Legend has it, one of the perks of writing for a blog is that you can speak in the fan’s voice. Well, today I’m taking that liberty to hide the objectivity under my Unabomber hoodie for a chat with a band that has rapidly grown into a personal favorite, Trampled By Turtles.
Behind the muscle of the its most recent pair of albums, the latter a nod to their hometown in Duluth and its precursor Trouble, Trampled By Turtles chipped out a niche for their band as modern string bellwether. With the their terrapin stampede ambushing listeners on songs like Ceiling Slide, The Darkness and the Light, Empire, Stranger, and Valley, they push the boundaries of acoustic music by incorporating diverse elements such as high energy bluegrass (“punkgrass” if you must), thoughtful narrative country, distinctive vocals, and squirrely chemistry.
With a massive Western US tour afoot and what sounds like it may be their best album yet coming in April, it looks like a good time to get these guys on the radar screen. Today, we catch up with guitarist and lead vocalist Dave Simonett to learn more about TxT.
Hidden Track: For starters, I wanted to say I was bummed to miss your last New York City show; ended up stuck at work late. I recall seeing that you were doing a panel discussion about the current state of bluegrass before the show. Could you share some of your thoughts on that topic here?
Dave Simonett: Actually, that didn’t end up happening. I do think bluegrass – and I use that term loosely here – is in an interesting place right now. There are a lot of people taking that old instrumentation and style and doing some innovative stuff with it. I feel like there are two camps here: the traditional bluegrass crowd, which tries to preserve the traditional catalog, etc. – sometimes to the point of musical militancy; and second, a group of musicians borrowing the style to create their own original music. This music is so easily accessible nowadays with the internet that even five guys as far away from Appalachia as Minnesota can get into it. READ ON for more…
HT: What are some of your biggest influences outside of music (i.e., writing, films, people, etc.)?
DS: Like any married man, my wife has been a big influence. There are some authors that I definitely consider influences not only outside of my musical life, but probably in songwriting as well. A few I can think of now would be John Steinbeck, Noam Chomsky, James Agee, and Hemingway.
HT: Who would you say writes the best bluegrass songs in the modern era of the genre?
DS: I’m not sure of the guy’s name, but I like the songs of Split Lip Rayfield a lot. There’s also a band here in Minneapolis called Pert Near Sandstone that writes some great songs. I don’t think I can name a “best” though.
HT: I understand there is a new album coming out next April; could you give us a sense of any preconceived ideas in terms of themes or songwriting that might surface?
DS: Well, a lot of the songs were written from the point of view of someone watching someone they care about go through a challenging time and really not being able to make anything better. They really were all written separately and it wasn’t until we put them together that I noticed this theme for the record itself.
HT: Have you picked out a producer yet?
DS: We are producing this one on our own, which has been a lot of fun.
HT: My personal favorite TxT song to date would have to be Ceiling Slide, which burns like a lit fuse. What do you guys think are some of your finest songs to date?
DS: Ahh, chosing between children, eh? I always have a hard time with this question – not because I don’t have favorites, but because I think it’s hard to state them without sounding arrogant about it. But, what the hell. I think my favorite Trampled by Turtles song (till the next record anyway) would probably be Empire.
HT: I notice in some of your biographical information, you tend to identify with a lot of songwriting legends famous for their storytelling like Townes Van Zandt. What would you say is the key to a good story put to song?
DS: I think honesty is really key. Not saying the stories all have to be true, but putting some honest feeling into the story is what makes it special.
HT: What’s the coolest thing about Duluth, MN?
DS: Lake Superior, Charlie Parr, and the Homegrown Music Festival.
HT: If you could point to a particular show for a newcomer to Trampled by Turtles to check out on the Live Music Archive, what would it be?
DS: Honestly, and I really appreciate all the enthusiasm and work that goes into that thing, I don’t get into live recordings very much. I really think that once that show is taken out of the context in which it first happened, it loses it’s power. Plus, I can’t stand to listen to live recordings of myself so I really wouldn’t know what to tell ya there.
HT: I recall a few months ago seeing a contest for a design of a new Trampled By Turtles logo. Did you choose a new winner yet and if so, can we see it?
DS: We did, actually. It was fun man. We got some really good stuff from a lot of talented people. The logo we went with is on our website and the t-shirt design we went with you can check out at the store page on that site (shameless, I know). It’s the one with the chairs on it.
HT: Finally, what are you most thankful for this holiday season?
DS: Each and every breath.