KRC Interview: Eric D. Johnson – Keepers Record Club

KRC Interview: Eric D. Johnson

Eric D. Johnson

You’ve got some history with the Red Red Meat guys.

Yeah! For a few years I played in an early lineup of the band Califone, which was the band that sprang from the ashes of Red Red Meat in the late 90’s. I was this fairly shy, unambitious 23 year old who was not part of the Chicago scene in any way, but through a really weird course of events ended up joining that band and like 2 months later going on this massive tour with Modest Mouse and a very early version of The Shins. It totally changed the course of my life. Later Tim heard my weird 4-track demos and liked them, and Perishable Records (Califone/Red Red Meat’s label) put out the first Fruit Bats record, which (RRM drummer) Brian Deck produced. Those guys really took me under their wing and believed in me. I’m seriously not totally sure where I’d be without them. We’re still all pretty close and I even called Tim Rutili up to pick his brain for this project.

Is this when your first introduced to Jimmywine Majestic?

No, I was in love with that record before I knew those guys, and was like a mega-Red Red Meat fan. So joining that band was like joining the Beatles for me. To me they were super famous.

Did this record have an impact on your as a writer?

Definitely. Music-wise, I spent a lot of time trying to emulate those open-tunings. I think this record (and later on, knowing those guys) also made me not so scared to embrace my roots and classic-rock leanings. While Jimmywine is very Sub-Pop-y and grungy and “of its time” in certain regards, it’s also pretty timeless, and there are a lot of blue notes in there. Lyrically it had an effect, too – Rutili has a really impressionistic way of writing lyrics, and there’s a lot of disturbing imagery alongside lots of beauty. I think my first record was me just kind of trying to write like him. But I’ve always thought he takes really beautiful things and makes them dark and disturbing, and I take dark and disturbing things and try to make them pretty.

In addition to your projects under Fruit Bats and EDJ, you’ve scored a number of films including Our Idiot Brother, Here Alone, and Smashed. How does the writing process compare to your approach to your other projects?

It’s a totally different set of muscles that you use for film scoring. The main thing is that a film score is not ‘your’ music, per se. It’s being a musical mouthpiece for the filmmakers and the story. So it’s pretty different every time depending on who you’re working with. Lots of parameters! Coming back to making albums after a couple of movies feels like taking your swimsuit off in the pool! It feels very freeing and kind of weird and great. But I love film scoring, and I embrace the parameters. It’s something totally different, and I kind of relish the structure of it. Which I think kind of answers the next question….

Is it refreshing?

Yes!!

And in addition to all that you recently produced Nina Persson’s solo debut, Animal Heart. How did that come together?

Nina’s husband is the composer (and ex-Shudder to Think guitarist) Nathan Larson. He and I collaborated on the “Our Idiot Brother” score and I spent a lot of time working at their place in New York. I wrote some actual songs for the soundtrack (beyond score) and Nina sang one of them. We got along great and she asked me to help with co-writes for her next album. Then she liked how my demos sounded so I ended up coming in as a co-producer. She and Nathan were a joy to work with, and it was pretty dreamy to spend a month and change in Gothenburg.

You’ve been on the road the better part of the year in support of Absolute Loser. Do the songs tend to morph the more you play them live?

Oh definitely! I try to take Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” tact. It’s OK to add a little muscle. I change the keys. Speed things up, slow things down. Especially the older tunes, which really are these very gentle “headphone” type songs. I wasted years trying to make everything sound exactly like the record, which unless you’re a punk band is kinda hard. That said, the newer stuff translates from album to live show a little straighter, but when you have big enthusiastic crowds, things stretch out a little more and new bits and pieces become part of the song’s reality. We play 80-90 minute sets, too, and try to mix it up every night. Keeps things interesting when you’re out for a month or longer.

Do they ever take on new meaning for you?

Absolutely. Sometimes songs that you loved on record fall really flat and you end up scratching them. Others that seemed like afterthoughts become crowd favorites. “Baby Bluebird” off the new record is like that. I loved writing that but hadn’t really been putting it into set lists since it seemed like such a slow sad tune, but people kept requesting it night after night so we’ve been doing it now and people love it. You never know which one is going to resonate.

When did you first get into vinyl?

My family didn’t even own a cassette player until 1985! We were always a little late to the new-technology party. So I bought all of my music on LP and 45 until I was in fourth grade (when I got my first boom box and Mr. Mister’s “Welcome to the Real World” on cassette). Then it took us forever to move over to CDs. My early 90’s stereo had a built-in turntable, and my uncle unloaded a bunch of Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead records on me around then, maybe 1995. There were great record stores in Chicago then (still are) and I started getting used vinyl after that fairly regularly, and new stuff when that started becoming more common in the early ‘aughts. Cliched as it may sound, I love all the classic things about vinyl – the big artwork, the “slow listening,” and warm sound quality.

Do you consider yourself a collector?

Not at all. I don’t really have a collector instinct, for better or worse. If anything I’m more of a purger. It’s actually a New Years resolution of mine to buy more vinyl. But I have a decent collection, just not compared to some of my heavy collecting friends, of whom I have several. I live in Portland, Oregon and we have really good record stores here.

Jealous Butcher, who reissued Jimmywine Majestic on vinyl last year, has a very eclectic catalog (and I’m sorry I had’t heard of them sooner!). What’s your history with those folks?

Rob Jones (who basically is Jealous Butcher) is a friend I met through Matt Ward here in Portland (he’s released several M. Ward records on LP). He’s just a great dude and has become a good friend. Jealous Butcher did 10-year anniversary re-releases on the first two Fruit Bats records, and has been doing vinyl reissues of the Califone and Red Red Meat catalogues as well. He’s keeping the Perishable records family alive. And notably, Rob is a brilliant layout artist and screen printer, so his releases look gorgeous. He recently released the entire Red Red Meat catalog in LP box-set form, and the packaging is INSANE. He should win five Grammys.

You’re still in the thick of touring and promotion for Absolute Loser, but what else is on the horizon for you?

Well, I’m always ready for another movie gig, and that usually gets busy later in the fall in the pre-Sundance rush. But right now just totally focused on Fruit Bats! We have way more road time, which is a good thing because it means people are still interested in my record. Just plugging away!


Get Jimmywine Majestic on double colored vinyl with exclusive intro essay booklet by Eric D. Johnson.