Eric D. Johnson on Souled American – Frozen
A long running favorite around here, I feel like there may be a Fruit Bats album that’s been there to help in quite a few prominent turns in my life. Yet, as Eric D. Johnson sidles into a dozen or so albums (depending on how you count a couple of special projects) his sound continues to tesselate and evolve. A River Running To Your Heart is one of his best yet, a lived-in collection of songs that’s rooted in his indie past, but wearing the patched denim drape of Americana with ease. I’d asked Eric to submit a pick for the Hidden Gems series and he’s gone deep on Frozen – the fifth and penultimate album by the hard-to-describe Illinois band Souled American.
“In the mid to late 90’s I was living in Chicago,” recalls Johnson. “They were a semi-local band, though I think mainly based in Central Illinois at that point. I first saw them play at the Empty Bottle in (I’m pretty sure) 1997. My friend and bandmate Brian was a fan of theirs and thought I might dig it too so I tagged along. Jim O’Rourke opened the show but performed entirely behind the soundboard. Even the sophisticated heady audience was briefly confused by that – we thought it was still the house music, haha.”
“Souled American took the stage and it was immediately awesome – it was based in folk and country tradition but was heavily drenched in a spooky, hazed-out weirdo vibe. Singular alien music. And it was VERY slow. It may have been their final gig with a drummer and second guitarist. I think the drummer only hit the snare drum like twice the whole show. I’d never heard anything like it, and I really haven’t since. Oh, plus they looked awesome. They were these scraggly-ass hippie hesher cowboys, which was not a prevailing look in 1997.”
“A couple years later a bunch of their catalogue was re-released and I saw them play a couple more times, this time just as the duo of Chris Grigoroff on guitar and vocals and Joe Adducci on fretless bass and vocals. This stripped down lineup is where they sounded the most like Frozen – syrupy, highly psychedelic folk songs and keening country vocals. And super slow and mournful.”
“I saw them play at Schubas at some point around then, maybe ’99. There was a huge blizzard that night and the crowd was very sparse. Maybe like 20 people. Joe and Chris made them turn all the stage lights off. And I mean like ALL the lights. Pretty much pitch black in there. Then they asked if they could turn the “EXIT” sign off, to which the venue said “no” because of course fire hazards and whatnot. So that “EXIT” sign was the only light, plus a streetlight coming in from through the high windows, glinting off the driving snow. They were rocking and moaning in their seats, and occasionally passing a smoldering bowl back and forth. It was, needless to say, one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Pretty much all of Souled American’s music is a hidden gem. First off because they put out six records and they’re all super rare. Even the 1999 reissues are hard to find now. Also it’s kind of “difficult” music – though I find it infinitely listenable. I mean, it’s not really experimental in any way – in fact it’s really beautiful most of the time, and based in fairly traditional musical structure, but it’s music that gives exactly zero fucks about having a wide commercial reach from a tempo, vocal and tonal perspective. It was both way ahead of its time and probably behind its time. Just out-of-time, in general. It was actually hard to pick which Souled American record to talk about, but I think this is my favorite. I find it to be their most timeless, and most “realized” as far as where they seemed to be always heading, creatively. Also this one reminds me of that incredible Schuba’s blizzard show I saw. My easy description of this record to the uninitiated is that it’s like Meat Puppets’ “Up on the Sun” but with the tape slowed WAY down. Which isn’t gonna garner you any top 40 hits.. or even indie rock hits.”
As usual I ask if the record has seeped into Eric’s own works, to which he admits, “The Fruit Bats first record Echolocation was highly influenced by this record. It was produced by Brian Deck, who had actually worked with Souled American as a producer and engineer on their album Around the Horn. Frozen has a production vibe that’s so meticulous, tonally and otherwise, that it somehow almost sounds tossed off – a dichotomy that is always a sonic coup. I did NOT pull that move off with Echolocation, though Brian guided me ably. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand how to walk that tightrope yet.”
The expansive, slow weird folk music on Frozen definitely gave me huge inspiration for this album. Especially how they would use a very simple traditional chord pattern and then throw some weird curveball chord in there to heighten the emotions of a moment. My later work clearly bears no resemblance to Souled American. At least on its surface. But it’s a major early influence, and something that I can put on any time and has never gotten old for me.”
This is the kind of recommendation this feature was created for, picking up on something I truly should have been aware of, but simply missed. Hell, I’ve even been a fan of Scott Tuma’s for quite a while but never put the pieces together on his previous work before the Boxhead years. I’m glad to be turned on to it now, though. Eric’s right, this is a rather hard one to track down, but CDs remain a fairly easy pickup used. Fruit Bats’ latest, A River Running To Your Heart, is out now on Merge Records.
Support the artist. Buy it HERE.