"Playing in the Shins is like being an astronaut in my day job," says Fruit Bats front man Eric Johnson while en route to a set of shows in San Francisco. "With Fruit Bats, I'm really passionate about it, but I'm not really making money from it."
Over the past decade, Johnson has had a strange relationship with his own music, with Fruit Bats albums often coming together on the side while he sidelined for other bands.
"I'm not really totally sure how I became a sideman. That was really accidental," muses Johnson, who has lent his talents to bands such as Califone, Vetiver and Ugly Casanova in addition to his recent augmentation of James Mercer and company's lineup.
With Death Vessel, 9 p.m. Thursday, September 3, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington, 713-862-2513 or www.4215washington.com.
When Johnson did have time to focus on Fruit Bats, it was usually done around and between his other obligations, and worked more as a solo vehicle with a rotating cast of supporting characters. Fruit Bats' new LP, Ruminant Band, is different, coalescing around a now regular band, and the effects are notable.
"It sort of affects the arranging process," says Johnson of Fruit Bats' new cohesion. "I sort of came up with skeletons, before. I would have come into the studio with an acoustic guitar, and the songs would have just sort of come around that.
"This time, the whole band did a tour of the West Coast, and the songs sort of came around that, live in front of people," he continues. "I used to go on tour after doing a record and come up with all these great ideas, but hey, it's already been done, so I'd sort of look at the recordings with almost regret. They're road-tested this time."
The effects of writing and recording this way come through clearly on the album, which takes as its focus concepts of togetherness and aloneness, and their effects on people. Is this a conceit for Johnson's trajectory as a musician, what with his constantly shifting array of side projects and Fruit Bats' newfound concreteness?
"You hit the nail on the head, except way more expansively, thinking about us as a species, or as people," he says. "'Being on Our Own' is the centerpiece of that message, which is that you're not alone. We come into the world naked and screaming, and you don't take anything with you when you go, which is brutal and sad and scary, but you can look at it sort of as a metaphor for my career at the same time."
Nostalgia also plays an important part in Fruit Bats' musical lexicon, particularly with this album. Both lyrically and sonically, these songs look backward a lot, but also represent a forward trajectory, both for Fruit Bats as a band and for Johnson as an individual.
"Tegucigalpa," in particular, seems to focus on nostalgia, though placed firmly in the context of moving forward. Johnson explains it has an "urban vibe, but with a rural, pastoral sound."
"This is my first record as a fully ensconced West Coast person," he says. "When I was in Chicago, it was about as urban an environment as you can get. Especially with Echolocation, I was writing about my fantasy of mountains and rivers, being out in the country. When I was writing this record, I didn't have those yearnings, so this was my love song for the Rust Belt."
The rambling feel of that song conjures not only the imagery of traveling through one's past and present, but also recalls '70s country-rock — a notable reference throughout the album — and the work of Harry Nilsson.
One of the more interesting vignettes on an album full of them is "My Unusual Friend." Wrapped up in the strong notion of self-referential nostalgia concerning Johnson's evolution as a musician, it's a lament for the innocence of selfish music, made without the intention of bands, tour schedules and record labels.
Johnson was at once glad for his newfound position as leader of an actual band, yet still felt a deep-seated love for the time when Fruit Bats was just his. Turns out we were wrong. Sort of.
"That is a very specific song, which is totally stupid, and that song is about quitting smoking, 'I would hold you in my hand', blah blah blah. It's a love song to tobacco, 100%," he says. "Kind of a song about being alone and having just smokes as my friend. I wrote the lyrics the night I quit smoking; I was having such a freak-out nicotine withdrawal that I couldn't sleep. I was having horrible anxiety, didn't sleep for 24 hours, and wrote the song. Clearly, it's also about nostalgia, aloneness, more about simpler times, I guess."
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Related on multiple levels is the title track, whose first line states, "You'll always have smokes if you always give buckets of love," the first in a series of "teach a man to fish" aphorisms that provide the structure of the song, parsing out tales of self-reliant hardships and the lonely lives of the stories' protagonists.
"I used to ride my bike down by the river in Portland, and there were all these sort of trampy hippie hobo kind of people," Johnson says. "They would always ask you for smokes. It's a eulogy about lost people, kind of hobo saints or something like that. Sort of one little truth statement at the beginning, then the story about this person who lived this weird sort of hobo life."
These stories are Eric Johnson's stories, but they are also the Fruit Bats' stories. That used to mean the same thing. For Johnson, thinking about the meaning of all that is largely the point, and one of the reasons for the title of this album.
"I was putting together this lineup, I was almost gonna change the name of the band," he says. "This was one of the band names we came up with. Band names worked their way into songs. Originally, I just liked the word. Then you see it sort of means something, too."