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Fruit Bats

The grass is always greener for this ever-changing band.
Monday Dec 04, 2006.     By Ben Rubenstein
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Fruit Bats
Eric Johnson, the leader and only permanent member of Fruit Bats, moved from Chicago to Seattle nearly two years ago. Some people don't believe it. "I'm back in Chicago all the time," the former Perishable Records artist admits. "People see me and they're like, 'didn't you move?'" Even if he did finally manage to escape the extreme weather of the upper Midwest (born in Kenosha, he's lived in Illinois for most of his life), it seems the region will never really be out of Johnson's system. It's even creeping back into his music.

"I used to write a lot about nature," he says. "It was a sort of longing to get out of the city. I wrote a lot of stuff about being out in the country, a lot of pastoral stuff, sort of fantasies. I certainly wasn't writing about Logan Square."

While the new Fruit Bats album (the Led-Zep inspired working title: Fruit Bats IV) isn't likely to be too much of a departure from the dreamy, country-inspired pop landscapes that have highlighted the band's last two Sub Pop releases, Johnson acknowledges that he is now writing more longingly about places "back East," as anything East of the Mississippi is known to Seattle residents.

This doesn't mean he's regretting the move. The West Coast still has much to offer the thirtysomething musician that the Windy City never could. He and his band (this time, including Chicagoans Libby Reed of Coat and oRSo and Chris Sherman of The Judy Green, as well as Seattle drummer Ron Lewis) just returned from a mini-tour of the Northwest, and the sights left a lasting impression. "The first town we played in was Arcada, California," recalls Johnson. "It's really beautiful there...we went to the Redwood Forest, which I'd never been to. It was kind of mind-blowing, to see those trees you can drive through."

Compared to the descriptive tales of the road that Johnson pens on the Fruit Bats website, that sounds like a pretty lame story. But the experience of touring had a lot to do with the lack of noteworthy events. "Tour stories usually come from something bad happening, and nothing bad happened," says Johnson. "It's usually something bad, something frustrating, something where you've been taken out of your element. There's a lot of discomfort on tour, especially in the mid-level touring that the Fruit Bats do."

If the band's relative comfort continues, Johnson could always cook up a story or two of his own. After all, he is an award-winning author. "I was actually a finalist for the Illinois Young Authors Contest in seventh grade," says the proud scribe. "It was a scholastic highlight for me because I was like a straight-D student otherwise. It was a story about a comic book writer whose comics come to life because he puts this voodoo statue on them or something. They're evil and he has to fend them off by using his wit and his brain to control them. Of course, in the end, it turns out that he can control them because he created them."

Twenty years later, the author would do well to heed the central lesson of his story. No matter what happens, you can't escape where you come from.

In the beginning: Our first four shows were at the Empty Bottle. The very first show was either in '99 or 2000, and it was opening for Crooked Fingers. My first show show was at a coffeehouse in Naperville when I was 16.

What's cool in your (former) neck of the woods: I was never too much of a bar-goer, but if I had a bar it would be either the Hideout or the Hungry Brain. As far as just hanging out, especially as I was just about to move from Chicago, I started going to the lake a lot, which is something people totally take for granted. People who live in Chicago and are reading this, go appreciate your lake. And Montrose Harbor is one of the best views...I never lived by Montrose Harbor, but I would like take three buses just to get up there.

Most surreal moment on the CTA: I have a bunch of stories of people being super high on crack.

Fresh from the woodshop: Spelled in Bones was released on Sub Pop last year.


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