Tony the Tripper: The Movie one day.
How would you say the song fits into the album as a whole, then? I think the record is about good-byes a little bit. I think I got quoted as saying it’s about shedding the norm or passing off the shackles of society, but I don’t really want it to sound as pretentious as that. It’s sort of just a road album. It’s about traveling and being away from home and how that can be dark but also kind of beautiful at the same time. It’s not incredibly conceptual, though. I’ve always been interested in the dark side and the bright side, or thinking about dark things in a happy way.
Do you feel pretty comfortable with the touring experience at this point in the game? Oh yeah, it’s part of the routine now. I’ve been on the road for 11 years, with different bands, but with Fruit Bats for 10 of those years. It’s not something I love anymore, but it’s definitely part of the deal. I like the playing the shows part more than the driving around part, but I still love going to different places and playing for people.
Between The Shins and Fruit Bats, you play two very different roles, as guitarist executing someone else’s vision and as band leader calling the shots. Creatively, what do you get out of each gig? I’m a different person for each project. I totally reinvent myself kind of, [and I do so] happily. It’s a totally different thing. It’s not better or worse doing each, and I miss aspects of both when I’m doing each. I think you have to give part of yourself up to be in someone else’s band — in a good way. You have to know what they want and be sort of intuitive, and when you’re doing your own thing, you have to really know who you are. I like doing both, and I think a lot of people don’t — not that I’m saying I’m super versatile or anything. [Laughs.] I’ve just always been able to jump back and forth pretty easily.
The Fruit Bats play an all-ages show this Sunday, November 6, at SOhO (1221 State St.) at 8 p.m. with openers Walking West and Parson Redheads. For tickets and info, visit clubmercy.com or newnoisesb.com.