In the four years that have passed since the last Fruit Bats album, singer-songwriter-guitarist Eric D. Johnson has toured and recorded with the Shins and Vetiver, projects that encouraged him to open up to more collaboration in his own band.
So when it came time to record the songs that would become The Ruminant Band, Johnson settled in with patience, focus and an eagerness to make creative leaps as a songwriter.
"I had what sort of seems like four years off, but we toured on that last Fruit Bats record for a year, and I did the Shins for about a year in a half in the middle there, so it's only the last year or so (that) I felt pretty urgent about doing something," Johnson says.
Recorded in the same Chicago studio as the Fruit Bats' first album eight years ago, The Ruminant Band is 11 songs of blissful, sunny rock music, the same sound that has earned the band descriptions such as "zoology rock," "bootgazer," and "rustic pop," all of which the band quotes in bio material.
"I actually like those, because they're so weird," Johnson says. "I like those better than something like 'indie pop.' I don't want to shatter categories. It's OK, but it's nice when you're creative about it.
"I tend to just write in a lot of major keys, and I come from a folk and bluegrass background, and it comes across that way. A lot of times, my lyrics aren't bright, but even then, I think it just comes out as sounding really happy. I just like those major keys. I can't stop."
Released this month on Sub Pop, The Ruminant Band has been met with largely positive reviews, which have fueled the band's excitement for the upcoming tour, which stretches from British Columbia down the West Coast before looping through the South and East Coast on the way back to their home base in Chicago.
"I try not to read too much stuff about the Fruit Bats. The little things I've peeked at, I've been pretty happy about how people are receiving this record. Not just because they like it, but because they get what we're doing," he says.
On Sub Pop since 2002, the Fruit Bats have evolved considerably from the four-track tapes that Johnson first recorded. Now with a solid touring and studio lineup for the first time, a more confident Johnson went for a richer and more diverse album.
A different set of ambitions guided how Johnson and bandmates Christopher Sherman, Ron Lewis, Graeme Gibson and Sam Wagster put together The Ruminant Band. Even the title reflects a more thoughtful and natural approach.
"The process for me was designed a lot more around having it be a full band thing and being more collaborative, giving things over to other people, and also designing things to sound good live," Johnson says. "Things used to be orchestrated in a studio fashion, and I wanted to get away from that and have things be more rock 'n' roll."
Before touring with the Shins, Johnson ran his own craft-service business, doing all-day catering at film sets, a distraction that he can now leave behind.
"The Shins gave me the financial stability to just be a musician full-time, which is huge. It made me be able to focus a lot more. It's given me more time, if anything," he says. "I have no interest in being famous or a rock star or anything, but I really do like being paid to play music."
The songs for The Ruminant Band started to come together as Johnson traveled with James Mercer and company. He describes being a Shin while onstage, and a Fruit Bat off stage.
"I was able to get up there for an hour and a half every night and be part of that world, and in the interim, you can completely just get that out of your head and do your own thing. I was writing on the bus, writing in hotel rooms," he says.
A song that nearly didn't make the album, "Singing Joy to the World," is a fascinatingly detailed story about a couple whose first date was at a Three Dog Night concert at the fairgrounds. The relationship is doomed to fail, but the self-delusion at the core of the guy's unrequited love is most bittersweet.
"It's very different from anything else I've ever written," Johnson says. "That song was me trying to do what Tom Petty does."
Johnson watched the Peter Bogdanovich documentary on Petty, Runnin' Down a Dream; he says he was inspired by how Petty sketches stories out of spare, intimate details, rarely seeking an easy resolution.
"He's great at writing stories that aren't so epic in their scope. Petty will write these stories that are a little bit more open-ended, a little bit more sad. They don't wrap up neatly. I thought that was a really interesting notion," he says.
Throughout The Ruminant Band are songs that leave a sweet and friendly aftertaste. "You'll always eat bread if you always have seeds to sow," Johnson sings on the title track. "You won't lose the beat if you just keep clapping your hands."
The Ruminant Band comes to an end with the quirky "Flamingo," and the song fades out just after Johnson sings the album's final refrain: "Everything's gonna be just fine."
It's the band in a nutshell, and Johnson doesn't shy away from his major-key, melodic sensibilities.
"Every song I write is always going to be a Fruit Bats song," Johnson says.