Interview: Fruit Bats - Reverb - Reverb

Interview: Fruit Bats

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Eric D. Johnson (center) and his Fruit Bats have come into their own on the rambling new album “The Ruminant Band.” Photo by Annie Beedy, courtesy of Sub Pop.

Being part of a successful band is often a double-edged sword: You gain more attention, but it’s not always the right kind. Not that Eric D. Johnson is complaining. The Portland, Ore.-based musician recently became a fixture in indie rock figureheads the Shins. Johnson is a longtime friend and creative confidante of Shins leader James Mercer, so it makes sense that a spot in the Shins’ touring band would morph into something permanent.

But it also threatens to make Johnson’s own band, Fruit Bats, seem like a side project instead of the full-fledged group it’s blossomed into over the years. That, and it’s hard to make the Shins comparisons on Fruit Bats’ excellent new album, “The Ruminant Band,” which edges closer to the rambling vibe of ’70s classic rock than the Shins’ ’60s-tinged missives.

We spoke to Johnson in advance of the Fruit Bats’ show at the Larimer Lounge on Saturday about his group’s trajectory and the ups and downs of being in a bigger band.

Question: Sub Pop’s press materials pitch your new album as this whimsical, wide-eyed antidote to cynicism. Was it written in that spirit?

Answer: It certainly was not intended to be a message thing, nor has it ever been, and I think people tend to latch onto that notion simply because of how the music sounds. If it was slightly more minor key or the writing was about death and destruction — but it had the same chords — people wouldn’t even talk about that. But there’s always been an undercurrent of hope and optimism to it.

The disc has a more cohesive, ’70s-rock vibe to it than previous albums, sort of along the lines of Dr. Dog more so than the Shins. Was that a result of you letting your bandmates take over?

Definitely. Our drummer Graeme Gibson engineered, produced and mixed it at Clava in Chicago, so he masterminded all sides of it. Previously the group’s records, whether I wanted them to be or not, were solo affairs and we’d throw together a band to go out on tour. But this is the first album I wanted to go in the opposite direction. I barely played on it.

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The Fruit Bats: So sunny it hurts.

Why the big break between albums?

The whole thing happened really fast, even though it took four years. It’s like how they talk about the geologic history of the world and how all of human history happened in the last minute. It seemed like a long time coming, but really all the evolution of it was in the last eight months. It needed to be fast.

What have you learned from playing in groups like the Shins, Vetiver and Califone over the years?

It’s sort of intangible. Especially with the Shins, the operation is such a larger scale than my own band that I compare it to having a job at a law firm, and then Fruit Bats is my job volunteering at the soup kitchen.

That’s not a bad soup kitchen.

In the simplest terms it’s motivating to be like, “I want that cheese platter for my own band backstage.” The Shins’ (popularity) was a pretty awesomely organic process as far as where they went with themselves. Their story is no one else’s story. Our bands existed in parallel worlds for years — the home recording, the unambitiousness of both. James and I have really similar personalities and that’s why I think he ended up bringing me on board. But I’m sure there have been a trillion little musical things that have seeped in there too over the years.

Sample some Fruit Bats songs on MySpace.

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John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb, editor of the Get Real Denver blog and an arts and entertainment reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press.

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