Music Features

Blitzen Trapper (Interview)

Portland's neo-folk rock heroes Blitzen Trapper are set to release their seventh full-length, VII, on September 30, and are also about to embark upon a US tour. Before hitting the open road, the band's Marty Marquis answered a few questions for No Ripcord's Carlos Villarreal. 

Carlos: How’s Portland? How are you?

Marty: I'm doing pretty well, just enjoying the good part of summer. Just hanging with the family and getting ready to hit the road. 

C: That's right, you have a tour coming up.

M: Yeah, we’ve got a month of shows starting in the middle of September, then we're home for a few weeks, then we're doing another three to four weeks of shows. Our first leg of the tour ends around Thanksgiving, so we'll be on road for the next few months. 

C: Speaking of life on the road, I've actually never been to Portland; how is it?

M: It’s great, it’s like the utopia of the western world. It has a lot of the amenities of the big cities, without any of the same problems yet.

C: So what was the writing process for your latest album, VII?

M: Typically our singer, Eric [Earley], will demo a whole bunch of songs, then we'll get together and go into the studio and figure out how they should be recorded. VII was a little bit different, because Eric got a sampler and started writing a bunch of songs, sort of hip-hop style, and kind of like a RZA style production we ended up using those demos as bases for our studio tracks. So yeah, usually Eric will conceive these things on his own and then gets help from us in the studio. 

C: I was going to say a few tracks do have a hip-hop vibe to them.

M: Then there’s also some soul and gospel stuff going on, plus some JJ Cale influences. I don't think Eric had anything in particular in mind when he started writing these songs. After writing for several months, he ended up with this collection. It reflected his interests over the past couple of years and a lot of stuff he has been listening to. 

C: The album's cover is pretty interesting, how did that come about?

M: Well, a friend of ours, Lord Blakely, is a fantastic painter and visual artist. He has wanted to do a cover for us for a while. So we got together with him a few times and brainstormed on some drafts, going back and forth until we got this image that’s pretty striking. At first, we thought the little jumping hobo guy was weird but he makes the whole thing pop. 

C: I perceived it as Pinocchio takes on New York. 

M: Yeah, totally! With Lord Blakely, the kind of art he does, it comes off as collage-like. He will take sources from all over the place and then paint them on a large format. So he was working on doing a sort of 30s style comic book character for a while and really wanted to include that little guy. He tried to do caricatures of us too, so maybe in the future you might be seeing those: Blitzen Trapper as 30s style cartoon characters.

C: You released your first three albums on your own. How is it now working with a large label, now that you guys are on Vagrant? Is there anything different in the creative process?

M: I think the creative process is still the same, but when it comes time to give the finished product ready for market; there is a lot more input. When you are working with big labels that have a lot of experience, they are thinking about things in the market place that the bands don't typically. In the past, when we did the first three records, we just did whatever we wanted and although it’s pretty much the same thing with Sub Pop and Vagrant, there’s more consensus building. You have you defend your creative decisions to somebody else. 

C: So it's not a bitter batter over whether the cowbell stays on the track?

M: It doesn't need to be that way. It definitely is a lot easier to sell records when you don't have to deal with everything by yourself. It helps when you have a team of people who know what they're doing and specialize in selling records. Having that allows us to focus on playing music. 

C: Do you have a favorite track on VII?

M: I have a couple of favorite ones. I really like Valley of Death. I'm not sure why I like it so much; it just hits me. I like Thirsty Man a lot too. One of them is more hip-hoppy and the other is more like the groovy JJ Cale type. Thirsty Man was the first song we started playing live for people and they just loved it. So that's one reason why I like that song so much. Valley of Death is one of Eric's trademark tales of dissipation and redemption. I usually don't listen to lyrics when I'm listening to music, but on Valley of Death, the lyrics are pretty rad

C: So you play the melodica. How did you come around to picking that up? 

M: Yeah, it’s like a harmonica with keys. There was one floating around the studio, we were recording something and I used it play a little lead, and it just went from there. Then once we started touring, it become a real crowd pleaser, people just loved seeing that thing. They love it almost as much as the cowbell, which is probably the most popular instrument that I play. People give me mad props for my cowbell playing. 

C: Are you a fan of Augustus Pablo? He plays a mean melodica.

M: Oh yes! We were listening to tons of Augustus Pablo while touring for Wild Mountain Nation; we went through a big Augustus Pablo phase and did a few Pablo-ish tracks for Furr. So when we started touring for Furr, that's when I started playing the melodica live a lot. 

C: I find it so interesting that you covered Ty Segall's Goodbye Bread album. What inspired you to do that?

M: I'm obsessed with synthesizers and I have been for many years now.  Some of my favorite records are these old ones like Switched-On Bach from ’69; I’m really fascinated with those types of records. So I heard that Ty Segall record a few times and was fascinated with it. I just thought the songwriting was amazing and wanted to use a Moog to do some rock sounds, like some harder sounds – my interests dovetailed together, I had a week free and banged it out. I learned all the songs, arranged it all, mixed it all and just put it up on Soundcloud. A lot of people noticed it and I was really surprised by it; it was just something I did for fun.

C: With the tour coming up, do you have a favorite city or venue you like to play in? 

M: We're playing a place in Birmingham, Alabama, called the Bottletree Cafe. It's a real tiny place with a fantastic vibe; it's one of my favorite spots. We're playing in Chicago at Lincoln Hall, which is pretty great. In LA, we're playing the Troubadour, which I think has an awesome vibe. We also are playing the Doug Fir in Portland, which is one of the best small venues in America. 

C: Any good tour stories or horror stories to share?

M: Yeah! We just had a great day full of stories from a tour back in July. We had driven out to Phoenix, then flew to Austin to play a show and flew back to Phoenix. We jumped into our van and headed out to Salt Lake City. So that drive is just through the desert and you have to go around the Grand Canyon. So we're up in a Navajo reservation, just driving along this little two lane highway, and we just see this guy walking up the middle of our lane with his arms stretched out. All the traffic in the opposite side of the highway is stopped with their lights flashing at us. As we get closer to the guy, he just starts running towards our van. We figured he had been in an accident or something, so we pulled off to the side of the road. When we tried to pull over, he tried to jump in front of the van, so that we would run him over. So we just stopped the van and he started to crawl underneath our van. The guy crawls under and starts banging on the van. So we're sitting there wondering what the hell is going on. Eventually he crawls out from underneath the van and start begging us to run him over and kill him. We had a standoff with this kid. I don't what he was on, he wasn't very responsive; he must have been super high. We sat there on the side of the road for fifteen minutes with him as he begged us to kill him. It was a really, really fucked up experience. Eventually, Brian, our drummer, was so scared that the guy was just going to leap out into oncoming traffic and get his brains spattered, he got out of the van and tried to give the guy some water. The guy just eventually wandered off into the desert and we got out of there as fast as we could.

Then a few hours later, this dude crashes into the back of our van as we were going down the highway. He must have been going 90 miles an hour, because he just destroyed the back our van and pushed us onto the side of the road. We thought he was trying to kill us or something. After hitting us, he pulled out and just sped away. It was a hit and run, so we chased after him. He pulls off onto a dirt road and we get close enough to read his license plate. The whole time, we're on the phone with the cops, trying to give them the info. Then the guy started to turn around, we thought he must have had a gun and is going to come after us. So we just turned our van around as fast as we could and drove away. Then later on that night with the state police, we went and found the guy. The guy claimed that he didn't hit us and didn't remember anything. He said that he thought we were moving kind of slow and wanted to get around us. He told the cops that we then started chasing him for no reason. The cops said he wasn't drunk. It was just really weird, like he materialized out of nowhere and smashed into us, destroyed our van, all part of this really fucked up day that happened. It was like something out of the twilight zone.  

C: Wow! Leading on from that, I read online that you used to hitch-hike. Did you just want to hit the open road and go explore?

M: Well, I didn't have any money, a car, or any real direction. So I would just work jobs for a while, save up a little cash and then leave town. So it was romantic and stuff, just like the beat poets. It was definitely worthwhile for a little bit. I remember one time, sitting on the side of the road in Idaho and I was just freezing. I was in a terrible place and nobody was going to stop for me. Finally after three hours of just being miserable, this guy stops and I jumped into his car. I was just so happy that he stopped. As he sped away, I realized that were tons of empty beer bottles just rolling around in his car – this guy was trashed! He was driving about a hundred miles per hour, it was the freakiest three hours being stuck in a car with a guy that wasted. So that experience cured me of my hitch-hiking bug. I realized that it wasn't worth it; I could afford a Greyhound ticket next time.

C: Another close call with death! So lastly, I have two questions that I stole from the Dinner Party podcast. Is there anything interesting you want share about  yourself or the world?

M: Good question! I've been studying this guy Pietro Belluschi lately. He was an architect, a pretty famous modernist. He was from Italy originally but moved to Portland. In Manhattan, off Park Avenue, there is terrible thing that happens, where Grand Central Station is right in the middle of the street. Right behind Grand Central Station, there is this gigantic skyscraper and it just totally feels fucked up. So I realized that there was this guy from Portland who designed this thing. He sort of made that whole style of skyscraper fall out of style. And that was Belluschi's work. Not sure if that is interesting to the public at large, but I have been pretty fascinated with this guy lately. 

C: So this guy ruined the New York skyline?

M: Yeah, the building is called the Pam Am building. But he also had a lot of great buildings too.  

C: I'm sure you’ll get some architecture fans emailing you after this.

M:Yeah, I would love to do some collaborations!

C: Lastly, are there any questions you get tired of being asked?

M: Yeah, the obvious one is how we got our name. There is no real good answer for it; it was just something that sounded good at the time. Another one is people asking Eric about being homeless, because in some of the bios that have circulated around. He lived in our studio for a few years and it was a conscious choice, he could have rented an apartment, so that whole topic of question is annoying too. 

Blitzen Trapper's VII is out September 30 on Lojinx Records. Visit Blitzen Trapper's website for more details or buy the record from iTunes.