Everything that grows in St. George, Utah, is weird. It’s where the northeast corner of the Mojave Desert forms in a geological love triangle with the Basin and Range region and the Colorado Plateau: the wrong plants grow in the wrong places, confused desert tortoises wander onto golf courses, and the mountains are a different color in every direction. Throw in the tracks variously left behind on the landscape by dinosaurs, ancient Amerindians, Mormon pioneers, and suburban sprawl, along with a heavy dose of fallout from the nearby nuclear testing range, and you’ve got a crucible for strange mutations.
That might help explain Erik the Red. Most bands protest pretentiously when you ask them what label to put them under. EtR doesn’t–they answer quickly and loudly, and all at once, in a big indecipherable holler that’s never the same twice. (Altermerican! Bizarrolectric! Folkblarg! ). They don’t shun labels, they pile them on indiscriminately, like stickers on on a steamer trunk.
That’s how the music sounds. The title track from their album Gravity is sort of like classic Americana, except for the glockenspiel and mellotron. The solid, straight-ahead groove of “Try to Feed” is tweaked by steampunk space sounds, the calls of robot-birds, and burbling synthesizer licks cleverly misremembered from 70’s funk. “O.J.” has the vocal harmony, gritty guitar, and Hammond-organ sound of refracted redneck rock, while “Mountain Men” brilliantly interrupts its folk-rock flow with a kind of lumberjacks’ chorus, and overlays the whole thing with an ingeniously off-kilter piano loop lifted from Philip Glass.
Such an eclectic style could easily become tiresome or cloying, but EtR ties it all together through solid songwriting and lyrics that somehow balance earnest poetry and clever imagery, with occasional cryptic references to the surrounding landscape and spiritual mythos. (The band claims a religious demographic of 40% agnostic, 40% Mormon, and 20% Floridian.)
Torgerson shares frontman duties (and, also, a toothbrush–it’s St. George’s worst-kept secret) with singer/keyboardist/accordionist Sean Taylor– “kind of like Jayhawks,” Sean says. “Or Simon and Garfunkel. Or Milli Vanilli.” Sean played in bands in Utah and Boston before fulfilling his high school yearbook’s “Most Likely” prediction and joining a carnival. He eventually returned to Salt Lake, leathered and jaded, and poured his years of hard living into music by the Trigger Locks (with Nate), and a piano-driven folk-rock band of his own creation, Silent Sevens. Sean and Silent Sevens shared the stage with Calexico, Devotchka, Ian Moore, and Steve Poltz.
Matt Fitzell cut his teeth in the unexpectedly vibrant punk scene in southern Utah during the 1980s. He was part of a gang who would hide in the brush near the rest stop on I-15 and, in a sort of Hills-Have-Eyes style, carjack punk bands like Offspring and NOFX as they drove toward Vegas or L.A.; instead of eating them, however, they made them play shows in the old rec center. Matt himself eventually ended up in L.A., where he played with the Watson Twins, Slydell, P.J. Olsson, and others, shared the stage with Iggy Pop and Ben Harper, and toured with Rufus Wainwright.
Greg Istock, having grown disenchanted with performing reggae covers for sunburnt and overfed cruise ship passengers for twenty years, left the seafaring life, jumped over the railing into the Caribbean Sea, and somehow washed up on the shores of the Virgin River. After a few years as a hiking guide in Zion National Park he showed up on Erik the Red’s doorstep with a battered, sticker-covered suitcase full of trippy keyboard textures and time-warped stylistic allusions.
Drummer Juddy Anderson, a well known integral component and advocate of
St. George music, also found himself in Salt Lake for a time playing guitar with Sundive (with Debbie Graham), before returning in 1998 to St. George and producing/recording projects by scores of local artists.
Erik the Red’s debut album, Gravity, was released in 2011 and is available from iTunes and CDBaby.