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Trampled by Turtles reach for stars and satellites

By Michael Rampa, April 2012

By Michael Rampa

Trampled by Turtles is one of the best bluegrass bands around, sort of. They hesitate to ascribe any particular label to their unique sound.

When asked to clarify, front man Dave Simonett said, "I don't really know what to say when I'm asked that. I hesitate to say bluegrass because I'm familiar with that kind of music. I feel that is a genre that has set boundaries that, and anytime you stray out of that, you're not really considered a bluegrass band no matter what instruments you're playing on. I would say it's Americana with string instruments, but whatever anyone wants to call it, that's fine."

The Duluth, Minn. quintet had shows booked before they had decided on a name. Mandolin player Erik Berry made it up as a joke. Simonett explained, "We all brought our lists of names to rehearsal one time, and we agreed to decide on the name that we hated the least, and that one stuck."

TBT play

The band is comprised of Simonett (guitar and vocals), Tim Saxhaug (bass, vocals), Dave Carroll (banjo, vocals), Ryan Young (fiddle) and Berry (mandolin).

Each member had played in punk and rock bands before they decided to turn their collective attention to a side project playing only acoustic instruments. By default, they started playing bluegrass. "We started the band as something casual, like once a month in a different format. We decided to try something acoustic. The friends I had that were interested, one had a mandolin, and the other was a banjo player. Playing bluegrass was kind of decided for us because that's the instrumentation we had," Simonett explained about their formation in 2003.

Since their inception, TBT has brought a frenetic energy to their acoustic shows. They have had to abandon their seated performances and begin standing up to play. Their albums are typically energetic recreations of live shows; however, their latest release; "Stars and Satellites" is more introspective. Berry said, "You know how sometimes they say ‘less is more,' "that's what 'Stars and Satellites' is about."

CST: Bluegrass is a genre with devoted fans, but narrow mass appeal. Do you think there is a possibility of expanding its popularity and if so, how?
TBT: Yes, I've seen that in the last 10 years. There are a lot of young bands out there playing bluegrass. When we started out and were looking for bluegrass musicians, they were impossible to find in college. Now it's pretty common. It's just one of those things that's not bound to be a huge mainstream success. With the advent of online music, more people are being exposed.

CST: Despite wide critical acclaim and a successful catalog, you still seem to be flying under the mainstream radar. What are your ultimate goals for this group?
TBT: I think we're already doing it. We're able to sustain ourselves by touring when we want to and making albums with the freedom to do whatever we want. In that respect, I feel like we're extremely successful. As for our lack of commercial success, I think that's more of a blessing than a curse. It allows us to have a longer lasting career and to not be constrained.

CST: Your records are usually energetic recreations of live shows. This one is sparse and at times melancholy. What was the philosophy behind this one?
TBT: We're such a live band and we've always tried to capture that energy in the studio. This record was a conscious decision not to do that and to try and make an album that sounded like an album; not worrying about anything but making this record. We also wanted to do something different. We've been at this a long time.

CST: You are some of the fastest and most exciting players in music, why does the band play sitting down?
TBT: We did for a long time because that's how we were comfortable playing, we were playing in living rooms and garages. Then, to be honest, we did it a little out of spite because everybody asked us why we were sitting down. Now we like to stretch out a bit and expand.

CST: Are people surprised to see the kind of energy you produce exclusively from acoustic instruments
TBT: I think so. I have been told that. It's always a challenge for bands to attain a high level of energy without a drum kit, but I think we've been able to do that.

CST: Who are your bluegrass influences?
TBT: Bill Monroe, especially, and not just because he was a brilliant player. What really impressed me was his courage to make his own music and say to hell what anyone thinks of it. For all intents and purposes, he invented the genre, and I think that's miles more important than how great a mandolin player he was.

CST: What is the typical demographic of your crowd?
TBT: The first few years, it was pretty much college age kids because we were playing a lot of bars. But we've really expanded our listenership. Now I'm not surprised to see grey hair and an 18-year old standing next to each other. So it's really varied, which I'm really grateful for. Anytime that a stereotype is broken, it's so refreshing to me because there is open mindedness there and that's what matters. I really get a kick out of seeing punk and speed metal fans at the shows.

CST: What is the music scene like in Duluth?
TBT: It's amazingly good for its size. It's a city of about 80,000, and it's fostered this little, brilliant music scene. For example, every year we have the Homegrown Music Festival. This year it's grown to 150 local bands at 25 venues, and they had to turn down 100 bands because there was no more room. It's a really friendly, inclusive place, and people are very supportive.