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Published: 2018/06/12
by Matt Inman

Back on the Open Road with Trampled By Turtles

Minnesota-based alt-bluegrass outfit Trampled By Turtles recently returned to the stage in their home state, marking their first shows together in nearly two years. The band is currently on their comeback tour after an extended hiatus that allowed its members to take time to explore some endeavors outside the group, including frontman Dave Simonett releasing his sophomore solo album as Dead Man Winter, Furnace, in 2017.

Trampled made their re-introduction to fans with Life is Good on the Open Road, their first album since 2014’s Wild Animals, and the record’s traditional-bluegrass-romp lead single “Kelly’s Bar.” Following up the previous album’s more subdued textures, the track made a statement to the world that the foot-stomping, fast-paced Trampled was back. As Simonett says, “After this many years of doing it, it’s really hard to sound different than yourself, but at least you’re gonna sound different than the last record you made.”

While the band was in town for a live performance at the Relix studios in Manhattan, Simonett and mandolin player Erik Berry sat down to chat about the hiatus, getting the band back together starting with a weekend cabin retreat in Minnesota, the importance of keeping things fresh and more.

This is your first album in four years, but when was the last time you guys were on the road together?

Dave Simonett: I think it rounded out to be about eighteen months, right?

Erik Berry: Nineteen months. Last time we played a show was October of 2016, but our last tour was August 2016.

DS: Yeah, because we played a couple shows around Minnesota—which is home for us—before we took a break.

And were these shows you just did in Minnesota the first ones since then?

DS: Yeah, we did kind of a surprise show in Duluth, which is where we started as a band, and then we did two nights in St. Paul.

I want to talk about the album, but I’m also curious about the hiatus. I’m sure you guys have talked about it a lot, but could you talk a bit about how it started? Was it a long time coming?

DS: Well, I think is a break is always kind of coming before it happens, you know? But it wasn’t anything we’d talked about before that.

EB: I was taken by surprise that Dave really wanted to shelve it for a long time. And, talking to some of the others guy, they were like, “I’m not.” And I don’t know if Dave was talking about it or something.

DS: Yeah. For me, there was a lot going on in my life at the time but, musically, I would say that there was some other stuff I really wanted to do. When we’re touring full time, there’s not really much time for anything else, you know what I mean? And, you know, I have kids at home. Eric’s got kids at home. When you’re home, you’re just home. You have to be. So I was just trying to fit in these other projects I wanted to do in these little windows between Trampled touring, and it just could never work out. And, you know, we’ve been doing it for a while. And it was good too—we were in a good place, and we weren’t dissolving into fighting or anything. In hindsight, it ended up probably being a really good time to take a breather.

Yeah, so that problems like that didn’t have a chance to arise.

DS: Yeah. Not saying that would’ve happened, but at least it wasn’t happening.

EB: When you hear about bands that break up with bad blood, it’s usually that they’re burning out and somebody’s unable to hold their cool together. So what could’ve been my ugly minute on the road becomes me and Dave’s ugly moment, because I tell him to go screw himself because I’m grumpy. Then he doesn’t forget that I did that. I’m sure that’s what happens to many bands out there, and it wasn’t happening to us.

DS: No, we’ve always gotten along great.

EB: The running joke is that when we get really polite—like, “Hey Dave, can you please hand me two bottles of water? Please. Thank you so much”—it’s like, “Uh oh, what’s the matter with Eric?”

DS: If you’re gonna do something for a long time, and I don’t care what it is—relationship, job, band—space is so important. I think it can be applied to most people, even just from talking to people about us taking a break—so many times, their response to me is like, “Wow, I wish I would’ve done that,” or whatever. You get going on something and things are going well, especially in a band, you never know how long the good times are gonna last. So, I think the tendency is to not cut things off. But, you know, next year, everything could change. But it’s not gonna last forever if you don’t let it breathe for a little bit. There’s no use. You gotta remember that it’s art, and you can’t beat the shit out of it and you can’t do the same thing all the time, or else nothing new is gonna happen. And that’s a really successful way to go crazy, you know?

EB: One thing that was really surprising to me was that around March of 2017, I realized my internal music monologue wasn’t very “Trampled-y.” It had been “Trampled-y” for 10 years, and then suddenly it wasn’t. I remember coming in from doing work at my place and saying to my wife, “I don’t know if Dave knew this was gonna happen, but it’s pretty cool; this is not Trampled music I’m listening to in my head.”

DS: I want to be able to create music for my whole life, and I need to have the opportunity to let that branch out in any way it wants, or else I’m gonna get frustrated.

Dave, were you having a similar feeling where you knew the music in your head wasn’t really for this band?

DS: Yeah. I mean, I made a record. I had that recording experience

Right, you put out Furnace as Dead Man Winter. When was that recorded?

DS: It came out in January, so it would’ve been the fall I guess, maybe in the summer. So, I had done that, and I wanted to put it out and I wanted to go on tour and all that. You know, whatever [length of time] it ended up being, it was perfect. It ended up being like a year of that thing, and it ran its natural course. It was great, whereas before, I was looking at, “I’ve got two weeks off in September—where can I play? When can I release my record? I don’t know what the hell’s gonna happen.” So, yeah. Most of the other guys got into stuff while we were off the road as well.

EB: Yeah, I recorded an Irish record with a guy named Teague Alexy and put together a Grateful Dead duo, where I got to use all my effects pedals.

DS: The other guys were all playing with other people, too. I think that’s really healthy, too, just to get out and play with other people. I mean, the same group of guys with the same instruments, the longer you go, the harder it is to come up with something that you feel is something new. So the other people and environments can really help to bring that freshness back.

I’m definitely curious about that Grateful Dead Duo.

EB: That was guitar, vocals and mandolins—one lead singer, who was not me. So if he was singing a Jerry tune, I’d be Bobby on mandolin, and if he’s singing a Bobby tune, I’d be Jerry on mandolin.

DS: You guys played shows, right?

EB: We played complete sets. Most recently, we played June 30th, 1995 with a couple of guests. There was a guy, “Washboard Joey,” and we made his day. He was at that gig. He was up there, wiping tears off and singing harmony vocals on “Samba In The Rain,” because he actually knows the song cold. And it was like, “Yeah!” He started to have a little moment; it was really cool. You know, just ‘cause they weren’t playing so hot in 1995 doesn’t mean they didn’t play a sequence of great songs. And that first set from 6/30/95 is a sequence of great songs.

And obviously that’s something you probably wouldn’t have been able to do if Trampled hadn’t taken this break.

EB: Exactly.

DS: At least not put that much time into it—because that takes a bit. That’s a lot of songs.

EB: So now, that band is sort of my Dead Man Winter, because I got Mark being like, “Hey, when do you got some free time?” I got some bad news for you, dude. [Laughs.]

When the hiatus started, was there ever a question of whether you’d get back together?

DS: I’d say, honestly, it was a question. But I think that that’s okay, too. If it wouldn’t have felt like that, I don’t know if it would’ve really felt like a break. On a technical level, as a band, if we want to make a record and tour, we’d start planning that a year ahead of time, you know. So, all of a sudden, even if you’re not on the road or whatever, the machine is working—it didn’t really feel like it ever stops—and you’re looking at a tour that’s maybe two years or a year-and-a-half away, but it’s still there. I think it felt real for me because there was nothing. It was the first time, I think, in our whole career that we had nothing on the books—no shows, nothing happening. So it felt like it was gone for a second.

EB: Previous breaks were really like, “I’ve got a kid being born; here’s the due date, and I’m taking off a month before that and two months after that. But, I’m hoping to get back out as soon as possible, because we need a paycheck.” And the same thing happened with Dave’s kids. And we had a break when everyone was buying homes. We were on a tour of Europe, and these poor guys’ wives were holding iPhones, going through homes like, “This one looks okay.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m glad that’s not how I’m choosing a house.” [Laughs.] But it was always real goal-oriented. The month that I had a kid born, that didn’t feel like a break. But I’m sure if you ask Ryan [Young], he thought that that was totally a break. So for all of us, it’s like, “Go find something to do, something that you wanna do.”

DS: Yeah, it was really healthy in the end.

So, when did you make the decision to come back together and see what came out of it?

DS: Do you remember? I remember having some songs and emailing everybody. It was pretty casual, though, like, “You wanna give it a shot?” But I didn’t want to just start right where we left off. I wanted to have a new album of material. So the necessary first step was for us to get together and start recording some stuff. But I think that that was as intense as it got then—you know, go to the studio and see if it works, if we’re feeling it, if everyone’s on the same page.

EB: Because people had gone off and done different things, they had new ways of working with each other. You’ve learned a different set of communication skills, because there’s other people you’re working with. Like the Irish American record I made—that guy, Teague Alexy, is really into intros and outros and having all that stuff figured out. And Ryan’s the one who recorded that record. So me and Ryan had experience, instruments in hand, like, “Here’s a way to do this intro, and here’s a different way to do this intro to the same song. Which one of these two do you want?” And I had never really done that before.

DS: My stuff has all been kinda fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants.

EB: So it was kind of neat being like, “Well, here’s a few different ways you can do stuff.”

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