After years living on the West Coast, Eric D. Johnson always has his home of Chicago in the back of his mind.
The solo mastermind behind Fruit Bats, Johnson’s family hails from the North Side and he went to high school in the Western suburbs.
Now in his 40s, Johnson is preparing to release his tenth studio album “A River Running To Your Heart” next month. Ahead of that and his homecoming show at Thalia Hall, Johnson reminisced on finding his footing in Chicago with WGN News.
“Moved to the city when I was 19 in 1996,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have a music goal — it was mysterious. I wasn’t going to go join Tortoise.”
Johnson referenced Tortoise’s post-rock style, something prevalent in Chicago prior to the early 2000s indie explosion, which started in New York.
Growing up as a musician, Johnson decided against college and ended up teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
“At the time, most of the people were older there and in the folk world,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t playing hyper traditional music, so it took me a minute to find my spot.”
Through connections at Old Town, Johnson ended up hanging out with longtime Chicago band Califone — who became his “big brothers” in the Chicago music scene.
During that time, Johnson lived in Bucktown and Logan Square.
“Rent was only $212 and I still couldn’t afford it,” Johnson said. “One place I lived was near Wood and Cortland.”
Johnson’s friendship with Califone ended up setting the foundation for his career. After being asked to join them for live shows, they got a glimpse of his stirring songwriting ability — and so did two future indie rock icons.
“Modest Mouse were like huge Califone fans and they took us on a big tour in early 2000 with a very young Shins.”
After he got back to Logan Square from the tour, Johnson had an epiphany.
“I sort of happened to meet all of these titanic people,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I went on tour and was like ‘oh, I think you can do this.'”
The next year, Johnson began recording his debut album in Bridgeport at Perishable Records — which was owned by Ben Massarella and Tim Rutili of Califone.
Fruit Bats’ “Echolocation” was released on Sept. 17, 2001. The recording of the LP was fueled by a Chicago staple — Italian beef.
“I had lots of Ferro’s,” Johnson said. “They did a really good beef.”
“Echolocation” would be the only Fruit Bats record released on Perishable. Due to meeting Isaac Brock and James Mercer of The Shins, another Pacific Northwest music staple got wind of Johnson’s talent — the record label Sub Pop.
The label was looking to add more artists on the folk side of things at the time and already had The Shins and Iron & Wine in the fold.
“Mouthfuls” was released on April 8, 2003 and features one of Fruit Bats’ most popular songs to date — “When U Love Somebody.”
The record and subsequent live shows allowed Johnson to experience fine dining in the Second City for the first time.
“It was like 2003 when I had my first fancy meal on Randolph Street,” Johnson laughed. “Before that, it was cheap hot dogs and fries, cooking a lot of stir fry at home.”
Johnson ended up leaving Chicago to live on the West Coast after that. In 2006, he reunited with James Mercer and joined The Shins. Three more Fruit Bats’ albums on Sub Pop were released from 2005 to 2011 prior to Johnson ending the project in 2013.
In 2015, Johnson announced Fruit Bats’ return via a handwritten letter on Instagram and played Chicago shows around that time at Schubas, Beat Kitchen and Do Division street festival.
The following year nearing the age of 40, Johnson had another breakthrough with the release of the album “Absolute Loser.” Unlike when he was first starting out in the early 2000s, streaming and the internet became much more powerful.
Before he knew it, one song started to skyrocket online.
“We were in at the Green Man Festival in Wales and were given a good slot on the main stage,” Johnson said. “The audience didn’t know who we were, but as soon as (Humbug Mountain Song) came on — everyone stood up and started singing along.”
He’s ridden that momentum to play bigger venues while releasing more albums since.
Fruit Bats’ latest album “A River Running To Your Heart” is due out on April 14. Johnson makes his Chicago return the night prior, April 13, at Thalia Hall.
“That venue is way after my time, but it’s become my new home away from home,” Johnson said. “It really is one of the best venues in the world.”
The new album “explores the importance of what it means to be home, both physically and spiritually, and how home can take on many forms.”
There’s no doubt Chicago played an influence in the recording.
“It’s always there,” Johnson said. “It’s always a character in my songs.”