The Bardo philosophy is ingrained within the Blitzen Trapper frontman’s music, and his new profession in homeless companies has influenced his writing and his paintings
Blitzen Trapper hasn’t performed a present in 2020, which makes them just about like each different artist on this yr of the coronavirus. “Holy Smokes Future Jokes,” the Portland band’s tenth album, was nonetheless introduced in Might and got here out in September, leaving frontman Eric Earley to market it on his personal and from a distance, with pre-recorded movies, calls to school radio and the occasional social media livestream.
It was a giant change for a band — identified for its eclectic, mixture rock and indie storage jam band with a folky, typically psychedelic sound — that when routinely performed as many as 100 reveals a yr, the street offering each a fan base and a residing.
However even earlier than COVID-19 was upon us, Earley had begun to carve one other path. With no new report to advertise since 2017’s “Wild and Reckless,” and with Earley and several other different members additionally elevating households, the band didn’t tour a lot in 2019 both. And by the point Earley wrote and recorded “Holy Smokes Future Jokes,” he was working full time for Do Good Multnomah, a nonprofit centered on the wants of houseless veterans.
A few of Earley’s associates already labored there; Blitzen Trapper’s final Portland present — and final present till who-knows-when — was a profit for Do Good at Revolution Corridor.
“I simply type of occurred upon the job to be sincere,” Earley stated. “After which I actually preferred it.”
He began out working the evening desk at Do Good’s shelter, which was then in a church basement: 4 nights per week, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., checking folks in, managing the crowds, cooling off inevitable conflicts. Nearly like being a bouncer or a street supervisor, besides with better sensitivity and extra de-escalation coaching.
“The evening shift typically is hard,” Earley stated. “However I realized rather a lot in that place from the parents that I used to be working with. And rather a lot about myself I wouldn’t have realized in any other case.”
As somebody who tells tales concerning the world and the human situation for a residing, Earley discovered it each humbling and eye-opening, if not stunning, to soak up the breadth and depth of expertise that introduced folks to the shelter.
“The overall feeling that individuals have in direction of the homeless and people who’re on the road, it’s this type of numbed, inaccurate view of who individuals are,” he stated. “Every individual has this very distinct story. I’d nearly say 99% of them weren’t essentially there due to decisions they made that had been their very own, however decisions made for them.”
By the autumn of 2019, he’d change into a case supervisor, and he’s now a housing specialist with Do Good’s sister group Better Good in Clackamas County. In that job, he oversees different case managers, whereas additionally serving to purchasers of his personal.
“As a result of I’ve been doing it for some time, I acquired fairly good,” Earley stated. “Determining who to name, who to speak to, the way it works. I’ve been capable of put lots of guys into residences somewhere else.”
Like lots of people who get into social work or counseling, Earley’s major qualification isn’t formal training — he was a math main in school — however quite, lived expertise. In “Wild and Reckless,” the dystopian, semi-autobiographical rock opera Earley and Blitzen Trapper wrote and carried out at Portland Heart Stage in 2017, one of many characters references Hooper Detox. Now, Earley typically finds himself on the telephone with the Central Metropolis Concern facility, attempting to safe a mattress for somebody (which has gotten even tougher on account of COVID-19 and the necessity for social distancing).
It’s additionally Blitzen Trapper canon that the band’s two breakthrough albums, 2007’s “Wild Mountain Nation” and 2008’s “Furr,” had been written and recorded when Earley was himself a person with no house, splitting time between his automobile and the semi-abandoned constructing the place the band had its rehearsal area and studio. He has typically been reticent to make use of the time period “homeless,” because it was roughly by alternative. He hadn’t misplaced a job, been evicted or spiraled into substance abuse however, quite, was a vagabond for “these bizarre, nebulous causes,” he stated.
“However on the similar time, I do know lots of people who’re in that very same place,” he stated. “Lots of people who wouldn’t essentially inform you, ‘I’m homeless,’ they might possibly inform you, ‘Oh, I’m simply type of taking a break from the system.’ It’s such a grey space.”
Earley’s main inspiration for “Holy Smokes Future Jokes” had been the Bardo Thödol, aka “The Tibetan E-book of the Useless,” and the George Saunders novel “Lincoln within the Bardo,” by which President Abraham Lincoln wanders the Bardo — an intermediate state between life and demise — mourning his son Willie. The books are one thing of a meta-narrative all through the album, which opens with songs referred to as “Baptismal” and “Bardos Gentle (Ouija Ouija),” and nears its finish with “Useless Billie Jean,” the place Earley imagines the titular Michael Jackson character within the intermediate state with Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Lincoln.
“So most of the songs on the report are about individuals who have died and so they don’t fairly know that they’ve,” Earley stated. “They’re type of caught someplace. It’s this concept of individuals hanging onto issues on this life that they need to be letting go of.”
Being caught within the Bardo works as a metaphor for absolutely anything in America 2020 — Congress, COVID-19 lockdowns, unemployment — which supplies the report a sure retroactive prescience. Earley stated his work at Do Good additionally influenced his writing.
“I feel working within the shelter modified my perspective so drastically, over a comparatively brief time period, that I don’t assume I noticed the affect it had till I’ve been doing interviews,” he stated. “Within the homeless group and, I feel, American society typically, we dangle on to so many issues: desires and aspirations and this delight of individualism. The American Dream and all that is an phantasm, however we proceed to hold on to it. And so I feel lots of that made its means into the music.”
To torture the Bardo analogy for only one sentence longer, Blitzen Trapper has been hanging on and letting go as properly. In hindsight, a lot of the band’s exercise since 2016 looks like one thing of a valediction. There was the 2016 acoustic “Songbook” tour, the place Earley and his bandmates shared tales of well-spent youth and musical discoveries, taking part in each originals and covers, from Neil Younger to Pearl Jam to Elliot Smith. Then got here “Wild and Reckless,” with its Previous Portland setting, whereas the band closed the e-book on 2018 with a tour to advertise Sub Pop’s tenth anniversary reissue of “Furr.”
What the COVID-19 hiatus obscures is the truth that Blitzen Trapper as we’ve identified it — the identical 5 guys onstage taking part in Earley’s music since 2000 (a sixth member, Drew Laughery, left 10 years in the past) — might not exist. “Holy Smokes” may have simply been billed as an Eric Earley solo report, however that’s been true of each Blitzen Trapper album, the band at all times functioning extra as a stay organism. “Holy Smokes” nonetheless options Brian Adrian Koch on drums and Marty Marquis on backing vocals, with a number of visitor musicians, together with producer Raymond Richards of The Parsons Redheads, additionally featured. However when it’s lastly doable to play this music stay, Koch could be the solely founding member on tour moreover Earley. Bassist Michael Van Pelt now lives in California, and Marquis and guitarist Erik Menteer have each left Portland. Work and parenting reordered everybody’s priorities, the frontman included.
“For me, the previous three or 4 years of touring, I used to be type of attempting to come back to grips with what do I actually need?” Earley stated. “And who am I except for Blitzen Trapper?”
Since ending “Holy Smokes Future Jokes,” Earley hasn’t actually written songs or picked up a guitar. His so-called day job is its personal reward, not simply one thing to assist pay the payments whereas making music. He’s additionally doing visible artwork: intensely detailed pencil sketches of individuals on the shelter, in addition to a collection of work impressed by the Central American migrant caravans on the U.S./Mexico border.
“There’s at all times going to be this aspect of getting to let go of who you wished to be, or who you had been,” he stated. “And for me, that perspective has been actually useful in simply type of residing day-to-day with not being on phases doing that type of work. It’s allowed me to really feel at peace with the final 12 years of my life — with that life type of taking part in itself off in a sure means.”