“I’ve been here so long, the weird stuff is normal,” laughs Eric Earley, frontman of Portland-based folk-rock outfit Blitzen Trapper, of his hometown. The band, which toured last year to support their latest album, Wild And Reckless, is gearing up to hit the road again with a show in San Jose, California on February 16th.
The album, born from their theater production of the same title, marks a new adventure for the band, who has been unleashing music and tearing up highways together for almost two decades. “The songs were written and recorded before the theater production,” Early explains. “When we were approached by the theater, I put some of the songs together to create this narrative piece, tweaking the lyrics a little. They asked me if I could come up with a show, and I was like ‘yeah I can do that!’ even though I had no idea what I was going to do,” he laughs. “It worked out really good.”
“It was a cross between a rock opera and a musical,” he continues of the stage production. “In an opera, the lines are sung, but in a musical, sometimes they’re spoken. There were spoken lines but also sung lines here. I wrote it with two directors; it was really interesting to write it, to figure out how to make that kind of production. It usually ended up with them reigning me in, ‘no, you can’t do that’ or whatever, but a lot of times they’d say ‘yeah we can do this,’ and I’d be like ‘really?’” he laughs. “It was a learning experience for sure. I’d definitely do it again.”
The album’s subject matter floats on the idea of folks on the fringes, a foundation virtually ripped from today’s headlines, and is the hard-scrabble story of so many. “I write songs for records and I feel like sometimes I don’t put a lot of thought into trying to figure out what a record is about, I like to write quickly and later on look back and see what a record is really about,” Earley reveals. “As I look at this record as a whole, it really is about opioid abuse. It’s a huge issue, and in my 20s, my best friend was an addict, for many years, and I was drawn into that world. I’d never written anything addressing that subject matter, and for some reason, I decided to do it now,” he adds. “The show ended up being about that too, mine and her relationship.”
While the album is inspired by that friendship, the songs encompass a variety of stories of characters based on real people. One such song, is “Joanna,” an arresting tale of a victimized woman who exacts revenge on her abuser “‘That life is a reality for a lot of people,” explains Earley. “The presentation is obviously a fiction, a fantasy; victims never really get justice, and in the song, it’s like a riddle. In the end, she kills him, but is that good for her? There’s no answer to it. To me, it’s a story,” he says. “There are no judgments passed.”
With a new album out, a tour in process, and plans to release a lo-fi kids’ album this year (“The subjects range from getting new shoes to magical animals that talk,” he says with a laugh), Earley makes room for reflection. “We’re all really good friends who have known each other forever. A lot of it is just learning how to tour without suffering from bad mojo,” he comments on the band’s longevity. “There’ve been times when it felt like people were going to quit or we were breaking up, but at this point, it’s our job, and we’ve all had lots of other jobs before Blitzen Trapper that were terrible and we hated them. We have a good idea what would lie ahead if we stopped playing music,” he laughs. “We want to keep playing as long as we can.”