Portland’s Blitzen Trapper have been self-releasing music on their Lidkercow Ltd label since 2003, but it wasn’t until their third full-length, this year’s Wild Mountain Nation, that their madcap, literate, rootsy indie-Americana psychedelics caught on with bloggers and scribes, landing the group a Sub Pop contract. It’s always interesting to catch a band in transition — the sextet’s currently on a lengthy tour (a return trip to New York in October), making life adjustments to accommodate the increased popularity. That said, it took some time locating multi-instrumentalist Marty Marquis and keyboardist Drew Laughery, two different sorts of teachers, while they trekked across the United States. Glad we finally spoke though: I not only found out somebody’s writing an M.A. thesis on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, I discovered a new use for a plastic knife.
After the Q&A you’ll find an exclusive live track — frontman Eric Earley going solo on the Jerry Garcia-beloved jam “Shady Grove” during the band’s hometown release show. Additionally, we present an MP3 of Earley’s unplugged take on “Wild Mountain Nation,” recorded this past week in New York for Public Radio International (stream the whole performance here). Finally, in a QYDJ first, please find a copy of “Sweeney Atomic,” a section from Marquis’s When The Streams Dried Up, a book in progress. Pretty literate of us, eh?
Marty Marquis, Multi-Instrumentalist
STEREOGUM: I was forwarded a link to Manos: The Hands of Fate. Who wrote it? Were you somehow involved?
MARTY MARQUIS: It was Brian, our drummer, who did the adaptation of a terrible B-movie of the same name. I don’t know who the original writer was — if Brian wanders in while I’m answering these I’ll tell you (Hal P. Warren). He does a lot of writing, little skits, comedy routines, etc. This was his first adaptation and he worked with a producer; the two of them were basically Last Rite Productions (along with a web guy, maybe?).
STEREOGUM: So you aren’t a part of Last Rite Productions?
MM: No. Mike, our bassist, and Eric, our leader, performed the soundtrack to Manos live.
STEREOGUM: Guess links got crossed. You are a writer, though … Does it get at all competitive having a dramatist and a novelist (and etc?) in the band?
MM: It’s competitive in a good way, maybe stimulating or challenging would be a better term. We’re more into helping each other out with the various stuff, and someday envision making our record label into a multimedia company.
STEREOGUM: You don’t write the lyrics for the band do you? Ever want to give it a shot?
MM: Eric writes 99% of the Blitzen Trapper material, though this tour we’ve been playing one of my tunes (“Jericho”) a lot. I’m always working on songs; in the future we’ll probably get into my stuff a little more.
STEREOGUM: Your P.R. mentions Philip K. Dick. He and H.P. Lovecraft are especially popular with bands. Any ideas?
MM: Philip K. Dick I think resonates with a lot of people these days. I’ve read some good analyses of why, but I personally haven’t read Dick myself. Some of the other guys are into him, especially Eric.
STEREOGUM: What books did you bring on tour?
MM: I brought a novel of mine, intent on doing another draft of edits, but so far I haven’t been able to look at it. (I’ve already done seven or eight drafts). Also, brought the 33.33 books on Harvest and Highway 61 Revisited, which I devoured in short order. Eric brought a book called Oregon Sketches by Wallace Smith that I read the last few days, a lot of great humor written during Prohibition sort of tangentially dealing with the “closing of the West”. I’m a sucker for Western Americana, mostly nonfiction.
STEREOGUM: Outside of your prose writing, you’re an ESL teacher?
MM: I used to work as a systems administrator, which I quit to write my novel. But it took me a long time and I ran out of money, so when I saw a job opening at Berlitz, I wrote them a letter explaining how James Joyce was a hero, and how if Berlitz was good enough for him it would most certainly satisfy me. So they hired me despite my total lack of experience — this was almost three years ago. It’s an office downtown in Portland, and they were cool about letting me get out on the road and whatnot.
STEREOGUM: What do you have the students read?
MM: Mostly articles out of the papers, or from The Economist. It depends on their level of English. I had one student who was boning up on English for a Master’s dissertation on The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, so we read meaty passages from that. Usually I focus on stuff that employs idiomatic language and/or American culture, so the alt-weeklies are pretty good, too.
STEREOGUM: What’s your background in that area? Have you taught previously?
MM: I’ve never taught before, not in a formal setting, but I think some people have the gift and are always kind of teaching in whatever situation they are. Some day I intend to teach at a college or some comparable setting. It’s really enjoyable for me.
STEREOGUM: Ever work in Powell’s? I always wonder if having a bookstore that size in a person’s backyard would inspire them to write … so much access to words. Seems like there’s more there than most mid-sized libraries.
MM Powell’s is kind of depressing for a writer, I think. Going in there reminds me that there’s so much writing published all the time and all this crazy marketing going on that I can’t imagine anyone ever reading anything I ever come up with.
STEREOGUM: You guys are on Sub Pop now. Is that the end of your day job for a while?
MM: I taught my last class in February, actually. My mom passed away and I felt like I needed to hang with my dad for a while, and while that was happening Wild Mountain Nation really started to pop so I found myself working like an ass to get the album ready. I’ve always kind of run our record label but in the past we took a very laissez faire tangent on releases. This time I really wanted to get the record heard, scraped together some money, and set out on this steep-ass learning curve. A lot, lot more work than I’d anticipated and going down to teach just wasn’t working out. Then we got a good booking agent and have been on the road a bunch the last few months.
STEREOGUM: One final thing … Who came up with “Blitzen Trapper”?
MM: This was Eric. His grandpa’s nickname was Trapper. Blitzen connotes a whole lot of stuff, not sure what the impetus was for that. Not the reindeer, though.
Drew Laughery, Keyboards
STEREOGUM: How long have you been employed as a teacher at Childpeace?
DREW LAUGHERY I am coming to the end of my sixth school year.
STEREOGUM: Where did that name “Childpeace” come from?
DL: Heh, yeah the name is kind of hippie sounding. The full name is Childpeace Montessori School, so the philosophy is based on the Montessori method. The school is AMI certified, which means that it follows the philosophy pretty strictly. Our administrator started the school in 1977: She is totally great, graduated from Berkley in the 60’s, I think. So maybe that explains the name.
STEREOGUM: Where did you work before this?
DL: I have a pretty weird resume … maybe everyone does, but mine includes porcelain production artist, radiator repairman and previous to Childpeace I worked in a warehouse, driving a forklift, packing pallets for shipment, filling orders that sort of stuff.
STEREOGUM: What did you make as a porcelain-production artist?
DL: I made these porcelain angel ornaments at this studio called Margaret Furlong Designs. We would whip out hundreds of these things a day with plaster molds, assembling them by hand. Around December it was nightmare hours, arriving in the dark and leaving in the dark.
STEREOGUM: Had you always wanted to teach?
DL: I sort of fell into the work that I do. My friend worked at the school and knew I was looking work so she hooked me up. I should say that I am not officially a “guide” as they call teachers in Montessori schools. (In order to be a “guide” you have to take a two-year training program.) I started as the afternoon assistant and then I became the supervisor of the toddler (15 months-3 yrs) afternoon program.
STEREOGUM: What does that involve?
DL: Well, the children I work with have just learned to walk, so a whole new world has opened up for them. Montessori philosophy encourages independence in this exploration, so the classroom is set up so that they can choose what they would like to work on, they can set up their own snack and lunch dishes as well. There is a “practical life” area where they can choose to water plants, wash dishes, cleaning the mirror is very popular. Most of our time together in the afternoon is spent playing outside and having picnics. When they leave my class I hope that they have enough words to develop a very individual experience of the world and the social tools to engage their peers.
DL: Um, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the evenings off and in most cases the summers are off as well … so shows and tours can fit around the work schedule. Maybe teaching is like playing a show in that you kind of try to guide people to take their experience to another level.
STEREOGUM: Best idea so far. The band’s starting to do well … Are the school officials nervous about losing you?
DL: Well, most recently due to the tours this year I have moved to only subbing when I am in town, which is nice because it is pretty regular work and i can always say no if I am too busy.
STEREOGUM: Any teaching moments that stand out as particularly funny, strange, satisfying?
DL There is one story that’s kind of gross — potty training is a big part of my job, changing diapers and all that goes along with that. It’s amazing at times the size of poop that will come out of these tiny children. It is always important to be very low key in all body and bathroom issues, but once a child left a bowel movement Orson Welles would be proud of, my astonishment was near impossible to hide. Then I tried to flush it. After much debate with co-workers we decided to cut it with a plastic knife in order to flush it down. Pretty gross, I know.
These children crack me up on a daily basis. Everything is new to them, and it is great to be there for those new experiences. My favorite thing is to see that moment when everything clicks for them, when they get the sequence of a lesson on their own for the first time. My job is relatively stress free, but there are definitely days when there is lots of crying or biting. That can get crazy.
STEREOGUM: But, at the end of the day, you enjoy it…
DL: I do. I am not sure that it is my life’s work right now, but it is rewarding.
[Photo by Annie Musselman]