Eric Earley never expected to take his rock band Blitzen Trapper to the theater, but that is precisely where him and his bandmates found themselves earlier this year. The beloved Portland rockers were invited to create a hometown stage production for Portland Center Stage. The result was Wild and Reckless, a rock opera of sorts that mixed live performance and theatrics with a story that straddled the line between being a woeful tale of young lovers, drug addiction and science fiction. For longtime fans, seeing the band members taking on acting roles in a sit-down theater served as an interesting contrast from their lively rock shows. But, considering the setting and the fact that the performance ran for over a month, there were plenty of chances for non-fans to catch the band and ultimately the production received positive reviews.
Besides exposing Blitzen Trapper to a whole new group of fans and giving them the chance to explore a new artistic avenue, Wild and Reckless also inspired their new full-length album of the same name. While the stage production mixed in a few longtime favorites with new tunes, the band added to the latter to make a full LP. The album finds the band tapping into a rootsy, 70s-era sound that is reminiscent of the grittier material recorded by rock gods like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. Lyrically, the album dwells in heavy territory, living up to its title with tales of drug addition, violence and lost love.
As is his style, front man and lyricist Eric Earley presents even the darkest moments with a touch of nostalgia, as if to say that even though the bad decisions we make in our youth may be dangerous, there is a sense of adventure and beauty that comes with taking risks. Much like the play, the album’s material seems to feel deeply personal while also speaking to societal issues like the opioid crisis and abusive relationships. Currently, the band is on tour supporting Wild and Reckless, and recently Eric Early took the time to chat about the theatrical production, new album, and the precarious state of our country.
When did you get an idea to write a theater production?
[Portland Center Stage] actually came to us and asked us if we had any content. There was no stipulation as to what it would be necessarily, so I was just like, ‘yeah I’ll think of something.’ So over a year’s time I had a bunch of songs that I had demoed out and I kind of wrote it all together.
Was the idea for the story something that you had thought of before or was it totally random?
It seems like everyone in the band was really involved and enjoyed the production. Did they all embrace it?
Oh yeah, totally. The connection with the theater was actually through [Brian Koch] because he’s an actor. Liam, one of the directors, and gone to acting school with Brian and they knew each other.
Where did the story come from? It felt very Portland-centric.
The storyline with the girl about addiction and stuff, that’s all just from my life. The sci-fi stuff, we were just having fun with it.
Was it a different experience being onstage in front of people who in a lot of cases weren’t familiar with your music, like theater people?
Oh yeah, it was theater people, it was so weird. There were some shows where it was all theater kids from high schools that would come. It would be like 200 high school theater kids. It was just really bizarre, but it was fun.
Were there albums or acts you were inspired by when you went into this album and production?
I watched Tommy. I was trying to think about what was the closest thing to what we were trying to do and I was like, not Tommy, but there’s no acting or props, it’s just The Who doing the record but it’s amazing. I’m not even that big of a Who fan. We didn’t set out to make a rock opera, we kind of just made it up as we went along.
Was the idea always to make an album out of the theater production or did you feel like you should do something with the material after the fact?
I had all [the songs on the album] demoed. It was just me working on stuff, but then when the band brought in [parts it made sense]. So, this record is a lot of those songs and other songs, but also the songs that are included are different arrangements and things from the theater album we made.
You’ve talked about developing the theme more from the play more for the songs on the album. Can you talk a bit about what the theme is and how it transpires across the songs here?
I guess there is sort of a theme. I think doing the show kind of gave it a theme that I wasn’t necessarily aware of before. I think there is this theme – much like the show – of these two kids who are in love and get in some kind of trouble and are on the run, so there are a number of songs that are sort of in that vein, but then there are others that aren’t. Some of the songs that are on the record but weren’t in the show are also story songs and they’re more self-contained. A lot of it is just sort of dark stories about America.
How much of the storyline is based on personal experience?
Pretty much everything. All of the non-sci-fi stuff.
Can you talk about how this album is a companion piece to Furr?
I think sonically and also thematically it’s similar. It’s got a lot of apocalypse imagery and the new record has that vibe to it.
Parts of Furr feel exuberant and youthful while the new album is definitely a bit world-weary. Has your approach to writing songs and your worldview changed since then?
Yeah. That Furr was made in totally different circumstances. I was like homeless and crashing part of the time at this studio that we were renting. I wasn’t even working on a record, I would just record songs all night and just use all the gear we had laying around. So Furr was written in a weird time, and Portland was a totally different place. My headspace at that time was different.
For this album, were you influenced by how fucked up the world is right now?
Yeah, I think to a point. We’ve seen things slide over the last year and a half. One of the songs, “Joanna”, I wrote a few years back and I never put it on a record because it’s so dark. It’s a murder ballad about this young girl who’s raped and then kills the guy that rapes. It takes place in Coos Bay, Oregon and it’s really dark. I just felt like fuck it I’m going to put it on this record because I think it needs to be on this record. So in certain ways I kind of didn’t want to pull any punches with this one. I think there’s also a lot of drug references that I’ve shied away from in the past but now I’m kind of like, these stories are fine the way they are.
Not that drug references weren’t relevant in the past, but in a larger social context, referencing heroin is more relevant.
It has a different meaning now. Old Portland had a lot of druggies and I had really close friends who were heroin users and it was pretty common. But now it means something different. Back then it almost had a cool flavor to it if you can believe it, but now it’s pathetic. The people dying from that stuff are like 50-year-old white guys that can’t find a reason to live, and then there’s this feeling like no one knows what’s coming next. There’s just a lot of fucked up shit in the air.
The stage production of Wild and Reckless seemed to be very much a comment on the opioid crisis, but it was more personal for you?
[One of] my best [friends] in my 20s and early 30s was an addict and it was a weird thing. She was an addict and I went though a lot of stuff with her, so it kind of tainted my view of the whole culture. But now, traveling around, there’s not a heroin epidemic [in Portland] like there was in the late 90s and early 2000s, but now if you travel to all sorts of other areas there’s just desperation in the air. So my connection was personal, but it’s in the past.
It seems hard not to let political issues kind of seep into your work.
Yeah, I think when I’m writing stories and songs I’m always commenting on how I feel like everybody at ground zero is reacting, with the political environment hovering over the top.
Is there an air of nostalgia on this album?
It’s more just me laying out certain stories of my life when I was younger. I moved into this house, it’s on an unpaved street and when we moved in there were two cars parked at the end of the street and there were people living in them. I kind of got to know them. There were two RVs parked down the road and there were people living in those and that’s still going on. It’s just kind of everywhere, so the song “Love Live On” is about the two people living in the car near my house. Even the record cover has this RV on it and it’s mirrored, and that RV was being lived in by a family of five in Eastern Oregon and it caught fire by the side of the road and they all piled out and it burned. Then they were truly homeless, but they were already homeless to begin with. That story isn’t on the record but it’s on the cover because it meant something to me. Obama brought our economy back from the brink of destruction, but yet no one learned their lesson. So people living on the edge like that is just fascinating. Homelessness isn’t just in Portland, I see it everywhere on tour. There’s just a part of America that is like that now, as the middle class slowly shrinks. Some of that makes its way into my songwriting.
Tom Petty is a clear influence on your music. Do you want to comment on his influence in the wake of his passing, perhaps some of the songs that have made the biggest impact on you?
It’s funny, that song ” Mary Jane’s Last Dance” came out when I was in high school. He had hits for like twenty years, and that wasn’t even on a record, it was just a single. I was like a freshman or sophomore and you’d hear it everywhere. I always remember just loving that song because it told a story. All of his songs did that, but that one created this character and it was just badass. I remember just being like, oh man this is the best. There are guys you just can’t help but copy because they’re ideal rockers, like Springsteen, Petty. If you play guitar music and rock music, you’re going to emulate them in some way because they touched every base. To me, that’s the kind of guy Tom Petty was. I have no problem emulating him and picking up on what he did.