Ever live in a shadow? For Fruit Bats, it's been The Shins, who have hovered over Eric Johnson's band like an older brother. Both signed to Sub Pop in the early aughts, and the two groups express a similar appreciation for the pastoral psych folk of the '60s, if with decidedly different levels of success. That stature has led people to think of Fruit Bats as sounding like The Shins, rather than vice versa, although both began in 1999.
It probably doesn't help that Johnson used to live in The Shins front man James Mercer's house in Portland, Ore., once home to Elliott Smith, before moving to Los Angeles. More than two years ago, Mercer asked Johnson to join The Shins after its last release.
It caused a bit of anxiety. Given the singers' similarities and the reviews to that point, how could Johnson not be concerned? But the musical opportunity and the pair's longtime friendship trumped worry, giving Johnson a close-up appreciation of their shared qualities.
"James and I have a really similar voice," Johnson said. "I didn't really understand this until we'd been on tour together and I'd call out to our tour manager or somebody and they'd say, 'What do you need, James?'"
TRUCK OF POSSESSIONS
Johnson was preparing to unload a truck of possessions before jaunting off on tour, after the L.A. move failed to take. The road is more than a metaphor, however; it's also where he ruminated over the tracks for the Fruit Bats' new album, "The Ruminants Band."
Although he largely recorded the first three Fruit Bats alone with a variety of instruments, he never intended a solo endeavor " it just turned out that way because he was the member most engaged. Just last year, he settled on a lineup that he saw as "the band," and even toyed with the idea of changing the group's name " something that's reflected in the album's title.
A solid cast of players encouraged Johnson to write more for a band, which dovetailed with his desire to record more of a "live" album. The Bats even road-tested new songs before committing them to the record.
"Every time I go out on the road on a record, we'll play completely different versions of the songs than were on the record," he said. "I kind of wrote the songs a little bit with the idea that they would be kind of stripped-down and live-sounding, and they would really translate with the live show."
Johnson's also begun to enjoy the road, which often becomes a musician's bane. The small print of being a traveling artist is that touring is not particularly like vacation, instead more akin to a day at the DMV. There's a lot of waiting around and forced proximity with people you might not know as well as you think.
"I used to get kind of crazy on tour. Not party crazy, but crazy kind of depressed or stressed-out, and that doesn't really happen to me anymore," Johnson said. "It's partly because things go a little better than they used to on tour. We have people at the shows; it's depressing when no one comes to your shows. We still have off nights. It's not all the land of milk and honey quite yet."
BITE AND CHURN
The result is a harder-driving album with more bite and churn than the group's previous gentle folk-pop drift. Johnson said that "The Ruminants Band" has garnered a lot less Shins comparisons, but that hasn't stopped the singer from scheming: "When we're making the new Shins record, I'll sabotage it as much as I can," he said.
Johnson is quick to jest, but it's no joke that he's happy to be playing Monday at the Opolis in Norman. Fruit Bats also will perform 6 p.m. Monday at a free, in-store concert at Guestroom Records, 3701 N. Western.
The Opolis is one of Johnson's favorite venues in the country, which he credits to the Starlight Mints' enlightened leadership as its owners.
"It's just the people there and the way they run that place," he said. "It's run by a band, so when you get there, they just know where you're at. It's cool. They're a great band and it's a great idea for a band to make their own club, and do their own thing. It's really pretty brilliant."
Fruit Bats with Death Vessel perform at 9 p.m. Monday at Opolis, 113 N. Crawford in Norman. "Chris Parker