Stuck somewhere between The Byrds, The Beatles and Band of Horses, Portland’s own Blitzen Trapper is constantly on a mission to explore the boundaries of what can be called modern Cosmic American Music. Following the succes of their Furr album, Blitzen Trapper now return with Destroyer of the Void, taking them further into alt.country space. We sent over a bunch of questions to their ever busy singer, songwriter and founder Eric Early, eager to know about his banjo playing youth, why Oregon still rocks and his quest to let his songs go where no song has gone before.
Interview by Soren McGuire
Where you in a different frame of mind when you were writing songs for this record compared to when you were working on Furr?
We were touring extensively and recording during breaks which was a much different scene than when I made Furr which was really a mellow process comparatively.
To what extent do you think that affects the outcome of the album? Does it get more of a live feel to it having been mostly written and recorded on the road?
It wasn't written or recorded on the road, it was made during the small breaks between tours. The main difference was that is wasn't made all at once, it was made more piecemeal.
The album definitely shows the huge variety in your songs, from psychedelic rockers to these gentle, beautiful folk songs. Does a song like the beautful, acoustic The Tree come from a different place than the somewhat ”louder” title track?
In some ways they're differing sides of the same coin, sonically their very different but lyrically there's a consistency as far as the imagery I use and this all comes from the same place, the same dark surrealism of the american west.
Is it me or have the past ten years or so seen a growing number of younger North American songwriters and bands interested in exploring what this “dark surrealism of the American West” holds when it comes to storytelling? Why do you think that is? What makes the American folklore so interesting to today’s songwriters?
I write about this because it's what I know, it's where I live and where I grew up with the desert on one side the mountains on the other and the river in between. It's not necessarily folklore, right now in Oregon there are still cattle rustlers on horseback stealing cattle, there's a crummy economy making things thin and rough, once you leave the city there's nothing but land and lots of space and that's what I write about.
How confident do you feel with being a storyteller when it comes to writing lyrics? ’Black River Killer’ definitely proved that you have a certain knack for twisted murder ballads.
I enjoy writing in a sort of mythical format, where the images and narratives have an other wordly aspect to them in the way of parables or fables.
Where do you get the inspiration for these songs? Do you do a lot of reading?
From books and in many ways it's just the way I see things and the way reality shapes itself to my own upbringing.
Tell me about working with Peter Broderick who did the strings for this album. How does a band like Blitzen Trapper approach the whole string …thing?
I really just handed demos off to Heather, Pete's little sister and the two of them wrote and arranged the parts, Heather mostly and then she put together a section and we went into the studio, their arrangement was pretty flawless as far as my desires for those songs so I just sort of let them do their thing I guess.
How much of a song is completed before you bring it to the studio? Is it all done or do you basically just let it rip when you’re in there, going wherever the certain song takes you?
I write in the studio and arrange there as well often, I also write at home and some on the road, depends on the song really, the title track was created in the studio. I don't want to put too much restraint on songs before I start recording them.
So there’s basically no way of knowing where a song will go? Do you ever think “woah, this song or melody is going too far off in a certain direction, better try and pull it back and simplify it a bit”?
Sure, I scrap alot of songs or leave them until I feel I can find where they need to go, how they need to be realized, but usually songs are written very quickly and they sort of just happen.
A friend of mine told me he thinks the new record sounds like something The Beatles would have made if John Lennon had been raised on Nirvana. Any thoughts on all the different bands and metaphors people use to describe you by? He meant it as a compliment by the way
I like to think there's a certain element of familiarity to the songs I write which allows people to sort of create their own associations which is why there are so many bands used to describe us.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen Blitzen Trapper compared to?
Maybe Foghat... or XTC, not sure what that even is, is that a drug?
A UK band who sounded a bit like New Order. Your father was a bluegrass musician and I know you began playing the banjo yourself at a young age, but how big a part has country and bluegrass played in Blitzen Trapper’s music?
It's definitely a fundamental influence and surfaces to different degrees depending on the song and the album. The narrative aspects of some of my songs is definitely influenced by country music and folk.
How so? And where do you see the strongest country/folk influences on Destroyer of the Void?
Destroyer has less country influence than Furr and the next album which I'm recording now. Folk music is really just storytelling put to music often, there's a tradition of passing on tales and information this way that goes back a ways.
You’ve always enjoyed great support from the music press. I know it’s not something a band can control itself , but have all the great press you’ve had over the years sort of make you expect that Pitchfork, PopMatters, Rolling Stone etc. will love Destroyer of the Void as well?
No, I don't expect anything, the press is a fickle sort of creature and not to be trusted over a long period of time. Eventually you'll do something that doesn't go where it should, it is a necessary machine though and I feel blessed to have been treated well by it so far.
A few years ago, we were all talking about Portland being the hotbed of this new breed of Cosmic American Music, with people such as Richmond Fontaine, Laura Veirs and Scott McCaughey all bringing attention to this part of the world. Is there still a strong community there?
Yes there is, it's a place where alot of music happens on all kinds of levels and being part of it means you get to know some amazing people and musicians.
But why Portland? Why do you think this relatively small city between San Francisco and Seattle has spawned such an amazing scene?
I think because the Oregon economy is so terrible it's a cheap place to live, and it's got terrible weather which lends itself to introversion and creation, but when it's beautiful out there's beauty everywhere and in ways it can be inspiring.
Here’s the big, final question. If Blitzen Trapper breaks up tomorrow, how would you like the band to be remembered by music history? What should the band’s tombstone read?
I think our tombstone should read something like "A strange beast, one of God's own prototypes, never meant for mass production", paraphrased from Hunter S. Thompson.
Blitzen Trapper’s Destroyer of the Void is out 14th June on Sub Pop. Go to Blitzentrapper.net for more