Words cannot describe the boundary-tripping joy that is Blitzen Trapper. Upon first listen, their release “Wild Mountain Nation” comes off as a rollicking jam session, fueled by classic rock and pickup trucks. Fair enough. But then a bit of the band’s natural energy seeps through and it is readily apparent that there is some heavy experimentation and variety in their music. Rooted deeply in country, blues and folk, Blitzen Trapper make an alarmingly smooth transition between the genres, conjuring up a sense of familiarity that makes you wonder where you’ve heard their songs before. But rest assured, this is all them.
The six guys of Blitzen Trapper will take it to the backstage of the Black Cat tonight (Tuesday, FYI), following the astonishingly wonderful Fleet Foxes. We all know how tiny this stage is, so get there early and hunker down with a beer or four if need be. Meanwhile, I had the chance to dish with band member Marty Marquis about Portland crowds, the hazards of touring and whatever gets them through those lonely nights in the tour van.
Brightest Young Things: So, let’s do this. You’re on tour and you’re six guys traveling. Are you traveling with anyone else?
Marty Marquis: No, one of they guys’ girlfriends was out for a few weeks and there’s some other girlfriends coming out, but it’s just the six of us.
BYT: So it’s a bit of a bro-down, right?
MM: [laughs] Yeah…
BYT: What’s that like?
MM: It’s fun, we all get along. We’re kind of like brothers and we’ve been hanging out for years and years and years, so it’s fun to roam around and see the country together.
BYT: How long have you guys played together and what brought you all together?
MM: Some of the guys have been playing together since high school and all six of us got together in 2000, in Portland, and it was one of those thing where we were all old friends, and we all played music, and we all happened to be in Portland… so it was just kind of an organic thing that happened.
BYT: How have the mounting attention and all of these tours, good reviews, that sort of thing, affected the way you guys write and play your songs together?
MM: That’s a good question… It doesn’t really affect the writing so much, I don’t think. The arrangement and recording of songs is probably a little more careful now. [laughs] When you don’t have to worry that anybody is listening to your music, you can do what you want. But when you have an audience, the stakes are a little bit higher… Over the last year, we’ve played for tons and tons of different people and I think that makes you better as a band… It’s helped us out in a couple of different ways.
|BYT: Cool. And you guys are from Oregon? I’m also from Oregon, which is how I kind of found out about you guys… How do you think your geographic state has affected the band? This is sort of a backwards way of getting you to say that it’s the best state in the union, but how do you think Oregon has affected or influenced you?
MM: Well, it’s a pretty out-of-the-way corner of the U.S. and people there are pretty interested in letting you do your own thing. You know, in Oregon there is not a whole lot of money or commercial setups, especially if you’re playing music, so we’ve never really worried about getting too involved with the whole ‘industry’ side of things. That has given us a lot more freedom as a band than if we were kind of dialed in to the whole industry thing… So in once sense it’s remote, and that helps you out so you can kind of do your own thing without really worrying about what other folks are thinking, and then the natural environment is of course a very beautiful place, from the quality of air to the mountains. And for the West Coast, it’s really a very cheap place to live compared to California or Washington state… so that helped us keep real jobs to a minimum…
BYT: Do you think there’s a sort of ‘Portland music’ niche going on? I think it’s definitely very communal and cooperative – it’s almost like a big party. What’s that vibe like for you guys?
MM: I think that’s true to an extent. There’s bands you don’t really see much around town because they are always on the road or on tour, there are those are under most peoples’ radars who are associated with a couple of different record labels, but there’s a sense of comeraderie and a collective thing going on in a couple of different circles. That’s not necessarily what I think the scene is all about, but I guess there are people doing that sort of thing.
BYT: I’m always a little impressed whenever I go back, with how different it feels compared to D.C.
MM: It is laid back, for sure, and people aren’t really looking to make money. People are trying to be cool… There are tons of people with lots of good ideas and tons of good stuff.
BYT: Along those lines, what’s it like to play for crowds so far from home?
MM: It depends on the crowd. We did a European tour last winter and that was really far away from home, and the crowds were spectacular. We have a lot of friends and people who have followed us from Portland from throughout the years… But Portland crowds are kind of hard… They are composed of a lot of musicians and people who are studying what you’re doing instead of just having a good time. It’s kind of like playing in Brooklyn or something.
BYT: That’s got to be intimidating.
MM: Cities treat us really good for no apparent reason. We played Nashville for the first time and it was fantastic… really receptive and warm. Birmingham, Alabama , we’ve never played there and the crowd was really great for us. The main thing about playing is that you get to see what parts of the country are going to be receptive to what you’re doing. It’s fun to really get out, and you can only get so much done when you’re staying at home all the time. We played around Portland for seven years, so it’s a thrill to get out and play for people.
BYT: You guys have been playing with or will play with some really great bands on this tour. Dr. Dog, Beach House, Fleet Foxes… how has that been?
MM: We’re playing with Fleet Foxes this tour and they are… super fun to watch.
BYT: I just heard their EP and I am floored. It’s so good.
MM: Wait till you see them live. They’ll blow your mind.
BYT: Great! OK, next question. So I really liked the way the Daytrotter guys [check it: blitzen on daytrotter] described your music, in their sort of flowery, over-the-top manner. They basically said that it embraced a ‘retro’ feel without being too cloyingly attached to the past. Your music is all over the place, but a lot of it sounds like something I’ve already heard. I’m familiar with it but I can’t quite put my finger on it. What do you make of a description like that?
MM: I agree with it. [Singer] Eric Earley writes most of our songs and he has really got a gift for writing something that sounds familiar but you don’t know why, y’know? At least for me, everything seems sort of hauntingly familiar and I think that’s a gift… to write in a way that evokes different pieces of consciousness. I don’t think it’s anything intentional – good melodies and good harmonies. A lot of the arrangements we come up with are reverent to classic rock arrangements. I think part of it is in the arrangements and part of it might be in the kind of gear we use – we use a lot of old gear.
BYT: I definitely pick up on some of the classic rock arrangements, but what other musical influences does your stuff come out of?
MM: We’ve been listening to a lot of African stuff, or Caribbean stuff. I was just listening to King Tubby, the dub artist, so I think a lot of that has influenced our next record, which is all finished and will be out in September. We listen to a lot of high brow classical stuff, like Debussy or Stravinksy, we listen to crap pop music… when we rolled through Atlanta, we listened to Outkast. There are six of us and we all have different taste. Some of the guys are more into rock like Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo… [laughs] you know, anything that’s good. Anything that’s worth listening to.
BYT: So you guys also recently played South by Southwest too. Was that the total drunken indie rock orgy that I imagine it to be? What did you make of the festival crowd?
MM: Well the big difference is that the crowd isn’t the typical music lover. They love music, but they’re there from the industry and are there for a different reason. You play really short sets for the most part and don’t really have a chance to relax or unwind… you’re rushed the whole time, playing on unfamiliar equipment, and the crowd is composed of a lot of a lot of record label people, photographers and writers – not your typical crowd in any sense. And this crowd has been listening to band after band after band for twelve hours straight, and you get exhausted, no matter how much you love music.
BYT: I’ve heard a lot of people describe it as something of a marathon, only with excessive amounts of alcohol.
MM: [laughs] We played seven shows in three days.
BYT: What’s it like having SXSW tucked right into the middle of your huge tour? To lead up to that and then keep going afterwards.
MM: Well, everyone’s voices are pretty much shot. Fleet Foxes, who have been touring with us the whole time, they are a very vocal band and they got beat from playing so many shows in such a short amount of time. We haven’t had any days off since then, so I think we’re all really thankful.
BYT: I’ll wrap it up with a sort of standard question. Are there any great artists/movies/graphic novels/sandwich recipes that you guys want to share that have gotten you through the lonely nights on the road?
MM: Ah, geez… one guy has been playing this little Playstation karate game, I don’t know what it is… Eric has been reading a lot of sci-fi novels and I don’t know what the authors are, they’re all kind of obscure.
BYT: Sounds comforting.
MM: [laughs] There was also this kid that opened for us in Columbia, South Carolina called Toro y Moi, and they were really great so that was a nice find on the road. I don’t know… we try to eat healthy. Lots of bananas.
BYT: We’re proud