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With his lilting voice and soft-spoken mannerisms, one might assume that Eric Johnson, leader of the folk rock combo Fruit Bats, lacks determination. But such an assumption, like so many others, couldn't be further from the truth.
Speaking from a tour stop in Vancouver, Johnson is resolutely eager to talk about joining the lineup of indie rock favorites The Shins, as he did in late 2006—but he also wants to make certain that Fruit Bats, his own Sub Pop-signed act, doesn't get short-shifted.
"What I do in Fruit Bats certainly doesn't sound like The Shins, Part II," Johnson says. "But I know that there's simply no way around people thinking of Fruit Bats as a Shins side project. So far, surprisingly, such talk has been less than I thought it would be.
"After all," adds Johnson, "as far as timelines go, Fruit Bats have been around longer than The Shins."
Formed in 1999, several versions of Fruit Bats have managed to convey Johnson's wry sensibilities and interesting way with country/folk melodies. After 2005's splendid Spelled in Bones, however, Johnson put the band in dry dock as he continued his career as a sideman, most notably with Vetiver and the aforementioned Shins.
But Johnson reassembled Fruit Bats in late 2008 and began working on the songs that would become The Ruminant Band, the band's latest (and quite possibly greatest) album. Bringing together folks who all had been previously associated with the band, Johnson set out to make a more committed project.
"On this new album, I probably knew what I was doing a little bit more," Johnson says. "I'm older and wiser, and I had more time to give each song more thought and more revision."
Such effort shines through on tracks like "Primitive Man," "Beautiful Morning Light" and "The Blessed Breeze," songs that walk the line between folk and rock with literate self-confidence.
And now it's been two years since Johnson was offered a permanent spot with The Shins, something he couldn't turn down, for both artistic and financial considerations. One can't help but wonder if Johnson can give his first band the same attention he must give to The Shins. But, again, Johnson is adamant he can do just that.
"Being in The Shins has actually given me more time for Fruit Bats," Johnson explains. "The way these things work is you have a big blast with one band for a year or so and then you have a couple of years off to work on other things."
If those off years continue to produce work as stunning as The Ruminant Band, then let's hope Johnson continues double dipping.