An alley is quite the interesting place to interview a band, but there we were, watching the rats run by, huddling against the chill of a new spring evening. After downing a few beers and chatting with the members of Blitzen Trapper about screenplay ideas and an impending move to Portland, we got down to business in the rodent-infested alley behind the appropriately-named Black Cat in Washington, DC.
Later that evening, the band, along with openers Fleet Foxes (who put on an amazing set), would thrill a sold-out crowd to songs from its breakout album, Wild Mountain Nation. But before the music, there was an alley.
There are six members to this Portland-based collective that has been making music since 2000: Eric Earley (vocals/guitars), Erik Menteer (guitar/keyboard), Brian Koch (drums/vocals), Drew Laughery (keyboard), Marty Marquis (guitar/keyboard/vocals), and bassist Michael Van Pelt (who decided to forego the revelry of the alleyway). We finally settled in and talked about things that any group of guys would discuss: music, sci-fi, Tom Cruise, and lug nuts.
I hear you guys had some car troubles on the way over here.
EE: It wasn't car trouble as much as it was tire trouble. It was nut trouble. The mechanic screwed up and he didn't tighten the screws down into the tire. So one of them popped out and it was a mess. We stopped and tried to fix it, but they kicked us out of the gas station for some reason. So we had to go to McDonald's and use their parking lot.
What was the inspiration behind your Wild Mountain Nation album? It sounds like it has a philosophy behind it.
EE: Does it? Does it seem that way? I don't think it does necessarily in my mind. A lot of people have viewed it as a back to nature record but it's not really. What do you think, Brian? I can never answer questions.
BK: What kind of philosophy does it seem like it has?
It's kind of like it this ‘let's get back to nature' type of thing.
EE: That's not what I was thinking. It's more like let's leave Planet Earth and go out into the stars. We can find a habitable planet. Somewhere where the wolves and eagles are joined together except the wolves have wings.
BK: We didn't ever talk about any explicit messages.
It just seems like there is a sub cultural identity you guys tried to create.
EE: I think it just comes from the fact that we all live and grew up in the Northwest. Maybe that's part of it.
A lot of the reviews that have come out about your album and your sound call it a pastiche or a bunch of different styles all rolled into one. Is that a conscious thing or did it just come together that way?
BK: Eric is the primary songwriter and his songs range the gamut. We're playing primarily his songs. It comes from a combination of his vast capability in songwriting and our mutual boredom with doing the same thing over and over again.
It sounds like your influences range from alt-country to prog rock to metal. I've read Eric doesn't buy records. So where do these influences come from for you?
EE: I don't buy records, but I listen to music because it's everywhere. It's all around us. That's why I don't really buy it. Because you can go wherever and someone's always got music. There's almost too much music. I think get most of my ideas from books. I feel like Wild Mountain Nation is a combination of Jorge Luis Borges, Zane Grey, Italo Calvino with maybe a little bit of Frank Herbert thrown in.
BK: There is some Louis L'Amour in there.
EE: There's way more Louis L'Amour than a lot of things. I don't really read Louis anymore. I tried. I already read 50 of his books. I always wished Borges had written more. He just wrote a slew of short stories, a little poetry, but not enough to make me happy. Italo Calvino is the other half of that and Philip K. Dick kind of jumped the barricade too.
Are you speaking about yourself in the “Sci-Fi Kid” song?
EE: Yeah, I suppose so. I like to read sci-fi. Today I went to the IMAX and watched the Space Station 3-D at the Smithsonian. It was pretty sweet. Tom Cruise is narrating.
You said most of your influences come from reading…
EE: And movies too. I liked that Cloverfield movie. That was brilliant. I really like certain television shows. I really like “Firefly.” That's one of my favorites. The movie that came out of it, I can't remember…
EE: Serenity. That was amazing.
Do you watch “Battlestar Galactica?”
EE: That's great. I got through the first two seasons. I don't think Season Three is out yet.
It's out on DVD last week.
EE: Last week? Oh, rad!
Do you have musicians that you really dig?
EE: It depends on what time of my life I'm in. Wild Mountain Nation was patterned in certain ways after Pavement. It's patterned in certain ways after Sonic Youth and maybe Gram Parsons. But the next record is patterned more like Bob Dylan with a little Sergio Leone and Cat Stevens thrown in.
It seems Wowee Zowee is referenced a lot when people talk about your album.
EE: Which is weird because I feel like I sing better than Stephen Malkmus.
So, where do you think they're getting that from?
EE: I don't know. It's a mystery. Other than I listened to his first two records religiously as a kid. That could have something to do with it.
EM: I told someone the other day it was a more of an aesthetic approach. Malkmus has this way of seeming really off-the-cuff; at making difficult things look easy initially. It kind of has that same feel to it, even if it doesn't sound anything like Pavement.
EE: It's sloppy. Stephen Malkmus is super sloppy.
BK: But it's sloppy in a beautiful way, not in the pejorative.
What affect have you guys seen since Pitchfork named Wild Mountain Nation ‘Best New Music.' Have you seen a difference?
BK: A lot of people come out to see us at shows and mention they saw us on Pitchfork. That's a nice, direct result.
MM: Pitchfork is one piece of getting the word out there. We definitely sold a bunch of digital copies of the record that we probably wouldn't have if they hadn't done that. That's a good thing, especially when you self-releasing, because there is no cost. It's kind of like free money.
EE: They are like the Siskel and Ebert of music at this point.
BK: You're dating yourself with that reference.
EE: I said Siskel and Ebert purposefully.
Back when Stephen Malkmus put out Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, indie music was a word of mouth type of thing. But today with the internet, shit gets out really fast. It's a double-edged sword. I am wondering what you guys think of the proliferation of music. Do you see any negatives to it?
BK: That's a complex issue. I don't know, that's a long conversation.
EE: It's just a huge piece of the puzzle of modern music. There's millions of bands making millions of songs. Some are good and some are bad, although good and bad has no meaning anymore. Music is not sacred anymore. There's no big heroes of rock anymore. It's changed. But it's not good or bad. It just is.
It seems as a society we are speeding up. Things are going faster.
EE: That's because there are billions and billions of people, man.
BK: It is sort of analogous to the ‘80s when synthesizers and cocaine were just everywhere. It definitely affected the music scene. Certain kinds of music came out of it. It increased the ability of just about anybody who had a keyboard because it was so cheap. The same thing is happening now with recording equipment and the ability to publish yourself cheaply and freely. It's not necessarily good or bad. It is what it is but it also means there is a saturation there.
My concern would be peaking too fast because we're moving so fast. Things that are du jour one day are not any longer at a faster rate than before.
EE: Yeah, but not for fans. If you're touring, you make fans and that's a completely different world than the universe of the blogosphere. We've toured with bands that have gotten shitty reviews but still sell out huge halls all over Europe. There's a blogosphere universe, but I don't really care about it. I just care about playing for real humans. That's what really matters.
BK: It is a nice little kick in the butt out the door.
EE: Yeah, it's the best kind of press because it's instantaneous.
DL: It is and it isn't. I feel like definitely there's buzzheads who come out after reading the latest buzz and come to a show and they decide for themselves if they're going to hang with it for awhile or if they're going to move on. People rely heavily on blogs to tell them what's cool.
In an ideal world, what is the best way to find out about new music?
EE: Close your eyes, lean back and fuse with the gestalt.
DL: But I think blogs are good in that way, if you have a good compass. You can be like “Oh yeah, this is cool. I really think this cool.” People who do that will continue with a band.
EM: We're becoming information hunters and gatherers like back on the plains. Only now instead of spears, we use search terms. It is sort of exciting in that way.
Is this the biggest headlining tour you've been on?
EE: It's our only headlining tour.
How do you guys feel about that?
BK: It's great.
EM: It is kind of strange because you make this jump from when you're going around with somebody that's already really well established and pretty much every show is sold out. Actually, it's been really good, now that I think about it. But you do definitely get kind of a step down to where there's less people coming out but that's just because you're still building.
MM: You gotta work harder when you're a headliner.
What is the difference between a headlining show and one where you're supporting?
MM: We play a little bit longer. That's about it. We have to show up at the venue earlier because you have to sound check first. You get treated a little better. Better beer.
So what should we expect in the next year from Blitzen Trapper?
DL: There's a new record coming out in September
BK: Some shocking revelations. Some good gossip. Celebrity sightings. A pregnancy amongst one of us. I'm making predictions. I should preface this by saying these prophecies. None of these things are for sure, but this is what I'm seeing.