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Fruit Bats frontman Eric Johnson is a Kenosha native. (PHOTO: Annie Beedy)

A sort of homecoming for Fruit Bats

Summerfest marks a sort of homecoming for Fruit Bats.

Though the group got its start in the Windy City in the late '90s, its frontman and founder Eric Johnson, who has also worked with Califone and The Shins, was born in Kenosha and spent part of his youth there.

The early days of Fruit Bats found the band visiting Milwaukee on a regular basis and now Johnson and company – whose fifth album, "Tripper," was released last August on Sub Pop – are on the bill to play Summerfest's opening day, Wednesday, June 27, on the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage at 4:15 p.m., right after Nathaniel Rateliff and just before The Fatty Acids.

"Tripper" again marks something of a departure for the chameleon-like band. While comparisons to other "modern folk" bands may have made some sense before, "Tripper" falls outside those boundaries, finding some sort of overlap between breezy '70s American AM radio pop and edgier early '80s British rock.

We got a chance to chat with Johnson about the record, about his influences and about being a Sconnie boy.

OMC: I hear the title, "Tripper," comes from a story that's been rattling around in your mind for a while now. Can you tell us about that?

EJ: Yes. It's kind of a long story, but I can give you the general breakdown. When I was about 21, I rode on a long-distance Amtrak train from Chicago to Olympia, Wa., and ended up being sat against my will next to a hippie outlaw hobo, who was drunk and tripping on acid. As I was a young man with mystical tendencies and a thirst for adventure, I was kind of intrigued. But he was kind of an abusive weirdo. We ended up having a strange relationship, lots of back and forth, almost got into a fight, almost got kicked off the train, but ended up hugging goodbye like dear old friends. It was a movie like experience. There's way more to the story, but it had a strange effect on me.

OMC: Is that typically how you write? Do songs tend to gestate over a long period of time or is that more a rarity and they typically flow more freely?

EJ: I'm all about the long gestation for songs. They can take up to six months to write. That might just be laziness, not too sure. In my early days, my songs were very process-based, lists of images and almost never "about" anything. I've tried to incorporate different methods as I've gotten older – story songs, message songs, whatever pops into my head as I get started, really.

OMC: Without putting too much emphasis on this, since it was a while ago, you once said in an interview that you don't listen to contemporary music. Even if that's just kinda true, how do you think that's affected the music you make as Fruit Bats?

EJ: Ha! Don't know if I remember saying that, though I probably did. That may have been in my younger days. I definitely listen to contemporary music. Obviously my influence is indebted in many ways to the sounds of yesterday, but I love and am inspired by a lot of modern stuff, too. I certainly have had periods where I really wanted to shield myself from the zeitgeist, so I suppose that kind of dogmatism had an influence on something like (2009's) "Ruminant Band," which is very much a southern-rock guitar album. But "Tripper" was made while listening to a lot of more recent music, and I'd like to think it shows.

OMC: I know you've been lumped in with a recent generation of "folk-rock" bands, but that seems like a serious dumbing down of Fruit Bats, which, to me, is part '70s AM radio, part post-punk era and part British Invasion. Do you feel a part of any kind of scene?

EJ: Yeah, we have been lumped in with the new folk rock thing. It's been kind of a blessing and a curse. I never really know how to feel about it. But there are undeniable folk elements, especially in the earlier albums. But the '70s AM / Anglophile stuff is way more what I'm going for. Or really just pop songs, catchiness, the high concept of low concept. Thanks for noticing, by the way.

OMC: Do you have fond memories of Milwaukee?

EJ: Yes! Having started off as a Chicago band, Fruit Bats' first out of town gigs were here at Cactus Club. I love Milwaukee. I was born and partly raised in Kenosha, and my whole extended family is still there. So I've got some deep Wisconsin roots.


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