Fruit Bats: Transnational Clamor

Despite lineup and geographic shifts, the Sub Pop act’s finally starting to coalesce.

A cult favorite and a low-key fixture on Sub Pop's roster, Fruit Bats are one of those rare bands that may not quite grab you on first listen but winds up seeping into your system in the end. That could have something to do with leader Eric D. Johnson's longtime role as a sideman in other bands, from Califone and Isaac Brock's project Ugly Casanova to the Shins and Vetiver. When he's not involved with Fruit Bats, Johnson is invariably touring and juggling duties in the backdrop of other bands.

"I never really thought of it, but that definitely could be," he muses. "I appreciate a subtle approach in general. The stuff I like the best takes a couple times [to sink in]. For me it lasts longer. And I'd hope to think Fruit Bats are like that for people." Laughing, he adds, "I try to be catchy, though, if I can."

Following 2001's Echolocation and 2003's Sub Pop debut Mouthfuls, 2005's Spelled in Bones was a triumph for Fruit Bats, garnering breathless praise and more commercial attention. The band's new fourth album, The Ruminant Band, released just two weeks ago, should lead to even bigger things, rife as it is with '70s-style guitar rock, twangy vignettes about life in the city and the country, and a slew of perfectly realized details to linger over, like the saloon piano of "The Hobo Girl" and the sugar-frosted keys of the closing "Flamingo."

The standout "Tegucigalpa," meanwhile, is Johnson's "little love song for the rust belt." A Wisconsin native who grew up partly in Michigan, Johnson lived in Chicago for years before heading to the West Coast, where he has bounced from L.A. to Portland.

"This is the first record I've done as a West Coast person," he explains. "I was living in Chicago for all of my [previous] records, and they were all about this longing to get out into nature and mountains. This record is the opposite. I'm singing about [the city] a little more nostalgically."

When it comes to singing, Johnson, 33, has had to come to terms with his unique voice, which is high, creaky, and displays an extensive range, depending on the song. Not that you could tell that from his early recordings. "You wouldn't recognize the voice," he says. "I was listening to Pavement and stuff like that. All those guys had the sort of strangulated Lou Reed/Tom Verlaine inflections on their voices, and I had to really hold back from my real range. It took me getting a little bit older and people telling me I should just sing in my own voice. It was a process."

Though '90s indie rock was the dominant influence when Fruit Bats began, The Ruminant Band is conjured with a loving eye toward decades long past. In addition to the specter of Fleetwood Mac, there's a mention of Three Dog Night in the lyrics of "Singing Joy to the World." That song also cites Prince's "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," and Johnson confirms that he includes a Prince reference on every album. On Spelled in Bones, for example, he mentions "Raspberry Beret" in the song "The Earthquake of '73."

"I tend to look to the past a lot," he admits. That said, Johnson explains that the Three Dog Night he's singing about isn't the classic lineup but a "weird sort of late-period version" of the band. "Growing up, whenever you'd have the town fair, you'd get these '70s bands coming in," he recalls. "It [would be] like the fifth version of the band, with only the original bass player. But you'd go anyway because it was something to do on a Saturday. It's Three Dog Night, but it's Three Dog Night at a county fair in Michigan or Wisconsin, which is where the song is set."

Speaking of revolving lineups, Fruit Bats had always been a vaporous entity swirling around Johnson. But no longer. Johnson says the band's current incarnation—bassist Christopher Sherman, guitarist Sam Wagster, organist Ron Lewis, and drummer Graeme Gibson, who also produced The Ruminant Band—is at long last a proper one.

"This is the first true band record I've done," he announces with pride. "For the first time I had the idea that this would be the band on the record and on the tour. Before I would make more or less solo records and then just cobble something together before I left, which is never a good idea. This is way more thought-out."

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