When aspiring musicians dream of their “big break,” their idealistic thought clouds probably don’t include the work that comes after. After nurturing a 10-year career with the Fruit Bats, and releasing his fifth full-length record in August, Eric D. Johnson isn’t waking up each day from some vodka-induced coma. He’s appreciating the mellow mornings that come from the long days and hours spent sustaining a career in music, just like any other working man.
“I’ve never had any rock stardom,” he says. “I was always one of those people who was never going to get a normal job. The indie-rock middle class is a large burgeoning tax bracket that a lot of people don’t know about. It’s a strange place to live, but it’s a living.”
Johnson stepped onto the sonic playing field in 2001 with his melancholy debut, Echolocation, at a time when folk wasn’t so beloved. “Obviously people have been doing folk-rock since the ’60s,” Johnson says. “But as far as this generation, I’ve been doing it since the mid ’90s, definitely at that time it was not cool. Even when the first Fruit Bats record came out in 2001 the biggest bands on the block at that time were The White Stripes and The Strokes.”
Now, in 2011, the indie music spectrum has been flooded by a modern roots movement, and Johnson says the shift has actually inspired him to expand on the pop jones he’s been suppressing for the last decade with his latest record Tripper.
“I think people hear the Fruit Bats and they’re like ‘Oh you’re trying to do that Mumford & Sons thing, that’s cool.’ And I’m like ‘No I’ve been doing that a long time.’ But whatever, I also don’t care, just the fact that there’s a call for what I do, that’s cool. It was sort of a conscious effort to try something else. I mean I’m definitely not a folk dogmatist; I’m not sitting at home playing fiddle 24 hours a day.”
Johnson hasn’t just switched gears with a groovier sound—his song plots have strayed from hymns of heartache to reflective storytelling. “When I starting writing songs as a teenager and into my early 20s, it was always heart break that made me write,” he says. “When you’re young, you’re heartbroken all the time, like every few months. Now, I don’t really have a formula anymore. I don’t have that platform I did when I was 22. I think that’s kind of why I went to the stories. I had an interesting opportunity to build things from scratch, from fiction or create fiction, or in the case of ‘Tony The Tripper,’ tell a real story.”
The title of the record and the heart of the story come from his chance encounter with a man named Tony he met on a bus 10 years ago. “I should sort of reiterate that it was more powerful just at the fact that it was such an interesting interaction,” he says. “I learned a few things as a young man, because when you’re at that age, you’re sort of ingesting things at a really rapid rate. It did have a funny effect on me; I was sort of fascinated by his rogue life. Then I sort of became like a weird rogue hobo right after that.”
Another catchy tune from Tripper, “You’re Too Weird,” plays like a funny ode to some wacky lover but Johnson explains that, in actuality, its meaning is far more entangled. “The concept of that song is pretty personal,” he says. “It’s based on some people I know. Sort of the same theme as the song ‘Drive’ by The Cars. It’s from the perspective of a person singing to their lover or boyfriend or girlfriend, and basically saying, ‘You are so fucked up, pardon my French, I’m the only one who would put up with you. It’s funny, but it’s really horribly sad. That song originally was this very tender, finger-picked type of song, but for whatever reason it sort of morphed into that.”
His sustainability has not only come from his music; much of it can be attributed to his constant awareness of the evolving industry. “I have definitely seen a lot of people come and go,” he says. “I think that’s part of going back to the indie-rock middle class—or keeping yourself around for ten years. You have to multi-task, it’s like having odd jobs or moonlighting. I’ve always had my fingers in a lot of pies.”
In 2009, Johnson jumped aboard the James Mercer ship as the guitarist for The Shins, while he dabbled in other projects like Califone and Vetiver. He says the side projects have kept him financially afloat but the Fruit Bats have always been his first love. “It was pretty funny when I joined The Shins, people were like, ‘Congratulations man,’ ya know, ‘Thank God, you’ve worked really hard for this.’ I didn’t do anything. It was my pleasure to play with them.”
He performed on the much anticipated, upcoming Shins record but he decided not to join the band on tour this time around. “I made the choice, Fruits Bats over The Shins,” he says. “It’s a pay cut and not as much being on TV but it was something that I wanted to do. It was the most amicable possible parting. James is still one of my closest friends.”
On the eve of his career anniversary, Johnson appreciates the journey and his opportunity to reflect on it with Tripper. Starting out during a time when the Internet wasn’t readily available for promotion and selling 20,000 records meant success, he’s exemplified what it means to be a successful artist in that space between rock star and garage-band junkie that we often call “indie.”
“It’s beyond just a body of work,” Johnson explains. “Taking a creative milestone of 10 years, it’s kind of like a weird life milestone, doing something for that long and then sort of looking back on it. I remember when they reissued Pavement, Crooked Rain, one of the iconic records that year; I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe how long it’s been.’ Now, it doesn’t seem that long to me, 10 years; it seems like yesterday in a lot of ways.