OLD DOG, NO TRICKS: “I allowed myself to do what I do more,” says Eric Johnson (right), “rather than wrestle things to the ground the way I used to do.”
For a decade, Eric Johnson's primary songwriting vehicle has been Fruit Bats, but the Portland-via-Chicago singer and multi-instrumentalist has always dipped in and out of other projects — Califone, Vetiver, Ugly Casanova (the side project of Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock) among them. He's also been a full-fledged member of indie-rock heroes the Shins for the past few years. But however far under the radar they might fly, he always returns to Fruit Bats, his truest musical love.
You could think of Johnson as an indie-rock Steve Buscemi taking the musical equivalent of big-budget Hollywood roles now and then in order to pursue his own smaller, more independent-minded endeavors. "Oh, totally," he says of the analogy over the phone from the van. "Although I don't want to think of the Shins as, like, Armageddon. The Shins are way cooler than a Ben Affleck movie."
Fruit Bats — who come to T.T.'s Tuesday — are on the road supporting their just-released fourth LP (and third for Sub Pop), The Ruminant Band. It's their first since 2005's Spelled in Bones, and changes abound: following years of mutating line-ups, they're now a stable quintet. And the new album was a fully collaborative effort, unlike the previous albums, for which Johnson did virtually everything himself.
Johnson didn't entirely ditch the folky indie pop or the breezy, bright melodic appeal of the earlier albums, but Ruminant offers fuller, meatier sonics with a loose, live feel and a '70s classic-rock slant. There's no shortage of twangy Allman Brothers guitar jams, Fleetwood Mac–worthy country-rock arrangements, or Johnson's high, yearning voice, which channels Supertramp's Roger Hodgson as it lingers wistfully on love and nostalgia.
"Having gone so much time between albums, I wanted things to sound different," he says. "But I didn't want to take some kind of dramatic left turn. I think part of the reason it sounds different is that I allowed myself to do what I do more, rather than tinker with things so much or try to wrestle things to the ground the way I used to do as a younger person writing and recording songs."
In those early days, Johnson worked as a caterer on movie sets, "making eggs for film crews in the morning and feeding them snacks all day." He much prefers making a living as a Shin, even as he juggles those duties with his Fruit Bats pursuits. "I never really set out to be a side guy. I'm not sure how that happened, but it's great because it's like a day job. I don't make huge money with the Fruit Bats. I do need a job, and I'm lucky enough to have one that involves music."
And, he adds (with a not-so-sly Shins reference), he feels lucky and grateful that despite the relatively long layoff, Fruit Bats haven't been forgotten by fans. "You hear musicians say it all the time, and whether it's a cliché or it's true, it is all worth it when people come up to you and say nice things. Even if it's not necessarily 'Your music changed my life' or 'This song saved my relationship,' but it's something like 'Dude, I listened to your songs when I went on this camping trip and it was awesome.' I dunno, maybe I should start selling Fruit Bats albums at REI."
FRUIT BATS + IRAN + KEVIN BARKER | T.T. the Bear's Place, 10 Brookline St, Cambridge | September 15 | $12 | 617.492.BEAR or www.ttthebears.com