Fruit Bats - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Fruits Bats bridge the gap between the shimmering indie pop of The Shins and the acoustic folk Americana of Uncle Tupelo. More of a recording project than a band, Fruit Bats are the brainchild of Eric Johnson (the other Eric Johnson, not the one from Archers of Loaf or the guitar wizard of the same name). As Fruit Bats, Johnson specializes in crafting mellow acoustic-pop with subtle electronic flourishes.
Johnson’s career began in Chicago when he bought a four-track recorder off a friend for $80 sometime in the mid-’90s. Although he was in a local band called I Rowboat at the time, he began writing and recording his own acoustic country/folk songs in his apartment, ascribing each tape a fake band name like “Feculent Matter” and “Leland Avenue Tripe.” One tape he christened “Fruit Bats,” and the name stuck.
When I Rowboat imploded, Johnson began gigging with the former band’s bassist (Ron Lewis) and drummer (Brian Belval) as Fruit Bats. Eventually Johnson was approached by Tim Rutili and Ben Massarella of the experimental post-rock band Califone to join them as a touring musician. Johnson agreed and embarked on his first tour, a six-week trek throughout North America. Under the tutelage of the Califone members, Johnson was encouraged to record his first album as his own entity. Rutili and Massarella even agreed to release it on their own Chicago-based record label.
Fruit Bats moody debut, Echolocation (Perishable Records), was released in 2001 to favorable reviews. The album’s distinct mixture of antiquated country and modern computerized sound effects caught the attention of Sub Pop Records, who signed the band to a deal.
Fruit Bats were going through constant line-up changes, and by the time Johnson’s sophomore album, Mouthfuls (Sub Pop), was released in 2003, his roster had dwindled down to a duo with Gillian Liss. Liss provided keyboards, mandolin, vocals, and bass duties for the label debut. Mouthfuls pulled away from the country influences and delved deeper into melancholy pop territory. Eventually Liss left the band and Johnson later moved to Seattle to begin another incarnation of the band, this time with guitarist Dan Strack and drummer John Byce.
Before entering Byce’s home studio—aptly called SOD or Studio Of Dan—Johnson had every intention of making a “dark bummer record with shades of optimism” but as recording began his life took an upswing. The resulting album, Spelled In Bones (2005 Sub Pop) continued to mine the folk-pop vein of his previous release, but songs of requited love like “The Earthquake of ’73” and “Canyon Girl” took on an uplifting West Coast pop vibe. The album was Fruit Bats most successful to date, and earned them a slot opening for The Shins on the road.
In 2006, The Shins lead vocalist James Mercer announced Johnson to be a full-time fifth member. When The Shins played Amoeba Music Hollywood later that year, Johnson was there rocking out on keyboards and singing back-up vocals. But his Fruit Bats are still releasing records. In August of 2009, Johnson and company released The Ruminant Band (Sub Pop).