Portland alt.country band Blitzen Trapper have been crisscrossing the globe for more than a decade, and in that time have amassed a plethora of accolades for their unabashed love for pastoral Americana circa 1970. Little has changed since the band – currently Eric Earley (guitar/harmonica/vocals/keyboard), Erik Menteer (guitar/keyboard), Brian Adrian Koch (drums/vocals/harmonica), Michael VanPelt (bass) and Marty Marquis (guitar/keyboards/vocals/melodica) – formed in 2000, yet subtle variations segue from that original blueprint to see the band fortifying a definitive sound with each stellar release.
Their latest opus is 2011's American Goldwing, their fourth release through Sub Pop, which sees Earley and the band delve into the past more than ever before. The frontman believes that the album is truly indicative of how he has grown as a songwriter. “I think I have been able to achieve a level of honesty in writing that I didn't give much thought to when I started playing music,” he says. “These songs are all about something specific and are personal; I know what each song is about, that's the type of songwriting that I like to do. I think that comes with time, being comfortable to write about yourself or those close to you – to give a voice to that and to be able to enjoy writing about these personal things.”
When music begins to take on that personal nature though, it requires the level of reflection that, when events are dissected and put under the cold harsh light of hindsight, can be pretty damaging. Earley assuages that his personal reflection remains ultimately hopeful though. “This album is about where I grew up, people I knew, and there is always going to be that wistful notion of wondering what things would have been like if I had gone in a different direction, travelled out on a different street. But I think that is always the case with songwriting – you are writing about what you know. The difference this time around was I was being more literal and honest with myself about these experiences I had had. Some songs are about my childhood; some are about recent relationships and stuff like that. For me, I can't really write these songs unless I know where I am coming from. I have to know what these things mean to me, something that is more apparent now than maybe it was before. These memories come from a very concrete place for me. So now the songs I end up writing are the ones that I care about, or truly know, otherwise I can't really see the point of writing it.”
This mirrors the genetic make-up of the lyrics also, which eschews the more narrative-driven pastiches for a more personal, exploratory tone. “A couple of songs are still driven by narrative – it is hard to break away from when that is what you are used to writing,” Earley states. “And I think I will always write songs like that, to an extent. I just think that if a song is too hard now, I'm not gonna write it! If it isn't coming naturally it's best to throw it away. I don't wanna keep at songs that kinda lead me on, you know? There has to be a better way!”
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The album is named after a classic motorcycle and the musicality of American Goldwing seems to mirror this also, with the band proffering a more archetypal 1970s American rock sound. “That is all the kind of music I like to listen to, definitely, those 1970s American country albums, riff rock and stuff like that,” Earley muses. “I also wanted to keep things very simple, you know, drums, guitar, a little keyboard… I didn't really want to experiment at all. This record to me is just natural. I wanted to create something that seemed natural to me.”
Having held down the fort as a band for more than 12 years, with their debut self-titled album clocking up its tenth anniversary, it's safe to say that Blitzen Trapper have entrenched themselves into their own mode of musical aesthetics and output, yet Earley explains that the winds, they are always a-changing – there is no fixed point and the path continues to veer off into weird and wonderful terrain. “I don't think we ever had any desire or vision on what we wanted to be, ever, so we're happy to continue letting the music take us along. My thing is that I tend to go from record to record, making music that reflects what I'm into at that given time. The stuff on American Goldwing is stuff I would like to listen to, so that element has never changed, but I never know what I'm going to be listening to or doing, so pinning down where I'm headed is never going to happen. The one constant is playing, I'm always looking forward to getting back out there.”
Once an album takes root, it is often understandable that the new material supersedes the importance of what came before, so much so that its relevance to the band become diluted, or even dissipates entirely. Earley stresses that although his mode of songwriting and outlook on the process may have altered, he will always embrace the band's material, which is rich in history and meaning for the quintet. “I don't think that could ever happen for me. For me, playing music is just as much for the audience as it is for us. We are giving something to them, something that they want, and holding some attitude about not wanting to offer that to your own fans would never happen for us. So I just like to play the songs that people want to hear, to be honest. I mean, I like playing what I wanna play, but it's when you see people enjoying themselves that you start to actually enjoy yourself.
The band has visited Australian shores numerous times in their history, yet there seems to be added fire in the belly when it comes to this particular tour. “The current record is a good one to play live, which is always a plus. It's been two years since we have been down there, and we always seem to get great responses, which is always beneficial,” Earley laughs. “It's all about having a good time, and the shows are great. Plus the fact that we are on such a great festival [Bluesfest] means there will be time to relax and take some other music in, which is always nice. A good way to spend a working holiday!”