Califone's Tim Rutili and Ben Massarella played a major role in ushering guitarist Eric Johnson into the local rock scene. They recruited the Naperville-bred musician for the touring version of their group in 2000, and a year later their label, Perishable Records, released Echolocation, the debut album from his rootsy pop band the Fruit Bats. But by the time that disc came out, in September 2001, Johnson had split with Califone to concentrate on his own music. And last summer he left the nest completely when he signed to Sub Pop Records, which released the second Fruit Bats album, Mouthfuls, on April 8.
But though Johnson has parted ways with Perishable, he learned more than a few tricks while in Califone. He was struck by the way Rutili and Massarella would overdub most parts in the studio and then bring in a full band to play their songs live. "The whole thing was a complete schooling for me," he says. "It's the only way I know how to work now." Most of Mouthfuls features just Johnson, keyboardist Gillian Lisee (who's also his girlfriend), and producer, drummer, and former Califone member Brian Deck, but when the Fruit Bats perform Friday night at Schubas, Johnson and Lisee will be joined by bassist Chris Sherman, guitarist Reid Coker, and drummer Jason Toth.
When Johnson moved to the city in 1996, he wasn't planning to start a band. But he was a big music fan--he'd taught himself to play guitar and banjo as a teenager--and he landed a desk job at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Soon he was teaching quirky classes on punk-rock history and psychedelic oddballs like Syd Barrett and Skip Spence, and he and some old friends from Naperville had started I Rowboat, a band heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers. Then he got the call from Califone.
Through one of his students he learned that Rutili wanted "someone who knew about Captain Beefheart but who also knew how to play banjo and play folky stuff," explains Johnson. "He wanted someone who wasn't already in ten different bands, and he didn't want someone [immersed] in the scene." Johnson was already a fan of Califone and its predecessor, Red Red Meat, so he jumped at the chance to work with them; within weeks he was on the road with the band, playing 1,000- to 2,000-seat venues on a lengthy tour with Modest Mouse. "It was the first time I had ever toured, and we're playing these giant venues," says Johnson. "I had only played about five shows ever before that, so it was a real crash course."
Signing on with Califone forced Johnson to put his own music on the back burner, but Rutili was impressed with the I Rowboat songs and offered encouragement. And Johnson had another project in the works too. "The Fruit Bats was supposed to be a crazy, 20-member psychedelic folk band like the Holy Modal Rounders," he says. "At least that's how I envisioned it." But the concept had changed by the summer of 2001. Johnson decided to record as the Fruit Bats with the help of I Rowboat guitarist Dan Strack (who got married and left town shortly after making the album) at Perishable's in-house studio, Clava. Johnson played most of the parts, but he was joined on some tracks by Rutili, Massarella, Jim Becker of Califone, and Charles Kim of the Sinister Luck Ensemble, another Perishable act. (He estimates that nearly 30 people have played in the band in less than two years, including all the members of Califone, Chris Mills, Jim Elkington of the Zincs, and former Poster Children drummer Howie Kantoff.) Echolocation, a collection of homespun pop tunes adorned with folky instrumental touches and marked by Brian Deck's subdued production style, struck a chord: the Fruit Bats embarked on four small U.S. tours, playing in support slots for the Shins, Modest Mouse, and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci.
Last summer Johnson and Lisee began recording Mouthfuls with Deck at Engine Studios. "On the first record I let [Deck] push me all around," Johnson says. "But on this one I knew what I was doing more and I had clearer ideas." The new album is often as hushed and spare as the first, but the debut's rural quirks have been swapped for dreamy vocal harmonies. The songs unfold patiently, building upon a simple acoustic guitar arpeggio or mournful organ line with details like a shaker rattle or a xylophone riff until they achieve a swelling momentum. Johnson's lyrics are elliptical, but a fascination with new love pokes through on songs like "Lazy Eye" ("Love turns tripe into gold") and "Seaweed" ("Love is like a spaceship burning up when it hits the atmosphere").
Sub Pop first expressed interest in the Fruit Bats last spring, and Johnson was in talks with the label while recording Mouthfuls. "When I got the chance I decided that there was no way that I was going [to pass on it]," he says. The Seattle imprint has a lot more distribution power than Perishable and the infrastructure to support touring bands. (The Fruit Bats hit the road in May.) Of course, it's also the label that Rutili and Massarella have long complained did little to promote There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight, Red Red Meat's final album. But Johnson says, "The Sub Pop that Red Red Meat had a bad experience with is different," noting that aside from owner Jonathan Ponemen, there's now a completely new staff.
Rutili and Massarella were sorry to see Johnson leave. "We wanted to keep working with him, but he had other things he wanted to do," Rutili told me last summer. In this column last August, Massarella said that Johnson's decision to leave Perishable helped convince him and Rutili to scale down the label's activity and to license Califone's recently released Quicksand/Cradlesnakes to Thrill Jockey rather than put it out themselves. As for Johnson, he says his relationship with Perishable and the members of Califone is fine. "It's not weird....I still go over there and talk to them," he says. "I miss them and I really liked the collective spirit."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.