An old proverb goes, "A rolling stone gathers no moss." And, after Muddy Waters sang, "Sure 'nough he's a rollin' stone," in 1948, it was Bob Dylan who came along a couple decades later and put it this way: "How does it feel, to be out of a home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?"
Some classic rock themes never change, so it's no surprise that Blitzen Trapper, Portland, Ore.'s rising roots rock band, kicks off it's new album, Destroyer of the Void, with yet another take on the ideal of the mythical wanderer: "Here's to the lone and wayward son, for to love is to live, for to run like a rolling stone."
It's a bold move to adopt the tradition of giants, but Blitzen Trapper's trajectory suggests that the band's got enough staying power to make an impact. The sextet began playing in 2000 and released a couple of albums under the radar. But when Wild Mountain Nation came out in 2007, Sub Pop took notice and signed the band, releasing in 2008 what's now considered the group's breakout album, Furr. The unexpected hit made almost every "Best Of 2008" music list, from National Public Radio and Pitchfork to Spin and Rolling Stone. The latter went so far as to call the band "the best Grateful Dead knock-off in forever"—which is a little misleading considering Blitzen Trapper sometimes sounds just as much like Queen or Lynyrd Skynyrd. But the truth is, the band is still on its way up, currently touring with Fleet Foxes, who, celebrity-wise, often steal more headlines. Still, with a new record on the horizon and with frontman Eric Earley at the wheel as the band's not-so-secret songwriting weapon, that could change.
Earley's songs are hard to describe without digging into his influences. He grew up in Salem, Ore., and learned to play banjo at the age of 6 from his father, who leaned heavily on old Appalachian traditionals, as well as songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and John Denver.
"I was addicted to the banjo," Earley says in a recent interview with the Indy. "That was my life. I could only play a couple of songs, but I loved it."
It's not that Blitzen Trapper outright copies classic musicians. The dark, rockin' cool of Furr's "Black River Killer" does evoke the same rugged sound of Neil Young's "Hey, Hey, My My," only "Black River Killer" is a murder ballad inspired by the hardboiled landscapes of Cormac McCarthy novels. And then there's the title track from Furr, showered in Bob Dylan-esque harmonica and folk-styled riffs. But unlike Dylan's gritty realism, it's steeped in a mythological story about literally being raised by wolves. In it, Earley sings, "But I was drawn into the pack and before long/they allowed me to join in and sing their song/So from the cliffs and higher still we would gladly get our fill howling endlessly and shrilly at the dawn/And I lost the taste for judging right from wrong."
Hearing Earley talk about the band's forthcoming album, Destroyer of the Void, out June 8, is like listening to a child who has yet to have his imagination quashed by the adult world of responsibilities. (Or maybe like watching ABC's "Lost.") At any rate, there are no rules. "The Man Who Would Speak True," for instance, is a fable about the power and consequences of speaking an idea out loud.
"Saying something out loud is like a spell," says Earley. "The song's about the importance of being careful what you say. But it's couched in this strange story of this man whose tongue is not a tongue—it's a plant and it grows. And then at the end of the story they end up planting it in the ground and his tongue grows into a tree and the birds of the air make nests in it. And that's how the song ends."
Earley, in the same way, seems very careful about what he says. He opens up when it comes to talking about the mythical stories he conjures for lyrics. And he laughs easily about his favorite Blitzen Trapper shows—not necessarily the packed concert halls the band now plays in big cities all over the world, but the shows that bring him back to his folk roots in surprising ways.
"There was one show, it was in the Midwest somewhere in a college town and I busted into a Neil Young song just for the heck of it, you know," he says, starting to sing, "'Did she wake you up to tell you that it was only a change of plan?' You know that one? It's from Harvest. We were playing that and a bunch of the college kids got on stage and started slow dancing to it. It was a big stage so it was okay, and it was really special for some reason."
But when it comes to answering questions about the rising fame of the band, the Blitzen Trapper frontman is notoriously reserved. He often gives replies in one word. He doesn't really read record reviews, he says, and he doesn't try to articulate the ways in which Blitzen Trapper's status as a band has changed since Furr gained breakout status.
"I hear about it but I don't read it," he says. "I think the song 'Furr' itself is probably the only breakout thing on that record. There are other good songs on there but people can be pretty shallow and just cling to one. For me, I just ignore all that shit. I don't care about any of it, really. I just do my thing."
Spoken like a true rolling stone.
Blitzen Trapper plays the Palace Thursday, June 3, at 9 PM with The Moondoggies. $13/$11 advance at Ear Candy.