There is something special about interviewing a band over a period of time. You can see them grow, old dreams achieved or dashed and the emergence of new ones. There is also a familiarity that comes with repeat interviews. The musicians trust you more and seem more relaxing during the discussion.
In some ways, my interview with Eric Earley and Marty Marquis of Blitzen Trapper felt more like a couple of friends over drinks at Portland’s Pied Cow. When I first met Marquis, I hadn’t even moved to Portland yet and he seemed excited and willing to dispense advice about his adopted city.
It is undeniable that Blitzen Trapper’s status has grown since our first encounter last year. While our discussion centered on life in Portland and music, the party at the table next to us seemed to hang on every word. At the end of the interview, they approached us and asked for photos with Earley and Marquis.
As we left, I asked Earley if being recognized had become more common. He said it had and that people would ride by in the city and shout, “Blitzen Trapper!” at him as he walked down the street. How did he keep it from happening? He confessed he spent a lot of time with his hoodie over his head. I am proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Blitzen Trapper.
This is actually the third time I’m interviewing you, Marty, and the second time I’m interviewing you, Eric. The first time we talked, I saw you in a place where I could put my foot on the stage and still be in the back of the room. Things have changed a lot since then. That was in the bar in the Black Cat.
MM: In the little, tiny room downstairs? There were dudes with Viking helmets in the front that were blocked the view of the entire crowds.
Fleet Foxes opened for you.
EE: What city was that?
EE: Oh, D.C. Oh yeah.
MM: It’s the same place we played last time.
We actually talked in the alley because there was too much noise and there were all these rats out back. It seems like a lot has changed for guys since then. What has been the biggest one?
EE: For me, the biggest change is the size of the crowds we’re playing to in the different cities. That’s about it really.
MM: The makeup too and I guess that goes along with the size. There’s only so many cutting-edge, music geek hipsters that are going to come out to a show but once the music gets a little more exposed you have people from all different age groups and demographics. Lots of sing-alongs.
EE: Yeah, that’s surprising to me.
MM: People used to sing along to maybe “Wild Mountain Nation” when we were playing on that Foxes tour.
EE: Now they sing along to the half of Furr.
Well, Furr is more of a sing along type album than Wild Mountain Nation.
MM: Yeah. For sure. For sure.
The last time we talked you told a story about some crazy hitchhiker guy who picked you up. Do you have any other stories from the road that you’d like to share?
MM: It kinds of blends together. I have trouble thinking on the road or processing anything. It’s hard to remember what happened out there.
EE: I think this tour there is a lot of the same strange fan kind of things going on. People sneaking backstage or girls dressing up like me.
How does a girl dress up like you?
EE: Once there was this group of six girls that all wore flannel shirts like I wore on the tour before. I was like, “What? What are you doing?” My favorite time on tour is hanging out with the other bands and singing Neil Young songs and shit like that. There is always dark stuff that happens too.
MM: In Montreal on this last tour, somebody smashed into the bus and the opening band’s van and stole some stuff.
EE: There was like a foot and a half of snow and everybody spoke French. (laughs)
Do you still have that fucked up van you had the first time we talked? Didn’t the wheels come off?
MM: Oh yeah, that’s right. That was the problem of the mechanic…
EE: It wasn’t the van; it was the mechanic. He rotated the tires but….
MM: Didn’t attach one of them. Yeah, we’re lucky we didn’t all die that time. I’m trying to think about this last tour and not a lot of weird stuff happened. It was really smooth.
EE: The Mountain tour was weird for me because I got to play on stage with Stephen Malkmus. Every show we’d come up and play and it was great. For me, personally, was something I always wanted to do. For me, that was like playing with Neil Young. Stephen Malkmus, when I was a kid, was one of my heroes.
Was he cool to you?
EE: He was really cool.
MM: He was great. He’s totally avuncular and he’s a sports geek.
EE: Super smart.
MM: Yeah, on that tour I saw the coolest encore I’ve seen all decade. He did a stream-of-consciousness encore
EE: He did like five covers but he strung them all together and just did pieces. They were really badly done, but they were really funny. He would make up the words.
MM: The crowd would start yelling the words at him. There’s a rundown of it online somewhere.
EE: Yeah, some writer picked it to pieces.
MM: Yeah, he found the internal logic to this stream-of-consciousness. It was glorious.
So, for Eric, opening for Malkmus was like his Neil Young. Who would it be for you?
MM: Caetano Veloso, probably. Mark Lanegan would be closer to that because I’ve discovered Veloso relatively recently.
Do you know about that English-language covers album that he did? It’s really awesome, except for that Dylan cover he did.
MM: Wait, maybe I don’t have that.
It’s called A Different Sound. He does a Talking Heads cover, Dylan, “Come as You Are” by Nirvana.
MM: Oh, that’s rad. I don’t even know about that. He’s got another covers record that he did for Sub Pop. He grew up close to where I grew up. I’m from Yakima, Washington.
MM: No, Lanegan.
I’m talking about Caetano Veloso.
MM: Oh! (Laughs)
EE: He’s got a covers record?
EE: I’ve never heard of it.
MM: He’s got a 1986 record where he covers “Billie Jean” on it.
MM: Yeah. Veloso is a prince, I think.
How about you, Eric? Anyone else out there you want to play with?
EE: Thurston Moore maybe. I don’t know. That would be freaky though. Those were my two guitar heroes as a kid. Maybe not so much now.
So, let’s talk about Portland. Do you guys do a lot of interviews where you talk about the city?
MM: Not in Portland.
Great! Let’s talk about Portland then. What are some of your favorite restaurants and why?
MM: There’s a place right by my house called Sckavone’s that I go to all the time. It’s just like a standard American diner, low hipster factor and good prices for decent quality food. It’s walkable and kid friendly. I’ve got a kid. I also like this new taquería on Hawthorne called Por Qué No? Have you ever been up there?
That place is crazy.
MM: Oh, you’ve been there? Yeah, it’s crowded. We always go early.
EE: I don’t know. I ate fried chicken at Safeway a lot. I just go to wherever is around. I eat fried chicken more than anything.
MM: Do you go to that fry shack?
EE: I go from time to time. I eat down at the carts a lot, actually. They’re open to like 3 am.
Like down on Hawthorne?
EE: My buddy Mike has a place there.
The potato place?
MM: That’s our buddy’s.
We went there once but didn’t eat anything. We went to Holman’s instead. You ever been there?
EE: (Laughs). Oooh yeah. I used to go there a lot.
MM: Me too.
I’ve also been to Zach’s Shack.
EE: That’s all right.
MM: The owner was down at this festival we played last summer and gave us a bunch of coupons. So I stopped in there.
So if you had a guest come in from out of town, where would you take them? Safeway?
EE: Genies. It’s this great breakfast place.
MM: Yeah, Genies is pretty good.
Screen Door is pretty good.
EE: I tried to get in there but there was like 50 people waiting. I’ve never gotten in there. I tried like three times. Then I was like, “Fuck it.”
MM: I really like this Thai place on Division called Pok Pok.
Dude, that place is expensive.
MM: It is, but if you want to impress people.
EE: It’s so good, it makes you drunk just eating.
MM: Yeah, it’s really expensive. It’s ridiculous.
It’s like Thai tapas.
MM: You have to order all these different things in order to get a meal together.
EE: It’s better if you’re sharing.
MM: They have all these different types of rice. It’s almost like wine. It’s like, “This rice goes with this thing.”
I had the spicy boar collar meat there and it was good.
MM: Have you had the game hen?
I thought that was okay.
MM: I thought that was really good.
What’s the best place to go in town if you’re drunk, it’s 3 am and you’re hungry?
EE: The carts.
MM: There’s not really that many all-night places. We used to go to this place down on Powell but I don’t think that’s open anymore.
EE: Yeah, it’s 24 hour.
MM: Oh, is it?
EE: Yeah, that food there is sketchy.
MM: Yeah, it’s not very good. Then there’s this other place downtown that’s probably still rocking called Roxie’s….I forget.
EE: I just go to Montage.
MM: Yeah, Montage is great.
That’s the one under the bridge? Cajun food?
EE: It’s good.
MM: It’s like Portland Cajun.
EE: They have a good wine selection there. The best part of it is the wine.
MM: That and the tin foil sculptures that they make.
We’re going to hit this crazy place tonight called Saburo’s. It’s a sushi place in Sellwood. Have you been there?
EE: I don’t like sushi. But I hear it’s good.
MM: Saburo’s is good. That used to be on my bus route and every single freaking day there was a huge lineup before it even opened. Every day.
I’ve had to wait for an hour to get into that place. Okay, what bar do I go to if I want to avoid the hipsters?
MM: Most of them are probably okay.
EE: If you go to Reel ‘m Inn on the weekend you will be okay, but you might get beat up though. There’s a lot of bars. If you go to a bar with no windows it’s safe.
EE: No, the hipsters hang out there. You got to go to a place that’s just like white trash Gresham.
I’ve been to the Red Room out on 82nd. How about Beulahland?
MM: Beulahland? That’s like hipster central. That’s probably one of the epicenters probably. I don’t know. You can’t really avoid them if you live in Portland.
What is a hipster?
EE: What is a hipster? There’s all kinds.
But what exactly is it? There seems to be a backlash or something.
MM: I don’t know if there’s a backlash.
EE: A hipster is just anybody that’s under 30.
MM: I’m not really sure. I was thinking about that today when I was driving to pick up Eric.
EE: We would probably be considered hipsters.
Well, Marty’s got a full beard…
MM: So I don’t count?
If you just shaved it down to the ‘stache maybe.
MM: I frequently have just the ‘stache. What if I just have mega-chops?
I don’t know!
MM: I don’t know. It’s just a general sort of term. It’s like saying, “Young people!”
I think hipsters look cleaner than we do. Like their hair and clothes. It looks kind of casual, but also streamlined. I don’t know. I don’t study them too much, but it seems like people say the word with so much disdain.
MM: I don’t know. In our group, I always think of Drew, our keyboardist, as the biggest hipster of them all.
EE: It’s because of the music he listens to.
MM: It’s more his tastes, his aesthetics.
What does he listen to?
MM: He’s just real cutting edge. You know, he reads Pitchfork. He likes noisy stuff that is never going to be successful commercially or viable. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the way he looks necessarily; it’s more like his tastes and the kind of things he’d gravitate to. Like going to experimental cinema and performance art and stuff like that.
I don’t know if Pitchfork can be considered hipster anymore. They’re kind of mainstream these days.
Shit, they’re like paired up with NPR. They got interviews with U2 and shit like that.
MM: Yeah, but Best New Music is weird stuff that nobody…like Wavves.
So was Blitzen Trapper once.
MM: Well…yeah. That was just an accident. (Laughs)
EE: Wild Mountain is a total hipster record. We never did commercially well with that.
Is Furr a hipster record?
MM: Furr is a not hipster record. I think that is a reason why so many people sing along to it and come out to the shows.
Did touring with the Fleet Foxes influence the sound at all?
MM: No, it was already done before that tour started.
EE: I remember playing it for them. It was done already.
MM: We got it back from mastering while we were on tour with them.
Is it cool to be playing with them?
MM: Yeah, I’m excited about it.
You hit it off pretty well, I guess.
MM: Yeah, we’re good friends with those guys and fans of their music. It will be fun to play for their crowds.
Let’s get back to Portland. If I was going to buy CDs somewhere, where would you recommend?
EE: iTunes. If I wanted to buy music I would go to Crossroads. It’s all vinyl. I don’t buy CDs anymore.
MM: I go to Jackpot. I go to Everyday Music and Music Millennium. There’s this place on upper Hawthorne called Exiled Records that’s got a lot of rare garage and foreign CDs. At Jackpot you can usually find what you need.
Which venues do you like to play in and which do you dislike like to play in?
EE: I like the Doug Fir and Wonder. That’s it.
EE: Everything else is either terrible or mediocre as far as the sound goes.
I think the sound at the Crystal is horrible.
EE: The Crystal is great, but the sound is awful.
MM: The Holocene has a nice vibe but it’s not that good of a room.
Berbati’s is okay.
MM: That’s an interesting point. We used to play Berbati’s and then somebody took over booking it who had a totally different take on what was going on.
EE: It’s like hip hop groups now. Different genres than us.
Last things I saw there were Gang Gang Dance and Spiritualized.
MM: Spiritualized played at Berbati’s?
EE: It’s all tiny bands.
MM: Yeah, but Spiritualized I thought was huge.
There weren’t even that many people there.
MM: Really? Weird!
So what is it with Oregon and the partition in the crowd between those who can and cannot drink? It totally ruins the aesthetic of the Crystal.
EE: Yeah, man. They do it at the Wonder too. It’s weird. The Oregon Liquor Control is a pain. They are the number one reason venues close. You can’t have a venue that lasts unless it’s all age and serves alcohol.
MM: It’s too bad because most places we go in the country are totally more laid-back.
Like a more rational, progressive sort of situation. Two big Xs on both hands? They’re not going to get those off. I don’t know what’s up with that. I think it’s one of the relics from Oregon’s past.
EE: It does foster a really rich house party, underground scene. Underage kids have to do their shit, so they have their own bands and whatnot. It’s a whole scene. That’s directly because of the liquor laws.
MM: That’s a good point.
Did you guys grow up here?
MM: I grew up in Washington state.
EE: I grew up in Salem.
In New England, people don’t like it when New Yorkers move up there and buy houses. It seems like the same thing here with Californians.
MM: Yeah but if I lived in California I would probably move up here too. My wife is from San Diego, so I don’t care. I think a lot of it is traffic problems and rising property prices. Because those things happen down there, they happen up here too. That’s what people are really bitching about. There’s more cars on the road and crazier drivers and they can’t afford a house anymore because Californian money is coming up here and buying all the property here.
Houses in my neighborhood are like $500,000 for a small house. There was a piece of shit two doors down from me that went for like $240,000.
MM: Seattle’s got it worse than Portland does for sure. Washington definitely watches California a lot closer than Oregon does.
Did you see that Business Week said we’re the most depressing city in the nation?
MM: Portland is the best depressing city?
EE: Yeah, but that was based on pharmaceutical use.
MM: Oh really? (laughs)
Yeah and the high divorce rate and our 10% unemployment. You guys have seen a lot of the country. I’m sure you’ve seen…
MM: More depressed places? (Laughs) Yeah!
EE: The South is more depressed than Oregon has ever been. But, Oregon in the ’80s was kind of depressed. You mean economically depressed or that the people are depressed?
I don’t know. Maybe both.
EE: Well, the South has much better weather than we do.
MM: In the middle of February, if you walk around downtown Portland, you can tell that the city is sour.
But the South is so fucking hot in the summer.
MM: Yeah, we both lived in Georgia for awhile and we know what that’s like. I’d rather have a rainy, nasty winter than a muggy, nasty summer.
It doesn’t even snow that much here. It gets down to like 40.
MM: Mainly you can’t see the sun.
EE: I grew up here so it doesn’t bother me. I think it’s all the people that have moved here since I was a kid that have trouble with it. I think Oregon has such other great things about it.
Such as what?
EE: It’s cheap and there’s no one here. Those are the two most valuable things: there’s cheap property and lots of it.
MM: It’s also beautiful and there’s great water here. The tap water is fantastic and the air is clean.
Sometimes, coming from the east coast, I feel stranded here. Baltimore and New York were always a few hours away from my home in Philly.
MM: That’s a big difference from the east coast. If you’re going to south to a city, you’re going to drive 10 or 11 hours. If you go north, it’s three hours and then another three hours you’re in Vancouver. Vancouver, Seattle, Portland are the only cities in the Northwest. You might count Spokane or Tacoma, maybe. But, both of those towns feel more like towns. The isolation is factor is there.
EE: I thought the South was crowded when I lived there and I had never even been to the Northeast. I was living on the border of Georgia and Tennessee.
MM: It was right outside of Chattanooga. That’s where we met. It’s kind of a rural place where we were living. But every five minutes there was a little town. Here, if you get outside of Portland, you can drive for hours and not see more than a service station or an Indian casino.
I grew up in Philadelphia, so it’s different.
MM: It must be. I’m tripping out at how much easier it is for bands on the east coast to tour. You can start touring without a whole lot of capitol or resources because you got all these little towns everywhere.
EE: We couldn’t put together too much of a tour two years ago, because where are you going to go?
MM: We played Salem a few times at a coffee shop. We played Eugene. We played Yakima. We played Seattle.
How did you go over in Yakima?
MM: (Laughs) They don’t have any educational media there so it’s kind of hard for people to comprehend what they’re watching.
EE: It’s the sticks.