FRUIT BATS – ” The Pet Parade “

Posted: February 2, 2021 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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The Pet Parade marks a milestone for Eric D. Johnson, who celebrates 20 years of Fruit Bats in 2021. In some ways still a cult band, in other ways a time-tested act, Fruit Bats has consistently earned enough small victories to carve out a career in a notoriously fickle scene.

While many of the songs on The Pet Parade were actually written before the pandemic, it’s impossible to disassociate the record from the times. As an example, producer Josh Kaufman (The Hold Steady, Bob Weir, The National, and Bonny Light Horseman, in which he plays with Johnson and Anaïs Mitchell) was brought in for his deep emotional touch and bandleading abilities. However, Johnson, Kaufman, and the other musicians on The Pet Parade—drummers Joe Russo and Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Fleet Foxes, Muzz), singer-songwriter Johanna Samuels, pianist Thomas Bartlett (Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens), and fiddler Jim Becker (Califone, Iron & Wine)—were forced to self-record their parts in bedrooms and home studios across America.

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“This was definitely not a coronavirus record,” Fruits Bats’ Eric D. Johnson says of “The Pet Parade”, his indie-folk project’s ninth album. “What I mean by that is that I think everyone who writes songs is going to be coming out with a quarantine record at some point in the next five months, but about half of these songs were written before the pandemic. Then again, the record couldn’t not be informed by what was taking place, and a few of the songs I had already completed were weirdly prescient.”

Beyond colouring Johnson’s lyrical content, the pandemic certainly played a role in the process of creating the album. In early March, producer Josh Kaufman visited Johnson in LA for prep work, and the pair planned to re-group for some more formal sessions a few weeks later in Kaufman’s native New York. However, COVID-19 scuttled those plans and, when the two resumed work on the album, they did so remotely, enlisting drummer Joe Russo, The Walkmen/Fleet Foxes drummer Matt Barrick, singer Johanna Samuels, keyboardist Thomas Bartlett and bassist Annie Nero, who is also Kaufman’s wife, to record individual tracks from their home locales.

Though “The Pet Parade” marks the first time that Kaufman had produced a Fruit Bats record, the project immediately proceeded their collaboration with Anais Mitchell as Bonny Light Horseman.

Johnson is quick to note that while Thom Monahan had served as producer of his three previous Fruit Bats albums, 2011’s Tripper, 2016’s Absolute Loser and 2019’s Gold Past Life, that “Thom had gotten really busy as of late.”

“We’re always going to work together; he’s one of my closest friends and we already have plans for other stuff,” he continues. “So when I finished the Bonny Light Horseman record, I was like, ‘I want to keep living in this world. I would love to see what Josh does with some of my other original songs.’ I just wanted to see what his touch would bring.”

As for working with the personnel on The Pet Parade, Johnson likens the experience to “hiring a film director who has his own cast of actors. He brought in the Josh Kaufman Players, all of whom are friends of mine or became friends through Josh. Everyone was in a different room in a different city but, thankfully, all of them had home setups. Then there’s Josh himself. Some of the songs are just the two of us playing everything, which was fine by me because I adore the guy and he is an absolute monster of a multi-instrumentalist.”

The Pet Parade

Josh and I both independently had this idea that we should do a song that was a hypnotic invocation of some sort. We were thinking about Astral Weeks. Now I don’t think it sounds like that album, but the idea was something with two chords that we could float over the top of in some way. The song was originally conceived like that, and then it became something else.

Josh pushed to open the record with it, but that was a scary decision for me to make. I’m a guy who wants to top[1]load the record—not because it’s some Spotify thing but because, going back to The Beatles, that’s just what you do. So even though I think it’s a wonderful song, it’s seven minutes long, it’s slow, you can’t dance to it and it has two chords. But Josh was like, “During this moment in time, you can’t write a song where the first line is, ‘Hello from in here to all you out there/ It feels like it’s been years’ and not open an album with it.”

I realized he was right. With this record, I’m inviting people to be patient rather than giving them a two-and-a-half-minute banger at the start to suck them in. It’s kind of like telling people: “Do you trust me? Come on in.”

One of my great musical mentors, Jim Becker, plays fiddle on the song, which was a real joy. He’s an old Chicago pal of mine and probably best known these days as a member of Iron & Wine. He’s played on records of mine in the past, but he’s somebody that I hadn’t made music with in a long time. That’s him playing those gorgeous Cajun-y fiddles.

Cub Pilot

This is one of the earlier demos that I had written. I guess you could say it’s a pre-quarantine song. Originally, in a way, it fell into the lyrical thematic territory that I dug into on Gold Past Life, which was kind of like talking to someone and being encouraging to that person. In this case, it was kind of a love song, and as I was writing it, I was either going to be singing it to someone, to you, or I was going to put it in the third person. But when we were putting the song together, all the stuff was going down with the George Floyd protests. Now for better or worse, I’m not a topical songwriter. I love that other people do that and, although my music is on the side of righteousness, it typically exists outside of that in a different world.

So while this song is in no way about the protests, I changed the lyrics from “you” to “we” so that it became sort of a love song to the world. That sounds very grandiose but it felt weird, at that moment, to be writing to an individual. I didn’t want to be talking to just one person.

Discovering

This is the oldest song on the record. A few years ago, before we had even conceived of Bonny Light Horseman, I went out to New York to work with Josh. I wasn’t really thinking of him as a producer. It was just an excuse to hang out and write something together. We did this song and it had mumble lyrics on it, which happens sometimes. I put it aside for several years but once Josh agreed to produce this record, I was like, “Oh, we should do that one,” because I always really liked it, although it was never finished.

Now, sometimes, mumble lyrics can be actual gibberish but, in this case, it was real words and the first line was “He has lived through another night and is quite likely to wake up again.” It seemed weird to have that first line in this moment with the spectre of death feeling close.

“Discovering” is kind of a song about isolation, but isolation in which you can take yourself outside. So it’s about walking around alone outside. I’m not trying to write about it in a romantic or starry-eyed way; it’s a little more like a neutral Zen song about just getting yourself outside and breathing in the air.

The Balcony

This song is about a dream location, which is the balcony of my grandmother’s apartment. We moved around a ton as a kid, but my grandma lived in the same place. She’s no longer with us but my aunt lives there now.

It’s an apartment on the ninth floor and it’s been in my life forever. I often dream about the balcony there, which overlooks a very mid-century stone rec centre. There’s an outdoor pool that is sometimes this lonely, drained thing in the Chicago winter, and then off in the distance is a sliver of the Chicago skyline. I found it to be a very evocative place when I was a little kid for a million reasons, and it exists in my dreams forever.

The song is not really about that, but somehow it just worked its way into the song. It’s a song about patience and it’s probably informed by the quarantine. We almost left it off the record but it’s the most legit up-tempo song we had. So it ended up getting back in, and I’m glad it did.

Here for Now, for You

“Here for Now, for You” is a pretty sad song with some references to suicide, having lost a few friends like that. It’s another one where I kind of spit out the first line, sort of as a mumble off the top of my head. It was, “I feel sometimes like I want to get off the ride, like, you know, that I’m getting called home,” which is a pretty dark line.

I wrote it a long time ago. The music portion of the song has gone through a lot of permutations. At one point, there was a crazy ‘80s pop jam in there, with Joe Russo shredding on drums, but it continued to evolve. It’s a sad song but it’s also about devotion.

On the Avalon Stairs

“On the Avalon Stairs” is probably my favourite vocal performance that I’ve ever done for one of my own records. Singing is always the most intimate and strange part of record-making. I’ve produced other people’s records, I’ve guested and I’ve been there for other people’s processes. It can be hard and I can be very self-critical about it.

I was a singer before I could play any instruments and I’m aware that it’s probably my strong suit. I’m not going to come guest on your record and shred lead guitar—that’s just not what I do. But I can come and sing harmonies and maybe something good will come of it.

In this case, it was very strange being in a room alone, kind of comping my own vocals. That’s the easiest way to get into a wormhole of your own brain; those sounds are coming from close to your brain. I did a couple of takes and I wasn’t feeling it, but then I did one take that was a breakthrough moment. I remember being happy with that vocal take and I don’t usually feel that way.

Eagles Below Us

This is a song about wanting to climb in someone’s head, which is something that we all believe we can do. It sort of sounds like a love song, and it is in some ways. But it’s also a platonic love song, which all of my love songs are—you can sing them to a friend. The great Annie Nero is on bass and Joe Russo is on drums.

When we were on the Bonny Light Horseman tour, we were driving somewhere in the mountains. There was a cliffside to the right and, when I looked down, there was an eagle flying 20 feet below us. I thought it was such a great image.

“Eagles Below Us” was also the working title for the album because I really like that notion. However, it ended up losing out to The Pet Parade, which kind of came in at the last minute and was more elemental sounding.

Holy Rose

“Holy Rose” might be the most direct song on the record as far as being about something. I wrote that one about the 2017 Sonoma County Tubbs Fire. It was one of the first songs we worked on and, as we continued from summer into early fall, these fires started happening again. My wife is from Sonoma County and it’s about her experience watching her childhood burn away.

I realized, after the fact, that each verse and chorus is written from a different character’s perspective. Some of the song is saying, “Get out of there,” and some of it is saying, “I’ll never leave.” I’ve seen the heartbreak of native Californians watching their lives burn. There’s a symbolic notion in the line about “the ghosts of everyone you’ve ever known.”

The original arrangement was going to be a soft sort of waltz, but Josh and Matt Barrick interpreted it as very angry, which I thought was cool. So it’s still a waltz, but it hits hard and kind of feels like a fire.

All in One Go

“All in One Go” was a late add. I wrote it all in one blast— which I may have had in mind when I was working on it—and then named the song.

It seems like all my records always have a song toward the end that takes the form of a gentle acoustic guitar track. I’ll sit down with an iPhone and an acoustic guitar and do something that’s sort of informed by the record as a whole. It’s a little bit of a denouement, which is how “All in One Go” ended up in that position as the third to last song.

Gullwing Doors

Sense of place is huge for me. In fact, that was one of the working titles for Gold Past Life and the original theme of that album. I’m nomadic. I kind of live everywhere and nowhere, too, but for the past 15 years, it’s mostly been back and forth between LA and Portland. When I leave one city, I always write a love song to the other.

“Gullwing Doors” is somewhat about the back[1]and-forth drive up Interstate 5 between LA and points north, which can be the world’s longest and bleakest drive. It’s a driving song, like my song “Absolute Loser” [the title track to his 2016 album], although that one was about driving between Portland and Seattle in the rain. This one is more about driving around Stockton at dusk.

There are also some thematic tie-ins to the other songs on this record. It has a similar theme to “Eagles Below Us” in that it’s a song about human connection. It’s also a little bit related to “Holy Rose” with that sense of deciding between letting go of a place or holding onto a place.

Josh brought a lot out of this one. At first, it was more of a double time, almost disco-y song, but he saw it as a half[1]time kind of epic thing. Josh laboured over all these songs, but I have good memories of him being excited about this one. He did a number on it in a good way.

Complete

Here’s my theory about the last three songs on a record. It’s different than the first couple songs on a record because there are a lot of different ways to look at those. You might put a couple of super jams up front to get people invested or, like in this case, put a floaty song up front so that you can get people in a meditative mood.

But while there are a few ways that you can treat the beginning of an album, I always see the end the same way. I feel like the second-to-last song is the last song because the last song is kind of like the epilogue. The album is done and now you’re watching the closing credits. So that makes the third-to-last song really the second-to-last scene. That’s how I’ve always envisioned it. The second-to-last song is really the end, and the last song is the closing credits.

“Complete” is just me singing and playing guitar at the same time in a room. There are no overdubs, I’m just playing to a click track. I tried to make it an invocation, a little bit of a prayer and a wish for everyone: “You shall be complete.” I know we’re all feeling like there are holes in us right now, so it’s a prayer for good, as best as I can say it.

Fruit Bats is back with their second studio album on Merge Records, The Pet Parade, out March 5th.

Produced by Josh Kaufman

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