Interview: Dave Simonett Opens Up About Trampled By Turtles’ Return, New Album
After playing music together for 15 years, Duluth, Minn.'s premier bluegrass outfit, Trampled By Turtles, decided to take a break. The hiatus came following the release of their seventh studio album, 2014's Wild Animals, leaving frontman Dave Simonett to his own devices with his solo project Dead Man Winter.
Now, nearly four years since halting Trampled By Turtles, Simonett and company are returning to the scene with an amazingly powerful new record, Life Is Good on the Open Road. As he prepared himself for the release of the LP on Friday (May 4) — and for the sextet's return to touring — Simonett took some time to catch up with The Boot and discuss Trampled's hiatus, what the break meant for him and what's on the horizon for the band.
First things first: Congratulations! How does it feel to have Life Is Good on the Open Road finished and released?
I've been ready to put it out. It's been done for ... well, I guess it hasn't been that long relative to what some bands go through, but for me, it seems like an eternity. We recorded in December, but I've been working on it for so long. It's just this last little bit, this feels like it takes the longest. I've been ready.
It's funny you say it feels like an eternity, because I think most artists would be blown away if they finished recording and then, five months later, their album was on store shelves.
I've always worked pretty fast, and Trampled has for sure. I think it's, too, that the release date for us is the end of the process for us. It's kind of the beginning for the record in the public sense, but for us, it's the end of it. It's just this little step, and now we can kind of be real, you know?
Since you can be real once the album drops, is the actual release date itself something you celebrate?
Nah. I'm excited about it for sure. It's part of the job, I guess. There is a little anxiety, I'll say that. Up until this point, it's only been shared between the band and the people we work with, so it's a small group that has really heard the work we've done. Once it's let out and everyone can hear it, sure, it's exciting, but there's also something about putting your baby out to the wolves. I've been doing it long enough that I've learned that my work is done. The reception a record gets doesn't affect me as much as it used to probably.
Is it weird to be going through this with Trampled considering it's been four years since you guys released your last LP, and it's your first record since taking the hiatus?
No, it's actually felt extremely casual. It's been exciting, but it's felt really easy. It hasn't felt like it's actually been that long. We were touring so heavily for so long, so yeah, it felt like an eternity in between, but once we got into the studio, it was like we never left.
"I started to write a little bit and trying to figure out what to do next, and it just felt right. It's as simple as that."
Can you talk a bit about how you got back into the studio? In a recent story about Trampled's return, it sounded like the band reunited in a cabin and then, poof, we have the record.
[Laughs] That cabin was definitely part of the process. I had been doing my own thing with Dead Man Winter, touring with that, and that was a blast and a really great experience for me. I think that was kind of the impetus for the break, for us to take some time away and for everybody to explore something else for a little bit. It was confusing at the time, but it ended up being extremely helpful. I started to write a little bit and trying to figure out what to do next, and it just felt right. It's as simple as that.
Maybe it was the songs I was writing, or whatever, but I missed the guys. I missed playing music together, and so we started talking about making an album, and everybody was open to the idea, thankfully. I think that was one of the biggest unknowns at the time; it's hard to get six people on the same page anyway, even more so when they're all off doing their own thing. I was just happy they were all interested, and so we planned to have a weekend at our banjo player's family cabin. We live spread out now and we don't see each other that much when we're not playing together, so it was kind of like a retreat, I guess, just to get together and hang out and be in the same room and talk about what we wanted to do and what we wanted to do with this band now. I had a few of the songs kind of ready, and we sat around and played new music, but it was equal parts social as it was work.
And this cabin was in Minnesota?
Yeah, it was in Grand Rapids. By that point, we had already decided that we were going to give recording a shot. The thing with doing something like this, we have to book stuff so far ahead of time. We had to book parts of touring before we even knew we would be touring! We wanted to get the show on the road, so there were a lot of feelings like, "If this doesn't work out, who knows what we're going to do."
When Life Is Good on the Open Road was first announced, the phrase "indefinite hiatus" was used to describe Trampled By Turtles' return. That phrase is kind of ominous and somewhat loaded. Did the break feel indefinite to you?
To be honest, it did start like that. We didn't want to put an end date on it. For me, at least, we've taken little breaks before, a few months here and there, and sometimes in those times it would've been better if we took longer breaks. If you set an end date initially, it never really feels like it's gone. You're always looking ahead to that end date. I was of the mind, at the time, that we wanted to take the break so it felt like Trampled wasn't happening at all. I was basing decisions around it, and I wanted to completely shift gears for a little bit. When we took the break, we had no idea ... to be honest, the break was shorter than I thought it would be, but that's a happy consequence.
And now you're releasing an album and touring the country.
Yeah, we're good to go.
This is kind of silly given you're celebrating the release of a new LP, but does all of this mean, officially, no more hiatus?
Without getting into too many of the details, what we've decided to do is to be more relaxed about the whole thing. If somebody has another project that they want some time to work on, then just schedule that. I love to play music with different people and record in different ways and have different projects, but, for me, it was hard to do that when one thing was happening so much of the time. It was hard to fit in my solo work in these tiny little windows, and it was stressing me out, man. There just aren't enough hours in the day. One thing I learned from the break is that nothing really has to be over. There's no reason to not do something I enjoy. There is room for everything as long as you plan it out right.
"One thing I learned from the break is that nothing really has to be over. There's no reason to not do something I enjoy. There is room for everything as long as you plan it out right."
It's interesting to hear the process: getting to the cabin, knowing you'd record, feeling a lot of familiarity with the guys. Part of that process, like you've said in the past, led to you actually having a vision for the album when you got into the studio ...
... This might've been the first time I ever had a vision for an album, to be honest. But it was a simple vision, so that was easy to execute. We wanted it to be raw and live. We sat in a circle and recorded direct-to-tape; that was the kind of thing we wanted to do. On our last record, we were kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum, as far as our spectrum goes. We brought in an outside producer and spent a lot of time on overdubs, and the producer and engineer spent a lot of time sculpting the sonic part of the record. And I loved that, but for this one, we all felt like we wanted to just go sit in a room and play some songs together.
In all of the ways I've tried to record, this is still my favorite way to do it, just being less concerned about a song being perfect — which can drive you crazy — and more concerned about capturing a vibe of the people in the room. I listened to a lot of Neil Young, I think he's a good example of that method and the places you can go with that. Maybe it's less and less common now thanks to technology -- it's so easy now to kind of get close to being perfect, you know? -- but there's something really exciting knowing that isn't going to happen.
As you talk about this process, it makes me think of listening to music on vinyl, and I know that's important to Trampled By Turtle; after all, you guys recently celebrated Record Store Day with your own exclusive 7-inch. Is vinyl something that's important to you personally?
It really is. That's how I listen to the music I listen to. I love physical media, the artwork and the connection with how it's played. The needle and the groove ... maybe it's romantic, but I can't explain why I like it. Music has come a really long way, but I still love to go to a record store and just look through albums, picking something out, and going home and listening to it. It's like an occasion; there's something about physical media that is a little more sacred in that respect. It's not just on in the background.
"I love physical media, the artwork and the connection with how it's played. The needle and the groove ... maybe it's romantic, but I can't explain why I like it."
What's your go-to record store in Minnesota?
It's called Solid State. It's new; I don't even think it's two years old.
One of my favorite shops in the whole country used to be Treehouse Records in Minneapolis. I'm bummed they've closed their doors permanently.
Yeah, it's really hard to keep a shop alive. I was surprised to see Solid State open. It's all vinyl and cassettes. They don't even have CDs, but they sell record players and stuff like that, so it's like a vinyl culture hangout. It has more of a niche than the bigger shops maybe, and they seem to be doing well. They take a good amount of money from me, I'll tell you that. [Laughs]
When you guys were all doing your own thing, you were focused on Dead Man Winter. That came at a tough time for you, as you went through the experience of divorce. Was it therapeutic to come back to Trampled By Turtles following all of that?
Yeah, I think that's the right word ... The Dead Man Winter project was very therapeutic, but more so in the writing and recording. Touring was a blast, but to be honest with you, by the end of it, I was sick of talking about it and kind of sick of singing some of the songs. In my line of work, it's weird that your personal stuff becomes so public, you know? It was good for me to do that artistically, it allowed me to vent, but when it's every night in front of a crowd of people, it kind of made me go the other way. I didn't really want that anymore. It was good to shift gears to Trampled and to shift the focus off of me. It was good to get back into the band. There's probably some things I would've done differently, but I don't regret doing Dead Man Winter at all. It was a great learning experience.
And now you can move on from talking to strangers on the phone about all of it.
I don't know if you've ever been divorced, man, but about the third time I had to talk about it I started thinking, "God, what did I do?" [Laughs]
Strangely, out of that misery and trouble, you were brought back to Trampled By Turtles. It's kind of beautiful.
I'm happy about that. Thank you.
Well, it's a nice return for you, but Life Is Good on the Open Road is also a nice return for Trampled and the band's fans.
[Laughs] It felt like making a record in 2005 for us, the way we did it. We booked two weeks in a studio and did the thing in five days, we ended up mixing the whole record while we were there.
So, what's on the horizon for you guys now?
I can't look any farther than getting this record out and touring. [Laughs] People change their minds so fast, it's hard to predict the future. For us right now, I'm excited to get back into the motions of touring with the band and getting these songs broken in on stage and getting comfortable. There's a lot of excitement, but we're all a little nervous about it, but I feel like once we get rolling, it's going to be pretty great.