The Fruit Bats return home this weekend for a concert at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, and that's a good place to start in describing what they're all about. The Fruit Bats are an indie pop band that will sound right at home in the listening room of one of the nation's best folk centers.
Twangy as well as twee, the Fruit Bats are helmed by Kenosha-born banjo instructor Eric D. Johnson. The D. is for differentiate: He's not Eric Johnson the noted guitar wanker, nor is he Eric Johnson from the band Archers of Loaf. He is, however, the same Eric Johnson who's been a member of the Shins for the last four years. He plays guitar, keyboards, does some harmonizing for those indie darlings, and it's a good fit. Both bands have a vaguely similar attention to tone and craft. But landing a gig in the Shins -- that's Johnson's side project, not his retirement score.
"It's weird, because when I joined the Shins people would say to me, 'Congratulations. Finally!' It was like, 'At last, you can quit this Fruit Bats crap,'" Johnson says from his current home base in Portland, Ore. "That was the gist of most people's reaction: 'You've been working hard, and finally you've made it!' It's this reality-TV ideal where it doesn't matter if you're creating something and people are digging it -- finally, you're in the big public eye, good job. The Shins is a side project. Not to take away from them. I love them, and we've known each other for 10 or 11 years. But the Shins allows me not to have to have a day job. The Shins have allowed the Fruit Bats to, well, take flight."
with Nathaniel Braddock
8 p.m. Friday
Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
(773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
The connection with the Shins came about the way most of Johnson's gigs have been landed. He's a nice guy who knows a lot of folks. In 2006, the Shins wound up in Chicago, Johnson says, having to record one more song for what would be their best-selling CD, "Wincing the Night Away." The track was "Girl Sailor," and they needed someone who could play extra parts as well as sing over James Mercer's already high voice. Johnson was tapped, they had fun, now he's part of the road band. Previously, Johnson had been a sideman in bands such as Califone and Vetiver.
Both the Shins and the Fruit Bats released debut discs in 2001, the Fruit Bats' being "Echolocation," recorded at Clava Studios in Bridgeport. Johnson returned there -- he moved from Chicago a couple of years ago, "but I'm back so often a lot of people aren't aware I moved" -- to record the fourth and latest Bats outing, "The Ruminant Band." The previous three records were largely solo efforts, Johnson's pinched tenor and loose instrumentations filled out by session players. "The Ruminant Band," however, is a full-fledged band.
"I approached the first three albums as solo records, really. I was a bedroom recorder, and it's hard to crawl out of that," he says. "But you see great bands and you think, 'I want that.' So I set out to really create the Fruit Bats, finally, for this record. And it clicked pretty much right away."
The new players are bassist Christopher Sherman, multi-instrumentalist Ron Lewis, guitarist Sam Wagster and drummer (and the album's producer-engineer) Graeme Gibson. Johnson, in particular, notes Gibson's knack for "country shuffles," which are readily apparent underneath the occasional Byrds-like layers and harmonies.
The Byrds are a clear touchstone for this band, as are many bands from that era of AM-to-FM transition. Johnson remembers clearly when, at age 20, he was given a copy of the Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society" -- by a janitor at the Old Town School. He describes the first listen as "a real kick in the pants."
"I was raised on pop radio of the late '70s and early '80s. I never had a punk band. There's a certain generation, definitely my age and older, where if you started a band in high school it was most likely a punk band. That's what you were supposed to do to feel rebellious. I did not. There's another generation of kids for whom punk was rendered lifeless by that weird sort of Orange County mall-ization of it in the '90s. For them -- kids born in the '80s, I guess -- punk wasn't exciting or rebellious at all. It was probably pretty lame for them. Being a hippie and sounding like Supertramp was probably more of a risk. I've always felt that to be totally true.
"When the Fruit Bats started touring and doing shows in 2000, that was during the garage-rock revival. It was weird how you'd have more commercial success playing punk rock but less if you sound like Bread. I don't know where we fall on that spectrum. I started out a hippie, but I've always had that pop jones -- and that's been plenty revolutionary, at least for me."