At one point on Blitzen Trapper‘s tenth studio offering, Holy Smokes, Future Jokes, bandleader Eric Earley sings, “Let’s do the world a favor, yeah / Let’s all go extinct” over a spry, upbeat hook that gives the music the feel of a cheerleading chant for the end of humanity. If that seems nihilistic, Earley’s outlook is actually rooted in compassion more than hopelessness—it’s just that he feels we need to cast a wider net with our compassion so that it includes other living things, rather than focus on our own needs to the detriment of an ecosystem we should see ourselves as just a small part of. And if we don’t exist anymore, well, so be it, especially if our absence serves the rest of the life on earth.
Earley has long harbored an attraction to the darker sides of human behavior, as evidenced Blitzen Trapper’s last offering, 2017’s Wild and Reckless, which delved into drugs, dereliction, and doomed love after the band were commissioned to participate in a musical of the same name. This time, Earley explores stalking, school shootings, celebrity, death, the afterlife, and themes of attachment, all once again underscored by the band’s trademark blend of folk, rock, and psychedelia. When taken together, the songs—and the characters in them (including Abraham Lincoln, a group of high schoolers who perish when their car plunges into a river, a septuagenarian who passes away in his sleep, etc.)—are all supposed to inter-relate, or “talk to each other”, as Earley puts it, resulting in a moving-picture mosaic of life stories.
Inspired by the Bardo Thodol (commonly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) via author George Saunders’ 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo, Earley has come to view life from a more removed perspective that he argues we’re going to need in order to survive. If this is nihilism, then it’s a particularly humane permutation of it.
Earley spoke with PopMatters by phone during a shift at the Portland, Oregon homeless shelter where he works as a housing specialist (overseeing the case managers on staff). An edited transcript follows.
There’s a playfulness to the way George Saunders depicts the afterlife—or the in-between bardo state—that’s reflected in the way you portray death and some of the characters on the new album.
Yeah, definitely. A lot of the stories I’m telling are stories of people who’ve died and don’t know that they’ve died. They’re kind of stuck in weird places or find themselves faced with certain choices. That kind of story or narrative is always very fascinating to me. Because I think in our lives—prior to death—we get stuck in places in a similar fashion.
Can you talk about how Billie Jean—the character from Michael Jackson’s song—ended up in your imagination getting high with Abe Lincoln, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison?
I was probably going down a Google rabbit hole, and I read this story about the woman who the song was based on. That story‘s really strange. It was never corroborated by Michael Jackson—but he never denied it either—that this woman approached him, saying that one of her twins was his. That in itself is bizarre, but then she has this death pact with him. She sends him a gun and a photograph of herself with the child and tells him to shoot himself at a very specific moment when she’ll do the same. That way, the three of them can be together in the afterlife. This disturbs Michael so much that he takes the picture, frames it, and puts it on the wall in his home, and it stays there until he dies. I read that story, and I was like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.”
But you also present it with a lighthearted touch.
Yeah. In my mind, I was imagining that anyone who stalks someone in that way needs to learn some detachment. I was thinking about ideas of detachment, and how she’s stuck there with all these other rock stars and luminaries who are stuck there as well because they’re hanging onto things from this life that they should be letting go of.
And she’s also unimpressed.
Yeah, or she doesn’t even know where she is necessarily. None of them do. They’re like, “Oh, we’re still here.” [Laughs.]
Speaking of detachment, you use the term “neo-nihilism” in the track-by-track explanation you released with the album. There’s a fine line between Eastern ideas of non-attachment and what we in the West would see in terms of nihilism or not caring. Some of your lyrics on Holy Smokes, Future Jokes ride that line. If a listener isolates some of them, they might mistake them for hopelessness. But it’s like you’re trying to say there’s utility in not being so invested in some of the things we give meaning to.
I think humans, in general, have an overblown idea of our importance as a species. The history of biological life is [likely] billions of years old, and humanity’s been here, in our present state, for about 225 thousand years. So [laughs] to think that we’re something special is ridiculous, in my opinion. To think that we’re some kind of apex of evolution is misguided. [Laughs.] It’s also the essence of arrogance, I think. To me, those Eastern ideas of detachment have to do with a humility that’s sort of cosmic. It goes beyond just interpersonal human relationships. And I think it needs to extend to our relationship to the rest of life and the history of this planet. What’s important is that we know very little. We can believe a lot of things, but what we actually know is so minuscule. [Laughs.]
Generally speaking, when people encounter that sensation, and they realize how vast everything is, it’s actually a really comforting feeling.
I think it depends who you are. Because I think that idea is also the kernel of all horror as well. I was also obsessed with this other book, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. What the author, Eugene Thacker, was delving into is the idea that horror as a genre—whether in film, stories, etc.—is derived from humanity’s inability to even imagine the universe without us, or what Eastern religions would call the un-thing. And not just without us as individuals, but without us as a whole. It’s a fascinating book. It’s short, but it blew my mind. I was like, “oh my gosh”. It changed a lot of the way I think about humanity and our place in space and time. Thacker has these great essays on heavy metal, where he goes deep into its connection to horror, and horror’s connection to this he calls the void. To him, the void is that place where humanity is forced to face its extinction. It’s super-wild.
(Editor: The book, published in 2011, has caused some peculiar ripples in pop culture: it influenced Nic Pizzolatto, creator of the TV show True Detective, in his construction of the Rustin Cohle character played by Matthew McConaughey; the distinct typeface of its cover art appeared on the back of Jay-Z’s leather jacket in Run, his short film with Beyoncé; and it was subsequently decried by American right-wing radio personality Glenn Beck as an instrument of progressive elites peddling nihilist chic.)
Can you tell me more about the voices that you pictured singing to your shool-shooter character in the song “Hazy Morning”?
In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, when you enter the intermediate state, you’re greeted by the 49 peaceful deities, and then you’re greeted by the 51 wrathful deities. The peaceful deities attempt to peacefully coerce you into leaving the intermediate state and entering heaven, nirvana. If that doesn’t work, then the wrathful deities show up and start using a more painful, fearful process to get you to move beyond the cycle of birth and death. But, as you read on, it becomes apparent that these deities aren’t external. They’re not demons. They actually exist in different parts of your body. Tibetan Buddhists have this belief that the human was made up of a hundred different facets—a hundred different deities—and we’re sort of a unified collection. There are branches of modern psychotherapy that also propose the same: that every human doesn’t just consist of one personality but is actually made up of many. And that there’s dominance to certain personalities within that group. So what we meet when we meet someone is a piece of that person, but not the whole person.
Right, and also: we respond to that person synergizing with personalities within us that we’re not in-tune with.
There’s a way of viewing our modern model of psychology where what we call “personality” is actually a system—so we all essentially have varying degrees of “dissociative identity disorder” but we just don’t conceive of ourselves that way.
Yeah, and everybody’s on a spectrum. People who are able to navigate the social maze and become successful are people who are really good at unifying those hundred deities that exist within their body. That’s the picture I was playing with. And also, in my day job, I’m around a lot of full-blown schizophrenics. So I was working with my perspective on it, as this killer—this kid—is racked with these voices. I was kinda pulling that all together for that song.
Can you talk more about how your day job has affected your outlook?
The shelter I work at has all kinds of folks. There’s a lot of drug abuse, obviously, but then a lot of mental health issues and a combination of the two. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from working here is that our lives as humans are made of equal parts comedy—full-blown, belly-laughing comedy—and slit-your-wrists tragedy. It’s those two things that make up every day of my life at the shelter. And working here has made me [acknowledge] that we don’t have a clue what reality even is. I mean, yeah, schizophrenics are on this other wavelength—who’s to say that that wavelength doesn’t have just as much reality as mine? [Laughs]
How do you think that non-attachment might be useful—looking at things from a more zoomed-out, de-personalized view of our existence, whatever the opposite of anthropomorphic would be—in this moment in history, where we see societies like ours having convulsions of internal conflict? Especially since you live in one of the epicenters of that conflict.
The micro-upheaval that we see in this country as far as race and equality goes, that’s the kind of thing that’ll always happen. And hopefully, it’ll move us forward every time it does. But I see climate change as being the main [issue]. I mean, in another 20-30 years [if climate change continues unchecked], no one’s going to care [as much] about their religions or their race or ethnicity. We’re all going to care [more] that we can get drinking water and edible food. If you want to talk about the more cosmic scale, the human race needs to step back and see itself not as something other than the world we live in, but as a very specific part—and a very small part.
Could it be that these problems are actually helping us get through the door to thinking differently?
Yeah. It’s all part of the same thing. There’s a macro-cosmic humility: helping people without gaining anything in return, without even being thanked. In my job, there’s a lot of that that goes on. We all do things working here that we do not get thanked for—in fact, sometimes we get shit-on for doing that. True detachment is that: being able to help or give without even thinking about receiving something. I think that seed needs to be what gets planted and grown within the culture. And if that happens, things will change. But the reality is that America operates on the opposite principle: everything has a value, and if you don’t receive something of equal value, then you need to seek restitution. It’s those two ideas rubbing up against each other that, to me, is the essence of what we’re seeing every day.
Right. Something’s being expressed—people are unhappy that people are being mistreated, but we’re not getting to the root of the problem. In a way, we’re arguing over crumbs. Rather than saying, “this person has more than I do,” we’re all going to need to subsist by re-investing back into the system that gives us life.
It’s hard to know whether our evolutionary modules will even allow us to do that? Like, why has humanity evolved in this manner, and what does that really mean for us as a species? We can want to be better all we want, but in the end, it’s like the monkey riding the elephant. We’re controlled by the elephant. Our rationality is the monkey riding on top. It doesn’t have even an ounce of power.
So the question is: is everything that’s happening now acting as a catalyst for our evolution, or is this all just exposing the fatal flaws of our evolution? We don’t really know the answer.
No. We don’t’ know shit. [Laughs.] And the thing that allowed us to survive is these ties of kinship. What’s going on is that [we’re seeing how] race has everything to do with that fundamental kinship relationship that allowed us to succeed in the first place. Evolutionary modules are… no joke. [Laughs.]