Trampled By Turtles began releasing music from its original home base of Duluth, Minnesota in 2004. By 2008 the sextet had its first Top Ten album via Duluth and followed that with two consecutive Number One LPs in 2010 and 2012. By 2016 the band members decided to take a break from the road. After a decade of releasing nearly an album a year and touring nonstop, it was simply time.
Then, in late 2017 the group reconvened around a new batch of songs and retreated to Pachyderm Studios in Canon Falls, Minnesota, where bands such as Soul Asylum, The Jayhawks and Nirvana had all tracked albums before. The result is Life Is Good On The Open Road, a collection of sturdy and essential songs that reaffirms the band's place in the pantheon of contemporary Americana acts.
And, according to primary songwriter and vocalist Dave Simonett, it finds he and his mates focused, refreshed and thankful for an audience that has stuck by the outfit for well over a decade now.
Trampled By Turtles performs at Riverfest's Red Guard stage on Sunday night.
Jedd Beaudoin: How did you go about determining the style that Trampled By Turtles would pursue? Was it something that happened organically or was it something where you were in loud bands and you said, "We want to do something quiet"?
Dave Simonett: The latter is actually pretty accurate. Most of us were playing in rock bands in Duluth. We wanted to try something acoustic based. To be honest, I had probably heard bluegrass for the first time right around that point. I think this band started leaning that direction, we found this kind of music that none of us had really listened to before. That was exciting. We got some acoustic instruments and gave it a go. It was pretty casual thing when it started out. I'd written a couple of songs but we were playing a lot of old songs. We played rarely. It was more about sitting around the living room and learning this music that we had never heard.
What was it that was appealing to you when you heard bluegrass? When I heard it, I heard things that I'd heard in jazz or country music. But the tempos were hotter.
I think the energy was one thing, not just the speed. It had a drive to it that reminded me of punk rock. Like a cleaner version of that. I avoid using the word "honest" when talking about music because we're all actors up on stage anyway. It came from a place, it sounded it exactly like what it was when it started. You could tell what part of the country these people were from, what time period they were from. It was really a reflection of peoples' life at the time, much like country music. I found that really attractive.
As you started to write in that style, how did it different from writing a rock song?
I don't know if it differs at all. When all of us are young, starting out, the first thing we do is copy other people. We'd interpret stuff that we liked or stuff that we grew up on. That's how we all learned structures and chord progressions and melodies and stuff like that. If you're starting out and you're forming a rock band you might sound like a rock band that you've heard before until you find your own voice. I know we definitely went through that when starting this band.
As you get older and do it more, you make a decision to find your own spot in this world rather than to keep sounding like stuff you've heard before.
At one point does it go from something you're doing in the living room with your friends to where you go, "Wow! We're doing something different than everybody else"?
I think it was because we were enjoying it. And, for a couple of us, our bands had broken up at that time. Mine included. We were all floating around, doing this on the side, unsure if it was going to be the main thing. But I started writing songs that I would have given to any band I was in but decided to use them for Trampled By Turtles. It was about songs that sounded like rather than songs that sounded like something else.
Where and when did you find your audience?
What happened first was just Duluth. That was our first audiences. There was a great music scene at the time but it wasn't a huge music scene. There wasn't a lot of cliques or groups based on genre there. That was really refreshing. At a lot of our early shows we were playing punk bands and hip-hop acts and basement parties. Just because we were all friends in the scene.
That was a cool way to start and it made me view our audience in that way as well, that they could like our band and all that other stuff. These days? It just depends on the room. At a festival, we might wind up before a younger audience. We've dabbled in the traditional bluegrass world. We have a complex relationship with that crowd but that's probably oversimplifying it.
There are those hardline traditionalists in bluegrass who get upset if you deviate from the norm in any way.
There is that. I imagine other genres have that as well. Bluegrass is the one that's been thrown in my face the most. But I can't control what people think. We've never made an attempt to be a traditional bluegrass band or sound like one or look like one or play that material. If people are upset that we're not a traditional bluegrass band, I don't know what to tell them. We're not. We agree with them.
Tell me a little bit about Life Is Good On The Open Road and maybe how this is different or similar to past albums.
We took a break, got off the road, didn't play any shows for a couple of years. Most of us went off and did other musical projects. When we decided that we'd had our time and we were going to come back and make a record I think we collectively decided that we wanted to do something really simple and live and raw, similar to how we had recorded out of necessity when we started out because we could only afford two days in the studio.
We went to Pachyderm, a beautiful studio outside the Twin Cities, and sat in a circle and played the new songs. It just felt really easy and friendly and casual. It was great, really. It was probably my favorite recording session that I've ever done.
When you start a band, very often everyone is friends and everyone's excited as you're climbing your way up. Then, over a period of time, people begin to have children or develop other interests. Does it become harder, as the years go on, to focus on that goal in the same way as in the early days?
It does, as a group. Everybody still has that focus but it doesn't always happen at the same time anymore. It used to be all we had to focus on when we were younger and starting out. But like you said, life gets more complicated as you get older. A lot of wonderful things come into your life that need your focus, like children. Owning a home, whatever you want to pick. It does become harder to keep it a priority at all times because it just can't be. My interest in making music and my drive to keep on writing and creating, that hasn't waned at all. I just have to sleep less to fit it all in now!