Our latest At-Home Session is with Eric Earley of Portland band Blitzen Trapper. Earley is the band’s driving force, but his approach to songwriting is ever-changing. Each album comes from a unique point of view or inspiration, and the group’s latest release, “Holy Smokes Future Jokes,” is no different. After the release of 2017′s “Wild & Reckless” and the 10-year anniversary/reissue of “Furr,” Earley started working at a homeless shelter in Portland, and those experiences, combined with his discovery of a few books on the Tibetan concept of afterlife, helped define much of the subject matter on his recent release.
What does it mean to exist? What impact will humans truly have in our relatively short time on this planet? These are the kinds of questions Earley explores on “Holy Smokes.” It’s a thoughtful, deep album that deserves plenty of attention both for the songwriting and the lyrical content.
We caught up with Eric Earley by phone, as he was lending his talents to an upcoming solo project by fellow Portlander Evan Way. Earley chatted with us about the songs on “Holy Smokes Future Jokes,” his songwriting process, and his inspiration for the album. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Matthew Casebeer: What was your inspiration as you started writing this album?
Eric Earley: I had just started working at the shelter, so I was in a pretty steep learning curve as far as human nature and addiction. I think my head was in a place where I was looking for ways to make sense of the human condition. I worked the winter shelter for 4 or 5 months and then I wrote the record, and the songs are directly because of my work over there. The shelter had a lot to do with my way of seeing the world and my own place as a songwriter and a person with a voice. But I also think there are subconscious underlying ways that it affected the lyrics.
I was also getting into evolutionary psychology and trying to figure out where the human mind comes from and why it is the way it is. Then I happened upon two books, which were really the main inspiration for the record: “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” which I got into from George Saunders’ book “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
Casebeer: What is the Bardo?
Earley: The Bardo Thodol is the Tibetan name for the in-between place. When you die you don’t know that you’re dead often times. “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” is a means by which you understand your own death and life and let go of things in this life so that you can escape the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. So, in “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Lincoln’s son dies, and he mourns him. The boy is stuck in the Bardo in a cemetery and there are all these people there who are dead but don’t really know it. So they’re sort of telling their stories and grappling with what’s going on.
Casebeer: Kind of like what happens in “Dead Billie Jean”?
Earley: That song is really the story of the song “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. And the actual story behind who that Billie Jean is based on … is a woman who was stalking Michael Jackson. In real life, she tried to make a death pact with Michael and her son. She mailed him a photo of her and the boy and a gun with a bullet in it and told him to shoot himself at a certain time and they would too, then they would be together forever. In the song [”Dead Billie Jean”], she’s dead but she doesn’t know it and she’s sort of hanging around not really sure what happened. There are other rock luminaries there because they can’t seem to let go of their past here on earth either. So they’re just kind of fucking around.
Casebeer: What’s happening in the song “Masonic Temple Microdose #1″
Earley: [The lyrics] have more to do with climate change and sort of the ways in which humans see ourselves. I mean, we see ourselves as the most important entities on this planet, and we’re not. We’ve only been here a little while, and I’m sure we won’t be here much longer in the grand scheme of things. So for me “let’s all go extinct” is sort of an anachronistic statement in that song, but I think it’s something everyone should think about. I think it’s a way to approach true humility. It’s difficult for humans to imagine our own non-existence. It’s actually impossible, technically. You can’t actually think about non-existence. You can think about your own non-existence to a point, but the non-existence of humanity that’s like that has no meaning to us. And yet that’s the way it was for millions of years.
Casebeer: Where did the finger-picking style of this album come from?
Earley: I studied classical when I was 18-19, so it was fun to move from power chord rock music back into this ornate finger-picking-type songwriting. I think I just went back to the means by which I wrote songs as a kid, which was just finger-picking on a guitar. It was a comfortable place to be. The chord structures and the finger-picking patterns are advanced stuff, and I think for me it was kind of fun to get back into doing that.
Casebeer: How has 2020 been musically?
Earley: I haven’t really been playing, to be honest. I’ve just been doing videos here and there, livestreams here and there, but it’s just me and a guitar. [The livestreams] are okay. It’s cool to connect with fans — that’s really what it’s for. It’s not like a live show, so it’s cool for super fans to click in and be able to talk to me. What I’ve noticed is the livestream will turn into people just asking me to play things, which is cool.