Spotlight: Blizten Trapper

Josh Baron on September 2, 2010

Here’s a look at Blitzen Trapper, drawn from the August issue of Relix.

Photo by Todd Roeth

It’s twilight during a balmy Tennessee summer and the fireflies are starting to flicker in the thick air. Blitzen Trapper multi-instrumentalist Marty Marquis is sitting cross-legged behind a stage at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on some matted grass, his curly red hair pluming from underneath a trucker cap. His glasses are foggy from the humidity.

“It really took us getting outside of Portland [Ore.] to make a name for ourselves before the city really took notice of who we were,” he says of his band’s notoriety among the many other talented bands that call the Pacific Northwest city home. A week earlier, the six-piece group led by singer and lyricist Eric Earley had released its fifth album, Destroyer of the Void. Two years before, the group’s breakout album, Furr, positioned the band as the bearers of a kind of retro Americana that managed to be simultaneously nostalgic and fresh with lush vocal harmonies, fuzzy guitars and jangly, late ‘60s Laurel Canyon beats.
“There’s this multi-generational, multi-decade thing that’s woven into all of Eric’s music,” says Marquis who met Earley just down the road from where we now sit at the Christian liberal arts school Covenant College on Lookout Mountain, which is tucked between Georgia and Tennessee. The singer dropped out after a year, bought a four-track tape recorder and moved back to Oregon.

It’s hard to imagine a vagabond like Earley, who illegally squatted in an old building on the Willamette River in Portland for two years, attending such a college – his opaque nature toward interviews and steadfast self-assurance would seem adverse to such religious camaraderie. Whatever the case, it’s notion of experience – good or bad – that most interests him.

“[My songwriting] is just a function of trying to be honest,” Earley says sitting in an empty tent that is currently serving as a green room at the festival. Wearing a plain white T-shirt and jeans, his dark, beady pupils exude a quiet intensity. “I write about very specific things and there are very specific feelings to them. I guess you could call that American music – I don’t know.”

Earley’s lyrics – the centerpiece to Blitzen Trapper’s music – have garnered much attention for their literary nature. Take for instance “Laughing Lover,” a rollicking number with a bridge that has cascading guitar lines over a galloping beat: “Your mind is a diamond blue and green/ Shining up through your eyes like falling leaves/ When you open your mouth a swarm of bees will appear.” Or “The Man Who Would Speak Truth,” a mid-tempo talking blues with accentuating harmonica: “She fed my words I could not taste/ For I had no tongue it had been replaced/ By a green and grown flower which grew/ And I knew if I ever spoke I would speak true.”

Earley acknowledges reading Latin American authors like Jorge Luis Borges and “other magic realist writers from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s,” though dismisses any direct influence over his own writing. “[Reading] is just another piece that goes into writing. Like a road trip is – or anything else, really.”

As far as a theme running through Destroyer of the Void, Earley is rather blunt: “I didn’t really make Destroyer as a record. I recorded over 20 songs and [the 12 chosen for the album] were picked by others, not me. I’m not necessarily proud of the record as a whole – like, ‘Oh, I made this thing’ – but I am proud of specific songs.”

In particular, he notes the “simplistic classics” like “Evening Star” and “The Tree.” The whole band, however, is proud of the overall sonic quality of the album. Whereas Furr was recorded almost entirely on four-track with Earley playing everything, Destroyer was multi-tracked with string sections and various players, and engineered far better.

There’s no question that Blitzen Trapper is Earley’s band, but Marquis and the other band members are happy to let him run it as he pleases. “Maybe if Eric was less gifted or the products were less pleasing, there would be some problems, but nobody can really argue with [his talent],” he says.

Marquis recalls the first time he heard Earley’s demoes in the early 2000s, a veritable mix tape of genres and styles. “I was just like, ‘Man, this is so timeless. Why don’t people know about this?’ And then we set out to work getting people to know about it.”