Blitzen Trapper has kicked up some attention lately with backwoods covers of Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams. When the band’s current tour, which hits Harlow’s on Wednesday, stops in hometown Portland later this month, it’ll be with two shows featuring Neil Young’s 1972 autumnal classic “Harvest” in its entirety.
When singer-songwriter-guitarist Eric Earley picked up his phone recently, he was exploring Sauvie Island – 26,000 acres of farmland and wildlife refuge at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. It was a Blitzen Trapper kind of day, one of many in these past few months. Having the summer mostly off for the first time in years, Earley took advantage of his home turf.
“I did a lot of fishing,” he says. “Some hunting. Some construction work. A little bit of traveling. A lot of river swimming.”
When the topic turned to “VII,” the record Blitzen Trapper released almost exactly a year ago, Earley was more than happy to talk about influences on the Americana band. The Wu-Tang Clan, for starters.
“That’s a whole world of rappers right there,” he says. And they created a world of their own. Earley has done something similar with his group.
Blitzen Trapper’s hometown is not the Portland of “Portlandia,” the organic, free-range, caffeine-addled town overrun with New York Times reporters hoping to reinforce sketch comedy stereotypes.
As shown by Earley’s outdoor interests, Blitzen Trapper is a hooks-and-bullets band. It isn’t ironic and it won’t fit quietly or comfortably into any news outlet’s trend story.
Blitzen Trapper is built for rivers and bonfires, for mountains and for mountain-style guitar bursts. Blitzen Trapper is a run out of town in a pickup when the weather turns, a visit to a roadside bar that sits mysteriously on the edge of forests.
Earley grew up south of Portland with drummer Brian Koch, guitarist Erik Menteer and bass player Michael Van Pelt. Earley met multi-instrumentalist Marty Marquis, who grew up in Yakima, Wash., at college in Georgia. Marquis stayed to get his degree; Earley split, moved back to Oregon and started making songs.
Earley’s grandfather worked the bluegrass circuit in the Ozarks, and his parents were folk players who put a banjo in his hand when he was 6. Church worked its influence, too. “The country gospel tabernacle meetings out in Brooks (Ore.), falling asleep as a child on hard wood benches while the country band plays ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee,’ the prayers of the saints rising for all us wandering youth,” Earley writes in the notes that accompanied “VII.”
Blitzen Trapper released its self-titled debut in 2003, but the breakthrough came in 2007 and 2008, with “Wild Mountain Nation,” and its follow-up, “Furr.” Each was a freewheeling mix of folk themes and classic rock riffs. Earley made “Furr” while he was living in the band’s rehearsal space, and its breadth is exemplified by tracks including the Bee Gees-tinged “Saturday Night” and the stone-cold murder ballad, “Black River Killer.”
In 2010, “Destroyer of the Void” took a turn toward prog rock, and 2011’s “American Goldwing” was a classic rock record made for road trips. Then along came “VII,” in time to mark a decade’s worth of records, which itself is an accomplishment.
“It’s cool,” Earley says. “There are two different schools of bands – bands that get huge pretty quick, and then there are the bands that slowly grow and grow, like Wilco and My Morning Jacket. I like to think that hopefully we’re on that kind of trajectory.”
Staying together is one trick. Continuing to surprise longtime listeners is another, and “VII” is Blitzen Trapper’s most experimental record since “Wild Mountain Nation.”
The Wu-Tang influence comes across loud on “Oregon Geography,” a low-fi freight-hopping adventure. “Shine On” flashes a funk influence and a backing soul vocal courtesy of Portland singer Liz Vice, whom Earley met at church.
“Ike and Tina,” Earley says. “I love that stuff.”
What’s not to love? He feels the same way about Neil Young, and fans can expect one or two of those “Harvest” songs in Sacramento, and maybe a few other surprises, since this will be the last tour before heading into working on an eighth record. Earley has an idea for its sound, but lately he and his bandmates have been busy punching out songs for tribute records.
Blitzen Trapper took on Ryan Adams’ “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” for the upcoming, “While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records.” It pairs nicely with band’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Working on the Highway,” which put the stadium anthem on a dirt road for “Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A.”
“I chose that one,” Earley says of the Springsteen song. “I like the theme of it. It’s the kind of work I did, that kind of dirty work.”