Hello from in here to all you out there. Fruit Bats’ eighth LP opens with this invocation, this call from an isolated vocal room to your headphones somewhere out in the world. It’s a beckoning for your trust and attention, but also an assurance in lonely times—a distillation of melancholy wrapped in a danceable waltz.
“The Pet Parade,” the title track to Fruit Bats’ newest album, might be a surprising opening track for longtime fans of Eric D. Johnson’s beloved indie folk-rock project. The six-and-ahalf-minute tone poem smolders and drones over just two chords, inspired by the strange and silly community events that he saw growing up outside of Chicago, in La Grange, Illinois, in which people dressed up and showed off their pets. Decades later, The Pet Parade emerges in troubled times, living within what Johnson refers to as the beauty and absurdity of existence.
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), singersongwriter 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. Still, says Johnson, “The songs have enough intimacy that it doesn’t sound like it was made a million miles away.”
Such tension and turmoil also impacted the lyrics of The Pet Parade. While “Cub Pilot” and “Here For Now, For You” began as more traditional love songs—from a personal “I” to a specific “you”—Johnson quickly realized that these songs needed to comfort broader audiences, changing the words to a more inclusive “we” and “us.” So too in “The Balcony,” a song ostensibly about a particular space in his grandmother’s apartment, but one that evolved into a metaphor on patience. At times upbeat and reassuring (“Eagles Below Us”) and at times quietly contemplative (“On the Avalon Stairs”), The Pet Parade marks a milestone for 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.
And Johnson himself—who has played in The Shins, composed film scores, gone solo and returned back to the moniker that started it all, and most recently, earned two GRAMMY® nominations with Bonny Light Horseman—doesn’t take this long route of life’s pet parade for granted. “I’m still really excited to make records,” he says. “Lucky and happy and maybe happier that things went slower for me. I’m savoring it a lot more.”