For a guy not overly concerned with selling records, Eric Earley sure does make a lot of them.
The prolific wordsmith and enigmatic music man fronting Portland, Oregon-based Blitzen Trapper also lets his songs do much of the talking, at least judging by this interview while he was in the middle of an American tour to support All Across This Land, the alternative rockers' eighth studio album.
Speaking on a spotty cellphone on the road "in the middle of nowhere" between gigs in Birmingham, Alabama, and Austin, Texas, Earley was way laid back as he examined the importance of live performance over studio recordings.
Getting to know this talented yet taciturn musician after just being introduced to his band's music proved difficult initially, and a stiff drink before lunch to break the ice was out of the question. At times, extracting information was like pulling teeth -- and almost just as painful.
There was no sense of urgency to plug his latest product either, despite the fact that All Across This Land had only been out since early October, about the same time this tour started. No matter how many albums they sell, Blitzen Trapper, like a team full of gritty grinders, will somehow survive.
Members of Blitzen Trapper (from left): Brian Adrian Koch, Marty Marquis,
Erik Menteer, Michael Van Pelt and Eric Earley. Photo by Jason Quigley.
The band that includes co-founder Michael Van Pelt (bass), Erik Menteer (guitar), Brian Adrian Koch (drums) and Marty Marquis (keyboards) basically has remained intact since its inception 15 years ago.
That's almost as unfathomable as an enduring Hollywood marriage, yet Earley claims they haven't run into many "super-challenging" roadblocks. If there's a compelling secret to their successful longevity, though, he's keeping it to himself.
"We all like to play and we've made pretty good money over the years," Earley said. "More recently, the biggest challenge is the slow death of the music industry. It kind of puts a vice grip on you as you try and have a family. That's kind of the biggest challenge at this point for everybody; there's just no money left in the industry, basically. Or there is money but it's going to like .1 percent of the people that play."
In fact, Earley admitted, their primary objectives now involve going to places where they've never performed before like New Zealand and Japan.
"Apart from that, our general goal is to just sell more tickets," he said, laughing. "And make better records each record."
Earley gave the impression that making them takes precedence over publicizing or selling them.
"Labels have very little to do with anything anymore," he said. "They're kind of just a mechanism for putting records out. But the majority of the money is made on the road by the band touring. The label is useful for putting out the record but the record at this point almost serves like a point of reference for bands."
While members of Blitzen Trapper thrive on live shows, they're also finding other ways to remain relevant to potential customers with short attention spans.
"Social media has become more complicated and more important as well," said Earley, who recognized its significance when the band got its first record deal eight years ago after he said an A&R guy heard "Wild Mountain Nation" on Blitzen Trapper's MySpace page.
"We're trying to get better at it," he added. "I'm pretty involved. ... Different platforms are more important. Like Instagram is super-important now. Facebook is pretty darn important, too. But there might be another platform in another year or two. You just don't know. And the platforms themselves change. Their usefulness changes and the way that they interact changes."
Keeping up with the times might enable them to stay fresh, even as they get older. Earley said he considers All Across This Land to be Blitzen Trapper's "most mature record," but it's obvious why they stay young at heart by emphasizing their live act.
If the Oct. 26 show at Denver's Bluebird Theater is indicative of their touring approach, these no-nonsense workingman's band mates attacking various genres with few frills (and even less BS) have invested wisely in an effort to attract newbies while keeping loyal supporters happy.
Members of Blitzen Trapper include (from left): Michael Van Pelt,
Eric Earley and Marty Marquis.
To satisfy their middle-aged crazies, they dipped into their vast well with "Texaco" (from 2003's self-titled debut), the title track from 2007's Wild Mountain Nation, "Not Your Lover" (2008's Furr), "Big Black Bird" (2009's Black River Killer EP) and "Astronaut" and "Fletcher" (2011's American Goldwing).
As energy levels raised in intensity throughout the evening, those were sprinkled through the set with many of the new songs on an album that even can be considered a throwback, an admission Earley drolly accepted during the interview by saying, "We use real instruments. There's no drum machines or electronics."
While midtempo numbers from the new album like "Lonesome Angel" and "Cadillac Road" left the crowd with a peaceful, easy feeling early on, bona fide rockers such as "Nights Were Made for Love," "All Across This Land" (sparked by some "Sympathy for the Devil" woo-hoos) and "Shine On" (from 2013's more adventurous VII) kicked everyone's asses into gear before an extended encore that included an appearance by members of the Domestics, the supporting act that's another Portland-based quintet.
Earley, in an unbuttoned sleeveless plaid shirt, flexed his instrumental muscles with electric and acoustic guitars and an ever-present harmonica, sometimes sounding like a West Coast version of Bob Dylan or Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. There was little charming chatter with the audience, but he did occasionally interact with the band, primarily trading guitar riffs with Menteer (left).
The crowd seemed to appreciate getting an early taste of the Beatles, though, as "Thirsty Man" segued into "Come Together." Then following a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" and more stripped-down numbers during the satisfying conclusion, Earley led his fab four farther down Abbey Road with a stirring rendition of "You Never Give Me Your Money" on which Koch shared lead vocals.
Considering where they were and what is later revealed in this article, the only disappointment was leaving "Rocky Mountain High" off the setlist. Apparently, it's already been done, and as Earley pointed out in the interview six days earlier, "We generally don't play (covers) again after we've used them on tours."
Other than their next fall tour stops, which continue through late November, Earley is reticent to predict where Blitzen Trapper will go from here.
"I don't think I thought about the future much at all -- ever," said a chuckling Earley.
If not quite ready to look ahead, the only son of Ed Earley's three children was able to go back in time for a few moments that were more entertaining than enlightening. An example: "I don't know why I did anything I did in my 20s," he said. "It's a complete mystery."
The family moved to Oregon shortly after his birth in Los Angeles 38 years ago, and Earley got an early musical education from his father and a harmonica-playing grandfather named James.
"He was really good," Earley recalled of his dad's dad. "He was like a virtuoso. But he just did it as a hobby. I didn't have a whole lot of musical contact with him. But he played and all his sons played. He played old-time stuff. Like really old stuff."
So much so that Earley believes gramps never had a record collection.
"I don't think there were even record players when he was growing up," Earley said of his grandfather, who left home in southern Missouri at 16 the day after his father "shot himself at the dinner table" to travel the country looking for jobs anywhere he could find one. "I don't know what he did (for a living). There's about 30 years of his life that were a complete mystery, mostly during the depression."
Earley's parents listened to music, though, from dad's Dylan and Crosby, Stills and Nash records to mom's Joan Baez and Doc Watson.
"As a pretty young kid, John Denver was my favorite," Earley revealed. "Like when I was 7 or 8 years old. They had eight-tracks of John Denver I liked."
A mechanic much of his life who performed with his friends and brothers, Ed taught Eric how to play the banjo and other stringed instruments, and the Earleys' two daughters also wrote songs after learning the guitar, and "could both play quite well, actually," their brother said.
Yet it was Eric who became the first -- and so far only -- professional musician in the Earley household. "Anything you learn as a kid you tend to be good at and it comes naturally, I guess," he said. "I don't know that I'm really conscious of their influence other than just the fact that because I was born into that family, I learned how to play."
Despite flunking math in junior high and high school, then enrolling briefly at Covenant College in Georgia, Earley began making straight A's in the subject at Portland State in Oregon while striking up a friendship with his female calculus teacher.
But later classes in English and writing were what wooed him toward his career choice. His dying father also played a pivotal role, requesting that his son pursue music as a profession, according to a 2011 article in USA Today.
Now Earley plays out his life on All Across This Land's 10 songs, all of which he wrote, most of them autobiographical, including nostalgic set pieces such as "Mystery and Wonder" and "Nights Were Made for Love."
From a technical standpoint, Earley considers it the best-sounding record Blitzen Tripper has made and, as co-producer with Van Pelt, credits mixer James Brown at the Union in New York.
Yet, in dealing with matters of the heart and soul, Earley relied on "some of my most maybe simplistic or straightforward songwriting" by creating tunes "with as few bells and whistles as possible, really," he said. "Just getting it down to sort of the best things about Blitzen Trapper."
When pressed, he chose "Across the River," the album closer that he performed acoustically in Denver, as probably the most personally meaningful because, "I think lyrically, I'm proud of it."
There's a river that runs between the sun and the darkness of our lives /
You can hit the road, or stay in bed / You can sink or swim or fight
As he explained in a press release: "I'm crossing a river to another place that's something like the afterlife -- it's heaven, but it's not. And then my father shows up and he says, 'You're not supposed to be here yet. You've got more stuff to do.' "
Earley isn't really sure what that might entail, though having kids with his wife remains in the plans. For a day job, he already has a head start at construction work.
"Yeah, I do that occasionally now even," he said. "There's tons of stuff I can do. I just don't think about it until I need to."
By the sounds of it, this national man of mystery is building toward the future after all.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the Oct. 26 show at the Bluebird Theater in Denver.