Interview with Blitzen Trapper: Strumming Through the Bardo with ‘Holy Smokes Future Jokes’

Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley © Jason Quigley
Swimming in a marinade of their signature rootsie recipe, Blitzen Trapper’s ‘Holy Smokes Future Jokes’ explores the afterlife and beyond.
Stream: ‘Hazy Morning’, etc. – Blitzen Trapper

 




Ten full length albums and twenty years into their career, Blitzen Trapper’s frontman Eric Earley wants to discuss the afterlife.

Within the meandering storylines of their most recent release, Holy Smokes Future Jokes (September 25 via Yep Roc Records), Earley and the Blitzen Trapper boys tackle the anything but flippant issues of apocalypse, afterlife, transitional states, heartbreak, evolution, devolution and the list goes on. Swimming in a marinade of their signature, harmony tinged rootsie recipe, Earley’s lyrics address lessons he’s learned through an in depth study of the Bardo Thodol or as we know it in the west, Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Holy Smokes Future Jokes - Blitzen Trapper

Holy Smokes Future Jokes – Blitzen Trapper

It seems that through the study of these ancient texts that consider the travels of the soul after death, Earley has also cleared a path to a well lived and meaningful life as well.

During his working day, Earley is a case manager at a local Portland homeless shelter. In order to help transition homeless men and women from an unstable existence on the move, to a firmly planted life in a home, Earley ensures safe passage to this new life by arranging ID, finding apartments, getting funding, vouchers and subsidies. It’s the kind of work that superhero’s take on.

It makes a lot of sense then, that Earley found himself obsessed with the transitional state between life, death and rebirth described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s a spirit world representation of his own physical world pursuits.

Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley © Jason Quigley

Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley © Jason Quigley

Considering that the translation of the title of the Tibetan Book of the Dead from its original Tibetan: བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལ, literally means, Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State,” tackling its main themes through story and song makes complete sense.

We caught up with Eric Earley on a rare break from superhero-Ing to discuss Blitzen Trapper’s beautiful and somehow relaxing strum through the Bardo in Holy Smokes Future Jokes. It’s available everywhere on September 25, 2020. Take a listen, rock out, be enlightened.

Rock, Pray, Love. 🤘🙏❤️

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A CONVERSATION WITH BLITZEN TRAPPER

Holy Smokes Future Jokes - Blitzen Trapper

Atwood Magazine: Thank you for taking some time off work to speak with me about Blitzen Trapper’s upcoming album, Holy Smokes Future Jokes. If you don’t mind though, I’m curious about your work. I hear you work at a homeless shelter. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Eric Earley: Yeah sure. I’m a case manager.

How long have you been doing that?

Eric Earley: I was working there in 2018 doing the night shift. And then I moved over to working days at a different location as a case manager. And now I’m a housing specialist. Trying to help folks get housed.

Wow that’s amazing. How has the pandemic affected the homeless population?

Eric Earley: Here in Portland, in my experience, I don’t know anyone who’s gotten COVID-19. It hasn’t really affected the homeless because they spend so much time outside.

Wow. It makes sense but I wasn’t expecting you to say that. How did you get involved in working with the homeless?

Eric Earley: I had some friends who were working for an organization that was just starting out called: Do Good. I was looking for some extra work because I wasn’t really touring so much. So I took on the night shift from 7 PM to 7 AM. I enjoyed it, and just went from there.

Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley © Jason Quigley

Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper, photographed in SE Portland in April 2020. Photo by Jason Quigley.

I realize that you and I are supposed to be talking about Blitzen Trapper and your new album Holy Smokes Future Jokes and I promise that we will, but I’m just so curious…What does your job entail?

Eric Earley: It’s a 24/7 joint so… I work days and do everything from cooking meals and cleaning bathrooms to deescalating violence and bandaging wounds. Also case managing. I help people get ID, find apartments, get funding, vouchers and subsidies…

So basically you’re a superhero! Let’s talk about your new album, Holy Smokes Future Jokes. A lot of times, when I’m listening to music I find myself trying to figure out what the artist is trying to teach me. What kind of journey is the artist trying to take me on? Where are we going? I felt like every time I listened to Holy Smokes Future Jokes, the lyrics meant something different to me depending on my mood or what happened to me that day. Kind of like a horoscope. Did you have a specific theme or message that you were trying to teach with this album?

Eric Earley: Yeah. I was really obsessed with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. A lot of songs are based on different concepts that I gleaned from that book. For me, the theme throughout was the idea of an intermediate state (between life and death). I enjoy it when people have their own ideas about what they think I’m talking about. I like it to feel like a riddle, like it keeps opening.

That’s exactly what it sounded like. It was kind of like listening to a mirror. Does that make sense? Depending on what I had gone through that day, the lyrics and the stories and all of their different details… something different jumped out at me every day. The lyrics of your songs are so much more storytelling than poetry. I don’t know a lot about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is probably why I didn’t pick up on the theme.

Eric Earley: You may not have picked up on the theme anyway. Most people wouldn’t. I think it just ended up being the focal point of my writing but I don’t think most people would have picked up on that. Which is good.

Maybe you could teach me something today. Can you tell me a little bit about the Tibetan Book of the Dead and why it’s so special to you?

Eric Earley: Well, chapter 11 specifically. Within the book is a whole narrative about the means by which, after death, you’re hopefully guided beyond the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. But in order to do that, you’re faced with this transitional place. And a lot of times the people who are dead don’t even realize they’re dead. They think that they’re still alive because they’re holding onto things from their past, things that they shouldn’t be holding onto, things from their physical life on earth. So they get stuck.

And so, if you get stuck in the intermediate state you have these deities that visit you.

First there are 48 peaceful deities . They use different means with which to get you to pass through the intermediate state and get to Nirvana. If those guys don’t succeed, then they send the 52 wrathful deities. They try to scare you out of the intermediate state.

It’s interesting to me that these 100 deities aren’t separate from you. They actually exist within every human. According to the Bardo Thodol, these deities exist in different parts of your body. Together they make up your psyche.

To me, a lot of the interesting aspects of this philosophy come as a way to view mental health. It’s a way to see a human being as a conglomeration of many different entities that all make up one being. And when you die, you’re faced with these different entities and they try to talk you into detaching from the material world. Super fascinating.

Wow. I know I’m gonna wake up in the middle of the night thinking about this. Nowadays, with the pandemic, a lot of us are probably thinking about the meaning of life and death. What does it mean to die? What is death and what happens to you? How did you get into reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead?

Eric Earley: My gateway was a book by George Saunders called, Lincoln in the Bardo. I read that book, which is a really fascinating funny book about Abraham Lincoln after his son’s death. So I read that book and it got me interested in finding out about the Bardo. That’s how I got caught going down the rabbit hole.

Yeah. Those are the best journeys. There’s a lyric in the title track, regarding the “shelf life of a broken heart.” That’s a little bit like… I mean, having a broken heart is all about the process of letting go. Similar to what you’re talking about regarding death and letting go of your former life. With a broken heart, it’s kind of the same idea. Where you have to let go of the life that you thought you were living, or the life you wanted to live. My question to you is, what is the shelf life of a broken heart?! How long does it last? How long till we get rid of it?

Eric Earley: [laughs] I don’t know! Why? Do you have one right now?

Oh, well, um yes.

Eric Earley: I’ve been there. Everyone has. It’s a good question! But unfortunately, I don’t know. It sounds to me like you’re stuck in the intermediate state.

Totally. That’s why I am asking you…Because what you were just explaining about wandering the transitional state sounds a lot like what I’ve been feeling. So that’s why I’m asking. I’m hovering over a life that doesn’t exist anymore and a life that doesn’t exist yet.

Anyway, I’m gonna keep working on that you don’t worry about me…

Eric Earley: I like it! We all are.

Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley © Jason Quigley

Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley © Jason Quigley

Now that I know Holy Smokes Future Jokes was inspired by a journey you took reading the Bardo Thodol, how does the title of the album relate to your message? What does the title mean?

Eric Earley: For one, I just liked the way it sounded. Life for humans is a mixture of comedy and deep tragic grief. They’re intertwined, and they always go together. I was imagining a lot of the things that we find holy or the things we find terrifying now, somewhere down the line we will find them to be a joke. Does that make sense?

It totally makes sense… One of my methods of battling the nighttime heartbreak demons is by watching stand-up comedy. I like it because they’re talking about real life. Many times comedians talk about really hard things in life, but they’re laughing about their struggles. There’s something very comforting and real about that. So these things, tragedy and comedy, exist together for me all the time.

In terms of the pandemic, I feel It’s created this culture of wanderlust, I find myself traveling through other peoples stories. I’m wondering if you’d like to take me on a trip and tell me one of your favorite tour stories.

Eric Earley: Oh man! I’ve got a lot of stories from all over the place. One of the craziest days of my entire life was this one day we were driving to play two shows with Belle and Sebastian. The first one was in Salt Lake City. So we’re coming from Arizona to Salt Lake, driving on a road that we’ve never driven on before that goes from Arizona into Utah. It crosses the Grand Canyon in a place where none of us have ever crossed it before. It was really amazing. There was a walking bridge across the canyon. It was really awesome.

How many times did you guys scream in your best Gandalf bellow “you ... shall not ... pass!” As you were crossing over the bridge?

Eric Earley: [laughs] Well yeah, that’s the thing, we had to stop and get out of the van so we could walk across the walking bridge. And halfway across the bridge we looked down and we saw a juvenile condor sitting on the scaffolding beneath us. We were like, “oh crap!” And there was a native couple there, because the reservation is close by. They told us all about the condor. It was fascinating. So then we walk back over the bridge and we get back in the car.

About 10 minutes down the road we’re driving at 75 mph and a human suddenly is walking towards us on the Freeway. We were going 75 mph!

Whaaat?! No! Gulp.

Eric Earley: We were in a big sprinter van, and we’re like, “oh crap!” So we’re trying to slow down and pull over, but he keeps walking towards us … he’s a suicide walker and he’s trying to kill himself. As we pull off the road and come to a halt, he just climbs underneath our van and lays beneath us, in between the tires. Holy smokes, right?!

Exactly.

Eric Earley: We’re like, “what is happening?” We had seen a sedan push him out onto the ground and drive away. So we’re like, someone pushed him out of the car and now he’s trying to kill himself. So we get out of the car and look underneath. He’s there, this young wasted native boy.

We slowly coax him out with some water, and as we coax him out, our driver backs up a little. So we give him the water and drive away. And we’re like “what the F?” that’s insane, right?

So the day already started out super bizarre. A few hours later we pull into this tiny town that we’re going to stop in before we hit Salt Lake. It’s 11 o’clock at night. We’re on a two laner going probably about 40 mph and suddenly “Wham!” we get hit from behind… hard. Hard enough to the point where it kind of pushes us off the road. And this huge truck just pulls around us and takes off.

Oh. My. God.

Eric Earley: We know that they’ve hit us hard enough to smash the back end of our van. So we’re like “shit, let’s get ‘em!”

We wanted to get his plates, so we start chasing him for probably about 2 or 3 miles. He pulls off on a dirt road, and we follow him down for about a mile until it dead ends (gulp). Meanwhile he’s turned around. Now he’s facing us and we’re facing him. Our headlights are on each other and we’re not getting out. We don’t know if he’s armed or what the fuck you know?! We’re just sort of like “what the fuck do we do?” And he just guns it past us and takes off back down the dirt road.

As we turn around and follow him back down the dirt road, we got his plates. Now we could go back to the hotel and call the cops. The sheriff shows up, black jacket, big shot gun and he takes two of us in his car and says, “I know who this dude is. I’m going to take you with me so that you can ID him.”

I didn’t go. It was Brian and Nate. They went with the sheriff to the dude’s house and he was wasted. He said that we hit him… It was a whole deal. It was crazy. And so we ended up having to ratchet strap the back of the van together. We showed up to the Belle and Sebastian show, their crew helped us open the doors and unload our shit. And we played the show.

Wow. Was everything OK with your gear?

Eric Earley: Amazingly, our instruments were untouched. Which is crazy because the back doors of the van we’re literally flattened all the way through.

How did the cop know this guy?

Eric Earley: The town is small enough. It’s a good 12,000 person town. From the way I heard the dude talk, he had done this before. He’s the hit and run king.

I’m glad you guys ended up OK after all of that…

Eric Earley: It all happened in one 24 hour period!

Well you definitely took me on a journey! You are a master storyteller after all. You tell a lot of stories about your hometown, your childhood etc. What gets you in the right state of mind to start writing? What feeds your muse?

Eric Earley: It’s usually just something that sparks my inspiration. A lot of times it’s a book, a record or a season of life that I’m in. With this one, it was a couple of books. And then other things will kind of feed into it and it will become a kind of obsession. That obsession generates songs. Because usually the songs help me to work through whatever that obsession is. And then it will be over.

It’s a beautiful way to process information. Keeping that in mind, in the track, “Masonic Temple” you say: “let’s do the world a favor and let’s all go extinct.” Even though you must’ve written this song before the pandemic, listening to it from our current world stance it feels like you’re making a reference to what we’ve been going through over the last few months. Like, let’s just do it, the world is obviously trying to get rid of us…

Eric Earley: Yeah this song was all written in the winter of 2019. Really, it was sort of a sardonic statement about my own personal views on, not only climate change but, humanity’s overblown view of itself as this apex species that is so intelligent and so worthwhile.

Forgetting that there was a whole other world before we existed.

Eric Earley: Exactly. We have existed for a fraction of a second compared to the vest millions of years of life on this planet. So to think that we are more special somehow or, that we will last forever on this planet seems ridiculous to me. The thought is also that we are a transitional species. All species and all populations are transitional. We have evolved from other species and we will evolve into other species. The whole idea of extinction needs to be turned on its head.

I wonder what’s coming next. And how all these changes that we’re making to our world are going to affect the next level of being.

Eric Earley: But that’s just it. This isn’t our world! We just live in it within this very complex web. But the world has generated us and it can very easily make us go extinct. I mean there have been millions of species that have gone extinct. I mean, our whole view of the world is so wrong and I think … I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this.

It’s like the universe is saying to us, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”

Eric Earley: Exactly. But not even with that much thought to it, you know what I mean? Stuff just happens!

It’s happening right now!

Eric Earley: Yes. And what’s interesting to me is that they found that species don’t just evolve towards more complex species. They also devolve into less complex species. It’s not linear. So, humanity could devolved into something “dumber” then we are right now. Like, who knows?!

Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley © Jason Quigley

Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley © Jason Quigley

That’s a mind bender… Are we going to choose the highroad and keep evolving? Or are we just going to devolve into blobs? If I were a pure optimist I would assume that we would continue to evolve and grow, but as a realist I’m really not sure anymore… I haven’t really spent a lot of time thinking about that, but now I will.

Eric Earley: Good!

Thanks a lot…

Eric Earley: No problem!

Regarding the track called “Masonic Temple Microdose #1” especially now that I know it’s about evolution and what’s coming next, is there a Masonic Temple Microdose #2?

Eric Earley: [laughs] I don’t know! That’s a great question!

What I really wanted the whole time I was listening to Holy Smokes Future Jokes was a transcript of your lyrics. So that I could keep track of all that you were saying and the thoughts your lyrics provoked in me as I was listening. I really found myself not being able to keep track of all the ideas that were swirling around in my mind. Listening to your music is a journey. I love it. It’s a little bit like a choose your own adventure story. It seems to me that the title track is somewhat about apocalypse? Am I right about that? Is it about apocalypse?

Eric Earley: Sure. Our extinction could be something that we ourselves engineer. Maybe by accident or whatever… But when we’re talking about the future of the future of the human race, I think in the background we’re always talking about a possible apocalypse.

Yeah, like how are we going to f it up for everyone else. Like not wearing masks in public places and having filthy hands.

Eric Earley: Mmmmhhhmmmmmmmm…

So when is this album going to be released into our wild world?

Eric Earley: It’s coming out on 9/25!

Great! Thank you so much for your time. Good luck with everything. You’ve given me a lot of good stuff to think about. Now I have a few books to buy.

Eric Earley: Sounds good! My pleasure.



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Holy Smokes Future Jokes - Blitzen Trapper

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Ilana Kalish was a jazz fed baby, pop-synched child, emo-soaked teenager and indie-rocked coed. Between working at the friendly corner record store, singing in a garage (sometimes with a band) and sitting under trees while writing short fiction, Ilana also got her degrees in modern dance and creative writing from the University of MD in College Park. All of these adventures eventually resulted in www.skiptothis.com where she shares her adventures down the rabbit hole of the musiverse. A self-proclaimed neologista, Ilana is always dancing with words to music, usually while drinking coffee and smirking. As a writer for Atwood Magazine, Ilana hopes to make you smile and nod happily with her whimsy and impeccable (smirk) taste in music.