Beyond the walls of Marmoset HQ, our Marmo fam is known for doing some pretty rad things. From touring the world with their bands to building an artisanal bolo tie business from the ground up, our little community is full of undercover badasses who, instead of going home at 5:30, go on to spread their greatness into the world. Our Senior A&R Advisor, Michael Van Pelt (or MVP to us), is no exception to this rule.
Born right here in Portland and raised just a few miles south in Salem, Ore., Michael started tinkering around on the ivories when he was four years old. Years later, Van Pelt joined forces with his music-loving neighbor, Eric Earley, which inevitably ignited his 16-year-long journey with the legendary indie-rock fusion band, Blitzen Trapper. After years of touring the globe, the band decided to switch things up and put on their very own rock opera, Wild and Reckless, a sci-fi love story about a couple on the run. Intrigued and impressed, we caught up with the ferociously talented, incredibly humble MVP to talk Blitzen Trapper, Wild and Reckless, and life. Learn more about all three below or see the show for yourself from now until April 30th at Portland Center Stage.
Can you tell me about your musical journey? Where did it begin and how'd you get to where you are now?
All right. Born in Portland, raised in Salem down the road. My musical journey probably started with my mother getting my grandma's old piano. So she got her old piano -- I think I was like four or five -- and I just started playing it. I would start playing things that I heard on TV or whatever, little melodies. Not like a virtuoso, but I would just pick things out.
By ear, yeah. And then I wanted piano lessons, and my mom was like, "Oh shoot, okay." So I took piano lessons, and then you know, you forget about it. I started playing bass in high school -- that’s 23 years ago now -- with the guy that lived down the street from me. That's Eric, and he's the singer-songwriter of the band. So, I've been playing with them since '93. Yeah, that's how it started.
When did Blitzen Trapper become a thing?
Blitzen Trapper officially became a thing in around the year 2000. We were called something else back then, but it was the same guys that are in the band now. Eric and I had played together from '93 off and on. And then he had a band with our drummer in the '90s too. And then our drummer had a band with our other guitar player in the '90s...so we all kind of played in either separate bands or together in bands for a very long time.
Was it always the same kind of music?
No. We started out very ambitious and weird and mathy. And we were trying to make music that was confusing to people and jarring, but still had some poppy or country elements. And it turned out to really just be a mess. And then, we just got simpler and simpler, and now we pretty much just play dad rock.
What kind of music were you listening to when you started that you think influenced the development of the band?
Sonic Youth. Stereolab. Elliott Smith. Brazilian music, like Caetano Veloso and Jorge Ben and Gilberto Gil. And just '70s music -- The Beatles, Kinks, a lot of Kinks. Yeah. Those are the influences that we all kind of had in common, and then each of us kind of brought other...I grew up as a hip-hop kid, so I definitely brought more of a little funkier kind of sensibility to it.
So, from when you started until now, how would you say that the band’s sound has developed?
I think we just cut out all the fat. Like, where maybe we were playing, in the beginning, to show our chops, the only thing I think of now is, “how am I servicing the song to be as clearly stated and as tasty as it can be?” It's thinking of the song as a whole. Is what you're doing servicing that to the end? Is it making it the best piece of literature? I think song is literature. It's also beyond literature, but it is, you know, just like any sentence or whatever -- you can trim it to be the most effective and poignant. Same thing with songwriting, I think. So whereas in the beginning it was a lot of crappy "blah blah blah," now it's just like, "okay, let's get to the point and play the best song we can." You know?
Outside of Blitzen Trapper, do you have any solo stuff that you work on?
I don't really have the time. I wish I did. I'm not really much of a songwriter, but I've done more experimental funk, kind of weird, Beck kind of experimentations. I engineer and produce when I do have the time. But no, I don't really have time. With two kids, I don't have much time anymore. But, when we were younger, I was the one that was reading all about “How do you route sound through this mixer?” and “How do we subgroup the drums?” and just teaching myself sound engineering before the internet. So a lot of the techniques that I developed were wrong, but they gave a particular sound to our earliest recordings. And I think that was what maybe got noticed a little bit -- these gems of songs buried underneath this kind of gross recording.
So, fast forward 17 years and Blitzen Trapper is in the midst of performing your very own rock opera. How did the idea for Wild and Reckless come about?
The two directors are from Portland Center Stage, Rose Riordan and Liam Kaas-Lentz. Liam is friends with Brian, my drummer. Brian's a great actor in his own right, and he's worked with Liam in the past on other productions. So, Liam asked Brian if we had any material to do a show, something with a narrative. And he said, "No, but we could probably figure something out." We had like 10 or 12 songs ready for our new record, but then Eric picked seven of them which he then kind of wove together with a narrative, and changed a few lyrics here and there to make them work together. That was a year ago.
Oh wow, that happened fast.
Yeah, over the course of the year. We started workshopping it in the summertime. That's when we were really intensely focusing on how it was going to shape up dramaturgically, which is something that we never dealt with. Like, “How do you make the rules of the musical? Is the band gonna be visible? Are they characters? Are they in the past or future? Are they real or magical or whatever?” So, things that you never have to think about when you're a musician, because you're just playing music. Now we have to think about all the logical consistencies that a theatrical performance needs to make sense. That was a year ago, when we had a two-week intensive workshop in July, and we came back in October and did it again, and then we started rehearsing in February. It's mostly the new record set to a stage with a narrative.
Was there already a narrative woven within the songs on the new record? How did that shape up?
No, not necessarily, but I think there was a musical consistency. But a lot of the story -- even though it’s mostly fiction -- is based on Eric's love affair with a junkie. This was a real-life experience that he had in the early 2000s. Portland was a lot different then, it was a lot seedier. So it's kind of a bit of reminiscing about that, and about the life of a functional junkie addict. I think that those experiences with this particular girl informed his songwriting, and still do to this day.
Can you speak a little bit on the differences of being on stage at a rock show versus acting in a musical?
Well I think I probably have the simplest job. I'm just playing bass and looking. But I think it's the responsibility of being "on" the whole time, you know? If you play in a rock show, you play a song, you can turn around, take a sip of beer, take a breath. But when you're acting, you're always "on" for the entirety of the play. That's been the biggest difference. And trying to be mindful of not upstaging anyone, because it's really easy to do. I think that we, as musicians, are totally unaware of that stuff.
Do you see an acting career in your future?
No. Not at all.