Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley is alarmingly quiet in person. Sitting outside the Satellite Cafe in Southeast Portland, it's almost impossible to hear him talk about his band and its new album, Destroyer of the Void, amid the whir of cars, cyclists and one particularly loud couple's argument. But suddenly, after 20 minutes and numerous dead ends, Earley perks up: Someone just put Townes Van Zandt on the house speakers.
"Townes, man, he's totally honest," Earley says about one of his favorite songwriters. He stops staring at the table and engages in conversation. "He may be totally fucked up, but his songs are still magic."
Guitarist Marty Marquis chimes in. "Townes is a high-level poet, but he talks in an everyday conversational voice, which is not an easy thing to do."
It turns out the quickest way to Blitzen Trapper's heart is through a troubadour and true outlaw.
On Destroyer of the Void, Earley and the rest of Blitzen Trapper—Marquis, guitarist Erik Menteer, keyboardist Drew Laughery, bassist Michael VanPelt and drummer Brian Adrian Koch—fully engage in the music they love. Since forming in 2000, the band has always been a bit schizophrenic, jumping between genres (noisy indie rock, rural folk, traditional country music) without warning. But nothing in the band's back catalog prepares a listener for Destroyer of the Void's opening title track, a six-minute, multi-part epic that combines decades of pop-culture touchstones: Laurel Canyon folk harmonies, zany sci-fi synthesizers, classic-rock guitar solos and a barroom piano breakdown. For the first time, Blitzen Trapper has transferred all its disparate interests into one song. It's not quite prog, but it's a far cry from the Americana label the band is usually tagged with.
"It's like the end of Abbey Road, where it's all pop songs, but they are short and strung together," Earley says about the album's opener. "I think it's glam rock—Queen, Bowie and Elton John."
Destroyer of the Void is a more challenging and fully conceived record than its predecessor, 2008's Furr. It's a pretty ballsy move for Blitzen Trapper, especially after Furr—the band's fourth full-length, but first on Seattle indie super label Sub Pop—was a modest hit. As of press time, Furr had sold 62,729 copies in the U.S.—enough for the band to stop worrying about finding day jobs when not on the road. Destroyer of the Void (which lacks a clear single like "Furr," the deceptively simple lead single from the last album that sounded like early Dylan) may not reach those lofty sales numbers, but both Earley and Marquis are adamant about never making the same record twice, and Destroyer of the Void sees them seeking new territory. Most striking are the piano-and-strings ballad "Heaven and Earth" and "The Tree," a duet between Earley and local folk chanteuse Alela Diane that's one of the prettiest songs the band's ever recorded.
Not everything on the record is as beautiful. "Lover Leave Me Drowning" is a devastating remembrance of a former flame, with Earley singing, "When you touch my face the oceans part" before a lethal guitar solo cuts through the madness; murder ballad "The Man Who Would Speak True" is almost a sequel to Furr's macabre "Black River Killer." While much of the new disc's lyricism almost reads like a fantasy novel (there are enough mentions of the fantasy beasts that Marquis jokes that "Dragons" was the record's original title), it's also grounded in real emotions.
Earley frequently mumbles that, during tracking, he didn't care what songs made the finished album. The disc was "chosen pretty democratically" by the band, he says. And it's true that Destroyer of the Void was culled from two separate sessions with producer Mike Coykendall (M. Ward, She & Him, Richmond Fontaine), one in January 2009 and one a year later. Not all of Earley's favorites made the cut. But it's still apparent that he and Marquis—who met at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., and immediately bonded over Neil Young—made a record that they are proud of. It might not be a Van Zandt-level classic, but at least Blitzen Trapper has the guts to attempt something along the lines of its idols.
"Townes was never that big, but now huge artists will do entire sets of his songs," Earley says. "And that says something about a writer—that people are willing to cover your entire discography. That's my ultimate dream."
Blitzen Trapper plays Friday, July 23, at the Crystal Ballroom. 9 pm. $15. All ages.