Had I been taken blindfolded to EDJ’s show at the Bunk Bar on Nov. 14, I probably would have guessed I was listening to a band of at least five people absolutely jamming at a massive venue like the Crystal Ballroom.
In reality, the evening’s headlining act was just one man with a guitar in his hands, a microphone and keyboard in front of him and a fleet of pedals at his feet.
In a way, it’s not surprising that Eric D. Johnson—owing to his time spent performing with huge names like The Shins and The Fruit Bats—can play songs that wouldn’t be out of place in front of an audience of a thousand people even in his new solo act. The man has the stage presence of a rock star, but plays unpretentious, introspective music to the tune of something between folk and indie rock.
In any case, even as someone who’d never seen him live before, I left Bunk with more than a couple of his songs stuck in my head.
I snagged an interview with Johnson after the show and he seemed really pleased with how it went, in spite of it being one of his first headlining performances in Portland as EDJ.
“It was kind of one of my favorite shows that I’ve played so far,” Johnson said. “So many of my friends were there and it felt a little bit like a private living room concert, or something like that.”
Johnson said that the familiar audience let him be himself and play more loosely than he might have in front of a larger crowd; according to him, though he is used to bigger audiences, musical experimentation as an opening act can be something of a mixed bag.
“It was an interesting thing of having to do these real personal things in front of a thousand people when you’re the opening band and you can be yourself,” Johnson said. “That works sometimes, it totally depends on the alchemy of the crowd, but you usually know like two songs in if you’ve got them or you don’t.
The Fruit Bats played their last show almost exactly a year ago, but following their breakup, Johnson has already released a self-titled album as EDJ.
“It’s weird because Fruit Bats was at times ostensibly kind of a solo thing at certain points,” Johnson said. “It became a little bit more of a band in 2009.”
While Johnson mentioned no regrets about his time spent as the leader of The Fruit Bats, he said that he was looking to explore new territory by the time that the group broke up.
“I knew that I wanted to do something different,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t like I hated those songs, but I just knew that the new thing was going to be a slightly different platform.”
According to him, working as a solo artist has brought some changes to Johnson’s music and allowed him to write music more personally and from his own perspective.
“Fruit Bats was me writing in the third person, and this is me writing in the first person,” Johnson said.
Johnson and I spoke a bit about his conceptual direction with his first solo album, which was released earlier this year in August.
According to Johnson, the central idea behind the album revolves around the worldliness of human existence, even as something that’s sometimes considered very profound.
“The whole thread and concept of the album, lyrically, is kind of existential,” Johnson said. “People kind of see [human life] as a miracle and it’s totally not, really, because it’s very mundane…The song ‘Minor Miracles’ is kind of the centerpiece song of that idea.”
Johnson was careful to not sound too grandiose in his description of the album’s direction, however. According to him, his songs’ existential inquiries revolve more around the fundamental question of human life than anything in the—sometimes inaccessible—style of writers like Dostoyevsky or Kierkegaard.
“I’m scared using that word a little, too, because I don’t want to sound overly pretentious,” Johnson said. “I’m not some Scandinavian philosopher or something like that.”
Right after the show, I also spoke with Brandon Day, a Portland State alumnus who studied business, advertising and marketing up until he graduated in winter 2014. According to Day, he’s been a fan of Johnson’s work since he was a teenager.
“I’ve loved Fruit Bats since I think I was 13 or 14,” Day said. “[I’ve] always been a huge fan. Of course, Fruit Bats to EDJ has been amazing, so [I’m] glad to know those dudes and hear them play—[they’re] always kickass.”
Even as a fan of Johnson’s earlier work, Day said that he enjoyed his new material as EDJ.
“I’ve seen him a couple times as EDJ and [the shows are] always super fun,” Day said. “He’s a great guy and really brings a lot of the energy to the show, so it’s always fun seeing him.”
Day said that the rawness and minimalism of Johnson’s work was one of the things that first drew him to his music.
“I remember listening to his music back when he was in Chicago,” Day said. “I always loved it—it’s really organic and kind of atmospheric [in] kind of a lo-fi sense, I suppose. Very minimal, but in a great way.”
If you’re interested in hearing some of Johnson’s music from his first album as EDJ, you can check out “A West County Girl” on Soundcloud.