Singer-songwriters have been tackling existential questions about life and death
since time immemorial… or at least the 1960s. But when it came to Blitzen
Trapper’s newest album, Holy Smokes Future Jokes, front man Eric Earley looked
beyond mere existence—or even the end of it—to contend with grander cosmic
explorations: namely, the intermediate period between a person’s separate lives on
earth, “and what it means to escape the cycle of birth and rebirth,” he explains.
Weighty stuff, to say the least. But then again, Blitzen Trapper has never been the
type of band to just skim the surface. Over the course of 20 years and ten
full-length albums, the Portland, Oregon-hailing act, with singer, songwriter and
guitarist Earley firmly at the helm, has crafted a singular catalog of
songs—sometimes wrapped in impressionistic imagery and scruffy, singalong
melodies (the fan favorite “Furr,” for just one example), and other times rendered in
sharp-focus, needlepoint detail and imbued with driving, electrified rhythms
(“Cadillac Road,” about a depressed and deserted mill town in the Oregon
mountains where Earley’s father once worked, comes to mind here)— that
celebrate the human experience in all its triumph and tragedy.
As for how each new album comes into focus, well, that’s more a matter of
immediate inspiration than some long-conceived plan. “The records are a chronicle
of my own journey, to be honest—snapshots of where I am at that time,” Earley
says. “I don’t know that that’s any way to have a career, but for me it’s a cathartic
way of documenting where my head’s at.”
Which brings us back around to Holy Smoke Future Jokes, a record that, in
following where Earley’s head is at these days, cuts a spectacular, almost
supernatural path through the past, present and still-to-come. Earley’s words take
the listener on a wild and dramatic journey through rivers of waist-high water in the
aftermath of a tragic car wreck and the hazy morning before a murderous moment,
and from getting blitzed to the point of extinction inside a masonic temple to a stop
for chips and dip before the apocalypse. Along the way, there’s also an occasion to
smoke dope with Abe Lincoln and play bones with Brian Jones, slide through the
ether in a dream, and confront the Intermediate States while bathed in the glow of
the bardo’s light.
In fact, it is the notion of the bardo, that transitional state between death and rebirth,
that holds a central place of purpose on Holy Smokes Future Jokes. Early on in the
songwriting process, Earley took inspiration from several texts, among them
George Saunders’ 2017 experimental tome, Lincoln in the Bardo, which
subsequently led him to dig deep into the Bardo Thodol, more commonly known as
the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “I became obsessed with it,” Earley says. “All the
ideas contained in that book were speaking to me in a lot of different ways.”
As for how that translated into the songs on Holy Smokes Future Jokes?
“The main theme that kept drawing me in when I was writing was what I call ‘cosmic
humility,’ ” he says. “It’s the idea that humanity is not the center of the universe, or
even the center of our ownuniverse here on earth. We’re not the most important
thing. Because we’ve only been around for, like, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction
of a second in the grand scheme of things, you know? But it’s very difficult for
humans to conceive of their own non-existence.”
Difficult to conceive of, indeed, but as is characteristic of Earley’s songwriting, on
Holy Smokes Future Jokes he addresses these concepts by homing in on deeply
personal and highly affecting stories. Take the album’s opener, “Baptismal,” in which
he recounts an oft-told tale from his high school days about a group of local kids
who perished in a drunk-driving accident, their car veering off a neighborhood road
and into a river. Over a prickly, hypnotic fingerpicked guitar pattern that reflects and
amplifies the ominous setting, Earley sings in hushed tones, “Empty bottle on the
backseat floor / filled with dreams from a forgotten shore / And your heart left open
like a bedroom door.”
“I was imagining the souls of these kids as they’re called out of that situation and
upward into the bardo, and they’re looking back down on their demise and their own
folly,” Earley explains. And while this particular story was one of local lore in
Earley’s town, “I think it’s something that’s also common everywhere in America,”
At the other end of the record, meanwhile, is the briskly-strummed closer “Hazy
Morning.” This song likewise focuses in on an all-too common American
tragedy—school shootings—but viewed through a unique lens: Rather than
detailing the event itself or its horrific aftereffects, Earley takes a different tack,
imagining the “many voices vying for attention” inside the shooter’s head on the
morning before he begins his rampage.
“The chorus is basically the voices talking to him, telling him, ‘If you’re ready to roll
with us…’ ” Earley says. “And he’s sort of along for the ride.” While Earley
acknowledges his treatment of the issue could be viewed as “somewhat detached,”
he stresses that his intent is to highlight “what it means to have that kind of mental
health issue. Because mental health is at the center of it all, right? Every victimizer
is himself a victim at some point. It’s this unending chain.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that sandwiched between the album’s powerful bookend
tracks are ruminations on mortality and the afterlife that are occasionally treated
with a considerably lighter touch. Take the indie-roots rave-up “Masonic Temple
Microdose #1,” in which a group of friends break into the titular temple to get high
and party down.
“I wanted to paint a picture of an extremely nihilistic bunch of kids who are sitting
around in this temple discussing their philosophies on life,” Earley says. “And
eventually they’re like, ‘Fuck it, let’s just get wasted.’ And then they’re like, ‘Let’s go
extinct.’ Which is sort of the ultimate version of getting wasted. It’s the flipside of the
bardo—this final extinction and total emptiness.”
As for whether there’s anything autobiographical in that one? “Well, there was a
weird, cult-y sort of temple near where I grew up, but I never broke into it,” Earley
admits. Although, he adds, “I did try to.”
Then there’s “Dead Billie Jean,” on which Earley imagines the title character from
the Michael Jackson classic having committed suicide and ascended to the bardo,
where she finds herself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Jim
Morrison, and the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. “She’s just hanging out with these
dead rock stars that she doesn’t really know or care about,” Earley says. “But
they’re all there getting high together.”
As for the deeper significance? “Well, the story of Billie Jean is that she was based
on Michael Jackson’s real-life stalker,” Earley says. “And I was imagining these
famous people, and also people who aren’t famous but who are obsessed with
famous people, all stuck in the bardo together because they can’t let go of certain
things that they were after in their lives. So in the song Billie Jean has killed herself,
but somehow she’s unaware that she’s trapped in the intermediate state.”
As is probably evident at this point, there’s an inherent otherworldliness to much of
the lyrics and imagery on Holy Smokes Future Jokes. But the music, in contrast, is
rooted in a considerably more earthy folk-rock sensibility, and centered around
acoustic instrumentation. “A lot of it is fingerpicked guitars and stuff like that,” Earley
As for why?
“As I was writing these songs and trying to understand my own actions, it got me
thinking about what I initially loved about playing guitar when I was five and six
years old—and that was just sitting and fingerpicking on an acoustic,” he explains.
“So I started to go back to all these different ways and means of playing that I liked
doing when I was a little kid. And that seemed to fit with the music, because it was a
darker, more intimate kind of thing I was doing with these songs.”
Needless to say, it’s a markedly different approach than Earley has taken on Blitzen
Trapper’s last few albums, including the upbeat and electrified All Across This Land
and the sprawling and ambitious Wild and Reckless, the latter of which grew out of
a month-long stage production in their hometown of Portland produced by the
Portland Center Stage.
“The last one was much more of a blown-out, big concept piece,” Earley says of
Wild and Reckless. “Where this record is much more insular and personal.”
It’s also, despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, more concerned with light
than darkness, Earley says.
“The truth is, I don’t find death as a topic to really be dark in any way—it’s more like
a portal into all kinds of other stuff,” Earley says. “And I think that’s why I really love
the concept of the bardo. The whole idea is that you’re moving through this place
where you’re forced to make decisions and to see different things and different
perspectives. I wouldn’t say it’s a place of hope, but it’s certainly a place of wonder.
To me, it’s more magical than anything.”
That magical vibe flows throughout the entirety of Holy Smokes Future Jokes.
“All the songs talk to each other, at least to me they do, and in really cool ways,”
Earley says. “And in some really dark and disturbing ways sometimes, too.”
He laughs. “But still, really cool.”
Cedar Teeth didn’t plan to start a band around the campfires that lit up their Oregon youths in the forests of the Cascade foothills that form a clear-cut divide between Portland and the surrounding wilderness. The genre bending roots troupe owe their inception to bassist Rayson Gordon, who forged a musical link between friends and provided their secret headquarters: a cedar shed on his grandparents’ 40 acre forestland on Green Mountain Road. In their new practice space, campfire tunes turned into intricate songwriting and friendships became a partnership.
Following their 2014 debut album, Hoot, Cedar Teeth built their reputation on stage, whether at festivals like Summer Meltdown and Wildwood, or at clubs throughout the Pacific NW, where they have joined bands like Fruition, Shook Twins, Motopony, Hot Buttered Rum, and Magic Giant.
On their 2017 EP, Farewell To Green Mountain, Cedar Teeth explore everything from indie rock and grunge to psych folk and bluegrass, reflecting the diversity inspired by their lives on the dividing line of societal opposites. Produced by Larry Crane (Elliot Smith, The Decemberists), the EP leans heavily on backwood harmony, allowing complex song structures and off-kilter melodies to support tales of love and war and the moments in between. In one sense, Farewell to Green Mountain is a goodbye to both their formative practice space and the vanishing wilderness and community they knew growing up; a sense of loss that makes its way into songs such as “Cancer” and “Mama’s Mourning”. But then again, a voice of defiance emerges in songs like “Winter” and “Echoes Grounding”, testaments to renewal and resilience in the face of the dying light.
While their range of sonic interests and influences defy easy classification, it is difficult not to hear Levon Helm, Rick Danko and company, The Band, hollering from the grave. Indeed, imagery reflecting organic flesh and bone, mingling with gnarled old-growth roots music, is what this band is all about. Call ‘em whatever you like: they are harmonizers and collaborators and Cedar Teeth won’t let the fire go out.