Somewhere over the Rainbo
Fruit Bats' frontman lines up a new band and new bar.
Ukrainian Village’s Rainbo Club has served as the hub for Chicago’s indie elite for years. Current and former members of Naked Raygun, Joan of Arc and Disappears regularly tend bar. It’s hard to imagine a musician gigging around the city for nearly a decade without ever wandering inside. But that’s exactly what Fruit Bats’ frontman Eric Johnson did. Or didn’t do. Only after moving to the West Coast did he finally set foot inside the dive, encouraged by the newest Bat, drummer and Rainbo bartender Graeme Gibson, who both anchors the strongest lineup yet of Johnson’s longtime band and engineered its most focused album yet, The Ruminant Band.
“I was not boycotting the Rainbo for ten years of my life,” Johnson explains when we dial him ten days into his current cross-country trek, en route to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Over a spotty connection and rocky terrain, he is quick to note that there were never any bad vibes toward what cynics might deride as a hipster mecca: “It was just one of those things, and then people thought it was so weird that it turned into a funny challenge to myself.”
For the last few years Johnson, 33, has shuffled around the West Coast, living in Seattle, Los Angeles and now Portland, Oregon. But from 1996 to 2005 he was a Chicagoan, working several jobs at the Old Town School of Folk Music, including teaching banjo. Fruit Bats began as a modest four-track solo project in 1996, and by 2000 Johnson had assembled a band, releasing its debut LP, Echolocation, the following year.
A lot’s changed since then. Johnson’s now entrenched in the Pacific Northwest scene, playing guitar and keyboards in the Shins and occasionally sitting in with Vetiver. Still, he returned to Chicago to record the follow-up to 2005’s Spelled in Bones. “I decided to put together more of a Chicago band because it’s still my comfort zone,” he says. “I know the players better.”
He reconvened Fruit Bats with a lineup based on the touring band for Bones, bassist Chris Sherman and multi-instrumentalist Ron Lewis (Johnson’s Shins bandmate). By August ’08 he’d recruited lead guitarist Sam Wagster and Gibson, whose flat above the Rainbo served as the Bats’ practice space. “It was very satisfying right away,” Johnson remembers. “It sounded the way that I had envisioned in my head.”
More than on previous discs, an ensemble spirit shines through the new album, Johnson’s fourth as Fruit Bats and third for Sub Pop. It doesn’t hurt that the group toured on the new material for a couple of weeks this past winter before hunkering down to record in Clava Studios on the South Side. New tunes like the title track and “The Blessed Breeze” overflow with communal spirit, echoing influences ranging from the Incredible String Band to ’70s AM gold like the Doobie Brothers. “I let all of my fixations lie on my sleeve with this one,” he confesses. “It’s pretty serious Anglophilia, particularly British folk-rolk, mixed with California canyon music and stoney L.A. country-rock.”
Despite the West Coast vibes, Johnson and co. remain firmly Midwestern in spirit. “I don’t feel like I left, especially with this [lineup]. I still consider us to be a Chicago band.” Just as you’d expect of any local band, especially one rehearsing directly above the bar, Johnson eventually relented, only to find the Rainbo to be a perfectly agreeable watering hole. “It’s a nice place,” he says. “I thought that maybe I’d walk in and immediately get shot or have a piano fall on my head or something. But yeah, now I’m pretty much a regular.”
Fruit Bats play a free in-store Sunday 20 at Reckless Records in Wicker Park before a two-night stand at Schubas Sunday 20 and Monday 21. Eric Johnson promises to swing by our office for a special Infinite Loop podcast.