Eric D. Johnson, the songwriting mind behind the folk-rock outfit Fruit Bats, is a bit tired. In the fourth month of a six-month tour, he has just finished up a sound check for this night’s show at the Casbah in San Diego after arriving by van from Phoenix. He has been touring the new record, Gold Past Life, the band’s eighth and their debut on Merge, since it came out in June.
Taking a seat in El Camino, a Mexican cantina up the street from the venue, he notes with clear relief that tonight will be the first in seven weeks that he will sleep in his own bed, roughly a three-hour drive away. Though the Fruit Bats formed in Portland, Johnson now lives in the musician-filled Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, with his wife and a rehabilitated street dog named Pinto (which is named after the horse, not the bean).
Despite his claims of exhaustion (“I’m a little out of it right now”), Johnson is exceptionally chipper and alert, which seems to be his default, and he is particularly excited to talk beer. He prepared for the interview, hastily arranged just a day earlier, with notes, bringing along a page scribbled with a list of his favorite brews: The Commons Brewery's Urban Farmhouse Ale, New Glarus Brewing’s Spotted Cow, Hopworks Urban Brewery’s Deluxe Organic Ale.
The songwriter wears a bright blue short-sleeve button down with aviator eye-glasses. Dark brown hair spills below his shoulders; he has two rings on his right hand and one on his left. He fits in well with the aesthetic of El Camino, which is colorful and flamboyant, with a zebra piñata and large multicolored paper tulips hung from the ceiling alongside a spinning disco ball. When the large, mustachioed waiter comes by, Johnson orders a michelada with a Pacifico and, later, a lager from Insurgente, a Tijuana brewery, with a chicken quesadilla. He will be playing a sold-out show in just over an hour, but right now he simply wants to enjoy his drink.
Over the past few years, you’ve ventured into writing musical scores for films—Life Partners, Our Idiot Brother, Date and Switch. How many have you done now and how did you get into it?
About ten. I blundered my way in, which is usually the way I have anything happen to me. My friend is a director and I kept begging him to let me score a film, then he hired this really big composer and it didn’t work out. They had to bail at the last minute. They hired me as an emergency.
Why didn’t it work out?
I don’t think I can say. But I did swoop in. I really wanted to do the thing. Then it just led to other projects from there.
How is it different from album writing?
It’s about as different a muscle that you can flex. It’s not the same animal at all because it’s totally someone else’s thing that you’re interpreting. It’s fun trying to solve somebody else’s puzzle and it’s not for everyone. When you score a film then go back to writing an album, it feels really easy.
Scores are harder?
It’s just a totally different thing. I’m frequently taking musical direction from non-musical people. That’s the puzzly part, trying to translate what they want. Like, you’ll write something that’s the most minor-key, sad-sounding thing and they’ll say, “This is too happy-sounding,” and you think, It’s not. But you have to figure out what component in there is bothering them.
How are the new songs feeling live?
I think, good. Some people really like the new record. It’s been much younger crowds. Maybe because of Spotify playlists. We played an all-ages show in Dallas last weekend. There was a ton of really young people, like high school kids. When you’ve had a band for 20 years, people are like, “Play the old hits, man.” They don’t wanna hear the new stuff. But we’d play the new stuff and people would go nuts at that show. We played a couple of old songs that usually get a big response and all these kids who had been singing along were just like, “What’s this?” It’s a good problem to have but it was totally shocking.
The title track probably does well live.
People jam out to that one. It’s surprising which ones people connect with. You just never know.
What was the songwriting process like for the record?
I’m not super prolific, not one of those who can sit down and write a whole thing and it’s all thematic. The last Fruit Bats record came out in 2016 and we toured that until 2018. I started to formulate things around then. Then we got signed to Merge which is always a good impetus to be like, “Now I really gotta work.” I work well with pressure and deadlines. I usually start a record with around seven songs, then desperately write two or so in the studio, then there’s an instrumental track or something. But this was not the case. I had something like 18 songs coming into this record. That’s not normal for me.
Do you drink a lot of beer?
I do. Fruit Bats had its own beer at Pickathon in 2016. It was called Humbug Mountain Kolsch. We had a bit of a hit song that year, "Humbug Mountain Song," which is also a mountain in Oregon—beer country. I still kind of consider us an Oregon band, even though I don’t live there anymore. It’s very much home turf for us. I have a relationship with this great brewery in Astoria, Oregon called Fort George. It’s really wonderful. They had me come and brew with them. I thought it’d be a total photo-op thing, but I literally helped brew a batch of beer, even though I didn’t know anything about brewing beer. I was cleaning out vats and stuff. It was a fun experience. They came up with the recipe, a cucumber kolsch.
No fruit in the Fruit Bats beer?
You’d think there would be. But I don’t like fruity beers very much.
Performing for me is not easy. I need to be in control. I’m not saying it’s hard in an emotional way or I don’t like it. But I take it very seriously.”
What did you learn about beer that you didn’t know before?
That it’s freakin’ hard! The brewer was showing me things like I was gonna retain them but what I learned was nothing because it was so complicated. I was like, “You have to have a degree in chemistry to do this.” But my wife once brewed a batch of beer at home. We had all these wild hops growing on our fence in Portland. She had a buddy who had some brewing equipment and she borrowed it. She toasted the hops and made this beer and we waited for it to get good. I thought it probably wouldn’t be that great but it was amazing. She’s a natural at it. We had a pretty big batch. It tasted sort of like a saison, not super hoppy, a little pineapple-y, simple and crisp. You could feel it if you drank a big one. Definitely had alcohol in it.
What do you think of the craft brew explosion in America?
I just can’t believe how how big of a thing it is now. It makes me happy. Elsewhere, too. Like, I had not been in London for a really long time. I used to love when I first went to London on tour the exotic romance of just going to a pub and drinking a warmish ale, smoking indoors—I don’t smoke anymore—but I love the idea of just a totally different thing. I went to London recently and it’s, like, cold IPAs on tap now. It’s the internationalization of everything. But I love craft beer and good, fancy coffee. I’m not a Millennial. I’m 43, which means I’m the youngest of the Generation X.
How do you feel about drinking while playing?
I’ve never been inebriated on stage and would not be able to.
Have you met many others in the indie scene who do?
Oh my god, yeah. Certainly when I got started in the early 2000s, with younger indie rock bands that was very much part of that culture. But performing for me is not easy. I need to be in control. I’m not saying it’s hard in an emotional way or I don’t like it. But I take it very seriously. In the performance itself there has to be an emotional connection with the audience; I need to be sharp. I’d rather drink a coffee. And honestly drinking beer before I play isn’t great for my voice. But I’ll definitely have a drink just to calm down my nerves a little bit.
What about in songwriting?
In songwriting, all bets are off. I could definitely write a song pretty drunk if I wanted to. Though usually I don’t.