Photo Credit: Jason Quigley
Portland, OR group Blitzen Trapper has been creating rich, distinctly American music for more than 15 years. From the impassioned folk-rock of their lauded breakthrough and Sub Pop debut, Furr, to the experimental cross-section of country and hip hop on 2013’s VII, the five-piece has never shied away from pushing their vibrant stories and songs to the sonic extreme.
With their most recent release, October’s All Across This Land, the band returned to a more “classic” Blitzen Trapper sound, as main songwriter Eric Earley describes it—one best characterized as sometimes twangy, always high-energy rock and roll. The group had developed that sound over the course of three albums, but it wasn’t until their fourth full-length release, 2008’s Furr, that they gained widespread recognition.
Interestingly, from there the group’s recorded output began to shift back and forth between that “classic” Blitzen Trapper sound and more exploratory forays. They veered into prog-tinged territory on Destroyer of the Void before releasing the rootsy American Goldwing, their last for Sub Pop. VII, the band’s unexpected melding of honky-tonk, soul and hip hop beats, followed two years later on Vagrant Records.
“I’m sort of always writing songs and experimenting with sounds, so it just sort of happens naturally that a record gets made in a certain vein or sound or whatever,” says Earley after returning from a 14-date European tour. “I've never been extremely deliberate when writing songs as to what the genre or sound is—that happens more in the studio.”
Whatever inspired Earley and his band’s return to form, channeling those classic rock and folk influences is how Blitzen Trapper truly excels as a unit. All Across This Land skillfully captures the essence of the group’s lauded live show, mining the raw energy of guitar heroes like Springsteen, Walsh and Dylan. On many of the record’s 10 songs, like the prime, poised “Nights Were Made for Love,” an ode to love, hard work and rock and roll, it sounds like Earley is surveying the band’s present by taking a long look at its past.
As scenes from a rural Oregon upbringing play out over stately piano, harmonica and guitar noodling, one wonders how an audience outside the States might take to a band so representative of an unmistakably American form of music; after all, they did just complete their first string of cross-continental shows in nearly six years.
“There’s still this exotic feeling I sense the people have when it comes to our music, like we're writing about some strange distant dream they've had, or some idea they have about America,” Earley says of Blitzen Trapper’s European reception.
With that leg of touring now behind them, the band continues to travel the U.S. in support of All Across This Land, maintaining momentum by putting out a new EP, Mystery and Wonder, in January. The three-song release includes a live recording from Los Angeles radio station KCRW, the EP’s title track (a standout from Land) and a cover of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,“ which was featured in an episode of FX’s TV series “Fargo”—fitting for an act that can capture such drama in the form of song.
Blitzen Trapper’s upcoming Athens performance should serve as a comfortable midpoint stop before they return home. The group played a string of shows with the Drive-By Truckers in 2014, and Earley has admitted that R.E.M. had a strong influence on his musicianship.
“I visited [Athens] when I was just out of high school and hung around and got to know the South for a year or so living up in Chattanooga,” says Earley. “I think the mysterious rural vibes I got from those early R.E.M. recordings resonated because it was so similar to growing up in Oregon back in the ‘80s.”
BLITZEN TRAPPER Based in Portland, OR, this band continues to push the boundaries of folk, incorporating elements of country and experimentalism. See story on p. 14.
LAURIS VIDAL Experimental folk artist from Evinston, FL who incorporates dub and other surprising influences into his sound.