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Sometimesa story can take a long time to tell. Eric D. Johnson, who has recorded andperformed as the Fruit Bats for a decade now, had a story like that, a chanceencounter that had rattled around his head for years. He’s tried to write it asa short story, a play, a movie…yet until now couldn’t get it down just right.Finally he decided to make a song out of it, and the result is “Tony theTripper.” It’s the song at the heart of his fifth album, Tripper,setting the tone for a bittersweet meditation on hitting the road, leaving thefamiliar behind and reinventing yourself.
Thestory goes like this. Just after turning 20, Johnson boarded a train fromChicago to see his sister in Olympia, Washington. A grizzled vagabond—Tony—tookthe seat next to him for the ride to Fargo, North Dakota. Over the next 12hours the two developed a strange relationship, the cantankerous oldsteralternately bullying and befriending Johnson. A decade or so later, Johnson isstill bemused by the encounter, wondering what he could have learned from thisbroken, frightening, but fascinating character. The song “Tony the Tripper”imagines the two of them heading out on a road trip, the idealist and the outlawcutting a swath across America.
Thattrip never happened, in part because Johnson embarked on a career in music thathas, to date, included ten years with the Fruit Bats, sideman duties for bandsincluding Califone, Vetiver and The Shins, and more recently, soundtrack workfor films like Ceremony and Our Idiot Brother. Yet asJohnson approached the ten-year anniversary of Echolocation, the Fruit Bats’debut, he began to think, more and more, about the appeal of changing scenery.His own process shifted slightly to focus more on story-based songs, andfollowing his collaborations with film-makers, he began experimenting with moreabstract, less folk-based sounds. Johnson turned away from the strummy, breezy,guitar-based sound that so many people labeled “sunny” and began to work morewith synthesizers and keyboards.
Asa result, the theme of escape, of farewell, of turning one’s back on thecomfortable runs all through Tripper. The shimmering,melancholy “So Long,” tells of a young woman constrained by a suburban life,the tune’s simple longing framed by the harp-like flourishes of a vintageChamberlin keyboard. “She should dance if she wants to dance,” murmurs Johnsonin his high tenor against a wash of synthesizers and a luminous twang ofguitars. You get the sense that, finally, the girl does get her turn to shine.“Tangie and Ray” tackles a darker subject that has long fascinated Johnson, an Into the Wild-esque scenariowhere going back to the land turns deadly. Johnson says that the idea for thesong came to him after a solo show in Anchorage, Alaska, when driving alone andnot even that far from town, he saw how easily the wilderness could swallow aperson up.
Thereare other types of farewells here, too. “Wild Honey,” the next to last song, isa tribute to the songwriter Diane Izzo, who succumbed to brain cancer the daythat Johnson began recording Tripper. The two had met overa decade before in Chicago’s late 1990s music scene, where Izzo had a brieftriumph with her debut album, One. Johnson had contributed to some of her laterrecordings, and they remained close and continued to talk about collaboratingeven after she moved to New Mexico. Johnson says that though he never intendedto include a cover on Tripper,the song seemed to fit into his album’s spectral, melancholy vibe. “I’ve alwaysloved that song. It has a really spiritual, very Buddhist undercurrent to it,”he adds. “It seemed like one of the best ways to honor her.”
Johnsonrecorded Tripper at WACS Studioin Los Angeles with Thom Monahan, best known as producer for the last fourVetiver albums, Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow, and the PerniceBrothers. Monahan combines a deep knowledge of sonics and a Zen-like approach,says Johnson. “He would say, ’I’m going to put a reverb on your vocals that youcan’t even hear, but it will sound better,’” he recalls. His expertise insynthesizers was also critical to this keyboard-heavy album. For the firstweek, Johnson brought in a full band—Sam Wagster, Ron Lewis and GraemeGibson—to capture some of the live excitement of the previous Fruit Bats album,2009’s The RuminantBand. However, after working alone onsoundtracks for an extended period, Johnson knew that he wanted Tripper tobe more of a solitary pursuit than his previous album. For the remaining fourweeks, he worked with Monahan to deepen and refine the sound.
Yetperhaps the most radical thing about the album is not its haunting production,but the way it allows narratives to shape its songs. Johnson says that, thoughhe began experimenting with story songs on The Ruminant Band, he has onlyrecently made them his focus. He says that good songwriting doesn’t have to bebaroque or overly literate or complicated to make an impact, though that maymake it easier to recognize. Johnson himself prefers songwriters like RayDavies, Paul Simon and even Tom Petty, whose verbal accomplishments may beoverlooked because they are embedded in such catchy, tuneful melodies. “I thinkmaybe I like those pop star songwriters the best,” he says.