Sagebrush and ghost towns, dusty back-roads and rusting jail cells. Blitzen Trapper takes the Manifest-Destiny West of early America and exposes the blemishes and pockmarks, bathed in the fading yellow glow of the great frontier.
In "Black River Killer," one of the band's biggest hits, frontman Eric Earley sings, "Well the sheriff let me go with a knife and a song / So I took the first train up to Oregon / And I killed the first man that I came upon / 'Cause the devil works quick, you know it don't take long."
The Portland, Ore.-based sextet, which formed in 2000, is comprised of Drew Laughery, keyboard; Marty Marquis, guitar/keyboard/vocals; Brian Koch, drums/vocals; Michael Van Pelt, bass; Erik Menteer, guitar/keyboard; and Earley, vocals and guitar. Blitzen Trapper's late-60s classic rock influences--like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin--converge like energy particles in a flux capacitor with an Old-West-meets-sci-fi inspiration a la Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. Hitting 1.2 gigawatts, the group rolls into town--not in a DeLorean but in a van--on Wednesday, Oct. 20, for a show at the Knitting Factory in support of their June 2010 release, Destroyer of the Void (Sub Pop).
Blitzen Trapper's influences come not only from the music they listened to while growing up in Salem, Ore., but also from Earley's peculiar aversion to purchasing new albums. Rather, the man responsible for most of his band's songwriting draws his storytelling from classic rock and authors like Louis L'Amour and Italo Calvino.
"To me it's just about songwriting. It's about writing a song with some meaning to it, or a lyrical thing that makes it that much more interesting," Earley told Boise Weekly. "I think now rock is just kinda ... since everybody's heard everything that's come before, everybody either takes something and runs with it, or they sort of find a bunch of different ideas from the past and blend them together."
The band's music suggests that this band is the latter. Every review of Blitzen Trapper ultimately mentions staples of Americana, folk rock and country like Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. In their music, Blitzen Trapper seems to acknowledge all that "rock" signifies, takes what works and hits "frappe" to blend together something that defies the indie rock genre.
Highlighting their Western influences, both "Black River Killer" and "The Man Who Would Speak True" follow the narrative path of a murder ballad, coupling Earley's Dylan-esque vocals (it's impossible to avoid the comparison) with driving guitar and drumwork. The former has a synth undertone reminiscent of the West Coast Whistle of rap songs, and the latter is almost a retrospective to "Black River" but a bit slower, more folksy and acoustic.
Before the band was signed to Sub Pop records--alongside indie heavyweights The Shins and Iron and Wine--they produced their first three albums on their own. It was with their third album, 2007's Wild Mountain Nation, that they caught national attention. The title track made its way to No. 98 on Rolling Stone's "100 Best Songs of 2007."
"I didn't really have too many expectations," said Earley of their first hit. "I still don't really. I just sort of do whatever I want to and see what happens."
In March 2007 they played SXSW with label mates Fleet Foxes and headlined the Bowery Ballroom. Sub Pop signed them that summer and later that year, they dropped the critically acclaimed Furr. It hit No. 13 on Rolling Stone's "50 best albums of 2008," and the title track made it to No. 4 of the magazine's 100 best singles.
Music videos were made for the songs "Black River Killer" and "Furr," and the band turned to longtime friend and band photographer Jade Harris for the "Furr" music video. They opted for a sweet, meandering stop-motion film depicting the band as wolves.
"I'd never actually made a stop-motion," said Harris, who hatched the idea with Laughery when she and Earley were roommates. "Four minutes of stop-motion is pretty difficult. It took about four months. I ended up doing it all by myself."
The video opens with Earley playing mandolin on the pages of a book, singing about running with a wolf pack, with howls and sounds of nature peppering the background. He meets a girl and leaves the wolf pack behind as he learns to "wear [his] furr." The melodies match Earley's sweet, lyrical ballad carried along on the heavy heartbeat of a bass drumline.
"I found it shocking that it took that long for them to get any recognition," added Harris. "I can't believe it took almost eight years ... they'd play tiny bars where like four people showed up."
That late recognition has led to a spot on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, glowing praise from pitchfork.com and notice from NPR. They've also earned respect from their fans.
"A lot of times people will say, 'Oh I got [one of your albums] illegally, but then I bought it later,'" Earley said.
While Wild Mountain Nation was Blitzen Trapper's coming out, and Furr the honing of their sound and image, Destroyer of the Void has been described as a B-sides album of Furr. Earley describing it as more "experimental" than their previous efforts. Earley confided to BW that another album is already in the works.
"I haven't even given it to the label yet," he said. "This next record isn't quite the same. It's more of me doing what I like to do, sort of what I'm comfortable with."