The Twin Cities music scene is diverse and the pool of talented artists runs deep, but it’s gotten even deeper since Fruit Bats leader Eric D. Johnson has been spending more and more time here.
Johnson grew up in Chicago and got his musical start there, but it’s been almost two decades since he’s really called it home. “I’ve been out of Chicago for 18 years,” he said during a recent Zoom call from South Minneapolis. “My time out of Chicago can vote now. It’s always been a huge and sprawling scene, and I was part of one tiny sliver of it, honestly. I mean I’m thankful for coming up in Chicago, but I’m pretty disconnected from it now.”
The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has been spending a lot more time in the Twin Cities as of late. His sister has taken residence in Minneapolis, and he’s been known to hang out in Brainerd, where his parents have been living. Johnson is unassuming, and if you passed him on the street, you’d never realize he’s penned some of the brightest folk pop that has spanned twenty years.
The music industry landscape has changed since Fruit Bats formed in 1997, but Johnson’s not nostalgic. “I’m more excited about stuff now than I have been in a really long time,” he said. “I think people are nicer now than they used to be. Coming up in the ‘90s, there was an innate front. There was a kind of a toughness in bands that was residual from the punk rock era. We’re also a really insular scene, and I think there was more of a premium to being a jerk. You can’t be like that anymore. Now there’s no added layer of being a cool person.
“Social media plays into that 100 percent,” he continued. “The scene is [less localized] now because of the internet, for better and worse. Not that there’s not vibrant local scenes, but they’re not like these concentrated little scenes like they were back then that were linked together. There used to be these local scenes that could get nasty or territorial. Gosh, we’re talking about it now, and I feel like I’m elderly person.”
That “elderly person” at the age of 44 recently landed a gig on Late Night with Seth Meyers just days before his inaugural Grammy appearance for his other band’s nomination this past March. (That would be Bonny Light Horseman.) The performance of “The Balcony” was pre-recorded at Icehouse with a crew of Minneapolis mainstays: JT Bates, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mike Lewis, and Bryan Nichols. Although both Nichols and Johnson had spent time in Chicago creating music (Nichols spent a few years playing jazz in the city before moving back to Minneapolis), they had not met until they played the virtual gig at Icehouse.
“I missed him in Chicago,” said Johnson about Nichols, “and I literally met him that day. I was in Minneapolis when we got the call to do [Seth Meyers], and this is just proof of the world class Minneapolis music scene. JT Bates and Mike Lewis I know, because they play in my other band Bonny Light Horsemen, so we’ve done a lot of work together. I met Jeremy Ylvisaker through the Eaux Claires Fest. So I called JT and I was like, ‘We’ve got to do Seth Meyers. We’ve got to do it in town here. Can you put together a band?’ and he was literally sitting in a room with those people. He asked, and everybody was like, ‘Sure!’ But Bryan wasn’t there and we needed a keyboard player, and JT was like, ‘Yeah, I got your guy.’
“There was no audition or anything. It was literally national TV, so I was nervous, and it’s also a weird situation doing it remote. I met Bryan like at the door and was like, ‘Hey, nice to meet you. You’re gonna be in my band.’ You plug and play. If they were not good I would be terrified, but I was convinced I was in good hands.”
The days leading up to the Grammys found Johnson anxious, yet excited. He had waited so long to get booked on national television that came from the nomination, yet when the time came, it was somewhat anticlimactic. Johnson had been up at his parents’ home when he found out about the nomination. “I think I probably have an innate sort of Scandinavian Midwestern thing,” he said, “where I was just kind of like, ‘Well, how about that?’ I think I was excited about it, but I didn’t really know how to feel. I’m a somewhat unceremonious person. I felt really good about it, and part of me was like, ‘This is a pretty good thing,’ but then I also just was like, ‘Well, I still feel like me.’”
As he sat at a dining room table on Grammy night awaiting the results via Zoom for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Performance, relief flooded through him. “I was actually the person who was gonna do this acceptance speech on behalf of the band, too, because we were all in different states. I was actually a little relieved when we lost to John Prine, because I didn’t have to give the acceptance speech. I had watched all the other acceptance speeches, and everyone’s at home. They were all awkward. I’m going to be the most awkward.”
Johnson seems to do a lot of resets in his life, taking wins and losses in stride. He took a couple of years off from Fruit Bats in late 2013 to pursue some solo work, but he was dropped by his booking agent and manager when his solo work seemed too far removed from Fruit Bats.
“There’s more humbling things,” he said, “but at that point I had been doing that band for 13 years. It was totally back to DIY. In hindsight I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the emotional reset. Then My Morning Jacket called and they were like, ‘Do you want to open for our tour?’ I didn’t want to open for these guys solo, so I got the band back together. I attribute My Morning Jacket to reviving Fruit Bats. I do think about, ‘What if they had never called?’ When you’re playing music it’s just all about luck. I don’t know, maybe I’d be bigger than the Jonas Brothers. Who knows? That’s fatalistic thinking. We’re living in the Back to the Future timeline.”
The pandemic was another reset in Johnson’s life. The time to hunker and write has been good for the prolific composer, but the road is beckoning. Johnson has done a few virtual shows, yet he longs for the connection he gets during in-person performance. He also is longing to share his work from a brand new album that has not been shared with live audiences yet. His latest record, The Pet Parade, finds Johnson with his trademark melancholy delivery wrapped in pop-friendly songs.
He finds autonomy on the road to be another reset after pandemic life. “The thing I love about being on the road is it’s exactly that. This is what’s happening today. It’s very like painted out for you, but it’s also very unstructured. You do a lot of planning for tour when you’re at home. You’re planning, and then once you’re out you’re just like, ‘I’m just here.’ It’s like being on an airplane. I like that about an airplane; I can either turn on the wi-fi or not. There’s very few options. So those moments where you’re forced into one place are very good.”