Fruit Bats on “The Pet Parade” | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, April 18th, 2021  

Fruit Bats on “The Pet Parade”

Building a World, One Song at a Time

Mar 04, 2021 Photography by Annie Beedy Web Exclusive
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Eric D. Johnson is a worldbuilder. Over the course of eight LPs and 20 years, the creative force behind Fruit Bats has populated a dreamy landscape filled with characters all grappling with what it means to be alive.

Johnson is the first to admit that he writes in a “cinematic universe,” and that all of his songs are connected. With songs about isolation and existence, his latest album, The Pet Parade, builds further inroads into this universe—albeit on a prescient occasion.

“I think most songwriters I like write within a world,” Johnson explains. “I’ve always been a film person, and I really wanted to be a filmmaker growing up. So I like to think of [my songs] as movies. They sort of exist as sequels and prequels to each other.”

Plus, Johnson jokes, “writing songs is so much easier and cheaper than making a full movie.”

On the surface, this might seem like a God-like exercise—constructing pawns to interact in a reality that exists only in your own head. But Johnson sees it differently, and wants people to see themselves in his music. “It sounds like a cliche, but people can take what they want from these songs.”

“When you’re a young songwriter, you’re so eager to be understood,” says Johnson, now 44, reflecting on his career. “I’m less eager for that now, and I’m probably better at conveying things.”

In conversation, it’s clear that the singer/songwriter thinks deeply about his body of work, about conveying things. He’s cheerful, articulate, and openly self-reflective. He’s quick to self-deprecation around the analogies he uses, such as comparing attempts to understand existence to Marty McFly’s attempt to comprehend his own existence in Back to the Future.

After 20 years of writing and recording music as Fruit Bats, Johnson admits that he’s finally figuring out a repeatable approach to songwriting.

“It took me like 16 years for it to really get going,” Johnson laughs. “So really I’m like four years into things really working, which is weird. Songwriting-wise, I just try to get better every day.”

Johnson’s approach is in fact more like building songs piece by piece. “I don’t have a process, it’s more of a collage. I usually have fragments of lyrics and pieces of music that get smushed together.”

This piecemeal approach often means that songs can sit in stasis for some time, because the fragments might not always “smush” at the right time. “Some songs take 10 years to finish. That’s not to say that I’m sitting there poring over a song for 10 years, mind you. Sometimes it’s like a 10-year-old lyric, or a 10-year-old piece of music, and they get smashed together. Sometimes things take a day or two. I don’t have any sort of ritual, really, and if I do, I have like, a million rituals.”

Therefore, it’s no surprise when Johnson admits that the title track for Fruit Bats’ latest album, The Pet Parade, has existed for some time. Even the concept for the album itself, the literal idea of a “pet parade,” it could be said, has been kicking around in Johnson’s mind since his childhood.

“There is a real pet parade,” he explains. “It was a thing in my grandma’s hometown, in La Grange, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. It’s a real thing: you dress your pets up, thematically, and it’s an actual parade. They literally every year since the 30s or something, have had a pet parade.”

The kernel of the opening track emerged when Johnson was working on a film score. He wrote an instrumental piece, which he called “The Pet Parade”—an idea completely unrelated to the film. “I always just thought it was a great couple of words,” Johnson says. “Sometimes you just name a piece when you’re making it.”

“The Pet Parade” sat on Johnson’s hard drive for over a decade, and emerged when Johnson began going through his 20 years’ worth of Fruit Bats songs for an anniversary compilation.

As such, Johnson officially began working on The Pet Parade in early 2020, with production help from friend and Bonny Light Horseman colleague, Josh Kaufman. The pair spent a few days together at Johnson’s home in LA, working on the “blueprint” that would become the album. “It truly straddled the pandemic line,” Johnson adds. When Kaufman came to visit, “the pandemic hit that week, and he had to leave early and we had to regroup.”

In keeping with Johnson’s collage approach, the 11 tracks on The Pet Parade weave a cheerfully melancholic tapestry, complete with themes of ageing, existentialism, isolation, nostalgia, and fate. These are themes that appear throughout Fruit Bats’ discography, but really find purchase on Parade.

Adding to these salient themes is the fact that they’re presented at a time when the majority of the world is in some form of isolation: faced with uncertainty, perhaps losing loved ones, all of us toiling with this idea of fate and what it means to exist.

“A couple of [the songs] were bizarrely prescient,” Johnson reflects. “I was sort of writing about isolation, about how disconnected we feel sometimes. Those were themes that were swirling around beforehand. Obviously, that’s been heightened by all this.”

One only needs to be hit by the relevance of the album’s opening line (“Hello from in here to all you out there/it feels like it’s been years”), which arrives about 30 seconds into the seven-minute, two chord procession of “The Pet Parade,” to fully grasp what Johnson means.

When asked if he rewrote any tracks in light of the pandemic, Johnson provides a rather wholesome response: “A couple of them I did change, the ones that were more like personal love songs. I stopped singing a love song to an individual and sort of turned them into these self-love songs for the world.”

That unifying sentiment is certainly present all throughout the album: echoes of our home life, in “Cub Pilot”; the repetition of our days (“Discovery”); and the blurring of our memories in “All in One Go.” Shimmers of reverb-drenched guitars, drum machines, and lullabic stories all compile a record that is not at all unlike the rest of Johnson’s world. Yet, there’s something in the time and space in which The Pet Parade exists that sets this collection apart.

“We’re all so inward right now that all ideas apply to this,” Johnson points out.

While the universe that Johnson has built continues construction with The Pet Parade, the circumstances of our current world slightly morph the universe here, into a more dystopian reflection of our times.

“We want to solve things, whether it’s through science or art. Especially when there’s huge problems, like political unrest and pandemics and things, I always find that I have to sit down and, ‘figure it out.’”

www.fruitbatsmusic.com

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