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Blitzen Trapper Spiff Things Up

Portland, Ore. — It's a perfectly Portland day: overcast and rainy. Sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by hipsters, Blitzen Trapper lead singer and songwriter Eric Earley is snacking on a half-smashed maple bar he picked up from the supermarket. Why bring in outside food when Stumptown Coffee boasts such a fine assortment of pastries? Because, Earley says, "only maple bars from Safeway have that hint of cinnamon you can't get anywhere else."

Removing an orange from his faded brown satchel like a rabbit from a top hat, he adds as if to wink, "This is the best combination."

A bit like Blitzen Trapper's music. Blending typically disparate sounds (bluegrass, hip-hop, indie rock, et al.), the sextet comes away with an enticingly original sound. Their two self-released albums, 2003's self-titled record and 2005's Field Rexx, are excellent pop concoctions of junky beats, lo-fi recording, brain-eating melodies and back-porch stomps that recall Beck if he were raised on bluegrass.

Thanks to a healthy amount of praise from the likes of Pitchfork Media and CMJ, Blitzen Trapper secured a deal overseas with England's Good Time Folk Records, which will re-release Field Rexx in the UK in May. The U.S. labels Rough Trade and Warner Bros. have expressed interest but are waiting to see how the band is received in the UK before making any offers. Asthmatic Kitty (home to Sufjan Stevens) proposed signing the band on the spot. But rather than rushing to ink a deal, the band will wait to see what doors the future might open.

Blitzen Trapper recently recorded a new, not-yet-titled set, which Earley calls "polished pop," but have not yet decided on a home for it. For now, Earley admits, he doesn't "really know, maybe Rough Trade, it's just a matter of what feels right." The band can't confirm a release date for the new album until they find a label, but are estimating this fall.

Wearing a light-blue hooded sweatshirt beneath a billowy army-green winter coat, Earley is genuine and friendly, if a wee bit off — a welcome characteristic, though, given it typically makes for quality art. He's been penning songs since he was 14 and, having also written three novels (none published) and brushed dozens of oil paintings, is unstoppably productive. He writes songs in his sleep. At least, with him spitting out about 30 every three months, it seems that way. "I think my best songs are usually the ones that I don't sit down to write," the compact, dark-haired, dark-eyed Earley said. "They kinda come out of nowhere. My best songs are the catchiest ones, the ones that I'll write in like 10 minutes."

Earley, who cites Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and his father (a bluegrass musician who passed away four years ago) among his influences, acknowledges changes in his songwriting through time but is too humble to say whether they're necessarily improvements. But listen to Blitzen Trapper albums in succession and you'll see that they are. "The style itself changes drastically," he pointed out. "Field Rexx is very much an indie-rock lo-fi garage record with some hip-hop elements to it, but this new record is a polished pop record and I almost hate it.

"But, at the same time, a lot of it I know will make me money."

Earley isn't hesitant to admit Blitzen Trapper's newest album was recorded for commercial appeal. "Honestly, I've been living in poverty for so long, at this point I don't have a house, I'm pretty much homeless," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I would like to make one record make it just so I can make more records."

In claiming to hate the new songs, Earley is, again, being overly modest and self-deprecating. He is, like any good artist, never quite sure his work is good enough. But demo versions of the new songs show them to be wonderfully fuzzy pop gems full of raw energy and eclectic talent. Earley should be proud.

The band decided against recording the new album in the garage as they had done for previous albums, opting instead to invest in proper studio time to give the new material a slick radio-ready sound. "I was like, 'Well shit, let's try to do a real pop record that we can shop around,'" conceded Earley, who currently sleeps at the band's rehearsal space by the Willamette River.

"I probably shouldn't be saying that," he added, pausing, but "I was like, 'Let's try a real studio and use really good machines.'"

Which, unfortunately for the band, turned out to be an expensive mistake. They had only a limited amount of studio time, which they found painfully restrictive. "We spent a lot of money and ended up not liking it," Earley said. "When we recorded Field Rexx, we spent four months recording things, fucking things around, using computers to mess everything up. But this ended up being a rush job, which is always a bad idea ... It was a nightmare."

Unhappy with the new tracks, laid down with help from Mike Quakendall (Richmond Fontaine) and Greg Williams (Dandy Warhols, Sheryl Crow) at Williams' studio, the band rented an old tape machine for $200 and re-recorded the album. "We re-recorded, remixed, revamped the entire record in a garage," Earley said. "Thinking back now, we could have done the entire record for $200. We wasted a ton of money and time.

"I kick myself now," he laughed, shaking his head.

Back in the garage with their old familiar devices (both legal and not), Blitzen Trapper found the freedom and comfort to experiment and achieve the sounds they were originally hoping for. "Recording in your garage, you can be comfortable," Earley said. "Everyone can do as many drugs and drink as much as they want." — Jenny Tatone [Wednesday, February 15, 2006]

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