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Trampled By Turtles Finds Joy After Hiatus

Dave Simonett, at the piano, with Trampled By Turtles
David McClister
Dave Simonett, at the piano, with Trampled By Turtles. The band plays Tuesday at the Castle Theatre.

Dave Simonett of Duluth, Minnesota-based Trampled By Turtles is a talented musician, vocalist, and songwriter. He’s also got some game as a collector of vinyl.Acknowledging the fourth attribute, Simonett stammered “Well … it’s … it’s … it’s a problem,” before letting out a hearty laugh during a GLT interview.

Similar to many his age, Simonett was exposed to his parents' record collection. But his introduction to what he characterized as “this old, funky” (and now shuttered) Carlson’s bookstore in downtown Duluth in the early 2000s that really lit the vinyl fuse.

“It was probably 3,000 square feet of unorganized bins of vinyl, and then a bookstore which was equally as large,” said Simonett. “I didn’t have a lot of money (at that time), and it was a good way to find 10 records for $12 or so. I would just go in there and explore.”

Duluth is the birthplace of Bob Dylan, though he grew up 80 miles north in Hibbing. R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry also claims the Lake Superior port as his birth, but the city can’t claim many other musicians that easily roll off the tongue. Nor can it claim bluegrass as a staple, especially in the early 2000s when Trampled formed.

“When we started playing, it was more of an exploratory endeavor,” said Simonett. “Most of us were playing in rock bands here in town and wanted to do an acoustic thing on the side. Our mandolin player Erik (Berry) had picked up a mandolin and started to explore bluegrass and folk music. At the time I hadn’t heard any of that stuff. It was more like trying to reach out and learn in a new area.”

Located far outside the bluegrass bible belt of North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia, Simonett said members didn’t feel constrained by the music’s tradition.

“We listened to this music and had similar instrumentation, but we decided we’d like to write our own music and songs in that world a little bit, but yeah, definitely no rules involved,” said Simonett. “Hopefully our songs reflect more about where we’re from.”

TBT recorded eight albums between 2003 and 2014, then took a hiatus instigated by Simonett, who at the time said he was exhausted by the band and wanted to explore music with others, including his side project Dead Man Winter.

“For me, Trampled had been touring for an extensive amount of time. Mainly it was just a creative wanderlust I guess I’ll call it. It can be put as simple as sometimes you miss playing electric guitar in front of a drum kit, it’s still a gas,” said Simonett of the pop/rock/folk leaning Dead Man Winter. Simonett said it was just a musical itch he needed to scratch.

It’s a decision mandolinist Berry said didn’t sit well with him at the time. But in a 2018 interview with Pop Matters, Berry said it turned into a blessing of sorts.

“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."

Simonett feels the space provided by the break from band mates and the ability to create in a different environment helped all the projects, including Trampled By Turtles.

“I could have easily used those (Dead Man Winter) songs for Trampled, but it was just as simple as playing my songs with a different group of people,” said Simonett. “Creatively it was healthy to switch that. There was nothing negative going on with what I was in. It was simply just to try something else and see where it went. So for me, it helped a lot.”

And it shows in the band’s 2018 comeback “Life is Good on the Open Road.” Though recent albums were well received by both critics and fans, there’s an audible looseness and joy on “Open Road” not evident in the two or three leading up to the break. Simonett said it felt that way to everyone.

“When we made it, it was just fun,” said Simonett. “We decided early on we wanted to do something loose and live, and we pretty much just went to the studio, sat in a circle and played songs. They’re just live to tape. It was really fun being back playing music together, I feel like everybody had more fun doing that than we had in a long time.”

Trampled By Turtles plays the Castle Theatre on Tuesday, Jan. 15. Fellow Minnesotan Actual Wolf opens the show.

The entire GLT interview with Dave Simonett of Trampled By Turtles.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.