Blitzen Trapper is a Portland-based folk band.

Black River Killer was released not even two months ago, what has the response been?
Marty: Mostly good.
Eric: Pretty good. A lot of people are confused because it’s not new material at all. It’s old, old material, mostly B-sides so people are like, “is this the way the next record is going to be or what?”

I’ve read that you don’t write while on tour. What’s the process like at home?
Eric: Eh, it’s nothing special you know?
Marty: When you hear the music playing in your head you run to record it as soon as you can.
Eric: Yeah I have a piano that I write on and some guitars, I write it and record it on little devices, that sort of thing.

Was there one central thought, a sort of Rubik’s cube you toyed around with in your head while writing Furr?
Eric: That record was made as we started touring a bit and then kind of between tours, so I think Furr was sort of a development of the band as far as we were starting to travel and tour with other bands and we were seeing the country and I think that had something to do with those songs. As far as some single, conceptual idea, I don’t really know if there is one. I mean other than just the general concentration on like song crafting you know what I mean, as opposed to genre and genre crafting. But I mean, naw naw, I think with Furr I tended to stick with some very specific ideas you know death, and God and like these big ideas exist on the record a lot. But I mean, to me it should be like anything.

Something we have in common is that we’re both O’Connor fans, and I can kind of see the motifs death and God in her stories and those two albums [Furr and Black River Killer].
Eric: Oh yeah.

I can only imagine if The Misfit and Black River Killer got together.
Eric: You know I reread that story at least a year after writing that song [Black River Killer] and I was like holy shit, I never thought about this story that way. And it’s pretty oblique, I read that story in college years ago and kind of forgot about it, and then in the last three or four months I’ve gotten back into reading her. But yeah, I never made the connection until then.

Do you remember the one where the kid, the little kid, drowns in the end?

The River?
Eric: God yeah, that’s amazing.

It’s something.
Eric: Yeah, she’s awesome. Yeah, yeah, but I mean those are American themes.

But that’s the thing. I thought it was funny how people are so quick to label Blitzen Trapper as “American music.” Especially because artists are asking the same questions, tussling over the same thoughts. What do you think is the element about Blitzen Trapper that causes people to so readily label the band something as polymorphous as “American?”
Eric: I mean saying that sort of thing is sort of a cop-out, (laughs) that’s why I say it; it’s just so general.
Marty: What kind of music do you play? Oh you know we play American music.
Eric: I usually just say I play rock music because well that’s what we play. And modern pop music is so narrow, we tend to think it’s this vast sea of influences, but I mean its not. It’s just… its pop music you know? I mean we’re not writing songs that are twenty minutes long and we’re not singing in three or four different languages. I just think its kind of silly how people get hung up on genre influences.

I know what you mean, but it’s kind of necessary. If I’m recommending you guys to a friend, the first question I’ll get asked is, “what do they sound like?”
Eric: It’s necessary.

Kind of stupid though, I hate to be asking these questions.
Eric: Yeah, that’s why I just like saying its “rock” music, “American” music. I mean we invented it. (laughs)
Marty: The other thing is that there’s all these different styles of genre that you get, and they hint at the great panoply of possibilities in American music. But America invented pop you know, the blues and jazz and rock and hip-hop and rock.
Eric: And then the British perfected it (laughs).
Marty: Yeah, so we're just deconstructing the British’s perfectionism back into wholly American music.

Thank you for not coping out on that question
Eric: (Laughs) Of course.

Now I’m interested in the recording of Black River Killer. Furr was recorded in a dilapidated telegraph building; did you use a similar space to record Black River Killer?
Eric: We’ve spruced it up a little bit. It was ran by these two dudes and it was just this big old building that bands used to rent out and basically just play and party in and I had one space where I kind of lived in and recorded those two records. So yeah, that’s where those records happened.

You guys still record there or have you moved on?
Eric: I don’t like to stay in one place for too long.

Is it a commercial studio or just open space?
Eric: (Laughs) Yeah it’s open space. It’s also an old telegraph building from the twenties.
Marty: And then it became a dance studio in the eighties, so it got partitioned in all these ways and now bands rent out the different rooms.
Eric: We gave it up for awhile because when bands started playing there, which was only like five years ago, it was still shitty. It was leaking and we had to end up repairing part of the roof and floors and stuff…it’s kind of a cool place though.

These spaces are more porous than commercial studios and ambient sounds will result, creaks in the floor, passing trains, opening windows, etc. Do you embrace them? Edit them out?
Marty: I think they add charm. If your trying to get a song on a soundtrack for "Gossip Girl" then you’ll probably want to edit them out. If you’re trying to get on the soundtrack to "Grey’s Anatomy" then you’ll want a really clean recording.
Erik: (laughs).
Marty: But if you want a cool recording, then I think all the atmospherics help out.

I’ve been seeing a rekindled interest in vinyl lately, especially as a way to differentiate listeners from other fans–the 12’’ is for true fans. Anyways, I was listening to the 12’’ and I felt like I could hear those noises.
Eric: (laughs).

I felt like I was doing that paranormal stuff you see in shitty movies.
Eric: Yeah, you’re hearing a room in a shitty building by the river in Portland.
Marty: In Portland audio-file culture is pretty big and vinyl has always been the choice medium and digital has never really made any difference in people’s habits amongst a lot of the people that we know. They have big crates of vinyl and always have.
Eric: I have a nano, an ipod, and then vinyl and that’s about it.
Marty: If you want the ritual of the thing, then vinyl is kind of nice because it’s like a big deal; you sit down, take it out of this package, the art is in your face, you have to flip it over half way and that’s a ritual. It gets you in the heart more. Like I remember the first time I heard The Beatles in vinyl, my parents were too old to have The Beatles in vinyl so I had been listening to them on tape and then in CD for like ten years and then when I heard it on vinyl it was like this can’t be the same music, this sounds so much better.

Do they have the re-mastered stuff on vinyl? I don’t know.
Marty: I don’t know.
Eric: Wait, what?
Marty: Yeah they just re-mastered everything.
Eric: Oh really?
Marty: Yeah because the first CD's were done before all of this technology.
Eric: Oh. OK.

Have you guys gotten a chance to listen to Dylan’s new Christmas album?
Eric: I’ve never even heard of this.

It just came out the other week.
Eric: You’ve heard it?

Yeah.
Eric: Is it funny?

It’s kind of hard to…
Eric: Cheesy?

I don’t know, weird maybe. The same guy that did Blonde on Blonde is doing a Christmas album.
Eric: Yeah, that was forty years ago (laughs).

I can’ make commentary on the guy though, he’s…
Eric: He can do whatever he wants.

About Furr, was there a time when you were writing the song and you knew this is it, when this hits fans they’ll be stuck in that feral poppyness harmonizing with friends?
Eric: No, there was like thirty songs and I didn’t really think about “Furr” as being one of the strong ones. There were other songs on Furr in fact that didn’t make it and I really liked a lot. I mean other people realized, more than, me what songs were good and what were bad.
Marty: The consensus amongst the people that were listening to the music before the record was mastered or finished or anything was like “wow,” you know, “Furr is amazing,” and people had all different reasons for thinking it was that way.
Eric: To me it was just another folk song that I did.

Concerning music journalists, when Blitzen Trapper records an album, you make choices and you make choices not to make some choices and ultimately you have to trust that intuitive ear you have as musicians. Sometimes critics like your decisions and sometimes they don’t; what’s your attitude toward these responses?
Marty: There’s this energy between all the different parts of it, like you have an instinct that this is good music and we wouldn’t be putting it out anyways and you just hope that everyone else feels the same way. I mean critics are important at a certain stage but I think that what ultimately the fans are into is the most important thing and you don’t get that until you see the fans coming out at shows but you wont get fans coming out to your shows unless critics are writing “you should go out and see these guys play.” But yeah, you always have to think about your audience when you’re creating, you have to.

Is there anything you guys wish you were asked about?
Marty: You’ve actually done a good job at asking some novel combinations.
Eric: You’ve gotten us to say some things we normally wouldn’t say.
Marty: Most interviews sort of mirror the bio that goes out with the record. You know you’ll hear standard question number five that corresponds to paragraph 3.2 in the bio, and I’ve heard Eric give the same interview I don’t know how many times.

Its either like, how was playing with Fleet Foxes or, what do you like to put on your sandwich?
Marty: I had these kids one interview and they asked, “What’s your favorite kind of food?” and so I said “Popcorn,” and then the next question was, “What’s your favorite type of pizza?”

Wait, was this in Chicago?
Marty: (Laughs) Yeah!

That was for Dave Eggers wasn’t it?
Marty: Yeah, yeah.

Have you all seen Where The Wild Things Are yet?
Eric: No
Marty: What does Eggers have to do with that?
Eric: He wrote the novel version of it.

Him and Jonze worked on it.
Marty: Oh really!
Eric: Yeah they worked on a novelization of it.

So it’s a novel now?
Eric: Yeah, well no, its look a book—a kids book without pictures (laughs)
Marty: It’s a kids book for grownup kids.
Eric: In fact where I saw it was at Urban Outfitters (laughs).

They’ve been all about Wild Things. They’re definitely in cahoots with Eggers and Jonze.
Eric: Yeah because they have those t-shirts by his books and everything, but yeah, Trey said it’s amazing.

The book is only three hundred and eighty-eight words and they made it into a ninety-minute film.
Eric: That’s what we were talking about yesterday, like how is that possible?

That guy, Sendak, that’s incredible to cover that much ground in so few words.
Eric: It’s a classic.

And to cover so much, like that’s like how long it takes O’Connor to describe a cicada.
Eric: That’s describing one guy lighting a cig taking his first drag. Three hundred and eighty words later…he inhales! (laughs)

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© 2009

Blitzen Trapper Interview

Matt Marsaglia

Photo by Jade Harris