With honest notes, Portland rockers hope to avoid the trap of quick fame
ASPEN – It is with no bitterness that Eric Earley says that, for rock stars, “the days of riding in a private jet – that’s gone.” The absence of regret is notable because Earley, a 32-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist, is at the point where he can look into the near future and see, if not private jets, at least a limo stocked with beverage of his choice.Earley is the leader of Blitzen Trapper, a Portland, Ore.-based sextet he put together four years ago. A native of Salem, Ore., Earley called on a cast of musicians he had gone to high school with in putting the band together. He had had a string of previous groups, but they were the types of projects that forced him to take day jobs – as a cook, as a farmhand.Blitzen Trapper has become something different. After two early albums, the group hit critical paydirt with “Wild Mountain Nation,” a 2007 effort that spotlighted the band’s original approach to music. At times, the sound could be folky, almost like a throwback to the ’60s. On other songs, Earley and company could crank up the electric guitars and add modern break-beats.After signing with the distinguished Seattle label Sub Pop, Blitzen Trapper raised the ante with last year’s “Furr.” The album, even more eclectic than “Wild Mountain Nation,” earned a two-page feature in Rolling Stone, and a No. 13 ranking in the magazine’s list of the best albums of 2008. In “Furr,” one can hear a universe of influences, from Nirvana to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin to the Replacements, the Jayhawks to Donovan. The transitions can be jarring: going from “Not Your Lover,” reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Harvest”-era, piano-and-harmonica sound straight into the full-throated shriek that opens “Love U” can be unnerving.Coincidentally, Blitzen Trapper has risen to the forefront around the same time as Fleet Foxes, another Northwestern band, also signed to Sub Pop, that starts with folk rock and adds a variety of rock elements. Also in roughly the same waters is Loch Lomond, a Portland band which opens for Blitzen Trapper tonight at Belly Up. But Earley doesn’t see the bands as part of a cohesive movement along the lines of the grunge movement that came out of Seattle nearly two decades ago. “There’s a general feeling of a music scene. There are a lot of bands there,” he said. “But I’m not sure it’s so connected.”Still, it is no coincidence that Blitzen Trapper and Fleet Foxes sound like relatives. Earley says that both bands – like many groups in the Portland-to-Seattle corridor – started out with a deep appreciation of folk music, styles that had firm roots in the ground.”There’s a gravitating toward more natural subject matter, the natural world,” said Earley, who learned both banjo and guitar as a kid, and began writing songs at a young age. “And a nostalgia, but also a looking forward. That comes from the kind of people who are there in the Northwest, the kind of lifestyle there.”Earley says the region has been important in Blitzen Trapper’s songs. “There’s a feeling of space and a feeling of violence that are tied together,” he said. “And a feeling of being part of a culture that is young but has lost a lot of innocence. Those are elements of the stories I like to tell.” While the violent aspect isn’t often apparent in the sound, a run down the song titles of “Furr” – including “Black River Killer,” “God & Suicide” and “War on Machines” – shows where Earley’s concerns lie.Earley, who has also written two unpublished novels, has confronted the new realities of popular music – basically, more work, less pay, little chance of private jets – with the attitude of an artist. He is more interested in telling his stories than he is in bringing back the era of mega-rock.”It depends what kind of success you want,” he said. “You can be successful and honest with your music. If you want to make simplistic pop music, that’s one way to go and you might be around for a little while. And if you write substantial music, you’ve got a good chance of sticking around.”email@example.com
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