Interview: Trampled by Turtles Return With More Electricity Than Ever

In 2016, it looked like the folk world was losing an institution when Trampled by Turtles announced their indefinite hiatus following the release of their album Wild Animals. The six piece band from Duluth, Minnesota had spent over a decade touring and recording nonstop, producing several albums that hit the Billboard charts, but the lead singer, Dave Simonett, needed to take time to process life changes and focus on his solo project Dead Man Winter. It was a great day for the genre when, over a year later, the band went live on Facebook with a video of them covering Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and shortly after recorded their album Life is Good on the Open Road. Released in May, Trampled by Turtles didn’t waste any time getting back out and playing shows across the country. Before their concert at The Rustic here in Dallas, I sat down to talk with their mandolin player Erik Berry.

Recently you guys have come back – miraculously some might say – from a hiatus. You did that by meeting together for the first time in about a year in a cabin in the woods. When you guys all got together there in the cabin, what was the general atmosphere and feeling?

Well it’s really hard to separate from the events that happened in this country on those days. And we’ve been calling it a weekend but it wasn’t a weekend – it was a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday that we got together. It had been planned for some time but we wound up being so busy with different schedules that to find free time for us all to get together was kind of crazy hard. The reason it was a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday was that those of us with kids and whatnot knew that we could make that work, and weekend gigs and stuff like that.

Like Sunday night before was when that shooting in Las Vegas occurred and then Tom Petty died on that Monday. I don’t know what the vibe would have been like under other circumstances but it was really kind of hard to get away from those two facts. For me personally, that Vegas shooting really hit me hard because Trampled has played outdoor festivals in Vegas so it’s easy to imagine – oh god, you’re up there. I was really happy I was going to see those guys because I didn’t really know anyone I could talk to who had done that – played at a festival. I can totally imagine being in Jason Aldean’s band and having no idea what’s going on. It’s happening and you don’t know because you’re listening to the show in your ears. That kind of freaks me out. So I was really happy when I got with the band guys. I got there last and I was just listening to my phone so I didn’t even know Tom Petty had died until I got there. That stuff was really laying on it pretty heavy.

It’s hard to say exactly how that did influenced things but I’m sure it did because one of the things that was really important about that get together is that a lot of what was really fun about it was making dinner together and playing cards and shooting the – like, “What have you been doing? You’re playing gigs, what’s it like? How’s your music coming?” Stuff like that. Reminding ourselves that we’re friends in this game and that’s first and foremost important. It wound up being a really special time.

It does take some of the shine away that things have to move so far in advance in the band world that we already had a tentative recording date scheduled and a tentative release date scheduled. Assuming there wouldn’t be a problem. The way management put it was, we can’t really decide if you guys get together in early October, that everything’s great so now let’s get the wheels turning because then we don’t have a record out for a year after that point. I sincerely really well remember that. It was a really important special weekend but there was this assumption that we were all going to be getting along.

There’s a bit of business behind the curtain.

Which I think that’s fine.

Like, man, I’m happy to see you and I’m so happy that I like to see you.

The theory was that the hiatus was from Dave Simonett’s desires. And that was if anybody had something to say and hadn’t said it yet, that was what that was about.

After that weekend, the time between when you met back up and when you actually started recording was a pretty quick turnaround.

It was about two months.

What was your process for writing and recording in that pretty short amount of time?

We did play some music at that cabin and that included four tunes that are on Life is Good on the Open Road. I don’t like to speak too much for Dave [Simonett]’s songwriting process but I think he’s fairly – it hits a part in his writing process where it becomes fairly compartmentalized. Like this is a Trampled by Turtles song, this is a Dead Man Winter song, this is a song I don’t know where it’s going to go, and this is a song that I’m probably going to do something else with. He’s got those four streams. I know at some point he decides. I feel like what was happening is he was writing tunes trying to write Dead Man Winter songs and he’s like, I’m not writing Dead Man Winter, these are Trampled by Turtles songs. I think that’s kind of what made him be like, we should really look at checking it out again. In addition to all the other personal stuff that was going on. Musically, I think that guy needs to put together packages of records – like it’s a package, that’s what the record is. He kind of needs to devote his energy to it and then move on from that. That is really what happened with the Dead Man Winter record that took place during Trampled’s break and now it’s interesting to see there’s a Trampled record that has to happen. He had more and then I know he wrote a couple of them there during the process but I’m not certain which ones they were. Then my own tune, I had it and I was like, “Hey you guys wanna try?” While we’re here, might as well.

When I was reading online, something that was said was that you tried to go a little bit back to your roots, kind of raw and live, when you were recording it. Just get in a room, hammer it out.

It’s not like we’ve really stepped away from that. Even Wild Animals, which was probably the most modern record we’ve made, we were all playing live. But the Life is Good stuff is like, if you have an idea for a part, play it now. I think there were two overdubbed solos and I’m one of them. There does come a point where if you’re blowing it on the solo break, and then Dave has to sing the song again, and then you blow it on the solo break, and then Dave has to play the song again, there is some diminishing returns. There was a point where like, I’ll sit out and do it later. But then as soon as we were done with that live take, they made me go back out there. I was like, let’s just do it after lunch, and they’re, no let’s just do it before. And so that’s the solo on “Right Back Where We Started,” take two. Like, do something like that but do it a little better. Oh yeah, that sounds great, let’s go eat.

Why is it important for you guys to record in that way?

One thing Trampled doesn’t do hardly ever, except for when we rehearse, is play without electricity. Every gig is a plugged in gig and it sounds like it. So it’s a rare chance to be playing in a different, more acoustic way. There’s all these fine edges where if you can get them to sync up right, it’s really perfect. When you can get a great sounding recording and everyone’s happy and the room sounds nice.

We spent a bit of time trying to get to the nice sounding parts of the room. This is a digression but I think it’s cool. Simonett got ill the scheduled first day so he didn’t show up the scheduled first day. Myself and banjo Dave [Carroll] and Eamonn, our cello player, we were the first three there and so we just did a lot of sitting where we were going to record playing. And Nick, who engineered it, was like, “Do you mind if I just kind of place you guys?” He had some of his own ideas because he’d been present during the Wild Animals sessions and whatnot. He was moving us around and coming up with ideas to make the room sound as nice as it could. When all six of us were playing together it sounded really nice in there. So then you’re in this really comfortable environment, you’re comfortable with everyone who’s there, and you’re getting nice results. Then if you can get the take of your song within the first, second, or third time you’ve played it, there’s this really cool quality that’s all of us figuring out what this song could be like for the first time. When you do it more often you kind of diminish that. Another cool thing happens where you get better at doing it and you’re tighter with the other guys and that’s what’s happening to a lot of this material live now, is it’s really sharpening up. But there’s a different quality that’s really special those first couple times you’re playing it.

It’s like that discovery process.

And I think what felt like going back to roots for this record was that we didn’t have someone outside trying to help us do it. We just produced it ourselves. It was just us and Nick running the boards. The vibe was really back to our roots. I don’t really feel like the process was radically different but it’s hard to overstate – at one point Tim said this is the most Trampled by Turtles record we’ve ever made. All the other ones are totally Trampled by Turtles records. There’s just something about – the fast song is really good and it feels like Trampled by Turtles and so do the slow songs and so do the mid-tempo. It was a self-perpetuating level of excitement. It was really fun. It is kind of hard to separate out a specific strand, what made it good, because all of that worked together.

As you mentioned, during the hiatus, you guys worked on other projects, like Dave [Simonett] worked on his Dead Man Winter project as well as just giving himself a break from songwriting, or letting his head explore. How did the process of doing other things and working on those things affect how you approached this new album? Or did it?

I’m sure it did. I’m sure it did for everybody but I’m not really certain. My thoughts about how it affected me are pretty vague. I don’t care to assign less vagueness to someone else because I can’t talk for myself on this. But one of the more interesting things that happened to me – I was doing solo gigs which were predominantly original mandolin music, which was a tough sell. I spent a bit of time trying to work with other people on that but scheduling wound up being difficult. There were some gigs with bass players and a lot of gigs with loop pedals and delay pedals. I was also in a Grateful Dead cover band, which was really fun. And in a group with a singer songwriter out of Duluth named Teague Alexy playing Irish music. And we recorded a record at Ryan’s studio with nine traditional Irish tunes and two original songs that we wrote. I did that and that was pretty fun.

So I had these three different types of things I’d be doing. Teague’s really in to having sharp intros, sharp turnarounds between choruses and verses, distinct endings, and Trampled by Turtles songs generally don’t do that. Whether it’s positive or not is neither here nor there, just different. So it’s neat to think about that. There’s a couple of tunes on this record that have a little bit more of a fleshed out intro idea than typical. That’s not directly coming from me and Teague, it’s coming from just trying to be different, I suppose.

But the most profound thing that happened to me is about sometime in March of 2017, I noticed that my interior music monologue, which is always playing, had changed and it wasn’t very Trampled-y anymore. I couldn’t really tell you what it had sounded like and what it sounds like now because it’s always kind of changing, but I could definitely tell that trampled had definitely ceased to be a 24/7 influence on my interior musical brain. That was really interesting. And I’m sure that really had to do something – that was five months after our last gig and we’ve never had a five month break. And then to know that there was more break coming, I’m sure that that did something but I don’t know what.

That’s really interesting. That’s the amount of time you need to detox.

Flush it out of your system.

Did you find that it changed back when you got back together with the guys?

I think all of us have remarked more than once about how much like riding a bike it felt. I think there was a little bit about, oh this is going to be hard. This is going to be physically hard. And it wasn’t. I know that surprised me. I expected to have my you-know-what handed to me the first time we played together after nineteen months.

That was released in May. Y’all have been back on the road again. How does it feel to get back out there?

It feels great. I really like the touring routine. I do like the lifestyle. I like travel but I don’t like being in charge of my travel and so having an itinerary like this is – I like it. And I love playing music every night, I really do. We are all aware of breaking points and how much is too much now. So there’s a lot more months off built in to our schedule now and so that helps a ton. It’s really nice because I don’t want the guys I was working with back in Duluth, I don’t want to leave them hanging for years.

Sorry guys, I’m just going to go on the road for the next five years.

It’s nice to have time off so I can play with those projects still. Overall, it’s been very good.

Apart from learning about your breaking points, is there anything else that the hiatus taught you about how to approach now getting back out on the road?

I think so. I feel everyone’s a lot more willing to express self-doubts or group doubts or stuff like that. We’ve actually been talking a lot about encores this last couple of tours because on the one hand, encores are kind of stupid. You walk off stage for two to four minutes just to make people clap for you to come back on and you were planning on doing that. But if you don’t then it can kind of make people feel weird. And so we were trying adding three songs to the set list and not taking an encore break. Now we’re trying other things. Like the last two nights we’ve had stripped down trio performances to be the first song of the encore so it’s really different. Last night was fiddle, banjo, cello trio and they did this Irish fiddle tune and it was awesome. And the night before we did one of my tunes from the Irish American record so it was mandolin, fiddle, and cello, which I thought was great. And it just sounds so different.

You don’t have this huge group of sounds.

It totally changes. There’s literally half the people off the stage. It’s pretty neat so we’re trying to figure out how to do more with that. The doing that is important because the model we’ve been following is leaving some people unhappy sometimes. And so then, okay, let’s mess around with that model. And the doing it and the talking about it is really good.

That sounds great. Definitely I’ve learned that in the past couple years. Trying to be more vocal can lead to good results.

Usually. Now hopefully we actually do a trio thing tonight because I just built it up.

Despite what maybe first time listeners might think, you guys didn’t all start out growing up playing folk and bluegrass music.

Oh no. Oh no. The closest is our banjo player whose father is a self-taught, hobbyist bluegrass player. He does the traditional fingerpicks and stuff like that. And Dave [Carroll] picked it up because his dad had banjos lying around. Dave [Carroll] was a guitar player so he just messed around with it with a guitar pick and got really good at doing that. That’s the closest any of us really have to formative stuff like that. I’m maybe next closest. When I was in college, I worked for the campus radio station and I had to do the folk/bluegrass shift. All of our good bluegrass had been stolen but there was a whole bunch of Hot Rize and Country Gentlemen CDs that I played. But I didn’t play mandolin. I did play guitar but I didn’t really listen to that as music I wanted to play, but it was there because every Sunday afternoon for two years, I had to play it for two hours. So maybe that’s the next closest as far as formative roots in that type of music. Dave [Simonett] had his electric stuff stolen so he was kind of forced to. At one of his rock band’s last gigs, his two electric guitars walked out without him. It’s really a bummer. So he kind of had to put together an acoustic thing.

That’s all he had left.

But what we really liked about it in the early days in Duluth is nobody sounded like that. So it was different. All of our connections were – because we had all been playing locally, like, I can ask this guy for a gig but it was at a rock place. It forced us to not be like, oh, where does a bluegrass band play a show? I’ll just play a show where I used to play.

Over these past fifteen or so years since y’all have been playing together, you’ve changed a lot, as people, maybe, and gone through different phases. What do you think is the most important change that you guys have undergone as a band?

We played a song last night off the Duluth record that I don’t think we’ve played for at least five years called “White Noise”. Dave’s been going through – we’ve been trying to dust off some oldies and play them again. He said, “This is one I think we can do.” It was funny, I was like, “How does that go, how does that go?” And then I listened to it as was like, okay, I remember that. And we played through it at rehearsal and I was like, oh yeah, It goes like that. I’m not going to say that the rehearsal version was perfect but the rehearsal version was not a band playing a tune for the first time in five years and not really knowing what they were doing. When we played it at the gig there was this tightness to it.

I think a flip side of that is I think it’s hard for us to play with each other differently. I think that’s what the new record has been really good for, because we are playing with each other differently on that. I don’t know. Probably means another five months detox. I don’t really have an answer for you but I do think as the years have gone by, as we’ve physically gotten older, and the music has gotten so fast, some of it, there’s been some real physical reckonings with that. Some stuff stays fast and we can get really good at doing it but some of it’s just not going to.

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Listen to the latest Trampled by Turtles album here: