Trampled By Turtles lighten up on Stars and Satellites

Trampled by Turtles: Fighting for the right to quiet down
photo credit: Pieter van Hattem

In the right hands, the mandolin pick can be mightier than the distortion pedal. During one of Trampled by Turtles' six merciless live performances in two days at South by Southwest 2012, these Duluth monsters of folk lit a fire under the asses of a lively crowd on a broiling Friday afternoon in Austin. While frontman and guitarist Dave Simonett and his bearded bandmates put in yet another unrelenting performance, he specifically pledged his allegiance to one of Minnesota's most intense bands by wearing a black T-shirt depicting the Replacements' Let It Be cover art.

"The rawness of those guys is what I probably like about them the most," he says of the 'Mats.

Admittedly, picking through a bluegrass version of his favorite Westerberg tune, "Unsatisfied," would never be the same type of live fury, but the Turtles' own material has its share of speed and momentum. "Wait So Long," a track from 2010's chart-topping Palomino, proved to be just the song to make a rowdy audience, shoehorned into a small bar called Swan Dive, lose their collective shit. The whirlwind of Austin, according to Simonett: "You get there, you carry your stuff through the crowd, no sound check, get up and play for half an hour, walk a block to your vehicle and get to the next shit show."

Up until very recently, this was an oversimplified look at the way the touring-obsessed Simonett, bassist Tim Saxhaug, banjo player Dave Carroll, mandolinist Erik Berry, and Ryan Young on fiddle have spent their days since 2003.

As it turns out, Trampled by Turtles' live act — a line of guys picking with the might to snap their hollow-bodied string instruments in two and harmonizing into history — can be too intense for its own good, and can lead to unrealistic expectations.

Even in the world of modern folk and bluegrass, a quieter storm can be a hard sell. Coming off Palomino, it would've been nearly impossible to incite such a barnstorming. Thus, Simonett says his band was under a lot of pressure to make a different record than the comparatively mellow one, Stars and Satellites, that emerged. Only now, he says, do the results from those sessions at Soleil Pines, the log home they inhabited with producer Tom Herbers, make him comfortable.

"I don't even send out rough mixes," Simonett says during an afternoon amid a block of time spent with his wife and one-year-old daughter, Lucy, at their home in southwest Minneapolis. "I don't want the input. I want it to be as honest as possible. It's hard to not be self-conscious. To have someone come along and tell you it's shit, it's like, wow, maybe this does suck. I have no idea. Nobody puts out an album that sucks on purpose."

Fortunately, this is not an album that unintentionally sucks, either. A good half of the songs embrace a slower pace — one allowing Trampled faithfuls to stop pumping their fists and buy another beer — but it unfolds with the silenced intensity of a raw, open wound. "The Calm and the Crying Wind" is one such inward-leaning, contemplative moment. "Painted pistols and all the cheap thrills/And the worlds that collide/And all the poets/And all the pain pills/And a God on your side/It don't help you/It never will/We all get older/And older still," Simonett sings, slowly and beautifully capturing the sentiments of middle- and later-age reflection and regret. "One of my favorite bands is Low, and I don't think I've seen anyone achieve [quiet intensity] better," he says.

This new song wasn't one that figured into the sweat lodge of a performance back in Austin at Swan Dive, but an infectious testament to living, dying, and in-between, "Alone," did. Credit its brow-beating bridge, and just a whole lot of that "oh" syllable sung in lusty four-note runs. Even a month before Stars and Satellites' official release, the crowd scraped the rafters singing along with every word. Simonett is careful with his words when responding to this type of fandom.

"It's flattering," he says, before changing his tone slightly. "Two things: People are excited about our new music. But it's also a testament to the amount of illegal downloading of our record that has happened already. For a band in our position without a label deal and kind of word-of-mouth operation, it probably helps us more than it hurts us. There's nothing we can do to stop it, so why worry about it?"

"Nobody puts out an album that sucks on purpose."

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