"Whenever I set out to do something," says Eric Johnson, the thrust behind the Fruit Bats, "it never quite works out the way I planned." In a lot of ways, that sums up Johnson's career to date. Consider, for starters, that music wasn't his first passion. Once he did set down that path, though, he always envisioned being in a proper band. But the only constant in the Fruit Bats' lineup has been Johnson himself. Even when it came time to sit down and write the band's third album, the follow up to 2003's Mouthfuls, things went astray. Originally envisioned as a dark, moody album, Spelled in Bones is his most optimistic, pop-influenced work to date, moving gradually away from the band's folk roots. Whether or not things went the way he intended, Johnson finds himself in a pretty comfortable position: signed to Sub Pop, a label on the rise after spending years in near obscurity after the grunge bubble popped; a string of successful tours with Wilco, Modest Mouse and the Shins; and a well-received album in Mouthfuls. On the eve of his new album's commercial release, Prefix caught up with Johnson to discuss all this as well as his thoughts on freak folk and those pesky labelmate comparisons.
Prefix Magazine: You recently finished auditions for a new drummer. How did that go? Fruit Bats: It went really good. Kind of a funny thing happened: A couple of weeks after we made our choice, Pitchfork picked up the news item from our Web site because we never took it down. Next thing I know I have seventy-five e-mails from people wanting to be our drummer. PM: God Fruit Bats: I know. I wish they had done that before, but I'm happy with the guy we got. PM: Was there anything about Ron Lewis that set him apart from the others who auditioned? Fruit Bats: He came right in and knew every song already and was singing harmonies. He won us over within five minutes. PM: Good chemistry right off the bat. Fruit Bats: Definitely. Great chemistry. I knew right almost right away that he was our guy. PM: You've mentioned in other interviews that you took a lot longer recording Spelled in Bones than any of your previous ones -- six months instead of six days. Was that a conscious choice heading into the recording phase? Fruit Bats: Definitely. I just wanted to see what that was like. I think there's good things and bad things with doing it that way. You can get things to really sound the way you like, but you really can begin to get completely obsessive about things and can mull over things too much. I think we found a happy medium, and it was really fun recording at home with Dan (Strack, guitarist who also produced and engineered the album). PM: Was that also the plan from the beginning, to take a more DIY approach? Fruit Bats: That was pretty much a conscious choice too. I knew Dan was really capable of doing it, so we thought we should give him a crack at it. He's got this really nice house in Seattle, so we just went for it. PM: Speaking of band members, the Fruit Bats have had a revolving cast of members. Is that because you prefer to keep things fresh, or did it just turn out that way? Fruit Bats: It always initially was supposed to be a band in my head, even though I just started out by dabbling with the four-track. But over the years I wanted to put a lot of work into things, and it seemed like an exciting notion for people to be in this band, and then later they realize we're not really making a ton of money and yet we're going on tour for four weeks at a time. So there were definitely people who left the band but hopefully it wasn't because of me [laughs]. It was just sort of one thing after another, and it just turned into this rotating cast, and I write all the songs, so I'm always going to be the one left if everybody leaves. It's not like I've ever had to break up the band or anything, because I am the band in a lot of ways. PM: Speaking of your songwriting, is there a particular pattern to your songwriting or a particular approach you take when it's time to sit down and write an album? Fruit Bats: I wouldn't say there's any set procedure, but I definitely have my patterns. It seems like everything always sort of comes at once, over the course of a couple of months or even weeks. I could write six songs in a month and then nothing for six months. But I don't have a songwriting chair or a songwriting shirt I put on or anything. I probably use similar tactics as other people, as far as writing goes. I'll just start off with a melody and I'll just sing gibberish lyrics over top of it, and that'll turn into real lyrics somehow. Other times, I'll come up with a line that I have to put to a melody. I don't really have a set way. PM: This album has a lot more of a pop-based sound. In another interview you cited the Kinks' Ray Davies as a songwriter you looked up to. Any correlation there? Fruit Bats: Yeah, I was listening to a lot of the Kinks and Forever Changes by Love when I made this record. I think the reason the pop element started coming up was because [with the last couple of records] we were a smaller band, and [when we wend on tour] we couldn't really play some of the songs that had multiple tracks on them. We had to strip things down to more of a rock-band setting, and we were doing arrangements for these songs from Mouthfuls (2003) and Echolocation (2001) that were more rocked-out or poppier. And I decided I would like to make an album that was just as lush as anything I would want to do, but that would sound just as cool live. PM: Back to the new album for a second. You've said it was originally supposed to be a much darker album. Was there anything in particular that turned the album around, or how the songwriting progressed? Fruit Bats: I think it was really just the environment, with the nice relaxed recording process, and it was springtime. It was nothing specific really. I mean that always happens with me. Whenever I set out to do something, it never quite works out the way I planned. (laughs) I guess I just had such a good time recording in Seattle coming from a Chicago that it took a turn for the happier I guess.