"WHAT TOWN ARE WE IN right now?" I hear Eric Earley ask through the phone. He is eating coleslaw at a barbecue joint somewhere in North Carolina. "Sorry," he says to me. "Very beautiful waitress. I was entranced."
Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, is on a national tour supporting its fourth full-length album—and its first for the venerable Sub Pop label. It's a record called Furr, and it's the most straightforward release yet from the Portland band that marries spindly Appalachian folk, blitzkrieg synth explosions, and riff-tastic Southern rock.
"I didn't want to make a record that was distracted by the production qualities that Wild Mountain Nation had," Earley says, referring to Blitzen Trapper's previous album, which thrust them in the national spotlight last year, garnering attention from Pitchfork and that hoary old bastion of dad-rock, Rolling Stone.
"I mean, Wild Mountain Nation was good, but in ways it was kind of kitschy, a lot of lo-fi Pavement-y stuff going on, which in my opinion didn't detract from the songwriting, but it distracted from it. I wanted to make a record that was more about solid songwriting and about classic tones and arrangements," Earley says.
Furr indeed takes its cues from familiar tropes, but those elements are woven into the band's established spaceman-cowboy sound. The title track could be early Dylan if, instead of post-beat Greenwich Village, he'd spent his formative years in a mythic, tribal West, one where the landscape is inhabited by animal spirit guides. Even though it tells the story of a boy transforming into a wolf and back again, it's a love song—sort of. "That song evokes growing up in Oregon, evokes my childhood," Earley explains without giving too much away. "For me it's an important song. And I think it's invested with a lot of honesty, as far as my own experience. I think that resonates with people."
"Not Your Lover," meanwhile, is reminiscent of the rueful piano ballads of Time Fades Away-era Neil Young, and "God + Suicide" pairs a perfect pop melody with intensely fatalistic lyrics. "Black River Killer" is a mean and nasty gothic murder ballad, but amid its rickety fingerpicking, a '90s gangster rap synth emerges, drawing a perfect parallel between two seemingly different musical genres that in fact lyrically share a great deal.
Furr was recorded at the band's home base, a former telegraph building and dance school in close-in Southeast Portland; Earley wrote a number of the new songs on a battered piano that mysteriously appeared in the hallway one day. The nature of Portland aids the band's creative process, he says. "It's the kind of a place that people go to because it's isolated, it's cheap, and in the winter you can get shit done, y'know? There are no distractions. Unless you really like running around out in the rain."
With their latest, Blitzen Trapper have hit a supremely confident stride, putting ultimate focus on the songs and cutting back on the zany curlicues that marked previous outings. Still, Furr maintains the band's spaced-out playfulness even as Earley delves deep. "I wanna write about important subjects," he says. "Spirituality, death, love. You know, those kinds of things that mean something. And whether or not they're veiled or ambiguous doesn't matter. People are gonna make whatever they want out of whatever you write."