music (2006-29)

Meaningful Meaninglessness

A metaphysical spar with Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson, who’s game

by Molly Kincaid

"How are you like or not like a fruit bat, a nocturnal animal which, according to the Internet, feeds on fruit and has a good sense of sight and smell, but has trouble landing?” It sounds like Eric Johnson has answered this admittedly banal question before, judging from the annoyed throat-clearing on the line. “It doesn’t have to be limited to the five senses”—a nudge.

“My eyesight is terrible,” he begins, suddenly game. “I would like to think I have a good sense of right and wrong…I’ve got a good sense of smell for fried food. And an excellent sense of direction, which I guess is quite fruit bat-like.”

The Seattle-based musician is the driving force of Fruit Bats, a band with a vibrantly eccentric folk sound and a rotating cast of characters. “At this point it’s best just to describe the Fruit Bats as just me—Eric J. and friends,” Johnson says. “There’s been positive and negative aspects to that, but right now the band’s really good.”

Over the phone, Johnson isn’t really a man of few words, he’s just hesitant with them. Likewise, his lyrics could be called ruminative, though by his definition they don’t have specific meanings, but rather, like his very demeanor (at least at this moment), they hinge on poetic ambivalence. There’s a sparseness that leaves things open to interpretation. And, he says cheerfully, “Misinterpretation is welcome.”

But whenever you interview folk- or singer-songwriter-types, you really feel like you should try to get to the root of what their songs mean. You try to dissect their lyrics beforehand, so you can say, “This is what you’re getting at here, no?” And if they say yes, you give yourself a mental cookie. You are a bona fide lyrical sleuth.

Unfortunately it doesn’t always go this way. On the tumbleweed conjuring “Traveler’s Song” (from Johnson’s third album Spelled in Bones ), it’s hard not to be curious about his thoughts while penning the words, “God’s no better than you, just bigger is all.” They seem wrought with deliberation. But, Johnson says, “That was just one of those lines that sounded cool. I don’t really have an answer [to its meaning].”

Then, after a moment’s cogitation, he thinks better of it, and gives an answer anyway, “It could mean that all of creation is flawed. It’s kind-of like, the world is huge, life is huge, but don’t worry about it.”

Another of the most noticeable songs on Bones is “Born in the ’70s,” which sounds a little Tweedy-esque, characterized by hypnotic guitar drawls and Johnson’s voice soaring into a strained but pleasing falsetto. “Actually, that song is probably the most meaningless song on the album,” Johnson drops the derisive bomb again, unclear whether it’s aimed at reporter or himself. “It’s just a nonsensical call to arms for people born in the ’70s.”

But in the nick of time, Johnson thoughtfully reconsiders, saying, “Here I am asking for credit as a songwriter, then I say nothing I say means anything. But no, they all mean something.”

Sometimes even songwriters, like writers, fumble for words. So, the subject meanders away from Johnson’s songs and to what he was like as a kid. “I was always a pretty weird kid. I was into creative stuff but not good at school. I think this is the only thing that would have made sense to do,” Johnson says. “I wanted to be a ghostbuster at one point, which is really about as practical as being in a rock band.”

His last two albums have been on Sub Pop and he’s now touring with Guster and Ray LaMontagne, so in a sense Johnson’s doing pretty well with said unrealistic goal, but his lack of exigency in explaining himself is paralleled in his apparent insouciance toward “making it big.”

It’s not that he’s unambitious; he just doesn’t seem to place too much stock into any one outcome. And such an outlook would probably suit someone living on the road. Still, as if he’s anticipating the questions, just waiting to sniper them, he says, “We’re not on the road as much as a lot of bands. Like Bob Seger can write ‘On The Road,’ and he means it…. And I’m not a cowboy, like Bon Jovi.”

Then again, Johnson’s wandering psyche turns on a dime. “Actually, I’m probably more of a cowboy than Bon Jovi,” he says. “Cowboys do not have their own hairstylists.”

Who: Fruit Bats w/ Ray LaMontagne and Guster