Hailing from Duluth, Minnesota, bluegrass/folk/indie outfit Trampled By Turtles creates a sound so unique that fans of all music genres fall in love with it. The band’s banjo laden, fiddle-bearing, mandolin rocking tunes are not only hoedown appropriate, they’re also hipster approved. I was thrilled at the opportunity to meet the artists behind the songs, who are as down-to-earth, humble, and passionately honest as their music. Trampled By Turtles- Dave Simonett (vocals/guitar), Tim Saxhaug (bass/vocals), Dave Carroll (banjo/vocals), Erik Berry (mandolin/vocals), and Ryan Young (fiddle)- absolutely delighted Coachella festival-goers with a brilliant live performance. I caught up with Berry and Young who were perfect gentleman in answering my barrage of questions about playing the festival, writing songs, and the Duluth music scene.
Trampled by Turtles loves coming through Denver. They were last there on April 1st in support of their newest album, Palomino. “Denver’s really good to us, we like Denver a lot,” Berry says enthusiastically. “We just played the Ogden Theater. Denver is probably one of our better cities after Minneapolis. Colorado’s the first state we ever toured through. At one point we figured we played in Colorado more often than we’ve played in Wisconsin, and the bands from Duluth so Wisconsin is right there.”
I can talk about the Denver music scene all day, but I have no clue what goes on musically in Duluth, Minnesota. “None of us actually grew up in Duluth, that’s just where we all were living when the band got together,” Berry relays. “There’s something like 85,000 people and there’s not a lot of venues. So it kind of pushes lots of different bands to play together. It forces the bands to be a little bit different from each other and also forces them to be friendly with each other, which I think is very healthy. Duluth in general is really good for the arts. There are a lot of potters and painters and artisans who do metal work and stuff like that. So it’s a really creative environment and really nurturing of the arts- creativity is really prized.”
The band graced the city of Austin with their presence in March during SXSW. The shows went swimmingly and Trampled by Turtles had a great time. “The shows went well, it was a lot of fun,” Berry proclaims. So which is better, SXSW or Coachella? “They’re really very different environments to be sure,” Berry shares pensively. “There are so many people at Southby, but at any given venue not that many people can come see you. Whereas here, it’s entirely theoretically possible that everyone could come watch you play, if they wanted to. So that’s a big difference. But they’re both really special because there are so many different types of bands. For Coachella, I’m planning on setting up shop at one stage and just seeing the bands as they come on, as opposed to trying to chase particular bands down, because I quite frankly don’t know about a lot of them. So I’m just going to get comfortable and learn.”
The songwriting process for Trampled by Turtles generally follows a similar structure. “It’s pretty much always the same,” Young informs me. “Dave Simonett, who is the guitar player, writes all the words and the chords, then brings it to us and we figure out what we’re going to play- we all write our own parts. Also Eric writes some songs and the other Dave, banjo Dave, writes some songs too. Those have always been instrumental songs and they write the melody and the chords, and bring it to everybody else and everybody comes up with their own part. The songs are not usually the same at the beginning as how they end up. When everybody adds their own thing to it, it might be faster or it might be different in some way.”
“For example, sometimes it might take me a few times through to realize Ryan’s doing something that I can kind of echo back,” Berry chimes in. “So the first dozen performances don’t necessarily have that, and then it does. That can be kind of interesting for arrangements because we like to record them after we’ve only learned them two or three times. So some of those recordings are the third time we’ve played a song, then the twelfth time we play it, Ryan and I gel a little bit more in what we’re doing. So when you listen to the record sometimes it doesn’t have what you hear now. And that’s fine because what is on the record has a real fresh feeling. When we play a song live for the first time we try to get so that we can do what we need to do comfortably onstage. Then the other guys are playing it for the first or second time, but as long as the person who’s kind of leading it knows what they’re doing, it should work.” “We get through it,” Young adds laughing.
Trampled by Turtles does not limit themselves when it comes to inspiration for songs- it can come from anywhere. So what’s the weirdest thing to ever trigger a tune? “One of my tunes on this record called “Burnt Iron” is inspired by me forgetting a pot on the stove,” Barry reveals. “I was cleaning a cast iron pot, so I washed it out and put it on the stove and then turned it on to dry it off. I forgot I turned it on and walked out of the kitchen. I sat down at the computer and about an hour later I was like, ‘What stinks?’ I went into the kitchen and this cast iron pot was glowing bright orange and the whole place stunk like burnt iron. My wife was at work, she wasn’t my wife at the time, and she was pregnant so smells were making her sick and I just made our apartment stink horribly. So I had to open up all the windows when it was December in Duluth and it was freezing cold. I didn’t know what to do with myself so I just picked up the mandolin and honestly, that song came like that.” Barry snaps his finger to emphasize how fast the music came to him. “I was like, ‘Holy crap!’ I got out my cell phone, hit record, and played it again.”
The music of Trampled by Turtles, while heavily laced with the bluegrass sound, is so unique and imaginative, it’s hard to classify them into just one genre. “Everybody in the band listens to lots of different things,” Berry tells me. “I feel like a lot of bluegrass bands have a rule of trying to sound like bluegrass. So their guitar player, for example, might really like Radiohead, like our guitar player does, but he’s really conscientious of being in a bluegrass band and doesn’t let that influence come through because Lester Flatt didn’t play like he listens to Radiohead. We don’t do that to each other. If you want to try something, go for it. Bluegrass bands seem afraid to experiment with stuff like that. We just do it. If it doesn’t work we just don’t do it again. We don’t yell at each other for trying it in the first place.”
I like to collect tips from artists on how to survive Coachella, so I ask for Trampled by Turtles’ best advice. “This is our first Coachella,” Berry states. “I would say put on a bunch of sunscreen and drink a lot of water,” Young contributes. “If you are going to drink, make sure you eat,” Berry adds. “Surprisingly every year people don’t know that,” Young agrees. “I’ve done it!” Berry says. “We played a fest and I wound up watching Brett Dennen, it was a Joshua Tree, and I just stood in the sun, didn’t drink any water, drank two beers and I was messed up. That was only two beers and one set!” We all chuckle at the mental image. “Another thing I learned the hard way at festivals is sit down when you get the chance,” Berry suggests. “It can be hard to do sometimes, but even taking ten minutes to sit can be good.”