Blitzen Trapper Is Full of Furr (and Fuzzy Memories)

The latest album is a high-water mark — and a hazy mystery to frontman Eric Earley.

Blitzen Trapper (Tyler Kohlhoff)

Prior to dropping their peerless fourth album, Furr, Blitzen Trapper were mostly known as a scrappy freak folk band from the Pacific Northwest with an eccentric appeal that could land them coverage in both JamBase and Pitchfork. The group’s third effort, Wild Mountain Nation, raised some eyebrows and garnered some nice press, but they were hardly household names outside their hometown of Portland.

That changed with Furr, an ambitious, adventurous album released on the venerable indie label Sub Pop. Borrowing elements from rockabilly, psych, country, garage rock and blue-eyed soul, the album retained the band’s trademark fearlessness, but it also represented their most-focused record to date, with chief songwriter Eric Earley embracing his clear talent for penning haunting, Dylan-esque folk ballads.

The response to Furr was widespread and unanimously positive. Pitchfork slapped the album with its prized Best New Music label and Rolling Stone dubbed Furr its 13th best record of the year. Worldwide tours in support of Furr placed Blitzen Trapper prominently within the consciousness of the music-loving masses.

One would think that such a transformative album would leave a profound impact on the members of Blitzen Trapper, but Earley — responsible for writing all the tunes on Furr­ — can barely remember the circumstances that led to its creation. When asked to opine about the legacy of the record, Earley responds with a chorus of “I don’t know,” “I can’t remember,” or “I have no clue.” For him, the album was truly a primal conception — the result of a prodigious time when he effortlessly tapped into a boundless well of creativity.

“I was operating on a completely subconscious wavelength at that point of my life,” says Earley, whose band will play Furr in its entirety at several Bay Area locales this month, including a Nov. 14 show at the Independent. “There was very little forethought going into many of the decisions, especially songwriting ones. I was just working out of a purely free-associated plane, probably.”

Earley has few meaningful recollections about the title track, a gorgeous, bizarre dustbowl folk song about morphing into a wolf (easily besting “Werewolves in London” as the best track written about lupine transformation). The breezy pacing tells the traditional love story we all know: Boy turns into wolf, wolf meets girl, girl loves wolf, wolf transforms back into boy. Regardless of its surreal narrative, there is little doubt that the beguiling number represents one of the high-water marks for Blitzen Trapper. Yet, Earley cannot recall why the album was named after it, nor why there is an extra “r” in the title (just another eerie element of the track).

“I wrote that song one night in like 10 minutes — I really have no clue what compelled me,” says Earley. “But I knew it was a strong song. I started singing it live before the record came out, because it was written a few years before the album. It was just one of those tracks that worked its way up to the top.”

Furr was actually culled from a roster of three dozen songs that the prolific Early had already written and recorded. Sub Pop worked with the band to narrow down the collection to a more-manageable 13 tracks. The amorphous nature of the recording process — handpicking a disparate collection of songs that had been written over a series of several years — probably contributes to Earley’s admitted lack of clarity with Furr.

Furr is mostly a collection of observant character studies—tales of outlaws, killers and star-crossed Romeos told from a safe remove, but one of the tracks — “Not My Lover” — feels particularly personal. Earley says he is haunted by the song, a somber piano elegy about a suppressed, crumbling relationship, where the narrator dreams of escape and infidelity.

“At the time I wrote that song, I wasn’t in any serious relationship or anything,” Earley says. “I don’t remember what I was thinking about, or where it came from — the words just kind of made sense at the time. But it’s a dark song, and while I was performing it one time, I kind of snapped to, and realized what the song was about and was horrified by it. It’s an anti-love song, but the honesty inside is too powerful to be denied.”

Like so many of the tracks that Earley wrote during the time period, there are cracks in his memories and holes in his recollection. The era might have been a blur for him, but he has an appreciation for that special time.

“It was our first release that we had a meaningful label put a lot of power behind us,” Earley says. “We got lots of really great tours and it really pushed to another level.”

Blitzen Trapper with Luluc, Wednesday, Nov. 14, at The Independent, 628 Divisadero St., $22-$25, theindependentsf.com

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