ARI SHAPIRO, Host:

Rolling Stone magazine has called the band Blitzen Trapper the best Grateful Dead knockoff in forever. True enough. But frankly, that shortchanges what this band is doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SLEEPYTIME IN THE EASTERN WORLD")

BLITZEN TRAPPER: (Singing) Drifting down the sleepy river Waking like a child Never gonna know what the spirit's saying Unless you drift down for a while Never gonna know what the wind is whispering now Never gonna know unless you leave this world somehow Unless you leave this world somehow ...

SHAPIRO: Blitzen Trapper's new album is called "Furr." The record made Rolling Stone's list of the best albums of 2008 and it also made the list of best CDs of the year in the NPR All Songs Considered listeners poll. Blitzen Trapper's songwriter and lead singer is Eric Earley, and he came to the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland to talk with us. Hi.

ERIC EARLEY: Hey, how's it going?

SHAPIRO: Good. I understand your dad was a bluegrass musician?

EARLEY: That's right.

SHAPIRO: And he taught you to play your first instrument.

EARLEY: Oh, yeah, yeah. I still got a banjo that he gave me.

SHAPIRO: Is there a track on this album that features you playing the banjo that we might take a listen to?

EARLEY: You can play the banjo so often(ph) Saturday night. It's kind of fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

EARLEY: That kind of organy-sounding thing, accordian-sounding thing is the melodica.

SHAPIRO: The melodica? What's a melodica?

EARLEY: It's a sort of weird German instrument that you blow into.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EARLEY: It was used by the dub kings, you know, by all the dub guys from Jamaica back in the '70s.

SHAPIRO: So that - were you playing your dad's banjo there? The one that your dad gave you?

EARLEY: Yeah, yeah. That's like a Kentucky made.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the piano that you wrote most of the stuff on.

EARLEY: I don't even know whose it is. It got left out in the hallway of our studio space, and so me and Brian one day just pulled it into our studio.

SHAPIRO: Brian's your bandmate.

EARLEY: He's a drummer, yeah. We just kind of had it in there, and I start to writing songs on it at night and according with it. It was a beat-up old thing. We don't have it anymore. We just sort of left it in the hallway when we moved out.

SHAPIRO: Was there something about composing a song on a piano that sounded terrible that made the songs develop differently?

EARLEY: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn't say it sounds terrible. I mean, it definitely is slightly out of tune, and I mean, I don't know. I think that it sounds unique. And also, it was all I had at the studio anyway, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NOT YOUR LOVER")

TRAPPER: (Singing)

In my sleep, I'm not your lover anymore When I wake, I have to remind myself that I'm lying on your shore Cause I'm a moon-walking cowboy Dusty riding and I doesn't know what's in store All I know is in my sleep I'm not your lover anymore...

SHAPIRO: There's kind of a clicking sound in the background. Is that that piano?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EARLEY: Yeah. Yeah, you can hear the hammer smacking. The thing with that piano is that the front of it had broken off so you could see the interior of it, the guts of it. And you could also hear it.

SHAPIRO: When you're on tour and you have a beautifully tuned Grand, do you feel a little nostalgic for this old clacker?

EARLEY: Sometimes, yeah. Although not that much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I want to ask about your Portland influences. I'm from Portland, Oregon, and I was reading an old interview that one of your bandmates did, and I kind of found the question perfectly phrased, so I'm going to quote directly from this interview that was on brightestyoungsthing.com, a blog. And the interviewer said, this is sort of a backwards way of getting you to say that it's the best state in the union, but how do you think Oregon has affected or influenced you?

EARLEY: I mean, there's a certain darkness to Portland, the weather and the economy. But I think there's also a certain warmth and familiarity that goes along with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Where did the story of the "Black River Killer" come from?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BLACK RIVER KILLER")

TRAPPER: (Singing)

It was just a little while past the sunset strip They found the girl's body in an open pit Her mouth was sewn shut, but her eyes were still wide Gazing through the fog to the other side...

EARLEY: Well, I don't know. I mean, that's kind of like a conglomeration of different ideas. I mean, I was drawing heavily off of, you know, like Cormac McCarthy style.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

EARLEY: Narrative.

SHAPIRO: The novelist.

EARLEY: But it's also based, sort of, on my uncle Tommy, my father's lost brother who was a criminal, a junkie and a barely sweet guy.

SHAPIRO: What was his story?

EARLEY: You know, he, as a kid, he was around a little bit. And when we'd visit L.A., you know, he was the guy with the big beard, with the stained T-shirt, that was, you know, always like playing Rolling Stones songs in my grandfather's back shed, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BLACK RIVER KILLER")

TRAPPER: (Singing) It was dark as the grave, it was just about three When the warden with his key came to set me free They gave me five dollars and a secondhand suit A pistol and a hat and a worn out flute.

So I took a bus down to the Rio Grande And I shot a man down on the edge of town Then I stole me a horse and I rode it around Till the sheriff pulled me in and sat me down...

EARLEY: And then as I got older, he disappeared. After my grandfather died, he disappeared, and the cops would come to our house in Oregon once a year looking for him. Have you heard from Tommy, we got - we're looking for him, he's pulled a heist in such and such city, you know, that kind of thing. And so I kind of always had this like mythical view of Tommy, you know. And like, you know, he's down on the border like running guns or I don't even know. We haven't heard from him for 10 years, maybe, no, more than - probably 15 years.

SHAPIRO: Did he ever do anything like the Black River killer in the song?

EARLEY: I don't know. I mean, he didn't kill anybody that I know of. He might have, I have no idea. I hank the best story about him that my father used to tell me was in the late '60s, Tommy got on a chain gang for possession. And back then, you know, they would chain them up and they would work, usually, digging ditches. And he escaped from the chain gang one afternoon. And he was running, you know, in his prison garb, and he stole a car and headed back towards my dad's house in East L.A., and he got pulled over. So he's just escaped from a chain gang, stolen a car, and he gets pulled over. And my - my Uncle Tommy was just a sweet talker that he talked the cop out of the ticket and rolled up into my dad's driveway in a stolen car. And my dad's like, what are you doing here?

SHAPIRO: And did your dad turn him in?

MR EARLEY: No.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BLACK RIVER KILLER")

TRAPPER: (Singing) Well the sheriff let me go with a knife and a song So I took the first train up to Oregon And I killed the first man that I came upon Because the devil works quick, you know it don't take long...

SHAPIRO: I should say, we have not played the title track off your album, "Furr," and that's because listeners heard it during All Things Considered segment on the best albums of 2008. But if you want to listen to it in full, it's on npr.org. Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

EARLEY: Yeah, likewise. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Happy New Year.

EARLEY: Yeah, same to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BLACK RIVER KILLER")

TRAPPER: (Singing) Oh when, oh when Will the keys to the kingdom be mine again? Oh when, oh when Will that black river water wash me clean again Oh when, oh when Will the keys to the kingdom be mine again...

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