The last time we spoke with Eric D. Johnson, he was in the most uncertain transitional phase of his career.
It was 2016, and not only was he about to revive the Fruit Bats moniker (retired in 2013), he was also about to make the saddest, most confessional and emotionally weighty record of his career. That record, Absolute Loser, would not only begin the earnest next chapter of Fruit Bats, it would also propel him further into the singer/songwriter stratosphere than he could have ever imagined.
For 20 years, Fruit Bats has been defined by Johnson’s warm and distinctive vocal inflections, united with a textured, pastoral folk that conjures a golden longing and shimmering sentimentality. Fast forward to present day, and not only has Johnson revived his Fruit Bats to universal acclaim, but together with Josh Kaufman and Anais Mitchell, he makes up one-third of the Grammy-nominated supergroup, Bonny Light Horseman. Prolific during the pandemic, Johnson recorded three albums, one of his own, one with Bonny Light Horseman, and one, a truly magnificent front-to-back cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. I caught up with Eric after his long day at the renowned Newport Folk Festival where he played with both Bonnie Light Horseman and Fruit Bats.
How was Newport?
Newport was amazing. It was exhausting. I’d also been recording with Bonny Light Horseman the previous week, which was totally amazing and fun and not difficult at all, but they were very long days. [Then] Newport was double-duty with both bands, and then I had to do a Fruit Bats rehearsal because we hadn’t played since 2019. This was coming off of doing a whole hell of a lot of nothing. Not to say nothing, but nothing like that.
I believe we spoke right around the time that Absolute Loser was about to come out.
That was an interesting time.
That was around when you revived the Fruit Bats, and that specific record dealt with some heavy emotions and personal pain. Was that what you needed to restart or move on? How surprised are you at how much good fortune has come since then?
I didn’t have huge expectations when I started things back up then. Things have gone so well, and we’re also coming up on the 20th anniversary of the Fruit Bats, so I’m doing all of these personal assessments. When someone asks, ‘How have the last 20 years been?’ part of me is like, it’s only been six years. Basically, that time in 2015 and 2016 was totally a turning point, but in some ways, it also felt like a starting point, even more so than a starting over point. I don’t know how I feel about that either. Things are going really well, but I certainly have these moments where I think, ‘I wonder if this would be more fun if I was still 25?’ And the answer is who knows? Maybe not, maybe I can appreciate it more now. Also, I don’t want to proclaim that I’m a big famous Rockstar right now, because I’m not. I don’t know what’s happening right now. Everything is weird. The music industry is weird, the world is weird; but, yeah, things are going good and I’m appreciative of it, even on the most basic level.
So, in addition to this prolific second coming of Fruit Bats, you also end up becoming one-third of Bonny Light Horseman. Was that just a complete surprise? Where did that come from?
I knew Josh very well and he has been a dear friend for over a decade now. He’s always been one of those people where you think, ‘I have to do more with this person.’ And Anais (Mitchell) was someone… This story is really dumb—we actually met on Twitter. She tagged me and wrote me this nice message, and I had kind of just discovered her work as well. We came to each other’s work late and were appreciators of each other. Incidentally, right at that same time, I heard that Josh was working on something with her. It was essentially the prototype of this Bonny Light Horseman thing, but they didn’t know what it was yet. It may have just landed up being an Anais Mitchell record. I mean, it’s not really that weird. That’s how things happen.
You released the Bonny Light Horseman record in January 2020. The sky’s the limit, right? But then the pandemic hits and the world changes. With all of these projects going on, what was the pandemic like for you? Was it a prolific time?
Yeah, I made two pandemic records— I guess you can say I made three now that we just finished the Bonny Light Horseman record. I made the Smashing Pumpkins covers album that was sort of a lurk but got more attention than I was expecting. That in itself is both interesting and kind of funny. And then I made the Pet Parade album because Josh Kaufman was out in LA at my house around March 9th of 2020, when the shit was all starting to go down. We were going to work on pre-production. I was going to go to New York the following week and we were going to do what people do when they make records, with a bunch of people in the room. Well, that ended up not happening and we kind of put it on ice. Then a few months later, when we finally knew this is what was going on in the world, we did the whole thing remotely. I think in the interim I did the Smashing Pumpkins record which was like a warm-up record to making the ‘real’ album.
Do you often play out solo or do you prefer the band?
I’d rather have a band 99% of the time, but sometimes I have to qualify them as full band shows even though that I’m the only one in the picture. I think people kind of know at this point. I want it to vibe as much as the record… and then some. I’d rather be in a rock ‘n’ roll band ultimately instead of being a folk troubadour.
I’m sure this is one of the most annoying setups for a question ever, but I was wondering if we could go through your discography and you tell me what comes to your mind either about the experience, the time, or the material.
I will try.
Just a naive collection of ten years of ideas crammed into one record… because maybe I would never get a chance to do it again.
A good label opportunity and trying to run with it. Still being a little too young I think, but we got some good core emotions in the songs.
Tragedy + Time = Fruit Bats.
Oh man, I haven’t thought of that one. I don’t even consider that part of my discography. That was a collection.
Spelled in Bones
That was an exuberant falling in love record.
The Ruminant Band
That was sort of reboot number 1, the proper first album, and leap forward for me.
Tripper was my only big-budget album, and again, I think it was a good next step… like a second record. It was a ‘learning how to write well’ album.
That was a sad one, but also a big step forward. I’m proud of that one.
Gold Past Life
That was really doubling down on the pop side of things and seeing what would happen in the most honest way I could. Not in a cynical way.
The Pet Parade.
It was a personal, intimate whispering-in-your-ear kind of album. I thought if I was going to have a lost classic, this will be it. It’s also my most emotional, I think.
Back with Bonny Light Horseman, all three of you are songwriters—why did you choose to record traditionals.
The way we’re describing it is we’re writing along with traditionals. We’re updating them, we are adding our own verses and switching things around making old things sound modern. It seemed better than putting three songwriters in a room—which is what we’re getting into now.
Did you ever see yourself being up for a Grammy? That’s gotta be bananas!
It was bananas. It was definitely fucking bananas. You always think what you do is good when you look back. So many of the Fruit Bats records have been such a slow burn, I’ve never come close to thinking about a Grammy. When we finished the Bonny Light Horseman record, I think we thought it was really great. Maybe in the back of my brain, I thought that would be the closest record to be up for a Grammy. Also, because it’s a really specific genre too. I will say this, I have never once known when Grammy nomination day is and this time I did.
Three different songwriters, what do you bring to the table that no one else does?
I don’t know. I might bring some sort of reckless abandonment. From a vocal standpoint or a writing standpoint, I don’t really hold back. Vocally I’m a bit of a wildcard.
Alright, we have to get into this Smashing Pumpkins record. It was a bit of a blind release, but it did appear somewhere else under that radar, is that correct?
Yeah, it was a vinyl-only release on Turntable Kitchen. They’ve done a few of them. Ben Gibbard did a Teenage Fanclub record. It’s been a cool line-up. For a while, I really put it off. Then Covid hit and it just seemed like the right time to do it. Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream was actually my first idea and then I thought about it and thought, I should NOT do that. It’s a terrible idea. But they thought it was a great idea. I just started it. I had a deep concept for it in my mind which I think was really the only way to approach it. I really saw it through because I was in that pandemic wormhole. I played everything myself, engineered it, which was the first time I had ever done that. It was like a 4-track dream, without a 4-track obviously. Then it came out on vinyl and I couldn’t sell it on tour because there was no tour. So, people that had record players and followed me on Instagram were essentially the only people who knew about it. Then a couple of songs came out digitally. People really lost their shit over ‘Today’. And then people who didn’t have record players started bugging me about it. But we were able to do it this July. I almost didn’t want to get any attention for it in some ways. But now I’m really glad I did it. People really seem to like it. It’s crazy to me.
What is your first memory of Siamese Dream and what did it mean to you when it came out in 1993?
It was a transitional record for me. I was 17 when it came out, so it was basically the transition of two different eras of how you listen to music in your life. The couple years before that was heavy metal and classic rock. Then I had a bit of a Deadhead phase for a little while and then got really into indie rock. But Siamese Dream came out and hit this weird, sweet spot and it spoke to me at that moment. I always think if it had come to me just a little later, or a little earlier I might have missed it. It was a very fleeting kind of moment for me. [Remaking it] I wanted to play the record from memory. That was the way I sort of approached it. Plus, who wants to hear a straight recreation anyway? The thing that has been mind-blowing is that people my age are hearing this like I wanted them to, like this is a big dream version of this. It’s cool.
Favorite song from Siamese Dream?
‘Mayonnaise’. It’s got his best lyric. It’s timed, it’s angsty, but there are such beautiful lyrics.
Me too. Plus, I love that acoustic version. It was on an old bootleg called Mayonaise Dream.
I don’t think I’ve heard that version.
There are so many things I like about the record, one of which is that when I hear your voice, I would never assume you could approximate Corgan’s voice, even as an impression. But right when you start singing Cherub Rock, it’s there! And while it’s not all over the record, that moment, mixed with the fact that the instrumentation is nothing like the original, really just sets it off on its own trajectory. Did you have in your mind if you wanted to sound like him, if you didn’t, if you wanted to obscure the instrumentals? To make some sound similar and some very different?
No, I think the one thing I realized early is we have the same vocal range. When you do covers you can change the keys to things to fit your voice, but I realized I didn’t need to change any of the keys. It’s like me and this guy sing nothing alike, but whatever our key range is so similar.
The other thing that gets me is that there were songs and verses I never knew the words to, but now when you sing them, I can hear them more clearly… Like I’m hearing them for the first time ever.
Same. It was illuminating to me too.