Blitzen Trapper Tames Its Experimental Tendencies Into Low-Key Folk-Rock

It's been nine months since the Portland, Ore., indie/Americana band Blitzen Trapper released its sixth album, the charming American Goldwing. The band—singer/guitarist/songwriter Eric Earley, guitarists Erik Menteer and Marty Marquis, bassist Michael Van Pelt, and drummer Brian Adrian Koch—has been on the road most of that time, and they're not done yet.

"Yeah, we're finishing this tour and then we're doing another one," Earley says. "We're heading out West in September, and yeah, that'll be it."

After that, the band heads home to Portland, where Earley expects they will almost immediately start work on a new album.

"Hang out at home, record some stuff, work on another record," he says. "I've got all the songs already. I'm not really sure which ones I'm going to use. It's kind of like two records that I've made over the last year. I'm going to try to figure out how to make a consistent record out of these songs."

As for what new direction the band will take on the next record, you'll have to wait. Earley's not talking yet.

"I do have ideas—I just don't like to talk about it," he says.

Blitzen Trapper formed in 2000 and emerged to widespread acclaim with their third album, Wild Mountain Nation, in 2007. Critics from Pitchfork and The Guardian hailed that album's wild eclecticism and its heady roots experimentalism as well as Earley's more straightforward songwriting. Early on, the group was frequently compared to both Pavement and the Band, about as unlikely a critical pairing as any rock band could ask for.

Wild Mountain Nation, initially released on Blitzen Trapper's own label, Lidkercow Ltd., earned the band a deal with Seattle indie giant Sub Pop, which was still reinventing itself after its '90s grunge heyday with folksier and poppier acts like the Shins and the Postal Service. Sub Pop reissued Wild Mountain Nation and also released the band's next three albums—Furr (2008), Destroyer of the Void (2010), and last year's American Goldwing.

Over the course of those albums, the band's style has been gradually streamlined. Earley's shambling experimental and psychedelic tendencies have been sharpened and focused, with a more direct emotional connection. The touchstones on American Goldwing are mid-period Wilco, Neil Young, Workingman's Dead, and Bob Dylan.

"American Goldwing is a more consistent record," Earley says.

But the band hasn't quite erased all of its unpredictability. Occasional flourishes of the influence of Big Star, Paul McCartney, and Slade and T. Rex shine through the disc's casual country-rock facade, providing evidence of Earley's restless reach as a songwriter.

"I like guitar rock," he says. "I listen to a lot of it. I'm sure that comes up some—the riffs and electric guitars and stuff."

Earley's not particularly articulate about the band's overall direction toward simpler, more straightforward music—"Every record is different. It's hard to say," he says—but, as both the band's principal songwriter and the producer for all six of its albums so far, it's not hard to see him as an unofficial creative director for Blitzen Trapper.

"I've been making records and producing records for other people for so long that it would be kind of silly, I think, to pull a producer in," Earley says. "It would be cool, but it would probably just be a friend of mine who wanted to help me set up mics and stuff. The producer is sort of a thing of the past in reality, unless you have no idea what you're doing and you're a band that has never recorded anything, ever."

Earley's cagey about any possible change in artistic direction for the band, but one big business decision looms on the horizon for the band. Its deal with Sub Pop is complete with American Goldwing, and Earley says he's not sure what will happen next.

"They've always just done the same thing—put the record out, promoting it in certain ways," he says. "We've ended up hiring a lot of our own people to work the records more recently. The main way our relationship has changed is that the deal is up. We might put out another record with them; I don't know."