A Chat with Trampled By Turtles

By: Dennis Cook

Trampled By Turtles will be touring extensively in 2012, including numerous high profile summer festivals like Outside Lands, Sasquatch, Newport Folk and Lollapalooza. They perform next on May 16th in Lawrence, KS before heading to Colorado on May 17th in Boulder and May 18th in Denver. Full tour schedule here.

Stream the new album below the interview, and pick it up a download for $5 for a limited time here!

Trampled By Turtles by Dave Carroll
There is a deep well of feeling in the latest chapter from Minnesota’s Trampled By Turtles. Stars And Satellites (released April 10 on Banjodad/Thirty Tigers) is a mix of stillness and resonance, a song cycle from the heart that flies unerringly to the listener’s own chest in a wise but roughed up way, understanding how tenuous and sweet the connections we manage to make can be, murmuring, “You come into the world alone/ You go out of the world alone/ In between there’s you and me” before dissolving into a quiet, homespun choir of whoa-oh-ohs. Sometimes there are no words for what we’re thinking and experiencing, but luckily there is music like TBT’s to express such things anyway.

While TBT employs classic string band tools, they are unmistakably modern, as much the children of the tender side of Robert Plant & Jimmy Page as they are Jimmy Rodgers and Earl Scruggs. Using guitar (lead singer-songwriter Dave Simonett, fiddle (Ryan Young), bass (Tim Saxhaug), mandolin (Erik Berry) and banjo (Dave Carroll), this band stretches their hands into emotional hornet’s nests and shakes them to see what the stings bring to the surface. It’s a process that produces a gutbucket truthfulness that hums in the music and not just the probing, reflective words, something never more stirringly apparent than on Stars And Satellites. Along with forward-minded peers Greensky Bluegrass and the Punch Brothers, TBT is pushing acoustic music into new places, spaces of complicated often unresolved emotions and laid bare honesty, rewarding those willing to lean in and really open up to them.

We sat down with Dave Simonett to discuss their music, their new album, and the challenges of forging new ground.

Dave Simonett by Lindsay McWilliams
JamBase: Where does this band fit in? In an era obsessed with genre specificity you guys don’t slot in neatly in any one place.

Dave Simonett: I hope that’s the case. Everybody in the band likes such a big variety of music. On the road, in the van, everyone who’s driving puts on a different genre, and we’ve always tried to embrace that and not cage ourselves into any one spot. We play the instruments of a string band, so that’s a bit of a limitation, but it’s fun to explore what we can do with those instruments. I sometimes think we have multiple personality disorder because we’ve been a bluegrass band and a more Americana band, but I’d really be happy if we don’t have to pick.

JamBase: Good attitude, man. Unfortunately, the industry likes neat little packages.

Dave Simonett: It’s really more of the job of those around us to figure out [what kind of music we play]. Almost any band, deep down, thinks they’re this original thing, and that creates a hard time trying to describe what one does. The musicians I’m talking about don’t want to be classified. Once that happens you kind of have to stay there. It’s the people working your band that need these kind of starting points to sell a band, but for me it’s healthier to not think about it. If I start thinking, “I’m in a bluegrass band,” then, perhaps unconsciously, that starts to creep into the music. You begin to think you have to be a certain thing, but in reality you can be whatever you want. That’s the beauty of it.

Trampled By Turtles
Trampled By Turtles has already shown great flexibility, where you can play Stagecoach Fest and then go over equally well at a rowdy, intoxicated late night set at Bonnaroo. You’re a completely different band in those two settings, but each is quite together.

I like to think so, too. I feel like we can fit in multiple places, where I feel a lot of bands don’t have that luxury to the same degree. Those two examples you cite are places I love, and I feel really lucky to be able to pull that off.

If nothing else, you get to be exposed to very different audiences, which has to be fun, even a catalyst as a musician as you figure out, “Who am I serving tonight?”

For sure, and we can tailor our shows to whatever’s needed, though we generally do what we want [laughs]. As far as the entertainer part of the job, the setting helps set the tone, but it’s nice to have flexibility.

One of the things I like best about the new album is how it starts. I think it’s brave when bands put a couple quiet numbers right up front.

New Album
That’s a bit of the vision we had for this whole record. On our last one [2010’s Palomino], we started with “Wait So Long,” which comes out of the gate pretty hard, and we didn’t want to repeat that. This new one is the first one we’ve thought about making as a whole work. In the past, we’ve really struggled with that, and it’s been more of a collection of songs. This time from beginning to end we had a sort of vision. I’m not sure how to describe it but that was the starting point – making one interconnected piece.

There are a number of underlying themes roaming around on this record – roaming being one of them.

With my lifestyle you can’t avoid that [laughs].

Movement is a reoccurring theme, as is wonderment in an almost classically American way that deals with the road and distance. The tunes reflect their roots in travel and contemplation.

For the last almost 10 years that’s become our daily reality. That’s where the songs come from. There’s reality outside that comes in, but that’s our daily lifestyle and that’s where the material is born.

You have the balls to reference Walt Whitman in a song title this time.

[Laughs] I wish I could have done him more justice. A song like that isn’t about a specific piece of his writing, but it was what I was reading at the time I wrote that song and there’s a connection there.

Let’s talk a bit about the dynamics of Trampled By Turtles. With the instrumentation you work with there’s often an emphasis on solos, whereas you guys accentuate the interplay of the instruments. The way the instruments converse together, the sound they make together, seems more the focus than blazing solos.

Trampled By Turtles by Matthew Shaver
I hope that’s the case. Outside of myself – a rhythm guitar player to the core – the other guys are capable of showing off as much as they want. With all the bands we like and grew up listening to the focus is more on the song as a whole rather than people stepping into the light and showing off. We’re all about making the band work together. Maybe there’s a really simple solo line but it really works with the song, and that’s more important.

That kind of humility and editing is really important…

…especially when making a record. Live, I get it a little more, but the older I get the less impressed I am with showy playing. It sounds great for a second but does it fit in a piece, in a song? That’s the real challenge as much as sheer technical ability.

As the primary songwriter, what’s the process of bringing new material to the band?

We’ve been going in a certain direction and this record is the culmination of that. With this album, the band had only played two of the songs before we went in to record. I had all this music and lyrics that we saved until we were in the studio, where we arranged it on the spot. On most tunes, the first take was the first time we’d played the song front to back. For our band, for some reason, that seems to work really well. The more times we try to record a song, the harder it is to maintain a natural feel, so we try to capture everything in the first takes.

There’s a freshness that gets picked up on tape when you do it that way. Play a song too many times, especially live, and the studio version is going to feel a bit stale.

Trampled By Turtles by Dave Carroll
For sure! If we’ve been doing a song live, then it’s almost practical and we can just sit down and play it, but if it’s new one we have no idea where it’s going, and that’s exciting. Plus, when the guys in our band are learning a song and just rehearsing and not recording then everyone relaxes and just plays. It seems like when you say, “Now we’re going to record,” people tense up. That’s why we record live. There may be mistakes but you catch so much more that’s special. If someone messes up a part then we all have to record again, but it’s worth it. On Palomino, the first two songs – “Wait So Long” and “Victory” – are demo takes. We tried to record them 20 different times and could never capture the original feeling. We all started thinking way too much and could never hit the same thing. One thing that’s never worked really well with our band is perfection [laughs].

Rough edges are appealing.

That’s rock ‘n’ roll, man.

There’s a strong rock streak to Trampled By Turtles. I really appreciate and admire string band music, particularly the classic stuff from Bill Monroe, but rock ‘n’ roll is almost always more motivating to me, and I’ve always picked up on a rock vibe from your band.

Well, we were all in rock bands before this one. This is the first acoustic project for all of us. I feel like the [rock] mentality transferred over. As far as I’m concerned, most of the music I love has some of that vibe. It doesn’t have to be loud or fast to be rough. You can really convey a lot of power in a slow song, and the rough part is the honesty of it. This isn’t supposed to be shiny. We’re talking about raw subjects and raw emotions, so it should be rough. There’s people out there that make great polished music, but that’s just not my method.

Jesse Hughes (Eagles of Death Metal) is fond of saying, “This ain’t no Bible study.” Trampled By Turtles exudes some of that kind of energy in the live setting, too.

Trampled By Turtles by Matthew Shaver
Where’s the fun in behaving? Most of us have to do that all day long most of the week. Rock ‘n’ roll is a young kind of release of energy. Even in the rough parts of it you can find some amazing mistakes, like [Neil Young’s] Tonight’s The Night, the whole record. If you come at it from the perspective of a band director it might be painful, but there’s some real live emotion going on there, some pain, and that’s what connects with people. It’s not the third run of a guitar solo it’s the noise they’re making as a whole that impacts the listener. You can tell what they were going through.

There’s a tendency to focus on lyrics in defining the mood and tone of a song, particularly in rock, but music can convey just as much depth. The title cut on Tonight’s The Night wouldn’t have the same impact without the wild, jagged musical underpinning.

Can you imagine Frank Sinatra singing it? [laughs].

As a lyricist, you’re a warts and all kind of guy, rarely shying away from any subject matter, and the music in Trampled By Turtles keeps step beautifully.

I try to be this way, but sometimes, honestly, I think I do the opposite. I try as best I can to get it out and be honest because I think that’s what makes good art. If you don’t pull it from the depths then you’re just full of shit. Honesty in music is the thing that attracts me the most, and that has nothing to do with whether or not a song is a true story. It’s a layer of human emotion that comes through in the telling. That’s where I connect with artists, like Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, where that guy is just telling you everything…but not verbatim. It’s a mix of being really honest with people AND keeping a little something back to maintain some mystery. That’s the formula that I look up to in songwriting.

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