Trampled By Turtles and the Sometimes Hearty Effects of Hiatus

Photo by David McClister [Courtesy of All Eyes Media]

Trampled By Turtles' stunning bluegrass cred hasn't been without strife and separation, yet their post-2016 hiatus found a way to reinvigorate. Interview with Erik Berry.

Life Is Good on the Open Road
Trampled by Turtles

Banjodad Records

4 May 2018


Over the last 20-or-so years, the bluegrass-folk-rock group Trampled By Turtles developed deep bonds as bandmates as they recorded and toured eight full-length albums (three of which have reached US Billboard chart number one spots). Their latest effort, Life is Good on the Open Road (Banjodad Records, 2018), saw Trampled re-uniting after roughly a year-and-a-half pause, which allowed the band to re-evaluate their creative aspirations and find a way to feel 'original' and invigorated once again. I talked with them by phone this past July.

"We all get a little bit giddy playing the new record and we are all really happy with it," said Trampled By Turtles' mandolinist Erik Berry. "It's been a comfortable return to form and we are just pleased. Trampled had been on mothballs for 20 months, and while individually we'd all kept playing, it was not brand new. But it still felt fresh. It took a break to realize that."

The split began when lead singer Dave Simonett told his colleagues that he was exhausted with Trampled, and that he had for some time wished to experiment with other musicians and invest further energy in his other group, Dead Man Winter. During the respite, Simonett released the folk-rock album Furnace (Gndwire, 2017) and toured Dead Man Winter. As that schedule eased, however, he found that his thoughts drifted to his old bandmates.

"I wasn't happy being asked to ([break up the band] for an indefinite period of time," said Berry. "But it needed to happen. We figured that, yes, we can all do that. Six months after the break I noticed the wisdom in it, and I noticed my own internal musical monologue changing. I was writing different songs, and the break created this big growth of stuff and that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. I was not happy about it going it, but coming out I appreciated the benefits it had."

Eric Berry of Trampled by Turtles. Photo © Frederik Ranninger, Pitpony Photography [CC BY-SA 3.0 / WikiMedia Commons]

Trampled By Turtles formed in Duluth, Minnesota in the early 2000s; after years of grinding it out at brewpubs, pizza joints, and college bars, they found their stride as one of the region's best musical exports. It was in the wind-torn confines of the gritty Lake Superior shoreline city of Duluth where the band fully accepted itself.

"All of the others guys did grow up in Minnesota, except for me," said Berry. "We were all living there when we put the band together. For about a year and a half all of the guys were living there in Duluth and then we all moved to other parts of the state, like Minneapolis. Most of our earliest waves of support came from Minnesota, and from people who had friends from Minnesota or who were from Minnesota and who moved to the South, the Rocky Mountain states, or Pacific Northwest. It was like, 'my sister told me about these guys.' More and more we see people from Wisconsin and Ohio who say, 'hey, we are fans from the Midwest too.'"

Berry admitted that certain people from mostly Southern states with strong bluegrass tendencies – such as North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee – can be harder to form a tie with.

"Some of the people from the bluegrass states have their own ideas as to what bluegrass is," said Berry. "Some have this sense of us being from Minnesota, and only hear that part, and I don't know why that has been the case, but for the most part [our identification with Minnesota] has worked."

Berry alludes to the fact that bluegrass has a 'traditional' wing of adherents and enthusiasts as well as a non-traditional, contemporary crowd of performers and followers.

"We've spent our whole career identified with bluegrass and while we get compliments, there's also this notion that if you ain't from one state, then you ain't bluegrass. I don't have a traditional way of seeing it, and I don't play traditional music. I'm sure creative musicians such as Bill Monroe would have no problem with it. Mass-recorded music isn't that old, and today everyone learns [to play music] off the records, not from a banjo in North or South Carolina. So to play regional traditional music, bluegrass, Irish, Canadian folk-music, you don't have to be from that place to absorb yourself into it, just a diet of something to have it influence you."

Berry attended college in Iowa and later worked in Wisconsin where he lived with a housemate who was from Duluth. The roommate promised to introduce Berry to some fellow musicians if he were willing to make the move. The band which would initially spring from that didn't catch, but eventually he and several others merged together to form Trampled By Turtles. The band broke through the clutter with a string of albums tied together by the fantastically road-weary vocals of Simonett and the billowy, kaleidoscopic instrumental work of Berry, Tim Saxhaug, Ryan Young, and Dave Carroll.

In the latter part of 2016, Trampled By Turtles played a festival in Shakopee, Minnesota, and followed with a concert in Hinckley. Soon after, Simonett announced that he was "going away for a little while" and thanked listeners for "an amazing first chapter".

After a year and a half apart, they met up at Dave Carroll's family's cabin near Grand Rapids. The guys simply wanted to re-connect as friends for a couple of days and share chords and ideas together.

"First and foremost, we are dealing with some really nice guys," said Berry. "But we were stressed at the end of 2016… you get tired, you have the same schedules, and are at close quarters, and it's not your regular work station where you've left your co-worker for the night. Little things can add up – and you have to not let little things add up."

Not long after this meeting, they went to Pachyderm Recording Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, and put together an album in five days. The mood in the house and neighboring studio was gentle, musical, artistic, tender and devoted. They talked about memories and melodies, their friendships and their futures.

"Pachyderm has many isolated, wooden acres so you don't have to leave," said Berry. "I think that I left once in ten days to run into town to do groceries. Our days, we'd wake up, drink coffee, and spend the mornings talking, and then we'd walk the 200-feet to the studio, and that provided the sense of going to work, and we fell into a routine. We'd work on one song and then break for lunch at 3 o'clock, and we were trying really hard to get it done and be efficient. We put down 12 tracks in six days.

"Dave likes walking around the woods out there and fishing in the trout stream. I live on some land that is about 20 miles north of Duluth, so I saw it as an opportunity to not be outside."

Life Is Good on the Open Road churned into a batch of fresh material, an accomplished and neatly composed reflection of the present, a friendly collage of bluegrass, folk and rock 'n' roll. While the band sticks to its core instruments (guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, cello, and upright bass), they conscientiously circumvent the trap of making every song sound the same. There are moments of pure joy and connection, and a full platter of steady, inviting beats and familiar melodies.

"Dave was dealing with everything and we shelved Trampled so he could deal with it," said Berry. "We all came back and started playing together for the first time in two years and playing differently. It didn't feel completely different, but it didn't feel the same. I was not happy about [putting the band on hold] going in, but coming out I appreciated the benefits it had on us."

Trampled By Turtles perform at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto September 12th.





Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.