Eric D. Johnson had been making music under the self-described "dumb, fake punk-rock name" Fruit Bats since the 1990s. But a few years ago, beset by a personal tragedy, he abandoned his alter ego and instead focused on scoring films and producing for the likes of Breathe Owl Breathe. He also quietly released a solo record under his own name titled with his initials: EDJ.
Now Johnson is back as Fruit Bats and with a new album, Absolute Loser, due out May 13. A testament to resilience couched in his trademark simple, pretty melodies and sparse, rootsy arrangements, the record represents a humble rebirth for Johnson — and a reason for Fruit Bats fans to celebrate.
Touring in support of that record, Fruit Bats perform at Signal Kitchen in Burlington on Friday, May 6, with fellow Portland, Ore., band Horse Feathers. Seven Days recently caught up with Johnson by phone to ask him about the new record, his overlooked solo record and his affinity for the Chicago Cubs.
SEVEN DAYS: You took several years off from recording and performing as Fruit Bats and worked on some other projects — film scores, producing, a solo record. How did those projects influence you once you were ready to resume as Fruit Bats?
ERIC D. JOHNSON: It depends on the project. For film-scoring stuff, which has been the biggest thing I've done, it's so much someone else's project. It's so collaborative, and I really like that, the letting go and being on someone else's schedule. The pressure is on in a different way. So, when you go back to making your own record after a few years, it's like taking your swimsuit off at the pool. It feels really good and free and weird. That's my weird analogy for that.
SD: That's hilarious.
EDJ: [Laughs.] There's your pull quote.
EDJ: So making this record is like being naked in the pool.
SD: You did release a record, EDJ. Why not just release it as a Fruit Bats record?
EDJ: At the time, and again, this is part of the whole process of coming back to the Fruit Bats itself, of discovery. Ultimately, I think the EDJ record will probably just get refiled as a Fruit Bats record ... But I was under a notion that if I did something under my name it could bolster the other things I'm doing. It's always been sort of unclear who I am and who Fruit Bats is and where the line is. So it was a way for me to sort of erase that line a bit. But the timing was terrible. And little did I know that, for better or worse, Fruit Bats is me. And that's what people recognize me as.
I couldn't get anything going with that solo record. And as soon as I changed the name back, everything I couldn't do, I was able to do. So I copped to the fact, because if it's a difference between going around and playing guitar and getting paid, which is a really awesome gig, I'm happy to do it.
SD: Seems like a healthy reaction, to me.
EDJ: I mean, it really is just a Fruit Bats record with a different name. I've always been in love with those lost, weird, classic albums. So the way to comfort myself for the failure, or whatever, of that record is that I made my lost classic.
SD: You toured for a while with the Shins, which I imagine was a very different experience from touring with Fruit Bats. What's the biggest thing you took from that?
EDJ: Aside from seeing the world and everything, that was a huge watershed for me. It wasn't totally dissimilar from when I was touring in the band Califone. You have these moments that reveal how things work. So, doing tours with other bands, you get to pull back the curtain. And with the Shins, I'd been touring with the Fruit Bats in this semi-unique capacity, because it was always a rotating cast. But we were just winging it. So the quality of life [with the Shins] was so different. I didn't have any illusions of getting the Fruit Bats to that level. But it made me want to get my shit together. It made me want to be better, which is the dumb short answer. It was a kick in the pants, because there is a big world out there.
SD: You're a big baseball fan. Who's your team?
EDJ: The Cubs. They've historically been pretty bad, for like a hundred years or so. But right now they're really good. It's the best Cubs start in my lifetime. I'm like a third-generation Cubs fan, because my family is from the north side of Chicago.
SD: I'm a Red Sox fan, so I've always felt a kinship with the Cubs.
EDJ: Absolutely. Theo Epstein is the curse reverser. So hopefully he's gonna come in and do big things.
SD: I read another interview you gave a while ago, and I gather you're something of a foodie. Do you have a favorite food town?
EDJ: Am I a foodie? I don't know if I am. I enjoy eating food, but definitely not in a foie gras way. I have very democratic taste in food. I do like to go out for fancy food, but I like eating hot dogs, too.
Honestly, eating on tour, we're usually trying to eat healthy now. And that's gotten easier. But, as for destinations, I like going to New Orleans. But we do not eat fancy meals on tour that often. You don't really have time at night, or during the day, either. I do like to cook and go out to restaurants in Portland when I'm home.
SD: What's the best record you've listened to recently?
EDJ: It's getting a lot of love, so I'll add to the love. I love that new Kevin Morby record [Singing Saw]. Kevin is a friend, and another good friend, Sam Cohen, produced it. So I'm plugging my bud. But it's also getting a whole lot of love from everybody. That record's great, and he's a special kind of songwriter.
SD: Have you played in Vermont before?
EDJ: This is our first show ever in Vermont! We've played in 43 states, so there's only seven left. We've already played in Alaska and Hawaii, so Vermont might be the No. 1 state left that people can't believe we haven't played.
SD: Well, being from Portland, I think you'll probably like Burlington. We often get called some version of "a smaller Portland," though I think that term probably applies to any small, artsy city.
EDJ: That's true, yeah. Portland, I think, is just a big Burlington.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Losing Streak"