MUSIC: After a long break, Fruit Bats fly again
Originally just a shy guy hanging out with his four-track in his Chicago home, Eric Johnson freely describes himself as having been “unambitious” before forming his folk-pop group, Fruit Bats. Now, a decade later, he can’t quite believe his accidental good fortune: He’s a full-time member of Portland-based chart-toppers the Shins, and he’s recently resurrected Fruit Bats after a four-year hiatus.
The band’s lengthy journey has been fraught with stops and starts, and Johnson, the de facto leader, has been the sole constant member of the often in-flux group. But, with the release of their fourth album, aptly titled The Ruminant Band, Johnson’s ready to shed his solo style and return to the original concept for Fruit Bats.
“Initially, the concept was that it was going to be a sort of sprawling collective of a bunch of people that were in different bands,” Johnson says. “I even envisioned not being the primary writer. But ultimately, I was the person who put it all together, so when it all came down to it, it was going to be my thing no matter what. But I had more time between the last [album] and this one, and I actually put a band together. In a lot of ways it’s kind of a rebirth, and in a lot of ways I was considering turning it into a new band. It’s kind of a new thing and an old thing, all at the same time.”
The Ruminant Band provides a campfire sing-along’s worth of ’70s-style golden rock, spiked with an alt-country twang. The title track also provided a chance for Johnson to pay tribute to both his newly assembled group and his adopted hometown of Portland.
“We had the brief thought of changing the name from Fruit Bats, and [the Ruminant Band] was one we kicked around,” Johnson says. “Some of the images started to worm their way into the writing, too. It’s basically a song about being in a band, which is the most self-referential thing I’ve ever done. It’s also a little bit a song about Portland, even though I never mention Portland in there. It’s just about me riding my bike along the Willamette River, and there’s tons of homeless encampments, and I would see these interesting hobo-type guys and you would wonder who they were. That’s kind of what that song is, and even the record, in a lot of ways, is a concept record about that: people’s pasts, and where they are now, and playing music.”