It’s just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.
Since 2003, Earley’s band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they’re still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.
In 2017, for a musician, live performance is where the money is and Blitzen Trapper are just a few days into a tour to support their new album Wild and Reckless, an album which had its genesis in a stage show, mounted this spring in their hometown of Portland, Oregon. It’s probably down to the rituals and routine of the road, that Mr. Earley didn’t get to bed until the wee, small hours. In spite of that, the Blitzen Trapper frontman was happy to talk to PopMatters about touring, the state of the music industry and (whisper it) progressive rock.
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The band is back on tour again — how does touring in 2017 differ from 2003?
How’s it different? Oh, er, that’s a good question! [laughs] I think we’re a lot better band live now than we were when we started. I mean that was years ago. Things have evolved. We’re good at playing together. It’s been good. Good shows and good crowds.
Is it more comfortable to tour now?
No. Not really. Well, maybe a little bit. We used to sleep on people’s floors so we don’t do that anymore.
The current album comes from a musical, which is quite a diversion for a band like Blitzen Trapper. I had you guys down to make a Raymond Carver-inspired film, rather than a stage play!
Yeah — it’s interesting. I wrote the songs first then we were asked to do a stage production so we created a narrative, but It would be rad to do a film! The play is kinda like that, but film music takes a quite a bit of a budget.
Any plans to take the musical on the road?
No plans for that. It’s a big production. It cost us some money and there was like 80 people working on it. Pretty big, moving set pieces — different screens — it was a pretty big production, so to travel with it would be difficult and it would cost a ton of money. [laughs] Super fun though: I’d love to do it.
Wild and Reckless gets pretty dark in places, is it autobiographical?
Yeah, there are certain aspects that are. There are a lot of stories that have happened to people I’ve known and like that. I’ve always told dark stories on our records. It’s what I’ve been drawn to. The main idea is to tell stories.
In the last few years, there’s less of a stigma attached to bands who release “concept” albums – is Wild and Reckless the American Idiot for the post-hipster generation?
I don’t know: it didn’t start off that way. I think because of the play, the songs kind of turned it into that in a way. The stories all have a similar feeling and so I’m not sure that it’s a concept record but it feels pretty cohesive to me.
It’s a lot less folk-orientated than most of your previous records.
Oh yeah — but not really! We always played all over the field. There’s a couple of folky songs on it. But yeah, we kinda moved around. It depends how you define all that stuff. Its definitely a rock record.
Are you still happy being called a folk-rock band?
It depends who you talk to or who you read. People have called us all kinds of different things. Some people have called us that. Some people called us other things. I don’t really care what we get called. it doesn’t really matter to me.
A few years ago, there seemed to be a group of bands including Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, and Band of Horses who were the standard bearers for a type of new acoustic music. Do you still feel that you’re part of a movement?
I don’t know; maybe. There was a general move a while back, to more acoustic music, but that stuff was always going on. It depends what was getting written about. It might not have been a movement, but there was definitely a sound that was getting more attention in the media. And now everything imaginable gets some attention in some way. There are so many outlets now, like everything imaginable is everywhere, forever.
Everybody can make a record and everybody has…
You’ve gone from putting out your own records to being signed to labels and back again – what’s the state of the industry?
Not great. We went off-label for this record because it was getting ridiculous. There’s no value in the physical copy anymore: the only value in the industry now is the network. Who do you know and how good a relationship do you have with people and radio and press and all that stuff. Now you can put your own teams together and you can do everything yourself. As an industry, it’s completely exploded out. There’s a million different ways to get where you want to go.
Do you miss being on a label?
We’re not really out on our own — we hire people to do press, radio, and manufacturing, but it is hard to put it all together. We’ve been on labels and they never tell you what they’ve spent all the money on. It’s kind of lame at this point. If you do it yourself, you can account for every penny.
A couple of years ago, in an interview with Baeble, you said you weren’t sure if you had the fanbase to continue. Is that still true?
Yeah pretty much. It’s all about numbers. If you don’t sell tickets or make enough money to go on the road, or you go on the road and there are too many expenses and you can’t eat… It’s like any job, if you don’t get paid, you don’t go to work.
And now you’re back at work on the road…
That’s where all the money’s at. It’s all about touring or generating excitement about touring and live shows.
Will there be any European dates?
Yeah, I think we’ll be going next year – that will be great. I’m not sure when but … sometime.
Despite the state of the music industry and the current political climate, is there still any good music being made in in America right now?
Oh yeah, there’s still great music out there. I really like Jonathan Wilson, Courtney Marie Andrews, Sturgill Simpson, King Gizzard. I don’t know — there’s a bunch. I do a lot of searching around for stuff. America is a weird place to live right now for sure. It’s hard to wrap your head around anything anymore! It’s strange, and its magnified by the fact that all news is instantaneous, social media, basically. That might even be the cause of it all or the start of it. It’s a weird time in technology and everything.
On the subject of weird – tell me about your pre-BT band Garmonbozia…
Yeah: we were kind of a psych band. We listened to Syd Barrett basically! And Stereolab. What else? Radiohead, King Crimson. There’s definitely a psych influence still in Blitzen Trapper. We still like that stuff and we’ve done a bunch of different Led Zeppelin covers, live. Now we’re doing some Bowie, Beatles stuff. We like to switch it out.
And off he goes. Back on the bus for another thousand miles, another thousand soundchecks and another thousand sleepless nights. It’s strange to think that a band like Blitzen Trapper still seem to have a hand-to-mouth existence and it’s also a little sad. Anyone know an eccentric tycoon, who wouldn’t mind throwing a million dollars at an equally eccentric musical? Eric is waiting for your call. But don’t ‘phone before noon. He’s resting.