Eric Earley, who plays the frontman role in Oregon’s Blitzen Trapper, didn’t prove to be an effusive interview subject during a chat conducted for an April 10 Westword profile. Nevertheless, the following Q&A remains entertaining, if only because it documents the ways in which an increasingly desperate yours truly tried to draw out the singer and multi-instrumental, all of which failed miserably.
It’s not that Earley was surly as he gabbed via cell phone from the interior of a Dodge van headed to the Bay Area alongside his bandmates: Brian Adrian Koch, Erik Menteer, Michael Van Pelt, Marty Marquis and Drew Laughery. Far from it. But he preferred to answer questions as succinctly as he could – and his capacity for brevity proved pretty remarkable. He commented briefly – very briefly – on touring; his current digs; his lack of a permanent address over the past couple of years; his family background; his father’s status as an amateur bluegrass musician and the hours when young Eric played along with John Denver albums; the outdoors life; his college career and transition to full-time musicianship; the formation of Blitzen Trapper and the strong reception to its strong breakthrough disc, Wild Mountain Nation; signing with the Sub Pop imprint; and recording the Nation followup, to be entitled Furr.
By my count, Earley answers 27 of the questions below with either the word “yeah” or a minor variation. Keep your calculator handy.
Westword (Michael Roberts): I understand you guys are starting a new tour. Where are you headed?
Eric Earley: Yeah, actually, we left today. We’re heading to San Francisco.
WW: How long will you be out there?
EE: It’s a six-week tour. About forty shows.
WW: Forty shows in six weeks. Is that pretty typical for you?
EE: Yeah, usually.
WW: What’s your mode of transportation?
EE: We have a Sprinter.
WW: A Sprinter?
WW: What’s that – aside from someone who runs the 100-yard dash?
EE: It’s like a big kind of van-bus thing.
WW: Do you own it? Or are you renting it?
EE: It’s ours.
WW: Have you upgraded your vehicles over the years?
EE: No, this is all we’ve ever had, really.
WW: You’ve spoken over the years about having been homeless at times. Have you ever lived in the Sprinter?
EE: On tour, we do. But no, I never have.
WW: Do you have a place right now?
EE: Yeah. I just got a place about two weeks ago.
WW: What kind of a place?
EE: An apartment.
WW: Had you been without a permanent place until then?
EE: Yeah. For about two years.
WW: Has it been a difficult transition to having your own place, or a pleasant one.
EE: (Laughs.) I’d say a pleasant one.
WW: During that two-year period before then, who did you stay with? Members of the band? Family? Friends?
EE: Just kind of here and there.
WW: What was the longest you stayed at any one place?
EE: I don’t know. What do you mean?
WW: Did you spend six months at some places? Or did you move every week?
EE: Oh. Well, for a while, I was staying at our rehearsal space, which is this old building we had a space in. I was in there for a while. But we’ve been touring so much, I’ve just been kind of on the road. Stayed at the studio for a while. People’s places here and there.
WW: After having done this for a while, have you developed a kind of sixth sense of when it’s time to move on? When things are starting to get uncomfortable?
EE: (Laughs.) That never really happened, actually.
WW: So it was more your decision of when it was time to go than people giving you the sense you’d been underfoot a little too long.
EE: No, that never really happened.
WW: Sounds like you’ve got some understanding friends.
EE: Yeah (laughs).
WW: Where did you grow up?
EE: Salem, Oregon.
WW: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
EE: Yeah, I’ve got two sisters.
WW: I understand your father was a bluegrass musician. Is that right?
EE: Yeah, he was.
WW: What did he play?
EE: Played banjo, guitar, harmonica.
WW: Was that his sole means of support? Or did he have a day job?
EE: No, he was a mechanic. He played bluegrass on the weekends with friends, brothers, things like that.
WW: So it was more of a for-fun thing than a profession.
EE: Yeah, definitely.
WW: At what point did you realize you wanted to play music, too? Or was that something so ingrained in you that the idea was just always there?
EE: Yeah, it was kind of that. I was playing from an early age.
WW: What was your first instrument?
WW: A lot of people talk about the banjo being a difficult instrument to play. Was it a challenge to learn? Or did you take naturally to it?
EE: I don’t know. I can’t really remember. I was like six.
WW: A six-year-old banjo player. I’ll bet you turned some heads.
EE: Yeah, maybe (laughs).
WW: What instruments did you move on to?
EE: Guitar, piano. Stuff like that.
WW: Did you take any lessons?
EE: No, it was mostly just my dad. Listening to records and play.
WW: What records did you learn to play along with.
EE: Gosh. I guess a lot of early old Doc Watson records, and some old Bob Dylan records. John Denver.
WW: John Denver?
WW: You’d think that in Denver, everyone would be a John Denver fan – but actually, there are a lot of people who aren’t really all that predisposed to like his stuff. Is there a John Denver song or record you’d play for a John Denver hater that might change their mind?
EE: (Laughs.) If you hate John Denver, I don’t think there’s any hope. I don’t think you can make anyone like John Denver. My favorite was always “Rocky Mountain High.” I like that one.
WW: Did that connect with the environment you were in, with lots of mountains and greenery?
EE: Yeah, I guess so. When I was a kid, definitely. It was much more rural.
WW: Did you grow up in pretty modest circumstances?
WW: Did that make it easier when you became a musician? Was it nothing new to go without every once in a while?
EE: Yeah, probably.
WW: Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians from Portland, and even though they live in a beautiful part of the world, some of them don’t seem even the slightest bit interested in going outside. (He laughs.) You’re an exception to that rule, right?
EE: Yeah. I go outside (laughs).
WW: Are you a hunter? A fisherman? A hiker?
EE: I don’t hunt, but I do hike. I used to fish a lot. Not so much anymore.
WW: Just because you’re on the road so much?
EE: Yeah. I don’t have a lot of time.
WW: Do you miss the trees and the mountains when you’re driving through the flatlands?
EE: Yeah, but I like the desert a lot. I really like the Southwest. But yeah, the Midwest is kind of flat and boring a lot of times.
WW: How did you meet your fellow bandmembers? What were the circumstances?
EE: High school or church youth groups. The kind of stuff you do when you’re a kid in a small, American town.
WW: Was it common for friends to get together to play music at your high school? Or were you pretty much the only rock band?
EE: No, no. Not really.
WW: Where did you go to college?
EE: I went to Portland State University.
WW: I came across a reference to you having a history degree. Is that right?
WW: No? Did you study history?
EE: Yeah, I did. Oh yeah, I went to school in Georgia, too, for like a year. That’s where I met Marty [Marquis], actually.
WW: What college in Georgia?
EE: Covenant College in Lookout Mountain. It’s a small private school. It was too expensive, so I went to Portland State.
WW: Did you not get a degree? Or did you get a degree in something else?
EE: I got a degree in English. I almost had a mathematics degree, but I dropped out for a while.
WW: That’s a big switch from math to English. What inspired the change?
EE: I don’t know. I’d been studying math for a long time. I enjoyed it. I was studying physics, and then I quit school, and when I came back, I wanted to finish.
WW: Did you know what you wanted to do with your degree after you finished school? Or was music at the top of the list?
EE: I just finished school to make my mother happy (laughs).
WW: And was she?
EE: Yeah, I guess so.
WW: Had the band already started when you were still in college?
EE: Kind of. I dropped out, and then I started the band, and then I went back for a little while and finished.
WW: The band started small, but then, all of a sudden, you started getting great reviews in a lot of national publications. Did that come as a surprise to you?
EE: I don’t know. Not really. We never really pushed a record before. You know: a publicist and the whole thing. The first time we did it was Wild Mountain Nation and it did really well. It might have happened earlier if we had done that before.
WW: What was it that spurred your decision to go out there and market yourself more?
EE: I don’t know. We had some money and we thought, “Let’s do this right. Let’s do it for our own label.”
WW: At what point along the way did Sub Pop get interested?
EE: I don’t know. I think before we put out Wild Mountain Nation. I think they heard some demos and stuff and liked them.
WW: But you decided to put out Wild Mountain Nation yourself rather than to wait for them.
EE: Yeah, pretty much.
WW: Obviously you did well with Wild Mountain Nation. But would you rather leave the marketing to someone else rather than do those kinds of things yourself?
EE: Yeah. At this point, we couldn’t handle it. There’s just too much stuff we’d have to do at this point. We can’t handle the business end of it at this point, because we’re touring, so we have to have somebody else do it – and Sub Pop is really good at that.
WW: Have you already started work toward the first official Sub Pop album?
EE: Yeah, it’s done.
WW: Tell me about it.
EE: (Laughs.) What do you want to know?
WW: Is it similar to Wild Mountain? Or is it very different?
EE: I mean, it’s definitely pretty different in some ways. But in other ways, it’s still all over the place.
WW: Do you always welcome multiple influences on every song? Or do you sometimes have to say, “We’ve got too much going on in this song. We’ve got to cut back a little”?
EE: (Laughs.) I don’t know. I don’t really think about it that way. I don’t really think about writing songs. Whatever treatment works, that’s what I go with.
WW: Could you mention some of the specific songs? What are some titles?
EE: The titles? (Laughs.) Well, I don’t know. I can tell you what this record’s going to be called. It’s going to be called Furr, with two Rs.
WW: Are you playing any of the new songs on the tour?
EE: Yeah, we’re playing, like, three of them.
WW: Did you produce the album yourself?
WW: Did you upgrade in terms of studio and setting?
EE: Not really, although it definitely sounds more hi-fi than Wild Mountain Nation. But that was just me finding my recording techniques over the past year.
WW: Just you getting better at it?
WW: You’ve talked about wanting Wild Mountain Nation to be more accessible than your previous recordings. Is the new album even more accessible than that? Or have you gone off in a different direction?
EE: No, it’s definitely more accessible.
WW: Did you decide to do that because you wanted to reach more people? Or did you just follow the music, and that’s where it went?
EE: I think it’s just the way the music went. I don’t know. I don’t really look at it like that way. I think the thing about Wild Mountain Nation is that it was an accessible record, but it was produced in such a lo-fi manner that it comes off as being very experimental. I feel like if that record had been produced in a really nice studio with Pro Tools, people wouldn’t talk about it that way. But I think the production and how the record sounds has a lot to do with the appeal of it in a certain way. Gave it legitimacy.
WW: By doing it yourself, does that bring the band closer together?
EE: Kind of. I just like to keep control of everything, and I’ve produced records a lot. I know how to do it.
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WW: Do you someday aspire to go into the big studio with the 48-tracks and so on?
EE: I’ve done that before. There’s not a whole lot you gain by doing that in terms of quality. There are certain aspects of recording in a pro-style recording that are good, but people make really good records in all kinds of different ways.
WW: And because the meter isn’t ticking as fast when you do it yourself, does that give you more freedom?
EE: Oh yeah, definitely.