Through non-stop touring over the last two years and a pair of very strong albums (their latest, Furr, on Sub Pop), Portland’s Blitzen Trapper is accumulating a critical amount of deserved buzz behind their music. Straddling genres of expansively golden CSNY rock, the wide-open folk underpinnings of the wilderness, and the squalling rock of fellow Portlanders Pavement, their music delights simply in its unpredictability.
I sat down with half of the band when they were in Denver a few weeks ago, playing a very sold-out show at the Hi-Dive. Brian Adrian Koch (drums and vocals), Eric Earley (lead vocals and guitar) and Marty Marquis (guitar, keyboard and vocals) piled on a sunken green couch and we chatted about their year, while waiting for Ramen from the bar.
BLITZEN TRAPPER INTERVIEW
Fuel/Friends: Last time you guys were here in Denver I saw you open for Malkmus, which must have been pretty cool. Your non-stop touring seems to have generated a good deal of enthusiasm in the crowd refracted back to the stage – the singing along with each word on songs like “Furr”….
Eric: Yeah, that’s been great and surprising. People also really seem into “Black River Killer” on this tour…
Marty: Oh, and also “Not Your Lover”, when the three of us do it all singing together
Not Your Lover (live 2/27/09) – Blitzen Trapper
F/F: I’d read about a thematic connection between Black River Killer and (author) Cormac McCarthy. What about his novels inspire you creatively?
Eric: On the one hand, that song is a classic murder ballad, but in other ways it’s more ambiguous as well, with some spiritual aspects. To me the imagery of the song feels related to the world McCarthy creates.
Marty: And I think there’s also the same recurring theme of regeneration through violence and some sort of redemptive quality in the most mindless, pathetic slaughter. It’s an interesting character in that story of our song and I think people are drawn to those contradictions. I mean it’s an American myth, that’s one of the things that makes us tick as a culture. I think Cormac McCarthy also taps into some of that.
Black River Killer (live in NYC) – Blitzen Trapper
Eric: He’s like our classic, our Hemingway or Faulkner, our Steinbeck crossed with Joyce. And he does it with an amount of experience that’s strange, and he’s writing right now. It’s amazing.
Brian: As rife as those novels are, when they’re translated into film – I watched No Country For Old Men, and there’s no music in it at all, and I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me afterwards and I had to go back and check. There’s not a stitch. It’s so effective, I was flabbergasted.
F/F: It’s consistent with his books I think, though, since there’s such a space and a stillness and a silence in them.
Eric: Yeah, completely.
F/F: How do you possibly maintain creativity while you’re on the road? How have you been able to work on finishing your next album being on tour so much?
Eric: Well, I don’t write on the road, I write when I get home. And I can write really fast, I can write a whole record in a month. January I spent the whole time recording and writing.
Marty: You can barely think on the road.
Brian: The road’s a really good place to form ideas, for things to bubble and boil in your head. But as far as developing them into actual songs, it’s not very realistic. A lot of time to think though.
F/F: I also read that you have a record made between each of your records? Do you ever revisit those songs or play them live?
Eric: Well, we’ve used em for a few things… the Tour EP that we’ve had the last couple tours is stuff that was outtakes from Furr, and then all the Wild Mountain Nation outtakes were released here and there, on blogs and stuff like that. There’s probably an album and a half of stuff that hasn’t been put out.
The next record is definitely going to have some older songs that have been recorded years ago, some that were written when I was like nineteen, mixed in among all the new stuff. Generally when I’m making a record I record 25-30 songs, so yeah there’s a whole lot of stuff out there.
F/F: Do you ever play those unreleased rough cuts live?
Marty: Well you know, we want to make everyone have a good time, and it helps when they know the music. But we do play some stuff that’s pretty obscure in our set. As far as your average person who knows about Blitzen Trapper, they mostly want to hear the album Furr and even some of the hits from the last record, but we will also play stuff that they are totally unaware of.
Furr (live in NYC) – Blitzen Trapper
F/F: I wanted to hear more about your record label….Lidkercow?
Eric: Yeah, Lidkercow – that’s a Joyce reference.
F/F: ….Are you planning to release your own solo projects on that label, or signing some other bands you admire?
Eric: We are always feeling like we hear bands whose records we’d like to release….
Brian: In our fantasy life, we’ve always looked down the road to a place where people can collaborate and create together, and thinking of ways that we can be a part of that.
Marty: I mean, we’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years, we were a band for a long time and we didn’t know how to get the word out. We were just pretty naïve and playing music around Portland for a long time. So when we finally pushed out, we were really innocent, and it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for us. Now we’re getting to a place where I feel like we could help other artists ascend that curve and it would be pretty cool. There’s definitely some bands and musicians I’ve talked to a little bit that we’re pretty impressed with, but yeah, you don’t want to shortchange people either. What we do is a pretty spartan, bare-bones approach.
F/F: Well, and it is a crowded music market out there.
Eric: It’s difficult to navigate it.
Marty: I think people are getting pretty savvy about navigating all the data that’s out there, though. With music these days you can go and hear something immediately, and that communicates on some super-rational level with your core being and you don’t have to rely on what other people are saying about the music.
F/F: Do you think that people seem to have less patience to some degree for bands that don’t fit into a mold or genre? Like for example, people seem to have no idea how to classify your music – it’s quite amusing reading all the descriptors assigned to you guys.
Eric: Yeah, but all of that stuff is writers though. What I’ve learned on this record the last two tours is that there’s a big difference between writers and the fans. You know, and the fans just hear the music and they connect with it, whether it’s classified a certain way or not, it’s unimportant. But you need the writers to communicate to people about the music too.
Marty: I mean, it’s human nature to want to classify stuff. I definitely think that, yeah, if we had been a more focused band maybe, and we’d just said, we’re gonna be a straight country folk act and we’re all going to wear cowboy hats in our photo shoots….we might have been able to penetrate the marketplace a lot earlier because it’s a sharper instrument that people can comprehend a lot easier.
Eric: But you know, I think the way that we’re going though will have more lasting value, as opposed to being sort of like, “Well, you got your year.” I’d rather be able to make 5 or 6 records that will all last, or at least all contain songs that can stand the test of time.
All photos by special arrangement, from a little fly-by-night session we did shortly before the interview with the amazing Todd Roeth.
[thanks to the awesome NYCTaper for the live tracks throughout]