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Mention Trampled by Turtles and one thing almost inevitably comes to mind: fast-paced live performances that can work almost any room into a frenzy. Playing a ferocious, genre-bending blend of acoustic music that's equal parts bluegrass and punk rock, the Duluth quintet have earned a reputation for raucous live shows over the past seven years—an energy that is captured on their new full-length, Palomino, better than on any of their previous efforts.
"This record was us trying to focus on capturing what happens onstage, which we've been trying to get in the studio and have had a hard time doing," says Dave Simonett, the Turtles' lead singer and guitarist. Simonett is an integral part of the band's live shows, a blond with a slight build who belts out his lyrics and stomps his foot on the ground to keep time.
To capture that sort of energy, the band recorded Palomino in multiple locations, with sessions split between Sparta, two studios in Minneapolis, and even some recordings from a laptop while on tour. Not surprisingly, the group found that different locations not only produced different results, but that some songs seemed better suited to certain spaces. "We tried to find rooms with different feels in them and do a batch in each of them," Simonett explains. "The band is really feeling-based, in a way I've never experienced with another band, so you can play a song a hundred times and it's never quite the same depending on where you are.
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"Playing a room or a bar, it's rowdy—almost physical—and that translates onstage. It's ironic: In the studio, you can do it again, but there's more pressure. So we accepted a few wrong notes, tempo changes, but tried to get the feeling of playing live with no safety net."
Most of the songs that made the cut were first takes done live in the studio, and the album suitably crackles with spontaneity. As one might expect, this is particularly true of the up-tempo songs, including such barnstormers as the opener, "Wait So Long," and "Help You." These songs are jam-packed with flurries of screeching fiddles and skittering banjos, and also have big, sing-along choruses that seem tailor-made for live performances.
An important part of what makes this equation successful is Palomino's largely unrehearsed material. "Some of the songs, the first time we played them together was in the studio. All the albums before this one we had toured behind and worked out the songs beforehand. This time, we consciously tried not to," Simonett says. "Being able to work up a song from nothing was a cool thing to do." He says it might be hard to capture lightning in a bottle more than once, however. "Now that we've done it, I don't know if we can repeat it, because now it's a conscious thing."
Of course, Trampled by Turtles' music isn't limited to fast-paced fingerpicking. Palomino's songs are littered with heartache and loss, with characters embattled in their quests for happiness and frequently seeking solace in a bottle. The woozy, melancholy nature of the ballads certainly highlights this theme; the lyrics pack a big enough punch that the ache is sustained well past the last note.
Simonett, who wrote all the songs besides two instrumentals on Palomino, is modest on this point. "With any songwriter, not every word you write is a hundred percent true. It's more about conveying the emotion," he says. "Now, you can say there's a specific experience I've had, let me try to write that down, like the storytelling song, but I've never been any good at that. It's a little more abstract than that [for me]."
After almost seven years together, with the band members spread out to different locations around the state and frequent tours taking them around the country, Simonett says Trampled by Turtles still hold the influence of their Duluth roots close to heart. The small size and close-knit nature of the local scene still comes through in their honest, straightforward approach. "There's no pretense," he says, reflecting on starting out on the North Shore. "Which is really refreshing, and I consider it to have been a stroke of luck. It makes you take yourself a little less seriously. I mean, you can't be a fricking rock star because there's no room for that shit.
"I think we've maintained a lot of that Duluthness," he says, grinning. "I don't think that you could get rid of that if you tried."
TRAMPLED BY TURTLES play with the Devil Makes Three, Molly Maher (Friday only), and A Night in the Box (Saturday only) on FRIDAY, APRIL 9, and SATURDAY, APRIL 10, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775