Local Current Blog

Artist of the Month: Trampled By Turtles

Trampled By Turtles at Rock the Garden in 2012. Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR.

In this flavor-of-the-moment era of YouTube, Twitter, and TV singing competitions, it seems that artists become big overnight and are oftentimes cast aside by morning. Most don’t ever even claim 15 minutes of fame—it’s more like five minutes, at best. It’s nice to see Trampled By Turtles, then, in the enviable position of reaching a new peak in a long career that’s been on the upswing from the beginning.

2014 might be the best year yet for these Minnesota mainstays. They released Wild Animals, they recently made their second appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, and they just headlined the legendary Red Rocks in Colorado, a concert venue that should be on your bucket list. On Sept. 20, they’ll host Festival Palomino at Canterbury Park in Shakopee. Not bad for a band with humble Duluth roots—but then again, one of their heroes, Bob Dylan, has those same sort of roots. They’ve come a long for a band who once were paid a carton of cigarettes for a gig.

Trampled By Turtles formed in the “Twin Ports” a little more than a decade ago. The band haven’t lost any members in their 11-year existence: they’ve only gotten bigger, having recently added cellist Eamonn McLain to the lineup. The idea was for the band to be a break from the electrified rock bands they were all playing in at the time. Once they were up and running, they discovered they were have the time of their lives. That seemed to mark the end of the rock and the beginnings of an exciting new endeavor called Trampled By Turtles.

The core of the group is still Dave Simonett on vocals and guitar and Tim Saxhaug on bass, with Erik Berry playing the mandolin, Dave Carroll on banjo, and fiddle player Ryan Young rounding out the lineup. The group found inspiration in artists like Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, Ralph Stanley, and even alt-rockers like Nirvana and Pixies—you’ve likely heard the band’s cover of “Where Is My Mind”—and, like many Minnesota musicians, Bob Dylan.

Ten years ago this October, the band released their first album: Songs From a Ghost Town. They showed promise right out of the gate with songs like “Whiskey” and “School Bus Driver,” but didn’t really find their own sound until they released their fifth album Palomino (2010), which was embraced by the bluegrass community—reaching #1 on the bluegrass chart—and by a whole new audience. Songs like “Wait So Long” and “Victory” were big on the Current.

Things really picked up steam with the release of Stars and Satellites in 2012. The band began to focus more on the songwriting, and less on the speed of the song. More of their songs were in the comfortable midtempo range. Dave Simonett has proven to a deft songwriter. His songs can often paint a picture, though the pictures aren’t always pretty. Songs like “Midnight on the Interstate” and “Alone” have become staples in Trampled By Turtles’ live repertoire.

In 2012, the band also made their first major TV appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, and they performed a triumphant set that year at Rock the Garden. The following year the band did a three-night stand at First Avenue in Minneapolis to celebrate their 10th anniversary. A DVD/live album was released, called Live at First Avenue. It was picked up by the cable channel Palladia, which gave it a fair amount of airplay—another coup.

Wild Animals, the band’s seventh studio album, continues to focus on songcraft. This one dips its toes in rock even more: there’s even a smattering of drums on the album. Low’s Alan Sparhawk was enlisted to produce the album, which was recorded at Pachyderm in Cannon Falls, where legendary albums by Nirvana and the Jayhawks were born. This album may end up being just as legendary. Sparhawk shows restraint with Trampled By Turtles’ earthy and uncluttered sound, leaving plenty of space for Dave Simonett’s world-weary, mournful voice to shine. This might be Trampled By Turtles’ best batch of songs yet. Highlights include “Hollow,” which almost marries the old bluegrass tradition with a more modern Americana feel; and the first single “Are You Behind the Shining Star,” which you might even catch yourself singing along to.

Maybe the most interesting thing about Trampled By Turtles is that they are a string band, but they are just as much a rock band. You almost don’t notice the fact that there isn’t a drummer on stage. Their rock backgrounds are very evident both onstage and in the studio. You don’t have to love the banjo to love their music: they’ve managed to bring their brand of bluegrass to a different audience. They’ve gradually cultivated a strong fanbase as a touring band and as recording artists, and done it on their own terms. Not bad for this humble bunch of Minnesotans.

Previous Artists of the Month:

January 2013: Andrea Swensson on Dan Wilson
February 2013: Barb Abney on Low
March 2013: David Campbell on 12 Rods
April 2013: Jon Schober on the Jayhawks
May 2013: Jon Schober on the Hopefuls
June 2013: Jon Schober on the Hang Ups
July 2013: Jon Schober on the Soviettes
August 2013: Jon Schober on the Suburbs
September 2013: Jon Schober on the Replacements
October 2013: Walt Dizzo on Charlie Parr
November 2013: Andrea Swensson on Information Society
December 2013: Andrea Swensson on Sounds of Blackness
January 2014: Jay Gabler on Lookbook
March 2014: Jim McGuinn on Jeremy Messersmith
April 2014: Ali Lozoff on Lifter Puller
May 2014: Mark Wheat on Atmosphere
July 2014: Jay Gabler on Prince