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Trampled by Turtles: Pickin’ up the pace (and playing Aspen)

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Steve WalterMinnesota acoustic band Trampled by Turtles, with singer-guitarist Dave Simonett, far right, performs Thursday, May 13 at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – When Dave Simonett began putting together the acoustic group Trampled by Turtles, about six years ago in Duluth, Minn., he took things slowly.

The band itself came together in bits and pieces: At first it was a duo with Simonett on guitar and Erik Berry on mandolin, often working out their ideas in someone’s living room. Dave Carroll, a member of the audience at one of those early shows, asked if he could join in on banjo, and he was absorbed into the group. Simonett knew from the outset that he wanted a bass to beef up the sound, and eventually he enlisted Tim Saxhaug to sit in when he wasn’t occupied with his other group. Ryan Young, the fiddler from another Duluth band, Pert Near Sandstone, began jamming when he could; two years ago, he was anointed a full member of Trampled by Turtles.

Just as slow-paced were the songs the group played in the early going. Most of the pickers, especially Simonett, were new to the string-band world – the volume, the dynamics between instruments, the song repertoire. Part of easing their way into the acoustic realm was taking the tempos nice and easy.

“We were just getting a feel for playing together with other acoustic instruments,” the 30-year-old Simonett said from his home in Minneapolis, where he has lived since moving due south from Duluth five years ago. “All the other bands, it was electric guitar, loud, rock ‘n’ roll. At the time, [acoustic music] seemed like a mellower, quieter thing, and we played the songs slow.”

Listen to “Palomino,” Trampled by Turtles’ new album, released in mid-April, and those days seem far away. The tortoise-like tempo of the songs is mostly gone, replaced by breakneck paces that can make the Turtles seem like thoroughbreds. The album opens with a hint of the past; “Wait So Long” kicks off with a midtempo fiddle lick. But the banjo rolls behind it seem impatient to get things cooking and by the time the rest of the instruments fall in, the song is off and sprinting. On “It’s a War,” the quintet wastes no time getting up to speed, and songs like “Feet and Bones,” and the instrumentals “Burnt Iron” and “Sounds Like a Movie” truly do feel like races to the finish line, as the band works to hold it together till song’s end.

Simonett says it’s an indication of a band getting back to its roots. Trampled by Turtles may be an acoustic ensemble – the instruments, down to the stand-up bass, are all of the unplugged variety – but the members have rock ‘n’ roll in their history and their blood. When they began getting comfortable with acoustic playing, they turned from old bluegrass and folkie material to their original songs. Simonett, whose past included a few years as a punk-type player, was the main songwriter, and his old habits found their way into the songs he was writing for an acoustic quintet.

Early on, Simonett said, “We weren’t trying to do anything original. It was just for kicks. We were just discovering that whole realm of music together and found we loved it.

“Then, we tried to find our own voice with these instruments. And we decided that really, anything could be put into that form. When we decided to become more of an original band, our sound really developed.”

“Palomino,” the band’s sixth album, reflects the rock ‘n’ roll background, as well as the band’s desire to make a studio recording that resembles the live Trampled by Turtles experience. In concert, the band has tended to let loose, acting more punk than bluegrass.

Simonett’s early musical experiences were neither punk, rock or bluegrass, and didn’t even involve strings. Growing up in the southern Minnesota town of Mankato, he took piano lessons from his grandmother at the age of five. In the high school band, he was on trumpet. It wasn’t till the age of 17 that he picked up a guitar, but the instrument had a predictable effect on the teenager, who quickly plugged in and began banging out punk rock.

In the late ’90s, Simonett moved to Duluth, lured by the dynamic music scene. Though a relatively small place – only the fourth largest city in Minnesota, with a population around 85,000 – Duluth rocks, according to Simonett. Witness the fact that the membership of Trampled by Turtles, like Simonett, moved there for its music scene (all except banjoist Carroll, who went there for college). This weekend marks the end of the week-long Homegrown Music Festival, an 11-year-old event that packs 25 venues with 150 acts, all from the Duluth area. (Trampled by Turtles landed a plum gig – Saturday night, at the NorShor Theatre, a run-down but historic downtown venue.)

In Duluth, Simonett became the singer-guitarist for a series of bands, all electric rock acts. But as he says, in Duluth, you’re always bumping into other musicians who want to try something on the side, and eventually he and mandolinist Berry developed a desire to do something completely different from their usual gig. So they picked up acoustic instruments and delved into the songs of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. Simonett began to see appealing similarities between the old acoustic icons and his rock idols: “Energy, a raw feel, really honest emotions,” he said.

In its own sweet time, Trampled by Turtles took off. The band’s 2010 itinerary includes appearances at South By Southwest, Wakarusa, the High Sierra Music Festival, and DelFest, the event spearheaded by one of Simonett’s living heroes, singer-guitarist Del McCoury.

These days, Simonett splits the difference between being an electric rocker and an acoustic picker. Trampled by Turtles is his main gig, and for several years his only gig. But recently he formed an electric alt-country group, Dead Man Winter, which includes Young and Saxhaug from Trampled by Turtles.

Simonett, though, says he doesn’t think so much in terms of electric and acoustic bands. He sees himself mostly as a songwriter, rather than a guitarist, and creates songs with little attention to how they will eventually be fleshed out.

“This is the band I’m in; this is how I spend my time,” he said of Trampled by Turtles. “My focus has always been on songwriting. It doesn’t matter to me what form the songs take. As long as I can get them out there.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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