Eric Earley's father was a musician who taught his son to play the banjo at age six. Music was always around the house, and it was his father's dying wish that Earley pursue a music career. Eleven years ago, he honored that wish by starting Blitzen Trapper with some high-school chums.
There have been some touch-and-go moments since Blitzen Trapper released their first two albums — their self-titled debut and Field Rexx. Earley became homeless for a couple years, but it was a choice of sorts. His bandmates had moved out of their communal house, and so he sold it — and most of his possessions with it.
The guitarist/vocalist had a hotplate and slept on a couch in an old telegraph building near the Willamette River in downtown Portland, which was their practice space/studio. He hid knives around the place in case he was jumped by area crack addicts. During this time, he worked obsessively and concurrently on the two albums that would become their breakthroughs, Wild Mountain Nation and Furr.
"I just didn't care about much. I had come to the head of a certain road in my life, and I decided that I wanted to get rid of everything and start over," Earley told me a couple years ago. At the end of a bad relationship and two years of grieving over the loss of his father, he just shut everything down but the music. "I felt really empty and that was when I got rid of the house we were in along with all my belongings and decided not to be anywhere."
With nothing else on his mind, Earley focused on creating his twin indie-folk masterpieces Wild Mountain Nation and Furr. They arrived just as other similarly minded Northwestern acts like Vetiver, Fleet Foxes, and Band of Horses were emerging. Blitzen Trapper's 2007 self-release of Wild Mountain Nation met rave reviews in Pitchfork and Spin among others, and Sub Pop quickly signed them and rereleased the disc. The next thing Earley and company knew, they were on tour with the Hold Steady.
"It was our first tour we ever did," Earley recalled last week. "We were getting paid very little and playing for 300-400 capacity rooms. Not huge places, really. Rock clubs. It was fun. It was a lot of drinking and partying and trying to figure out how to stay alive. We would camp between shows sometimes because we didn't have any money and couldn't afford hotels."
Like Wild Mountain Nation and Furr, Destroyer of the Void and American Goldwing followed within a year of each other in 2010 and 2011, though the two discs are quite different from each other. Destroyer is a keenly crafted baroque art-folk epic that opens with the six-minute title track and blends hearty heaps of melody and pretty psychedelic trill and shimmer.
Goldwing is a meatier slab of '70s classic rock with prominent echoes of The James Gang and The Band. There's a straightforwardness to the songs befitting a greater simplicity. The songs themselves are more personal and confessional in nature than Earley's typical narratives, and they were driven by childhood nostalgia.
A similar spirit enlivens last year's VII. Though not as much Southern rock shines through on this album, it still bears a strong classic rock influence. "Neck Tatts, Cadillacs" bends twangy blues-soul and hip-hop mannerisms, while "Ever Love Once" sounds like Bad Company trying to get their Levon Helm on. "Feel the Chill" kicks grimy gut-bucket blues, and the country-soul "Heart Attack" would feel at home on an Eagles album.
"I was wanting to capture the feelings I get when I'm out of town out in Oregon's more rural areas and places like where I grew up. I'm just trying to capture the darkness of Oregon. It's hard to explain, but people who grew up in the area know what I mean," Earley says. "It's music that comes out of kind of an isolated place."
One big facet of the new album, which you can hear beginning on American Goldwing, is an emphasis on rhythm. That sense of deep-down boogie and seductive slow-burn grooves line the album, from the slinky, Santana-like "Faces of You" to the slithery, country-blues track "Earth (Fever Called Love)."
"That was a factor of the songwriting," Early says. "There was more in that kind of simple groove going on and quarter runs maybe. It's even a little more repetitive underneath the stories."
The new album actually emerged after a false start or two, and there's plenty of material that got shelved as Earley was casting about for a sound.
"Yeah, I started recording a lot of stuff and I'll probably wind up using a lot of it on other records, but I don't know. I'm mostly interested in whatever makes me most excited I guess," he chuckles. "Sometimes I will get in a groove with some kind of way of production or writing style, and that's what I end up doing."
Earley has achieved more success than his father could probably imagine. He's traveled the world alongside people who he grew up with, and he has achieved an acclaim that must've seemed impossible when he had no home address. He's been able to record bigger albums and leave the van behind for a tour bus. But mostly he just appreciates sharing the music.
"I just love shows. I like playing, and we have a lot of records now and a lot of material that our fans like, and they recognize and want to hear. We're able to play long sets and play covers," he says. "We feel sort of free to do whatever we want, which is cool. We don't have anything to prove to anybody, really. We have enough fans to do pretty good, and they like when we do weird stuff like fuse one of our songs with a Joe Walsh song or do whatever. People don't care; they think it's great."