Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats may write from a place filled with idealized beasts - pride taking form as a mammal, all that is sinister curled within the breast of a jackal - but the songs that he wrenches from these pastures make for poignant reflections of our oh-so-human trials. Eschewing urban swagger for a lilting but pointed gait, Johnson has deftly created a body of work that is as earnest and simple as it is deeply contemplative. Rbt. B. Rutherford sat down with Eric prior to the Fruit Bats set at the Larimer Lounge to discuss the pitfalls of being identified as optimistic, “zoology rock”, and the Tom Petty Method of songwriting.
Rbt. B. Rutherford -A lot of the press for your new record has latched on to the idea that you write optimistic pop songs. Why do you think that so many people latch on to this, as if it’s novel to sing about anything other than doom and gloom?
Eric D. Johnson - Yeah, it’s weird. I think it’s all the major chords…. I think that people latch on to simple concepts and zeitgeist, and I think that that notion of optimism or anti-cynicism is weird. I can’t think of any band that is popular right now who is writing about doom and gloom. Maybe back in 1993, but I can’t cite anything right now that is doom and gloom. I’m not really a rainbow-colored optimist anyways. I think I’m a realist and I write sort of expansively. I think people latch on to these concepts and maybe they haven’t figured out how to shake them off to realize that it doesn’t really matter.
Rbt - Well, there are worse things to be known for.
The Ruminant Band
EJ -I think it’s fine if people want to think that the music is optimistic. What I don’t want is for people to think that because it might be optimistic and written over music that is upbeat and sort of bright, that it lacks gravity or meaning. I hate Jim Morrison, so if that’s what it means to be dark, then I’d rather be Herman’s Hermits.
Rbt - Well, if you think of a band like Radiohead, who carry this label that what they do is play a post-modern musical manifestation of a paranoid corporate culture, that somehow, if you are not speaking to that musically, you are written off as pastoral, or a total throwback.
EJ - I don’t even know what you can compare it to. Ultimately, if people are enjoying the records, I don’t really care what they label it as. They can take from it what they want. It’s not that I don’t care what people perceive I am trying to say, but I am not uptight about the message. It doesn’t keep me up at night. Even if people call it sunshiny music, as long as they like it, I don’t care.
Rbt - I’ve seen your music described as “zoology rock”.
EJ - Yeah! That’s one of my favorites. The Village Voice wrote that about my first record. There was an animal reference in every song. I was sort of fixated with that.
Rbt - You defined a genre.
EJ - It’s so obtuse. I like it.
Rbt - It seems like you use a kind of reverse anthropomorphization in your songs. You twist that around assigning these idealized traits that are found in animals and exalted by man, like “he had the lungs of a whale” or “the heart of a lion”. It’s interesting that we assign all of these human values to animal emotion. We distill our own emotions and assign them to animals as a way to relate to them.
EJ - I think that is a modern phenomenon. When you go to the zoo now, you hear people say things like “Oh look at that little guy. He’s having a good day, isn’t he?” And they’re taking about a penguin. The penguin doesn’t care. It wants to eat fish. I think I am fascinated with the reverse, like in mythology. There was a lot more mystery in animals, and respect. It’s not a big statement or theory that I have, but I like the idea of it.
Rbt - In your songwriting, the way that you use natural images and animals seems like a way to explore the interface between man and his emotions. It’s even in the artwork you’ve used. The cover for The Ruminant Band was done by Andrew Holder and shows a cityscape. A lot of his other work shows urban settings, but the focus of the composition will be on a patch of plants or something like a tree.
EJ - Or the sky. The concept for The Ruminant Band cover was mine. I moved to the West Coast and live in nature, and this art is a kind of longing for the opposite of that, for exhaust smoke instead of mountains.
Rbt - Those images serve as an interesting juxtaposition to the naturalistic images in the songs.
EJ - I think all through my childhood I was obsessed with animals. I was never good in Science class, but I was really into the categorization of it. I had an obsession with classification. I knew what a ruminant was when I was 8. I was really into list-making when I was a kid. I was a list-maker and that was how I wrote songs. If you listen to the songs on the first record, they are really just lists of images. I was young at the time, and I thought it was uncool to show emotion, so there aren’t any love songs on the first Fruit Bats record. I wised up and figured out that I didn’t need to follow that rule.
Rbt - But there is still some list-making on the new record.
EJ - I’ve done it that way my whole life. I would take Major League Baseball standings and rearrange the teams geographically or alphabetically. It’s my quirk. It comes out in my songwriting. After my first records, I started stripping away some of my own rules, and I think I write more confidently now.
Rbt - Some of the more linear, story based songs work well on the new record.
EJ - There are a lot more stories on the new one. I set out to do that.
Rbt - How is that different from what you generally do? Do you start out with an image and expound upon it, or are you more deliberate?
EJ - No. My general method, and I’m not very prolific, is very fragmentary. I will latch onto an image and sit with it for six months until I can find a way to make it fit into the puzzle of what I’m writing. It all comes together like a collage. On the new record, I had some experiments that worked. “Singing Joy to the World”, and another song, “My Unusual Friend”, I wrote in one sitting. It was very much about something specific. But generally, it is like putting together a collage.
Rbt - The story on “Singing Joy to the World” is not a happy one. It’s about a guy who is allowing himself to be in love even though he knows that he’s going to get hurt, trying to enjoy the light while he can.
EJ -It’s just about him and this beautiful 22-year old floozie. It sucks but he doesn’t care. I actually wrote that as a challenge to myself after seeing the Tom Petty documentary. Peter Bogdanovich made a four-hour documentary about Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. I’ve always loved Tom Petty, he always writes these great stories about the lovelorn. “Singing Joy to the World” was just me trying to write a Tom Petty song. He has said that he just starts with something and just lets it take him. He never sets out to write anything in particular. He’ll just get a verse and let it roll from there. So that’s what I did and it worked. I used the Petty Method.
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