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January 10, 2013
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Trampled by Turtles shows some quick moves in the studio

ASPEN - Two summers ago, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Minnesota string quintet Trampled by Turtles was booked for a mid-afternoon slot. As the band took the stage, I was stunned by the surge of energy from behind, the sort of rush I might have expected for one of the festival headliners, Mumford & Sons or former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. Clearly Trampled by Turtles had a bigger following than I had imagined, and the band rode the wave, pleasing the crowd with their high-energy, high-speed take on progressive bluegrass.Who wouldn't want to repeat that experience over and over and over?Well, the band itself, for one. On their first five albums, the quintet - lead singer-guitarist Dave Simonett, fiddler Ryan Young, bassist Tim Saxhaug, banjoist Dave Carroll and mandolinist Erik Berry - had very specifically attempted to reproduce in the studio the sound and feel of their live performances. But a few months after the Telluride gig, Trampled by Turtles decided to aim for something quite different. Back home in Minnesota, the band tried to forget about the experience of performing live and began using the tools of the studio to craft an album."This one - and it was mostly me, honestly - we did a lot of overdubs. We fattened up the sound with overdubs, which we hadn't done before. On our old ones, we were going for exactly our live sound," Young said. "We started out like 'Palomino'" - the 2010 album that had reached No. 1 on the bluegrass charts - "with mikes in front of us, played the songs through beginning to end. But I'd go back and layer on viola or mandolin. And musical saw on a couple of tunes, a saw which you bend, you bow it, and it sounds like a theremin.""Stars and Satellites," released last April, was a noticeably different album. Young believes the sonic elements are the kind that only someone listening very intently would pick up. "Someone with a lot of experience will hear two mandolins, or an extra string instrument," he said. But most anyone familiar with Trampled by Turtles' output will hear the slow pacing, the melancholy emotions, the emphasis on songs rather than high-wire picking that marks "Stars and Satellites.""That's nothing preconceived," Young said. "But we listened back to it and said, 'Huh - that's more laid-back, more pretty songs. Midtempos, slow tempos.' We said, 'Well, we hope people like it, the people who are used to the old, fast, rocking tunes.' We liked it. We just hoped other people agreed with us."The new face of Trampled by Turtles hasn't impeded the band's progress at all. "Stars and Satellites" earned critical praise, topped the bluegrass charts, and even landed on the Billboard 200 and Alternative charts. Last summer, the band played the Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits festivals. In April, they made their national TV debut, on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Their Belly Up Aspen show, on Saturday at 9 p.m., sold out a week in advance.The sound and emotion of "Stars and Satellites" probably owes something to the setting in which it was made. Where "Palomino" was recorded on the run, in various Minnesota studios and a Washington, D.C. hotel room when the band could squeeze in time, for their latest album, they blocked out five days early last fall. They retreated to a cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior, some 150 miles north of Minneapolis. The closest city was Two Harbors. They recorded in a tiny room; the kitchen was turned into the control room."Some studios can feel like a doctor's office - you're paying by the hour, you got to get it done," Young said. "This atmosphere was very homey, very relaxed. After we got done recording for the day. We'd step outside for a fire. There was a garage-like room that had been turned into a bar, with a TV."••••A big influence on Trampled by Turtles, before they got into recording albums at all, was the fact that most of the members were not bluegrass players. Dave Carroll had descended from a line of banjo pickers; the rest came from electric rock bands on the Duluth scene. Around 2003, the five came together as a side project, and for kicks, they decided to go unplugged. Within a year, all the members' regular bands had dissolved, leaving the acoustic group, Trampled by Turtles.Young had begun his musical life as a violinist in a grade-school orchestra in the Twin Cities. He wasn't very good, but he loved playing enough to stick with music through high school and into college, at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Young extended himself musically, playing guitar and fiddle in jazz and rock bands and drums in a speed metal group. In a hip-hop group, he played bass and recorded beats and samples.In 2001, two friends started a folk band; Young joined on fiddle. "I said, 'That sounds like fun,'" he said. "I grew up liking Bob Dylan and Neil Young. But I didn't know much about what was before Dylan - the Carter Family, the Country Gentlemen, bands which I like now. Turned out it was much easier for me, a lot easier than classical music was for me."That folk band, Pert Near Sandstone, continues on as a nationally touring quintet. Young, however, became a quasi-member when Trampled by Turtles began to take off. Among the wise decisions Trampled by Turtles made early on was to head out of Minnesota and explore Colorado."Colorado was our main destination," Young said. "So we'd go play Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then go back home because we had day jobs. Colorado seemed like a better choice than Chicago for the audience we were probably going to play to. More bluegrass fans in Colorado than in other places we could reach in a day's drive. Colorado's like our second home; there's old friends there now. Alabama is not that way."••••Between making a real studio-oriented album and getting a live audience into a frenzy, Young says recording an album like "Stars and Satellites" is the bigger achievement."It takes a lot more patience. Patience is the big thing," he said from his home in St. Paul. "To make a great album you have to play the same songs over and over, you have to psyche yourself into an emotion. You have to pretend there's someone in front of you."While Simonett is the primary songwriter, and the entire band serves as producer of Trampled by Turtles' albums, Young was the one who took a lead role in making "Stars and Satellites" the kind of album it is. "I generally love recording. I do it for fun in my own house," he said. "For some of the others, it's a chore. It takes more work to get the right feel and this band has never been into nitpicking, thank god. But I love the challenge of making something sound really good. I like to try things. I like to try for the perfect part."The next album isn't even in the early planning stages. But Young seems game to use the studio even more than he did for "Stars and Satellites.""I wouldn't be surprised if we continue to grow, try some things we haven't done before," he said. "Maybe find an actual producer to help us record, help us arrange songs. And I wouldn't be opposed to overdubbing, adding more different sounds. It won't be a punk rock band. But we might add some sounds we haven't heard before."stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 11, 2013 05:57AM Published Jan 10, 2013 09:57AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.