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Interview: Eric Earley (Blitzen Trapper)

10 June 2024

Photo by Jason Quigley

Despite losing three long-time members in 2019, Blitzen Trapper’s carried forward and released, arguably, some of the best music of their storied two decade career with 2020’s Holy Smokes Future Jokes and 2024’s 100’s of 1000’s, Millions of Billions. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that while music is still a primary focus, the trappings of chasing sales figures and spending more time on the road than at home is something frontman Eric Earley has learned to let go of. These days, Earley’s time is primarily consumed with working with – and advocating for – the homeless in Oregon and the opportunity to make music serves as a creative outlet for all the ideas he has brewing in his head.

Blitzen Trapper’s music has morphed and matured with age, from the early days of finding inspiration in acts like Rogue Wave, Beck and Pavement to the more recent psych-country sounds influenced by Wilco, Fleet Foxes and The Grateful Dead. Earley’s lifelong love of acts like R.E.M. and Bob Dylan continues to play a role in the songwriter’s process, from lyric writing to hooks.

Having released albums on SubPop and Vagrant, for the last two records, Blitzen Trapper’s put their career in the hands of Yep Roc, an independent artist-driven label with artists ranging from Alejandro Escovedo to Sloan. It seems like an ideal fit for Earley and his approach to making music.

Earley joined me via a video conference call after his workday had ended to discuss the past, present and future.

I heard Paul Simon say something like the music that you listened to when you were between the ages of 11 and 14 is the music that will stick with you throughout your entire life. What were you listening to between those ages and has it stuck with you?

ERIC: R.E.M. was my favorite band as a kid and I still listen to them a lot, especially their early records. I think that it was the lyrics that was I was most drawn to. They had these really weird esoteric lyrics, and you make of them what you wanted to.

Were you a big music geek as a kid? Did you listen to a lot of music?

ERIC: I mostly played. I listened to a lot of stuff, but I was very particular. I probably played music before I heard it. I was 5 when I started picking up guitars, because my dad had them all over the place. So, listening to music, for me, has always been linked with playing it. I’ve never had the opportunity to just be a casual listener, non-player. I can always tell what they’re playing and I know why they’re making decisions. Particular bands would really resonate with me for all kinds of weird reasons that had to do with songwriting.

Has that changed for you as an adult? Do you listen to music for pleasure now?

ERIC: Oh yeah. I think it broadened out as I got older, but at that young age, it was more about, “Can I figure out how to play this myself? Does this sound that I’m hearing resonate with the sounds I hear in my own head when I play?” There’s that interplay if you’re a player. As I got older, I started to get into other stuff. In the formative years, it was definitely about playing music for me.

A lot of artists will say, “I wrote ten songs for this record and nothing more. Nothing was thrown away. These are the ten songs that we’ll record and then go out and tour and eventually when it comes time, I’ll write ten more songs and record those.” You seem like the type of artist that’s opposite of that, that you’ve got an endless drawer full of ideas and old demos and snippets and stuff. Is that fair to say?

ERIC: There’s so much music that I’ve written and messed around with that’s just sitting around. And I’m always kind of coming up with new stuff here and there to throw into the mix. There’s always something to tinker with. I can play whatever I hear in my head, so I like to just tinker with different ideas and genres and things that appeal to me at that time and then decide later if I want to put it onto a record.

For this album, you were inspired by going back and finding stuff that you had written and recorded when you were like 19 or 20.

ERIC: Yeah. I got a four-track cassette deck as a kid, my dad bought it for me, so I just immediately started recording songs and figuring out how to overdub and how to arrange music because I didn’t have a band. I was in Salem, just getting out of high school, but the four-track allowed me to create my own band. That was really the way that I learned how to do all of that. But, yeah, I have a box full of those cassette tapes with song after song.

What was it like getting back into the head of 19 or 20-year-old Eric?

ERIC: It’s kind of funny. It’s amusing to see the journey of where my head was at with lyrics, who I was listening to and copying, the evolution of the skills of playing. It’s like a time machine. I don’t have a tape deck, I borrowed one from a friend, so I don’t actually get to listen to those tapes very often. It’s a snapshot of the past Eric’s that have existed over the years.

Did you have lofty, big dreams for Blitzen Trapper when you started out or did you luck into everything that has happened over the last twenty years?

ERIC: It was a lot of luck and a lot of work. Writing songs is never really work but once we did get that break, the luck came around. We got signed and then it became a lot of work, more work than I knew, like touring.

Was that something you wanted? Was it like, “I can’t wait to put out a record and go out and play songs in front of people?”

ERIC: I don’t think I understood the way that the whole thing worked. I didn’t realize that you’ve got to be on the road for six months out of the year when you’re starting out. I don’t think any of us really understood what it was like until it was happening, so I honestly don’t know that I was visualizing playing every night, being on stages. I was always more interested in recording music and having people hear it. It really felt like a culture shock when we started touring. We were like, “Whoa, this is a different way of living.” It was cool, but it was also stressful and kind of weird, and we kind of had to slowly figure things out.

With the way technology has advanced and the whole music industry runs in 2024, do you feel like you’re still having to figure things out?

ERIC: Not really. I feel like it’s much easier now to make music and if you’re doing stuff that’s really high quality and that’s good, people will gravitate towards it slowly. It used to be that it was all gatekeepers. I didn’t even know what the path was to do what I was doing. I was just making songs, recording them, sticking them on MySpace or whatever. And I was living hand to mouth. I had no plan. It was just dumb luck that some guy who could help us out heard our song on MySpace. I think now the path is easier on the one hand but harder on the other because once it becomes easy for everyone then there’s a lot of people vying for everyone’s attention. It’s a different dynamic and it’s interesting.

There is so much music being released these days, it’s got to be difficult to cut through the clutter. You’ve been doing this for a while and you’ve built up a following so at least people have an idea what to expect from you, you’re not a brand-new band that nobody has ever heard before.

ERIC: Putting the work in in terms of touring is always going to be the same. Touring for a decade is going to get you somewhere even if you’re starting two years ago, and you’re two years in. If you keep going, and you’re making music that you love, and you’re connecting with the people, then you’ll get where you want to be. Some people get there way faster, and sometimes that’s good, and sometimes it’s not. Touring is the key, really.

You’ve put out stuff on well-respected, reputable labels. You’ve gotten accolades from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. You’ve played on just about every festival stage imaginable. Is there something that you’re most proud of, something that you’ve done that your daughter will tell her kids about some day?

ERIC: I always think about it in terms of the songs themselves, and I think a song like “Furr,” which, to me, is sort of a once in a lifetime kind of song, that kind of thing is the kind of thing that speaks for itself in terms of the future. Most people aren’t going to understand, “He was on Letterman,” or “He did this or that.” It’s more like, “This is a song he wrote, and people still listen to it. And it has meaning, like people met their spouse listening to this song.” Those are the kinds of things that are really important, I think, and keep songs in the zeitgeist.

I have a group of songs that I’m really proud of that I hope people will continue to listen to. I hope my daughter and her kids, and their kids, will have that as a touchstone.

Are there songs or artists that you listen to now that take you back to a very specific time or place in your life?

ERIC: So many. I have certain songs that take me to different times. Neil Young albums, like After the Gold Run, have songs that take me to some very specific times. There’s probably a lot of Bob Dylan songs that do the same. My dad was a big Dylan fan. And, like I said, listening to R.E.M. records takes me back to all kinds of places. I had cassettes of their stuff, and their stuff had this mystical rural quality to it because they were down in Georgia. Where I grew up is similar. It was a smaller place, rural aspects, small town parts to it. I would put on my headphones on my like Walkman and ride my bike at 14-years-old down by the river listening to “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” and it’s all connected for me. I don’t listen to it a ton anymore but when I do, it’s so powerful.

My song that brings back memories is “Funky Cold Medina” by Tone Loc!

ERIC: Actually, that takes me back too! I remember listening to that on the school bus and thinking, “What the heck is this?” That and MC Hammer too. It’s kind of the same era, the late ’80s. I would have been in grade school, and I remember hearing MC Hammer sing, “We got to pray just to make it today.” It was always on the bus. One of the older kids, like one of the junior high kids, would have the cassette and play it. And also License to Ill by the Beastie Boys. That came out even earlier. I remember hearing License to Ill at 6 or 7 years old and being like, “Whoa! What is this?” That’s probably the first rap I ever heard. I remember I was visiting some cousins down in East L.A. We were in their trailer, in the backyard, listening to that album and I was like, “What am I listening to? Where am I?”

My first listen to 100’s of 1000’s, Millions of Billions was uninterrupted, start to finish, while on a road trip through rural Ohio. It was the ideal way for me to listen to the album and I know, ten years from now, when I’m listening to it, I’ll remember that drive on a cold, February day. If you could pick the ideal situation for someone to listen to the album, what would it be?

ERIC: I don’t know. It’s so funny because people don’t really listen to whole records anymore, do they? In America, driving, of course, is the way we listen to music. As a kid, I would often put a record on in speakers and then have headphones as well and lay between the speakers and you’d get a full body experience. I still like that idea, the feeling of that, just because I feel like that’s a good way to enter into the mind palace of that record. It allows you to test how deep the waters are in there. I remember listening to OK Computer by Radiohead that way in the 90s, with the headphones and the speakers, high on mushrooms, everything is just expanding out. I mean, that’s probably the ideal way to listen to music, right? Straight into your brain with all the chemicals just pumping through.

Another place where I can listen to music for extended amount of time is while I’m doing yard work.

ERIC: I listen to a lot of music while I’m in the garage woodworking. I build stuff quite a bit and I’ll do that a lot. That’s actually when I listen to old R.E.M. cassettes, in the garage because I have a cassette deck and I’ll drop some old R.E.M. or Velvet Underground cassette in there and just let it roll.

And you live in Portland?

ERIC: I live about 20 miles outside of Portland in a little town called Scappoose but the city’s not too far away.

I know you’ve got a full-time job and a family and you’re also writing and recording music but do you have any music nearby, whether it be live music venues or record stores, that you can easily access when you’ve got time?

ERIC: Living close to Portland, you can always go to shows. I just don’t have the time. My kid’s so small that I just can’t do that too much. I occasionally do but it’s not that often that I do anymore.

Record stores I go to occasionally, but I just don’t spend a lot of money on records anymore. I stream a lot of stuff and I already have a lot of records. I’m at a time in my life where a lot of my money goes towards the family or I buy a lot of books, I read a lot. I probably buy more books than anything to be honest. With streaming, you can free associate through artists and find all these nooks and crannies. I love doing that now. I love finding young new artists that are just unexpected. You can see like how small they are, but you can see the potential. Spotify is fascinating that way. There’s just so much on there and you can discover things that no one’s heard yet, except for maybe like 30,000 people. And then low and behold, a year and a half later, you start hearing about them, you’re like, “Oh yeah, people are starting to catch on to this or that.” It’s just super fun to do that. That was never a tool for us growing up. I would hear covers and never know it was even a cover. I would hear R.E.M. do “Toys in the Attic” by Aerosmith and I’d be like, “That’s a cool R.E.M. song.” You would just never know because you couldn’t get ahold of the music. Now, it’s just so great to hear it all.

I do still love crate digging at record stores and coming across something that I either never thought I’d find or that isn’t on a streaming service.

ERIC: I did used to dig through records a lot. I think it was more when I was touring a lot because you would have time to kill here and there, and there’d be a record store two doors down. You’d go in and just dig through. And we would always come home with records. Bands do that all the time. I kind of miss that because I just don’t tour that much anymore. And I’m not looking to spend money on tour, I’m looking to make money.

If I find an album from the ’70s in the dollar bin where the band is on the cover and they have long hair and mustaches, it’s almost always an instant purchase for me. As I was listening to your new album, there are songs that I could imagine being on one of those records.

ERIC: Nate does have long hair and mustache. I just have long hair. Brian has a full beard. I can see that.

And that’s a result of your influences like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. That’s not exactly what I hear in the new songs but is that where you’re drawing inspiration from?

ERIC: There’s always an element of that, even if it’s just lyrically. But a lot of the music on this record is drawn from Guided by Voices, Elliott Smith, the kind of stuff I’d call the alt-alternative of the ’90s, the stuff that not a lot of people were listening to at that point. I was drawing from some of that. But then I was also drawing from some more psychedelic areas of the ‘70s, like the early ‘70s Pink Floyd, that kind of stuff, sonically.

Some of your songs have that psych-country sound.

ERIC: For sure. That’s a theme that runs through a lot of the music. A lot of that stems from listening to a lot of Gram Parsons and the Rolling Stones, the kind of more spacious country that was going on in the 70s. That’s like comfort food to me.

Tell me about the album cover. Did I read that it’s a Bob Pollard painting?

ERIC: Yeah, it’s one of his collage works. I just really connected with it. I love his music and his whole ethos is similar to what mine has been throughout my life, which is obsessive writing, obsessive releasing. I haven’t always done this, but I think my best work is when I’ve tried to subvert the songwriting process in some way. I went through a spell in the mid-2010s where I kind of drifted away from that kind of way of approaching art and music. The last two records, I’ve come back around to that more cryptic, subversive, almost surrealist way of approaching music. I think that I connect with Bob’s music in that way.

Do you think this is the best record you’ve ever made and is that something you say with every record you release?

ERIC: Any pressures I ever felt making records were self-imposed. I think at times I would get too wrapped up in trying to make something that would appease an audience. When I step away from that completely is when I make my best work. With the last two records, I’ve completely done that. I’ve stepped completely away. I don’t know that it’s my best work. A human’s energy is going to change throughout their life in various ways depending upon what they’re doing. When you’re young, of course, your energy is spinning very fast and you’re able to tap into energies that you can’t necessarily tap into as you get older. I don’t know that I even see it that way – best record this, best record that. I think it’s more that each record is a snapshot of the kind of energy you’re tapping into at that time. And some people are going to like that a lot. And some people aren’t. I think a lot of times, because young people have so much time to listen to music, they’re the ones that are driving the artists. They’re going to gravitate to artists that are the same age as them and that have the same kind of energy. It’s interesting for me to see the change in the energies of my life and in the music I make and to see how others react to that. It really is mysterious to me. I have friends who are in their early fifties, but who are having the peak of their career. Everybody’s musical career journey is so unique. I’ve come to realize they’re all different. It’s so weird. lists a lot of the covers that you’ve done over the years. The ones that stuck out to me were the ’90s covers you do of bands like Blind Melon.

ERIC: We did a grunge medley. We were in high school when that whole thing happened. I went into high school in ’91 and got out in ’95. That whole chunk of time, I was in high school. I saw Blind Melon, Pearl Jam and Neil Young all on the same bill. I saw Soundgarden. I saw Radiohead. I saw all of those guys at that time in their prime. So, we did a grunge medley that had some of “Black Hole Sun,” some of a Blind Melon song, some of a Pearl Jam song and then some of a song from Nirvana’s Bleach. It was really fun.

I keep seeing an ad for a t-shirt that says, “I May Be Old But I Saw All the Cool Bands” and I think about how true that is for people like you and I who were in high school or college in the early ’90s.

ERIC: I saw Beck’s very first tour. He played for like 150 people and then when he took the electric guitar off and put the acoustic guitar on, a hundred people left. He played “Loser,” and after he played it, a hundred people left and there was maybe 60 of us left.

I had the same exact experience seeing Beck! He played “Loser” about midway through the set and when he was done, half the crowd left.

ERIC: That was a great show. I’ll always remember going to that because, at the time, it wasn’t like we knew he was going to be Beck. I remember hearing “Loser” at a party. My band in high school was playing a party and then one of our drunk friends was like, “You gotta check this out” and puts the CD on and all the kids that were in the living room, we all erupted into an instant dance party when “Loser” came on. We’d never heard it. I remember a month later we heard that he was coming to this tiny club in Portland and we were like, “We should go to that.” For the first half of this set, he just had a microphone and a guitar that wasn’t even plugged in. He had two bass players and a drummer. That was it. And then he must have had tracks. They weren’t really playing; they were just playing around while the tracks played. And then when that was done, he had an acoustic that he put on, the band left, and he sat on the edge of the stage, and everybody gathered around and most of the crowd left. We all gathered around, and he played a bunch of acoustic songs. It was the craziest thing.

With a nice little life that you’ve built for yourself over the years, what is driving you to go out on the road these days?

ERIC: I do make money at it, but I make more at my day job. I think I just really like it. I’m an artist at heart. I do a lot of drawing and painting. I just like making records and then when you make a record, you’ve got to tour. It’s just a whole thing. You do the whole ball of wax because that way I can keep making records. I really love performing now, too. I used to have a love/hate relationship with it, but now I really love it. And the guys I’m playing with now are just so good and we can kind of do anything that’s in our minds. It’s been really enjoyable the last couple of years.

You’ve had lineup changes; the original guys are no longer in the band. If it’s not too personal, were those changes because people couldn’t commit to continuing this lifestyle or were there other factors?

ERIC: Some people were tired out or moved away. And part of it is I needed a smaller band in order to make it monetarily feasible to play out. So, I made some changes to tighten everything up, and I also needed to make sure that each player could do at least two things, play guitar and sing or play keys and sing. I wanted everybody to be able to do a lot of different things so that we could have a lot of options. I sing most of the songs, but there’s two other singers now that are also singing lead on songs. I’m kind of spreading the workload out a little bit and it’s just funner that way. It’s definitely changed over the years.

Do people at work know about this other life that you have?

ERIC: Most of them do now. I don’t generally tell people. People would slowly figure it out or they would have friends be like, “Wait, I know who that dude who is your boss is.” And then people I worked with would be like, “Why didn’t you tell me?” These are people I’ve worked with for two years. Some of them will be like, “I saw this video of you.”

Have you ever gotten to the point where you think you’ve put out enough songs and considered stopping?

ERIC: I definitely don’t write as much as I used to. I’ve written songs for so long and so many that I don’t have anything to prove to myself anymore. I’ll always enjoy writing songs and attempting to make them as good as I can and as authentic to what I’m feeling and thinking at that time, but I don’t have the ambition I had when I was in my 20s. I don’t know that I could ever stop writing songs but I’ve stopped clinging to the ideas around writing songs which, in a certain way, I think helps the music. Everything has an arc and runs in a cycle and I’m at a certain point in the cycle where I’ve diversified my creativity.

With the touring you’ve got coming up in 2024, you don’t have to quit your job, do you?

ERIC: No. I usually only do two weeks of touring at a time and they let me do it. I’m one of the founding people of the nonprofit. I’ve been there since the beginning. I have a lot of leeway and I’m a supervisor of several programs so I can kind of work from wherever a little bit too. Two weeks is not a big deal for me, which is nice.

Does your work life cross over into the music?

ERIC: The work that I do is very emotionally intense. It’s not as much for me anymore because I’ve really acclimated to that kind of work over the last six years. And I have really good boundaries these days. I think that I’ve learned so much from working in that field, working with the homeless and in housing and local governments and just the whole thing. I don’t think there’s any way it wouldn’t work its way into the stories and narratives and stuff, and even just into my basic view of the world.

Was working with the homeless something you fell into or did you have an interest or passion to do this when you were younger?

ERIC: No, I just fell into it. I was toning down the touring back in 2018, just wasn’t touring as much. I needed to make a little more money and I had a buddy who was working the night shift at a Veteran’s shelter. They only had 45 beds and he’s like, “It’s really chill, man. You just hang out all night. You can listen to music and it’s not a big deal. You should check it out. There’s an opening.” I went in and talked to the guys who were the founders of this nonprofit, they’re very cool, and they’re like, “You can start next week if you want.” And that’s how I got it. I had no clue what I was in for. And it was intense, man. It got into a lot of crazy people doing crazy stuff. It was a steep learning curve for me. But I kind of just kept doing it. And then when COVID happened, it was like, “I guess this is what I’m doing now.” I went even deeper and became a case manager and then split off with another couple of people and started this other nonprofit. I kind of fell into it, kind of like the music career.

Do you see things getting any better or is it still a tough situation?

ERIC: I’m a very firm believer in the cyclic nature of all things but I think that there are cycles within cycles. I think that the fact that we are at the base of the grand cycle, often called by the ancients the Kali Yuga, means that the kind of things that we see all around us, that we’re used to, nuclear wars and massive death and all kinds of horrible things that we kind of don’t even worry about in America because we’re Americans, I think that that is just the cycle we’re in. And I also think that the complete spiritual poverty of all of humanity at this point, in every sense, is also a function of where we’re at in the Kali cycle. And so lately I see the homeless problem as just sort of a symptom of this greater fact that we’re in the midst of the basic worst, the black Yuga, you know, the Kali Yuga. And so that’s kind of how I see it. I don’t think there’s some kind of silver bullet for any of this stuff. For me, it has more to do with connecting with individuals and seeing how I can help them in whatever meager way I can. But I’m not exempt from the spiritual poverty of the world we live in. I’m just as much a part of it as everyone else. And so I don’t have any delusions of grandeur when it comes to helping people. It’s a band-aid kind of thing at this point to me. And I think things will only get worse until we completely baseline and then we’ll probably start our upwards swing of the cycle, whatever that even looks like. And that could be a hundred years from now. That’s kind of my overarching view of it all at this point.