Blitzen Trapper's music has always drawn characters into the spotlight from the margins of American life.
For the better part of two decades, the band's songs have been populated with rebellious losers, drifters and everyday people stuck between desperation and elation.
So when Portland Center Stage came calling about making a theatrical production out of Blitzen Trapper songs, songwriter Eric Earley began crafting a narrative out of song ideas he'd been developing since the band's 2015 album All Across This Land.
Built from songs and monologues, the rock opera ran for 28 performances in March and April 2017, with Earley's unreleased songs forming the backbone of the show, paired with Blitzen Trapper favorites that augmented the story.
"There's this running theme about the loss of the American Dream," Earley says. "America is having an identity crisis, a pretty extreme one, a lot of it has to do with the fact that Americans have always felt entitled to this thing we call the American Dream, but it's a complete illusion. A lot of the songs have to do with that, trying to reimagine what it means to be an American."
It was a unique experience, Earley says, but once the production had wrapped up, the band still had those new songs, ones that sounded like Blitzen Trapper's signature blend of rock and Americana, but with a new imaginative energy. So the band—Earley, guitarist Erik Menteer, drummer Brian Adrian Koch, bassist Michael Van Pelt and keyboardist Marty Marquis—went into the studio, reworking the Wild and Reckless stage show into a proper album.
"We crafted it over a year's time, using the music, but definitely changing it," Earley says. "I wanted the record to have some of the feeling of the show, but to have other stories as well."
The songs veer in a dark direction, touching on violence, drug abuse, heartbreak and failed dreams: The stories not without redemption, but treating life's struggles in honest, human terms.
"I'm always just telling stories of things I'm seeing at the time, stuff that's hitting me. I was seeing these trends and wanted to create characters around that," Earley says. "My wife works for a nonprofit organization that helps people who are in need. I draw from some of her stories even, stuff from my own past over the years."
The Wild and Reckless album, released Nov. 3, took seven songs from the stage show and added five more, extending the scope of that story with some thematically similar tales.
"'Joanna' and 'Rebel' were not part of the show, but I already had them written. They didn't have anything to do with the show but they became some of the most important ones on the album," Earley says.
"Rebel" is about a man who's pulled in two directions, toward crime and toward the law, chasing love and the American dream, yet finding neither to be what they seem. In the end, the son of a cop ends up selling cocaine to Hollywood's wealthy, having faced corrupt forces whenever he tried to straighten out his life.
"That song's kind of a riddle," Earley says. "There's no answer to it."
"Joanna" is also new to the album, a song Earley calls one of the darkest he's written. It's a murder ballad that asks hard questions about the concept of justice, its protagonist a young victim of sexual assault who turns to vengeance.
Turning to such a dark realm in part provides a connection between Wild and Reckless, Blitzen Trapper's ninth studio album, and the band's 2008 breakthrough album Furr. It's a companion and an extension, showing an American underbelly—particularly in the expansive, untamed West—that's a feral, dangerous and unpredictable landscape for people to navigate.
"I was revisiting certain themes that I had been interested in when I was writing Furr," he says. "Sonically it's similar in certain ways, but more of that has to deal with the themes. There's a dystopian theme to Furr and there's the murder ballad. There were these different ways the two records come about, but it's a similar headspace."
The lead up to Furr, Blitzen Trapper's widely acclaimed debut for Sub Pop Records, also marked an important turning point in the band's evolution, when writing songs and touring began to reveal new potential in what the band could be.
"We've been touring for 10 years and to me that's what a band is," Earley says. "Touring makes you play in front of people every night and changes the way you perform and see the music. Before that we were just playing in town occasionally and messing around. When we started touring in 2007 it was a wake-up call. Our evolution began then, we started to change and grow."
Furr, along with its Sub Pop follow-up records Destroyer of the Void and American Goldwing (in 2010 and 2011), built for Blitzen Trapper a reputation as wide-ranging rock band, rootsy Americana on one end of the spectrum and cranked electric guitars on the other, not unlike Neil Young, a frequent point of comparison for the band. Blitzen Trapper turned to some mad-scientist experimentation on the twang-funk VII, then released the tight, guitar-driven All Across This Land.
Having been a steadily evolving band makes for a deep catalog of songs for Blitzen Trapper, which gives the band a lot of options for what to play on stage. And, unsurprisingly, it's anything but a color-by-numbers setlist.
"The show is different every night," Earley says. "We go back to really early stuff, do stuff from every album, just however we're feeling. Most of the time we'll change up the older ones."
Being steadily on the road has created a well of inspiration for Earley's songwriting, with ideas bubbling up whenever the band gets back from tour, all sorts of fresh experiences and observations ripe for transforming into stories and characters for songs. So in some sense, every song is true.
"Touring you definitely see all kinds of different places and how people live and how the cities are evolving and developing. Over 10 years we've definitely seen a lot of changes," Earley says. "Touring bands and truckers see the country more than anybody else."