Eric D. Johnson was ready to drive the car off the cliff. He bristles at the memory and the metaphor. Instead, he recalls, he and his wife drove their Toyota Echo—so old it lacked power locks—through the Redwood forest the day they got the bad news. Their baby, due on his wife's 40th birthday, didn't make it past the first trimester.
"I was so grief-stricken," recalls Johnson. "I wanted to blow up my life."
And so he started over. He abandoned the Fruit Bats band name that carried him for 16 years and five successful studio albums. He ditched the moniker that connected him to stints playing with The Shins and Vetiver and Califone. Instead, Johnson continued pursuing other musical passions. He focused more on scoring films (having already contributed to works like Smashed and Our Idiot Brother). He produced Breathe Owl Breathe's 2013 album Passage of Pegasus and grew his Huichica Music Festival in Sonoma, California.
Then, in 2014, Johnson released a solo album. That record, released under his own name and simply titled EDJ, "was the outpouring of grief" resulting from those experiences.
"The EDJ record was about how making something—like a person—is really easy for some people and really not for some people," he says. "I was so sad about that, but also fearful to discuss it."
In the process of grieving, reflecting, and resigning himself to his new realities, Johnson realized how much weight a name can carry and how much of his sense of self was contained in just two small words.
Eric D. Johnson is Fruit Bats. And Fruit Bats is back.
"I'm finding my identity again," he begins, "which is somehow, weirdly this dumb fake punk rock name that I put on a four-track tape."
Fruit Bats' sixth album Absolute Loser represents a triumphant return to name, form, and self. Despite implications, its title refers to the furthest depths of loss itself, rather than the state of those who have lost something. It's the most honest, most confessional album of Fruit Bats' career.
Johnson draws from deeply those personal experiences, yet Absolute Loser encapsulates universal themes and emotions. While "My Sweet Midwest" could be taken completely literally, it addresses the holistic nature of finding your center during turmoil. "Baby Bluebird" stings in its portrayal of losing what you never really had. Album closer "Don't You Know That" is about picking yourself up, even when no one seems to care how far you fell.
Musically, Absolute Loser retains the same structural pop elements that made Fruit Bats so beloved in the first place. Its simple sounding melodies belie such thick musical textures, as some tracks incorporate up to 10 guitar tracks layered on top of each other. Johnson also hearkens back to his days teaching banjo at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, and that instrumentation adds a folksy, Americana spirit to record.
Fruit Bats' rebirth parallels Johnson's resiliency, and Absolute Loser is his treaty on how to redefine oneself after tragedy. Although he maintains that he doesn't have it all figured out quite yet, Johnson acknowledges that with that slf-awareness comes some sort of acceptance.
"I am what I am," he says. "And that's freeing in a way."