Interview: Blitzen Trapper

Portland, Oregon’s Blitzen Trapper have been producing delicately crafted albums for over a decade, charting their own distinct musical course and building a sizable fan base along the way. Wild And Reckless, the band’s ninth studio album, is both adventurous in sound and scope, taking songs initially written for a stage production into the studio to offer a fascinating take on American life. Americana-UK speaks to frontman Eric Earley about stage productions, murder ballads and the song-writing process. 

So, nine albums in, I’m guessing a lot has changed over the years in terms of how you make records? I read somewhere that you write songs pretty quickly, is that still the case or does it, like many things as you get older, take a little more time?
I’ll generally write a song in ten or twenty minutes and then fine tune for a few days until I’m ready to demo, and then I tweak some more during that process as well. The lyrics often get changed subtly for a while until a final studio recording.

What made you want to make a musical/rock opera? Has that been an ambition or did it just, well, happen?
I’d never thought about a production like this before until the theatre approached us about coming up with some kind of show. Even then I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like. The narrative and flow of the show took a year to develop and perfect using workshops and all kinds of cooperative feedback.

How easy was it to take the songs from the stage and make them into an album? Did you feel any conflict doing so? In your head do you see these songs ‘visually’ as you would see them on a stage or can you just focus on the aural nature of their make-up?
I had written and demoed the songs about six months prior to being approached by the theatre so it was initially a record. When asked to create the show, I felt like a good group of the new stuff could be tweaked and used in the narrative along with older tracks. I think the show had an effect on my final treatment of the album. its themes and overall atmosphere were definitely enhanced by the production.

Tell me a little more about the whole concept. Was there always an intention to follow-up the themes of Furr on another record at some point? Did it just feel the right time to do so? Given America’s current political situation I’m guessing the fuel for the fire was right there?
I think as the album came together in its final form, I started to realize I was revisiting certain themes I’d been obsessed with back in ’07 when I wrote Furr; The idea of the layers of society, the people on the bottom, and those at the top. And that sense of justice being just an illusion, which is the true meaning underpinning all ‘murder ballads’ such as Black River Killer or, on the new album, Joanna. Also, the seemingly self-fulfilling urge toward apocalypse that exists in the western world in the absence of domestic wars. The current political situation is eye-opening if not surprising.

I love the production on this album; it really is so warm and inviting. You and Michael have really done a beautiful job. In fact, I think the production on all your albums has been wonderful. For a band that has never been tied to any one genre, do you enjoy being in the studio and experimenting? Or do you have the record shaped and sounded before you go in?
I do a lot of experimenting at my home studio before we go into the actual studio. In the pro-style studio it’s about capturing the actual sounds as opposed to the arrangements for the most part. Much of the warmth and largesse of the record is due to James R. Brown’s mixing actually. He’s a wizard to be sure. I enjoy the studio immensely and always have, even as recorded music’s scarcity and value has declined over the years. It’s still fulfilling to hear what you imagined in your head become reality.

Tell me a little more about Joanna. It’s a murder ballad that sounds both from a bygone age yet strangely of the here and now. It really carries a punch.
I wrote that song a few years back and held onto it thinking it was too harsh, too violent, to put it simply. With this album, it seemed right, and of course, it’s a fantasy. There’s rarely, if ever, that kind of justice done in the case of child abuse. Someone very close to me in my twenties and early thirties had been a victim of abuse and I remember feeling a very real anger, a desire for justice hearing her stories of it, though she seemed to possess an otherworldly compassion and forgiveness for this person who had violated her as a child.  To me, the song poses questions, is Joanna better off having violently dealt justice? Does it change her even more than she’s already been changed? To me, it’s very personal as I’ve said, but it’s also a riddle in certain ways.

‘Wild And Reckless’ has such an anthemic feel I can’t help but punch the air at certain points! Did it feel like that when you had written it? It’s epic. It must have had some impact when playing that one back in the studio?
That song ended up being the central number of the stage production, very powerful to sing each night with the whole cast and indeed it holds a lot of anthemic power. The story is the age-old ‘boy meets girl and they get into trouble and go on the run etc.’ I think everyone lives that moment even if it’s just for an afternoon.

To my ears, you are a storyteller at heart. A lot of your songs could come straight off the pages of old dime novels given new life and a soundtrack. It reminds me a little of Waits in that respect, life’s more interesting people and tales tend to come from the dark end of the street. Do you see it that way?
I imagine I do see it that way, whether I want to or not, that’s what I like and that’s what I’m drawn toward. I remember listening obsessively to Rain Dogs in high school, those stories, that atmosphere Waits was able to create, it was mind-blowing just how all-encompassing it was.

Musically, who inspires you guys? Where do you draw your influences?
It’s an extremely diverse pool of influences, as you’d guess. On this record, I wanted to tell stories in the vein of Townes Van Zant or Springsteen but with underlying psychedelia like you’d find on Dark Side Of The Moon or OK Computer. I think it finds its balance somewhere in my early obsessions with Syd Barrett and of course Dylan.

For me, I’ve always looked at you guys in the same vein as I look at Wilco. You seem totally free of any musical confines and just do exactly what you want when it comes to making records. It’s so refreshing! Do you feel that sense of freedom?
I do feel a freedom, not that it’s been always wise from a career standpoint to exercise that freedom but I can generally say for good or worse I’ve always followed what I was hearing in my head for the most part.

I wish you so much luck with what I think is yet another brilliant record. What are the plans for 2018? Any UK dates scheduled?
I imagine we’ll make it over there next year. Here’s hoping!

Wild And Reckless is out on now on Lojinx Records

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