“I made the attempt to do the solo thing, but everyone wanted to call it Fruit Bats,” says Eric D. Johnson, the frontman (and sole core member) of indie-rock outfit Fruit Bats. “Apropos of nothing, I had a couple of friends who said, ‘You could just change the name back.’ So I did.”
Johnson was last in Asheville just about a year ago — performing as EDJ in support of his solo album of the same name — as part of Harvest Records’ Transfigurations II festival lineup. He and Fruit Bats take the stage at The Mothlight Friday, Sept. 11, as part of a mini-Southeast tour shoehorned in between an appearance at Savannah, Ga.’s, Revival Fest and a string of West Coast dates opening for My Morning Jacket.
“I definitely come from that late ’90s construct of Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters,” Johnson says. Musicians who are, in and of themselves, bands — singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, aka Smog, and musician Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Palace also make that list. Johnson insists he’s not comparing himself stylistically to those artists, other than the idea that a new moniker reflects a different project. But this is the age of Goggleability (Johnson’s word, and it’s a good one) and a name change, however meaningful, comes with the risk of losing fans who can’t follow the virtual breadcrumbs.
But for those who love the cinematic sweep, lush orchestration and heart-on-quirky-sleeve lyrics of EDJ, Johnson promises the full band will still play those songs. “That’s the lost Fruit Bats record for serious fans,” he jokes.
And new songs are in the works, though talking about them is an exercise in sketches and abstractions. “I might be writing a record about the EDJ record, which is the dorkiest thing ever,” says Johnson (it’s actually not). “But from a conceptual perspective, it’s a response, or a companion piece.”
He continues, “It’s probably going to have some feelings that are similar to that, but I’m going to go for more of a meat-and-potatoes vibe with some bigger sounds.” He’s been listening to a lot of Crazy Horse — the rock band associated with Neil Young — and “things that are kind of ‘first-thought, best-thought.’” The Ruminant Band seems to be the enduring favorite among Fruit Bats albums, Johnson says, and “weirdly, I’m in a similar space that I was when I was working on that — doing things that are comfort food to myself and painting with some broad strokes.”
The musician says he’s currently liking minimalistic production in albums and is compelled by simple sounds. If his last albums were works of multilayered pop alchemy, he now finds himself moving in a different direction. “But it could totally turn out to sound like a Tame Impala record, and I’ll eat my words,” Johnson says, referencing the Australian band known for its dense and hypnotic brand of psych-rock. “The best-case scenario is that you go in [to the studio] with an idea and come out with something different than you thought.” The final product will likely be out next spring.
And, although it seems like an unorthodox choice to set out on tour not only before the album is released, but before the songs are even written, Johnson has some experience with the path less traveled. He’s taught music, scored films (Our Idiot Brother and Smashed) and collaborated with bands like The Shins, Vetiver and Califone. That uncharted journey has worked out well so far (even if it’s hard to Google). Going into anything with a little bit of naiveté can be beneficial, especially when it comes to making records, Johnson says. “Most of my favorite things sound like they took some twists and turns before they came down the hallway.”
WHO: Fruit Bats
WHERE: The Mothlight, themothlight.com
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 11, 9:30 p.m. $10 advance/$12 doors