It wasn't until 2007's independently-released Wild Mountain Nation that Blitzen Trapper found a national audience; it was the third album for the Portland, Oregon band, and the first to focus its sound fully on singer/songwriter Eric Earley's raw and prodigious talent for wickedly obtuse narratives and dark Americana music.
That album, along with the followup Furr (released on Sub Pop), cemented Blitzen Trapper’s reputation in the world of contemporary neo-folk. The eerie “Black River Killer,” from Furr, became a sort of Internet-era classic, thanks in no small part to a fascinating-but-creepy video (look it up).
Rolling Stone named Furr No. 13 on its “Best Albums of 2008” list.
Blitzen Trapper makes its first-ever appearance in Savannah May 12, at the Jinx (a Savannah Stopover/MusicFile-sponsored show), in support of the incredible 2013 set VII.
We spoke with Earley from his home in Portland.
What was the goal when this band got together?
Eric Earley: There wasn't really any. I've always been writing songs, and we were all friends who just kind of played, and messed around. It wasn't too serious. It wasn't till Wild Mountain Nation that we started to do it for a living.
Were there a lot of Portland bands doing the same thing in those days?
EE: Wild Mountain Nation is a really lo-fi record with a lot of weird guitar rock elements mixed with noise. I don't really know who it sounds like. I was just trying to sound like Pavement mixed with country music. There's never a plan. Maybe there should be, I don't know.
I've heard you say that Neil Young's Tonight's the Night is your favorite album. It's one of mine, too. What is it that does it for you?
EE: I guess it's in there somewhere. I like the dark, smoky quality. I don't know, there's a certain sinister aspect to it that I like. My other favorite records are JJ Cale records and Townes Van Zandt records, and I think that they have sort of a similar dark, sinister quality. But they also have these elements of beauty, you know.
EE: I think Townes never stepped away from tragedy. Every song he ever sang has these tragic aspects to it. He sings about death 90 percent of the time. And the ability to do that, and still make your songs beautiful, and still make people want to listen to them, to me that's the ultimate feat.
Elliott Smith did that, too. His songs are beautiful, and tragic. They’re great. I look at Townes up against a guy like Dylan, who’s way more popular. I like Dylan, but at the same time that kind of folk music that Dylan did early on, to me it lacked the sort of intimate personal tragedy of Townes’ music. So I find myself returning to Townes more than I would return to Bob Dylan or something like that.
On the new album, “Feel the Chill” and “Thirsty Man” and a couple of others have a buoyant, almost hip hop feel to them. Where did that come from?
EE: To me, it was just in the vein of "Black River Killer," the kind of stuff that I've messed around with before, but I never really did a record with a bunch of stuff like that on it. I think a lot of it is influenced by JJ Cale and Townes, where you have these story-songs, but they have this sort of sinister quality to them, with a beat. And I wanted to do stuff that had more groove, y'know, like Leon Russell or something like that.
"Feel the Chill" doesn't sound at all like "Black River Killer."
EE: No, but it has the same sort of dark story. It's got a gangster sense!
How have you changed in 10 years? Are you more cynical about the business now?
EE: I think I'm a realist about it; I don't know that I'm cynical. I mean, to be cynical you have to really care about success.