Music critics seem to revel in identifying an ever-evolving catalog of indie-rock permutations, and they're determined to apply at least half of them to the Chicago-based Fruit Bats. The group has been labeled "rustic pop," "afternoon rock," "bootgazer" and, best of all, "zoology rock." (Don't worry; no one else knows what that one means, either.) Head Fruit Bat Eric D. Johnson, though, is a bit less analytical in describing his band's sound; "folk rock" works just fine for him.
"If it's a border guard giving us the third degree as we're crossing into Canada, I'll just say we play mellow folk rock," Johnson says. "If it's a nerdy record collector guy, I'll say we're sort of '70s AM gold and British folk rock."
For a while, Johnson was the Fruit Bats. In an appropriately strange rock 'n' roll twist on the chicken-and-egg conundrum, there was a Fruit Bats demo before there were ever any Fruit Bats. The group traces its origins back to the mid-'90s, when the young singer/songwriter/guitarist/pianist recorded a four-track project that would attract more attention than he ever anticipated.
"I had never really had a band, and didn't come from that sort of background," Johnson says. "I had always been home-recorded, so I treated that first album like it was a home recording even though it was done in a professional studio with a really good producer. I wasn't really expecting anybody to like it, but they did. So the band was assembled after that."
The demo eventually led to 2001's Echolocation. Few copies were sold, but critical praise from publications like Mojo and Village Voice led to bookings. Johnson finally had an LP and a schedule of shows; all he needed then was a band. He organized the first of many lineups, and the Fruit Bats have been around, in some form or other, ever since. Johnson is the only constant on the group's ever-changing roster; Fruit Bats come and Fruit Bats go, but Johnson is in for the long haul.
A fortuitous move to Sub Pop—the label often credited with popularizing Seattle's grunge movement—brought the band to its second record, 2003's Mouthfuls. The group was finally gaining momentum; sales were brisk, and the album made many critics' best-of list for the year. By the time the Bats released their third full-length CD, it seemed they had finally arrived. Nearly 10 years after Johnson compiled his solo demo, 2005's well-received Spelled in Bones debuted at number four on college radio charts, and landed them on the national radar with network TV appearances.
After that, though, the Fruit Bats fell strangely silent. Johnson became a sought-after sideman, playing with bands like folk group Vetiver and indie rock faves the Shins. When the Shins offered him a full-time gig—and a full-time paycheck—he couldn't turn it down. Johnson never really abandoned the Fruit Bats, though, and in 2008 he revived the project and assembled the group's current lineup: Christopher Sherman on bass, Sam Wagster on guitar and piano, Ron Lewis on keyboards, and Graeme Gibson on drums. Their latest album, The Ruminant Band, dropped last month, and has earned the Bats glowing reviews and new fans.
According to Johnson, The Ruminant Band is the Bats' most collaborative effort yet. "It's much more of a full band affair than the previous three records," he says.
It also marks something of a stylistic departure for the group. It's still the Fruit Bats' signature style of easygoing folk pop, but Johnson's fondness for '70s rock is more evident than ever this time around. The influence of childhood faves like Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, and the Grateful Dead is undeniable on tracks like "Feather Bed" and "Tegucigalpa"; other songs capture a sunny West Coast vibe that sets the band apart from so many of their brooding, moody contemporaries. The Bats' sounds are at their tightest and most clearly defined, even as the record weaves in and out of a multitude of genres ranging from guitar rock to twangy honky tonk. The keys are major, the tunes are catchy, and the lyrics are bubbly and bright.
It's an auspicious beginning for the latest incarnation of Johnson's Fruit Bats. Though he'll continue his stint with the Shins, he's quick to point out that the Bats are still his first love, and they won't be going away anytime soon.