"THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING," Road stories with Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and Bonny Light Horseman
We talked with our pal Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and Bonny Light Horseman about his nearly 20 years on the road, the odd jobs that helped get him on tour, and the moment he realized music would be a key part of his life for years to come.
I’ll preface this by saying that no two careers in music are the same. Even if two artists appear to be more or less on the same level, the realities of their lives are fairly likely to be totally different. Within the greater musical ecosystem are microcosms within microcosms. So anything I say take with a grain of salt. Anything I say here could apply to anybody, or nobody.
Oh, and it should be noted as of this interview I’m A.) hitting the milestone (almost to the month) of 20 years of touring - and B.) I’m on day 36 of coronavirus quarantine. Two decades in, and facing a changed musical landscape hazy future. So many of these answers will take on a wistful quality, steeped in the past and yet hopeful for the future.
Oh, and I assure you that music itself will survive and prevail, and even flourish.
Some musicians experience a double bind, where they are touring too much to have a reliable day job yet don’t make enough money solely through their music to get by. Have you been in this position? What did you have to do to make touring feasible for you?
I got my start in Chicago the late nineties / early 2000’s. It was a somewhat fortuitous time and place to get going in, at least in a low-key indie rock kinda way. Rent was cheap, and back then the going rates for beginning bands (shitty Tuesday night club gigs, random opening slots) wasn’t all that bad. It’s always surprising to me how the money is still kinda the same now as it was then, including inflation. Anyway, I made it work. But I most definitely still had to have day jobs for the first seven years of my touring / recording career.
I was fortunate enough to find jobs that were flexible. I taught music and house managed concerts (and did a lot of various things) at a place called Old Town School of Folk Music - a venerable institution that had provided a loving home base for a lot of musicians over the years. I worked there for a pretty long time, and then when I moved to the west coast I worked on film sets. I was the craft service guy - which basically means you stock and maintain the snack table for shoots and productions. It’s totally freelance, and if you have to go on tour and you get called for a job by a production company, you just tell them you’re on another job. Which isn’t a lie, per se. That would happen more and more, and it made me seem like I was this super “in demand” craft service guy. Plus I was pretty good at it. So when I wasn’t on the road I was super busy slinging snacks on film sets. I never loved it. The hours were terrible (frequently 4am start times and 12 hour days) and even though it’s been like over thirteen years since I’ve last done it, I still have the occasional stress dream that I’m trying to make enough breakfast burritos to feed a bunch of gaffers and grips.
Balancing day jobs and tour was never easy, from a financial sense. The money I made doing those jobs was really modest, and then I’d put those meager earnings back into touring, which wasn't exactly lucrative either. Other people I knew from that time did the same type of balancing act for a short while and then were like “ah screw it” and quit being in bands. The vast majority of bands who think they’re going to “make it” right out of the gates are gonna be so disappointed. It’s best to be ready to scrap for an indefinite long while if you’re really interested in making a go of it. Eventually I had some lucky moments that I was able to capitalize on. I got signed to Sub Pop in 2002 and while it didn’t launch me into the stratosphere like some of my peers at the time (I still worked my film set job for 4-5 years after that), it legitimized me to the world and gave me more than a glimmer of hope to keep going.
In 2006 I joined up with my friends The Shins (one of those aforementioned peers who had made it into the big time). Once again, it didn’t make me a millionaire or anything, but it was enough of a seismic shift that after that I never had to have a day job again. It’s all just been different steps like that, and a lot of patience. I toured with those guys for about four years and that essentially funded “phase 2” of Fruit Bats. I was ready to go boldly into the future one way or another
Have you experienced any breakthroughs that have made being a touring musician more sustainable for you? If so, what were those breakthroughs?
I’ll say it again, no two experiences are the same. That said, I can attest that touring for me, for the most part, is financially unpredictable. Having had day jobs for many years, and then playing sideman in someone else’s much more successful project that I didn’t really have a final stake in, I knew I’d have to find creative ways to forge ahead if I wanted to keep doing this.
I would tell anyone trying to make a living from music to learn how to record themselves. I’ve always used producers and engineers to make most of my full-length records, but having the ability to make stuff at home was a big breakthrough for me. I’d started off in the nineties with a four-track, and that was how I started to make songs - but then there was about a ten year span where I didn’t really catch up to all the digital stuff. And when I did it was huge, because now I can embark on little projects here and there - either small Fruit Bats EPs or singles, recording other artists, or Film / TV projects - which is all a whole different crazy hustle.
Long story short - keep making stuff
How do you deal with the sometimes intense transition from the stimulation of touring to come home to sometimes no commitments?
This is of course a loaded question at this very moment as I’m over 5 weeks into coronavirus quarantine, which has been kind of like the ultimate version of “post tour blues” haha. So I’ll try to answer as if you asked me this question several months back when the world was a different place.
When I was first going on tour, it was pretty gnarly, but I LOVED it. I was in my early twenties. I had no credit card. We’d drive after a show with no clue where we might stay. There were no smart phones to show us the way. We’d either all cram into the cheapest hotel room we could find, or sleep on people's floors with our heads next to kitty litter boxes. Sometimes in those circumstances I’d sleep in the van, either to protect the gear or just to have some space to myself. If we were lucky we’d stay with someone’s uncle in a McMansion in the suburbs. Maybe he’d have a fridge full of beer waiting for us, excited to “hang with the band.” Nobody who played with me got paid, and I sure as hell didn’t. If we were headlining shows, they were to empty rooms. Or we were the opening band, playing to indifferent (and occasionally hostile) crowds. It sounds HORRIBLE now, haha. And I’m sure even then, awash in the youthful glow of the newness of it all, there were disappointing aspects. I know for sure there were. But it was such a fun adventure. Growing up, my family had rarely traveled, so just getting to see America while playing fucking music was mind-blowing. Whenever I'd get back home from those early tours, all I'd dream about was getting back out there again.
Touring life is way better now, twenty years in. It’s gotten better slowly, incrementally, and this past year or so was really, really great. I often think how glorious it would be to be young and excited and hopeful AND be staying in much nicer hotels and playing to well-attended crowds. I never really got to have both of those at the same time. I had that realization recently and it was alternately depressing and kinda funny. It’s almost like the reverse notion of that old adage “youth is wasted on the young.”
Being on tour is always a perspective shifting experience. Like even just getting a night off on tour and being in a hotel room on my own is, like, the greatest feeling possible. Just sitting there in a bathrobe and doing nothing. Maybe watching “Sports Center” which always seems to be the only thing playing in hotel rooms. At one point in time, it was hard for me feel that same joy coming home and sitting in the bathrobe. I’m getting better at that now. It’s taken a bit of work to get there. I can come home now and know that I’ve done my work and be at peace with just staring into the void.
Is it hard for you to find community within the music community that isn’t centered around drinking or other sometimes destructive behaviors?
It is notable how prevalent drinking is in the music world. Like when your band is doing fairly well, you get unlimited backstage beverages of your choosing. Like you can curate a bar for yourself every night of the week. And even if you’re just starting out scrapping it in punk joints, beer is often the only thing you get paid in. No matter what level you’re at, it’s just kinda there. Unless maybe you’re on the Christian rock circuit.
Most of my musical peers who are my same age are fairly healthy living these days. They kinda have to be. I have already lost a few friends from drinking and drugs. It’s something that happens now. A new thing that I’ve found interesting, though- the vast majority of the younger musician friends I’ve made are WAY cleaner living than we were at their age. It’s just so much harder to get going these days, that you really have to be very together and developed right out of the gate. A lot of these artists who are ten to twenty years my junior have their shit super together. There is no longer a premium in being a fuck-up, which was much more of a thing in the nineties. It was kind of like the 1970’s paradigm was still lingering for a while. It was still perfectly acceptable to be Keith Moon then.
So yeah drugs and shit were seemingly much more visible when I was first starting out. But for me - I was kinda always the "designated driver." Literally and figuratively. Most of my drug-taking years were spent as a teenager, and by the time I was hitting the road I didn’t even really drink - at least beyond a beer or two. My one vice was that I smoked like a pack of cigs per day (sometimes two packs on tour, jeez). Oh, and I ate like shit. Lots of Burger King and Coca-Cola and spray cheese and Marlboro Mediums. But my young body could handle it.
I think nowadays the lifestyle of the music community isn’t that much different than any person. Some folks drink and party, some don’t. Plenty of people jog and do yoga or are vegan. All varying levels of self care. I’m probably somewhere in the middle.
Why do you choose this life? What do you get out of it?
I come from a patently Midwestern upbringing, and when I was growing up nobody I was related to or even knew was an artist or an entertainer or anything even close to that. When I was a kid, going into the entertainment business seemed about as feasible as becoming an astronaut or pro baseball player or something. Or even less feasible. It was a ridiculous notion.
The main life goal in the world I came from is that you would get good grades in school and then go to college and get some kind of job and make something of yourself. I was always a pretty smart and curious kid but my grades were terrible. I barely graduated high school. I applied to a bunch of colleges, mainly because I badly wanted to leave home, but couldn’t get in to any of them. I took some community college courses, and some courses at Columbia College, which is an open-admissions school with an artistic focus. But I still was clearly not student material, and could barely pass any of those classes. So I just started living in Chicago, which was the closest nearby big city, and worked various odd jobs, and tried to figure out what it was I was gonna do.
I had really only done music starting my senior year in high school. My friends' band needed a singer and they knew I could sing. So I joined. But I was too scared to just stand there and sing like I was Axl Rose or Bono or some shit. So I forced myself to learn guitar. But I couldn’t figure out how to apply chords to the cover songs they were playing, either, so I just started to write my own. That band never played a single show, but I started playing open mics and things. Basically I kinda became a singer/songwriter right out of the gate, but not by choice. I was a Deadhead but not a good enough player to be in a jam band, and then indie rock came along and showed me that there were all kinds of possibilities, even if you couldn’t shred. It was a bunch of roadblocks and limitations that took me somewhere, creatively speaking.
But that said, I wasn’t even sure that I was going to do music. I was more interested in screenwriting or film directing, or maybe even acting. But somehow I fell into the music community. I was probably just which way the wind was blowing that day. It’s a cliche, but I’ll say it - it chose me more than I chose it.
And what do I get out of it? I get paid to sing songs! It’s great. It's insane to me that that happened. I’m lucky and endlessly thankful.
Best tour moment you have ever had?
At this point I’ve logged in too many hours to pinpoint one moment. There have been a lot of great ones, ranging from small to momentous. The small ones are of course the ones that last. Just simple moments of looking out the window and seeing the world go by.
My first tour was playing in the band Califone. It's a long story how I ended up joining them, but it was one of the biggest things to ever happen to me. I played with them for a couple of years and they helped launch Fruit Bats, too, by putting out my first record on their small label, Perishable. Those guys believed in me and truly changed my life and set me on my course.
Anyway, that first round of touring I did with them was a pretty amazing way to start. It was a five week tour. We opened for Modest Mouse, a full national tour. It was right at the beginning of them going out to promote “Moon and Antarctica.” Mostly playing clubs, some small theaters. Just watching those guys start to take off into the stratosphere. It was pretty electric every night. For us it was a mixed bag, haha. The crowds ranged from flatly ambivalent to outright hostile. It took me a long time to learn that not all audiences were going to be predisposed to hating you. But it was good for developing thick skin - and on the odd night they liked us, which always felt extra good. I saw the whole country, most of which I’d never glimpsed. I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time on my birthday. The first-of-three opening band for part of the tour were The Shins, a then unsigned band from New Mexico. I formed a lasting bond with them. The whole thing was a watershed. I knew there was no turning back from there.
I had to leave the tour two days early. I had agreed to be in my cousin’s wedding a long time before and couldn’t bail on him. They’d finish the last couple of shows without me. They dropped me off in the wee hours at Portland Airport, an airport that later in my life I'd get to know incredibly well. At departures we were giving hugs, saying goodbyes. I had a huge lump in my throat. I didn’t want it to end, and I was scared that somehow this would be the last time I did this. Tim Rutili, the Califone leader and truly a big brother figure for me, gave me a hug, and maybe sensing something, said to me “this is just the beginning.” I think he probably just meant something like "we've got other tours on the horizon this album cycle," but to me at that moment it seemed to mean that this was going to be an ongoing part of my life for years to come.
I guess you could say that was the best tour moment. I came home and basically started doing Fruit Bats in earnest right after that. The train had definitely left the station.