Eric Johnson Discusses Going Solo as “EDJ”
It’s been less than a year since Eric Johnson disbanded Fruit Bats, but he is all set for his return to the music scene. His upcoming solo debut as EDJ releases on Easy Sound August 5th, and he’ll be touring with Delta Spirit soon after. The former Shins member took some time off his intense tour prep to chat with Atwood Magazine about EDJ, the new record, and the life of a rebranded musician.
Who is EDJ?
Definitely me. Fruit Bats was originally intended to be a band, but it very quickly turned out to not be, and it rather became a little nom de plume for me. I could have just kept it going ahead with that name, but it was time for a change and I wanted to be more myself.
You previously described the transition from 'Fruit Bats' to 'EDJ' as being somewhere between a name change and a band breakup. That was back in November, and you’ve been going solo for about 9 months now. How has that transition been?
Lyrically, I’m writing about myself a little bit more and taking a more personal approach to the music. EDJ was an extremely different writing and recording process than any I have done in the past. I have never been particularly prolific or fast working; with Fruit Bats, I would write about an album’s worth of material in a span of two years. With EDJ, I wrote everything all at once: I wrote the whole album in three weeks of January this year. We started recording in February, and we were done in March, so over the course of about twelve weeks I wrote, recorded, and was done with everything.
Three months is a short time to create an album.
And I’ve always taken a long time, but this was spontaneous. I didn’t necessarily have any plans to do anything right away. The EDJ album is all of a piece, and it comes from one place. It isn’t a concept record or anything like that, but it’s of a mindset. It was Portland winter: It’s a little bit of a melancholy, rainy day kind of album. I think I’m a little older than I was with Fruit Bats, too. The album is more serious and everything is really about something… This is very much about feelings, cheesy as it is – the human condition.
How has the change to being a self-proclaimed solo artist affected your music?
Fruit Bats was definitely a band that looked to the past for inspiration, at least from a structural and sonic standpoint. When it came to the choices about the sound for EDJ, the process of writing and recording was “no dogma”. We worked with whatever was on hand, so whereas Fruit Bats became a little more mindset-driven, EDJ had no rules.
Listen: “A West County Girl”
Tell us about EDJ’s music.
I think in the actual bio, which I wrote myself (my record label said it was a good idea to do), I describe it as existential make-out music. This isn’t meant to sound overly clever, but this is my attempt at doing something really lovey-dovey. I’m just trying to make everybody cry. One friend of mine said he felt like everyone was crying, but in a good way – because they were getting it all out.
Maybe it was you getting it all out post-Fruit Bats breakup?
It was really only eight weeks after I played the last Fruit Bats show. I don’t know, I never thought about it.
What music were you listening to over the course of making this EDJ album?
That was another big thing with this. I was going through some interesting new phases. I’m a total music obsessive. I’m always going through a phase or two, and I went through my very first Joni Mitchell phase while writing this. Obviously I was aware of her, but I had never dug into her catalogue. I was very inspired by her, both vocally and lyrically. Otherwise I was really into the late ‘80s early ‘90s Talk Talk records; from a sonic perspective, I definitely mimicked those sounds. Most of the Fruit Bats stuff was based on folky, open sounding chords. With EDJ, it was slightly more. Like, I would take a G chord and say, “What can I do to make this a little bit off? What note can I add to it to make it sound a little more mysterious?”
A big part of me hears Sky Blue Sky by Wilco.
Weirdly I never got into that record… strangely not totally on my radar. My personal favorite is A Ghost is Born. I don’t mind the album comparison; I just don’t know it. The only time a comparison ever pissed me off was this one dude who came up after a show, saying, “So when was your first Ryan Adams concert?” I don’t want to be like the dude who says, “I’ve never even heard that,” but I’m not super familiar with Ryan’s stuff. So I was responded, “Do I sound like Ryan Adams because I play guitar and wear glasses?” That’s the only time that ever pissed me off. It’s nothing against Ryan Adams and everything against that dude.
Who does a solo musician such as you go to for a second opinion?
I’ve always been very open about my music. With this EDJ album, it was what I refer to as the “trust fall,” especially with producer Thom Monahan. He was involved in the process early on. I played everything for him, and I listened to him. I try to take the mindset where “I want to listen to everything that everybody tells me,” but obviously follow my own gut in the end. These people around me have to be people I trust.
The album credits list a number of musicians on the album. How did you go about recruiting musicians?
It all came together pretty naturally. A lot of people were friends and guest stars from other bands. Some of the guys (Sam Cohen, Josh Kaufman, Brian Kantor) are good friends of mine from New York band Yellowbirds. If and when I’m going to have a band, those guys would be my dream dudes – my hot New York dudes.
Can you foresee putting together another band later on?
I’d love to have a band. I had no illusions going into this new thing about how it would be. I’m totally starting over and completely new. The more I’ve dug into that, the more exciting it is for me. If all goes well, I’d love to have a band on this, too.
Starting over can be challenging for some.
It’s a little scary. I have all these other things that I do that keep me more or less afloat. I’m 38. If I were 22, I would have put a band together of other 22-year-olds willing to get nothing. But it just dawned on me that I’m completely starting from scratch, after having huge levels of success and ups-and-downs with The Shins and Fruit Bats.
What can we expect from an EDJ live performance?
In a practical and logistical sense, I’m going to basically be playing the album as you hear it. I’m completely solo with loopers and samplers, a single person going out there and literally recreating the whole album. It’s more gear than I’ve ever had with an entire band!
Wow, how are you handling that?
Right now it’s par for the course, other than the fact that I keep thinking about being completely alone for a month. I haven’t really hit the road yet, so the full effect of touring solo remains to be seen. I think it could be cool. It dawned on me the other day that I could go to Japan now, if I wanted. I can make some more choices that are a little more conceptual, and I have that freedom and potential flexibility.
And the technology? Do you have experience with loop machines and the like?
No, not at all. It’s been terrifying. That, in and of itself – beyond the rehearsals of playing the songs themselves – has been an insane learning curve. Thom, my producer, is kind of like my musical IT. He recently walked me through the process – I was just down in LA, with him helping me and my looper scheme. I’m in crazy rehearsal mode for it right now.
Why do you write music - where does it come from?
I always wrote. When I was a kid I was really into writing short stories and things like that, and I was into singing. I didn’t play an instrument at all until I was 16 or 17. My friends wanted me to be the singer of a band, but I was too scared to be alone so I sang with a guitar in hand. We quickly found that we couldn’t cover songs, so I started to write, and that’s that. I never stopped since then. That was the watershed moment. I think I write songs because I always felt predestined to do something where I’m making something. It kind of picked me, I think.
How often do you write songs?
I have a studio now, since I’ve been pursuing film scoring, and I have basically become an engineer. The studio is definitely a writing tool for me; it’s never really about the live thing anymore. After the whole experience of writing this record so fast, I’m hoping that when the dust settles a bit, I start writing again in more of a fast way. I’m really happy with how that turned out and I’m feeling invigorated by it. I’m hoping the EDJ sessions sent me off into of a new phase. I had to really force myself to do it.
A mentor once instructed me to write a full song every day.
My new motto is to make something every day. With Fruit Bats, the only song that was ever popular was “When U Love Somebody.” It’s the only thing I have ever made money off of from music, and I wrote that song in five minutes. It’s the dumbest thing ever and that’s the one that is everybody’s favorite. It just goes to show you, your mentor may be right: If you write one song a week, what are the chances with one in seven? Maybe you’ll have a hit in your hands on Wednesday.
Do you keep up with new music and emerging artists at all?
As far as brand new artists go, I’m always keeping an eye out for stuff. I’m pretty happy with a lot of new stuff that’s out there right now. I like Devon Sproule, Kurt Vile, and I’m finally completely immersed in the new Real Estate record, with all that jangly East Coast sound. I’m excited to see the War on Drugs later this summer!
You currently have a 2-month tour planned, with the final show at New York’s Mercury Lounge. Can we expect to see a larger scale EDJ tour soon?
Definitely. Part of the current plan stems from getting asked to tour with Delta Spirit (whom I’ve played with in the past as a part of the Shins). I wouldn’t say it was a surprise that Delta Spirit asked, but I was pleased that they did. It was organic. I eventually have to scooch back home – because it’s so new, I’m being very tentative about where I go. I’m being a little bit conservative, but the plan is to really get out there.
Are you excited to tour?
I like being on stage. It’s scary every time, but I really do like it. They say you get a rush from a crowd. It’s a whole cliché, but it’s kind of true. Sometimes it doesn’t work – and it sucks – and sometimes it’s awesome. I have done a few solo EDJ acoustic things that have been really cool. The EDJ live show is a recreation – I could never play like (guitarist) Sam Cohen in a million years. He had this incredibly textured, super synthed out and treated guitar.
Listen: “For The Boy Who Moved Away”
You’ve been doing a solid amount of film scoring and guest appearances in recent years. Is EDJ just one part of the Eric Johnson experience now?
Majorly! You think of film scoring as a dream job, but it’s completely different. The reality is that when you’re starting out, the way you work is very compromised. You’re working with someone else’s vision. I think it’s a really cool exercise because it forces you to to go deeply into other places that you would never imagine. It’s changed me in two big ways:
First, it made me into an engineer and a producer, which I had never had any plans of becoming. A huge bi-product of this is that I’m now capable of using the studio as a writing school.
Second, because film scoring concerns interpreting someone else’s music, it’s like a loaded bat: You come swinging and you’re completely free. You come back and realize you can go anywhere. Film scoring has made me exercise a new part of my brain that I didn’t get to use very much. I get to approach things in a completely different way. You have to evolve… I want to get out there and move people, but I want to do my thing too. The hope is that people will hear this as something different and be stoked on that too.
What are you the most proud of about this record?
I think I’m proud of the words. I’m proud of how I manned up and really wrote about something this time – not that I‘m not proud of what I wrote about before. In certain ways, I think I was a little bit restrained, but I’m proud that I let it all out. When you put something out in the world like that, it’s really terrifying. You always want people to like what you do, but you particularly do because it comes from this very personal place. Even if it does nothing, at least I did it.
EDJ’s Tour Dates
08/01 – Happy Valley, OR – Pickathon Festival 08/03 – Happy Valley, OR – Pickathon Festival 08/28-30 – Asheville, NC – Harvest Records At 10: Transfigurations II 09/05 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court 09/06 – Denver, CO @ Leon 09/07 – Colorado Springs, CO @ Ivywild School 09/10 – Dallas TX @ Granada Theater $ 09/11 – Austin TX @ Emo’s $ 09/12 – Houston TX @ Fitzgerald’s $ 09/13 – New Orleans LA @ One Eyed Jacks $ 09/15 – Tallahassee FL @ Club Downunder $ 09/16 – Birmingham AL @ Workplay Theater $ 09/17 – Carrboro NC @ Cat’s Cradle $ 09/19 – Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West $ 09/21 – Louisville, KY @ The KCD Theater # 09/23 – Chicago, IL @Schuba’s 09/25 – New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
$ = w/ Delta Spirit # = w/ Josh Ritter