Two Erics, in Conversation: Blitzen Trapper’s Earley and Fruit Bats’ Johnson

The indie-leaning songwriters discuss their long and winding roads.

Eric Johnson: When did Blitzen Trapper actually get going?

Eric Earley: It was like 2007. You were a bit before that, right? We were around for six or seven years just partying and playing and not doing much. We got into the industry on such a fluke. I never really worked to get into the industry.

Johnson: Same! We’re the product of a good time to wander your way into things. If I was starting now exactly the way I did it, nothing would be happening at all. I was a product of my time.

Earley: Totally. You could put up a song on MySpace and get a record deal.

Johnson: That is unique — six or seven years of fucking around and then getting signed to Sub Pop is amazing.

Earley: What was your trajectory? You got signed to Sub Pop as well, initially.

Johnson: Yeah, I got signed in 2002 and my record came out the following year. I got signed because I was playing in this band Califone, in Chicago. They’re a great band, still around, and a beloved band’s band, I guess you could say. Have you ever heard Red Red Meat?

Earley: I know the name,

Johnson: They’re amazing. It’s the predecessor to Califone. You’d love it. They were on Sub Pop in the ‘90s. THere’s a couple of their records that I think you’d freak out on. They sound as good today as the day they came out. So I was a super fan of that band, and through a very weird and amazing course of events joined Califone, which was the offshoot of my favorite band. My first tour I did with them, spring of 2000, was like a five-week tour opening for Modest Mouse, who had just signed to a major and just on the verge of exploding — sold out shows every night. First of three openers for part of that tour was The Shins, who weren’t even signed yet to a label. I kind of met everybody in this one little moment, and everybody got huge right after that. I was doing Fruit Bats. Califone had a little vanity label, and through those connections… I was very unambitious. It was bedroom recording, very slight sounding. I like it, but it’s a weird living-room record, really kind of repetitive folk music with no choruses. It was strange music, but apparently Sub Pop thought it had something.

Earley: So that was your way in. What’s that record called?

Johnson: It’s called Echolocation, and the first Sub Pop record is called Mouthfuls. It was that time, still kind of early 2000s indie-rock. The popular stuff was the Strokes and The White Stripes, great bands, but nothing to do with me. People would boo us at shows because, “This doesn’t rock!” We were kind of getting lumped with slightly more twee indie bands, which were some of our friends and music I like, but it wasn’t really what I was going for. We were getting sold to those audiences and they didn’t really get into it. And honestly it wasn’t until you guys and Fleet Foxes came along and Vetiver, I was like, “Oh, I have countrymen out there!” 

I feel like I rode a little Sub Pop wave, but it wasn’t much of a wave. We toured for seven years playing to nobody, which is a really long time. It’s gotten better really slowly. You never want to lump yourself in with some scene or something, you always want to be looking for tomorrow. They were magical times, but it felt nice to have a bunch of stuff to live within the context of, finally. 

But I have a question for you. I feel like we may have had similar experiences on two different tours. Ron Lewis told me this, from when he was playing with Grand Archives. You guys did some dates that were Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, Grand Archives. You did multiple shows with Fleet Foxes, right?

Earley: Their first tour was opening for us. It was a month and a half of us having to follow those guys as they were blowing up. It was terrible. [Laughs.] We were on our first record and so were they, but we had gotten some more press. Their record hadn’t even come out yet! People would leave after they were done, and we were like, “What’s happening?” [Laughs.]

Johnson: I had the same experience with Iron & Wine opening for us on their first tour. I’ve also had one-off shows where the local opener draws the whole crowd and then everybody leaves. The best-worst one was this band Court & Spark, which is interesting because they’re all still my friends. We did two nights with them, slightly random-ish local band hookup kind of thing. Maybe we had emailed each other. It was our first show getting paid a thousand dollars, I couldn’t even believe it. I think they thought a lot of people would come, and they did. I was like, “It’s all happening.” Then after Court & Spark played, everybody left. The room went from like a hundred people down to maybe four. Do you remember Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco?

Earley: Yeah, the first show of the Fleet Foxes tour was there, with them! 

Johnson: I remember the smoking patio out on the back, we were ready to play, and then everybody had left. Those experiences either break you in half or they kinda put some hair on your chest and make you be like, “We gotta get serious about this shit.” I feel like you guys did after that.

Earley: That Fleet Foxes tour was like that. Any experience that humbles you is valuable. I think it’s telling, because Furr is the next record, and that’s what allowed us to have a career that continues on. But I made the record before that tour, but that tour made us think that we had to perform it the way it needs to be performed. Fleet Foxes performances were incredible. Especially at that era, it was just mind blowing.

Johnson: One of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, period. They probably didn’t say that to you: “We’re gonna have one of the best live bands ever open for you.” 

Earley: No. I remember them sending us the demos of the first Fleet Foxes record and they were different; it had drums and all kinds of stuff. But then they slyly re-recorded it and made the most amazing record over.

Johnson: I actually met Robin because he and I were both production assistants on a TV commercial set together! When I lived in Seattle. He was quite young at the time, I don’t know how old I was. He was maybe even a high school student, I’m not sure. Maybe a little older. I was like, I like that guy, after I got home. He had told me to check out his MySpace page, and I was like, Oh, I’ll check out this guy’s little band! And then it was “White Winter Hymnal.” This dude is incredible. And there’s a new record out today, it’s fantastic. 

Honestly, the humbling stuff is good for you, but some people can’t handle that. I’ve known people who can’t. I’ve had tours where when I think back on them — I’m coming up on 20 years of touring with Fruit Bats — and the really old ones I am being like, “I don’t think anybody was at any of these shows.” Those are the tours where you come home and feel like you’re not going to do it anymore. I’m a glutton for punishment, or I was, and I stuck it out a little bit. I want to get to your new record, too, which is unbelievably good, by the way.

Earley: I appreciate that.

Johnson: You had a band-band, that’s what I didn’t have. Sometimes I feel like that’s something to be jealous about and sometimes I think I’m really glad that I never had that. I always thought that Blitzen Trapper, the sort of classic lineup, was like a benevolent psychedelic street gang. Not a scary street gang.

Earley: [Laughs.] Yeah. We were good dudes.

Johnson: You had been around each other for a long time, and you had that fraternal thing going on. Everybody was a little bit different, like a Beatle, and there were six of you.

Earley: That’s right! There were six.

Johnson: I always think back like, “That’s so cool, those guys are like a band of pirates!” But then I’m kind of glad I’ve had this weird floaty thing. I’m in a honeymoon period with my band all the time, basically.

Earley: I get it.

Johnson: What was that like? I think about it with the Shins, which is a band I played in and was close to. There was that sort of classic golden-era lineup where they were four yahoos from Albuquerque and there was something to that. You guys were six guys from Salem, one guy from Yakima, right? 

Earley: Yeah, Marty. I think there are certain non-musical aspects of it that you just can’t beat, the camaraderie and the family feeling. We all grew up together for the most part. It gets complicated after a while. I think one of the complicated things about Blitzen Trapper is that it seemed like a band, but the records were really just me.

Johnson: That’s unique in and of itself. Same with me, but then I was also touring with mercenaries every time, not necessarily a band. So that’s sort of unique to Blitzen Trapper.

Earley: I was always such an egotistical control freak, and I had this vision where if it didn’t come out, I was like, Damn it. Start over. That’s how I rolled for so long. I’m trying not to be that way as much. On the road it was one thing, but with the recordings it was another. A lot of Blitzen Trapper was trying to navigate those two realities, the recordings and the band. That situation would’ve been easier if I’d have just hired guys, but I couldn’t, because those guys were my family. And some of them did play on some of the recordings; it wasn’t always just me. But for the most part, it was my vision and that’s what we’d do.

Johnson: That’s how I am, too. I wanted a band early on, but I couldn’t have it. I lived in Chicago and it was sort of strangely hard… Early lineups of mine always included like one person that I went to high school with. When you’re really young that’s just who you know. What am I supposed to do, put an ad up at the coffee shop? Which I did, actually. I still have the thing I put up, because no one pulled off a little pull tab and I ended up taking it back down.

Earley: You always have to pull off a couple before you hang it up, just so…

Johnson: I never even thought of that! It’s like putting a dollar in the tip jar when you’re a barista. “People really want to get in this band!” I kind of wanted that brotherly camaraderie. Even early on, Sub Pop did a thing where they said, “We really need it to be like a band.” I think they wanted it to seem like a band, I don’t exactly know why. When I think back to Sub Pop, I don’t know if this is similar with you: I didn’t listen to the right things they told me, the good things. But I took heed of the stuff that maybe I should’ve ignored, if that makes sense.

Earley: I feel like I totally squandered my time at Sub Pop. I put out some good records, but it’s hard to put yourself back in that place 10 years later. Maybe that record I made just wasn’t that good, maybe Sub Pop was right. They were so hands off, they’d let you do anything, even to your detriment.

Johnson: They were great. My experience was incredible and it changed my life. 

Earley: Me too.

Johnson: I think we’re both lucky to come from that 2000s-era.

Earley: The twilight of the record industry, really.

Johnson: A lot of the younger artists who I know now who are doing really well, they’re total geniuses. They don’t do drugs or drink. They started off right, they know exactly what they’re doing. They start off fully baked, and if you don’t, you can’t do it. You could be a druggie weirdo I guess, but you’d have to be incredibly naturally good then.

Earley: Even then, the industry is so different now. Really you have to be an extreme extrovert now to make it in the industry, because it’s so much about impressions. Which is interesting. You think of someone like Bob Dylan. If he was around now, he didn’t strike me as much of an extrovert. Would his impact have been the same? What would his career have been like?

Johnson: That’s a good question about Dylan, though I think he’s an alpha-male weirdo just enough, with off-the-charts charisma. But I don’t know. Prince would always have been huge, doesn’t matter. He’s Prince. David Bowie, probably the same. 

Earley: Natural born performer, doesn’t matter when. And Freddie Mercury. Are you down in LA still?

Johnson: Yeah, Annie and I are still here.

Earley: Are you still inundated with smoke down there?

Johnson: Yeah, it’s still bad. I’ve been keeping an eye up there. And there’s not going to be rain anytime soon. You’re married now, right, with a child?

Earley: Yeah, a 3-year-old. It’s a severe learning curve.

Johnson: So when does the new one come out? 

Earley: Friday. 

Johnson: I’ve been listening to it for like a year! Or I heard it a year ago. It’s really good and what I want to say about it, and I mean this as the highest compliment possible, is that it pulls off the feat that we all want to do: It’s a leap forward and yet a return to form. And I hate when people say return to form, because it implies that you’ve lost your form, which I don’t think you did. Wild Mountain Nation kicked me in the stomach when I first heard it, and it gave me those same feels. And I don’t want to say, “It sounds like your old shit,” because it sounds like new shit, but there’s a certain territory that you’re mining that feels like that to me in a really good way.

Earley: Thanks. This record’s funny. As I was making it, I had been drained of so much ego and ambition. When I was making it, we had done our last tour, and I started working at the shelter, and I had this new kid… It’s funny to say it, but the 10-year anniversary Fur tour felt kind of like our last tour. Like a closing. Does that make sense? I knew there were changes coming with the band, so making the record I wasn’t thinking I’d tour it. I just liked what I was writing at the very second, and I feel like that kind of comes out. Like when you’re 15, when you’re writing songs just because you learned how to play guitar. I was just enjoying playing and writing and diving back into that 15-year-old headspace.

Johnson: Those are my favorite kinds of records in general. I’ve had so many moments in my 20-year career… Two or maybe more times where I felt like I was just done. Where I didn’t have a label. I’ve had multiple moments of losing all infrastructure, which gives you just a modicum of comfort. Like, I have a booking agent that can get me shows, a record label that can put out records, and a manager that can manage all that shit. Those are sort of the three pillars, and there have been three or four moments in my career where I lost two or more of those, and at one point all three. I’m not shark-y enough to do it. It’s been often where I didn’t have a world of choices, and I’ve found I’ve made my best albums under those circumstances.

Earley: There’s times in your career where you’re like, “I want to get bigger” or whatever, and you’re not just thinking about yourself and the music. I get it. 

Johnson: I like that, and I also like records — and this is sort of pre-collapse of the music industry — that were made by bands that were just like, “Fuck it.” Like Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden or Laughingstock, where they had this big new wave hit and then just made these expansive, gorgeous studio records. I love that. They just threw it in the garbage, career-wise, but made an absolute all-timer. Andy Cabic from Vetiver, I’m gonna paraphrase him: He loves the lost classics, and he says that he’s always trying to emulate the lost classics and thereby dooming himself to being a lost classic himself. He said something like that. 

Somehow I’m attracted to all that, I’m attracted to all those things, the personal stuff, I guess. The artists who weren’t appreciated in their times, the Nick Drakes. Of course I want to be appreciated in my time. Nick Drake really did. You think of him as this guy who didn’t care, but he went to his grave with the notion that nobody would ever hear him. Anyway, you’re putting out a record in the time of no shows, and so am I actually — I can’t say yet when mine’s coming out, but early part of next year. It remains to be seen whether shows will be a thing. If you’re going to make a personal record and you’re moving onto a new chapter of band stuff, maybe it’s the best time ever to do that.

Earley: Who knows?

Johnson: I think it’s really kind of perfect, there’s not a bad song on there. It’s really, really good.

Earley: I can’t wait to hear new Fruit Bats!

Johnson: I’ll send it to you! You can listen to it back to back with my Smashing Pumpkins thing.

Earley: That one’s out, right?

Johnson: Yeah! One last thing, I want to ask about the homeless shelter — is that right? Is it a shelter or rehabilitation center?

Earley: It’s a 24/7 homeless shelter, and we case-manage. It’s veterans priority, but it’s everybody. It’s a little of everything. It’s crazy. It’s one of the funnest jobs I’ve ever had. I really feel like the new record is in part an outgrowth of working there. The more interviews I do, the more I realize it. I start to be like, Oh crap, this has everything to do with working there. The experiences I’ve had there have been kind of mind-blowing in some ways, but also these slow, gradual realizations about human nature, and about myself. I learned a lot about myself from being around these guys and dealing with their problems.

Johnson: I feel that. And I feel like you’ve always done that. I like a songwriter who’s got a world. And it doesn’t have to be album to album, but the whole catalog can be in a world. Bill Callahan has that, Joni Mitchell has that, Michael Hurley has it, and your world is like this under-the-bridge in the Pacific Northwest world. I can see your songs a little bit, and that homeless shelter kind of sounds like something that feeds from and toward your songs.

Earley: It feels like where I’m supposed to be. In my life right now, it feels like the job I’m supposed to have. I derive a lot of peace from it. And people want to do good in their lives, but I think it’s really about being where you’re supposed to be at that moment. Right now it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be. I feel at peace. That may change. I hope you feel the same way with what you’re doing.

Johnson: Yeah! I’m doing all kinds of weird stuff. It’s great. I’ve loved talking to you, it’s been too long.

Earley: Yeah, thanks!

(Photo Credit: left, Jason Quigley; right, Annie Beedy)

Eric D. Johnson records and performs as the Fruit Bats. His latest album Gold Past Life will be released June 21.

(Photo Credit: Annie Beedy)