Dave Simonett, lead vocalist and guitarist for Trampled By Turtles, sat down with Front Row Boston before taking the stage at House of Blues Boston September 11, 2014.
EDGAR B. HERWICK III, INTERVIEWER: You’re kind of the guy behind the band, right? Like for the most part you’ve been there from the start.
DAVE SIMONETT: Yeah, I have been. Eric, our mandolin player, and I it kind of started with the two of us. We were doing duo shows when I had a band that had just broken up and Eric’s band was on their last leg so we just started doing acoustic stuff as a side project. And then our banjo player joined us very shortly after that.
HERWICK: How did you get to bring the banjo player in and how did it grow from a duo?
SIMONETT: He saw us play a show at a bar in Duluth and at the end of the night, you know we didn’t know the guy, he asked if we’d ever want a banjo to play with us. And we were like ‘sure.’ It was very informal at the time. It was just one or two local shows a month while I was trying to think about what to do with the new rock band, you know.
HERWICK: And this is all happening in Duluth?
SIMONETT: Yeah, this would have been like 2002, maybe early 2003.
HERWICK: So talk to me about Duluth. What’s the deal with Duluth, Minnesota?
SIMONETT: It’s a beautiful place. It’s right on Lake Superior; it’s in northern Minnesota, kind of close to Canada. It almost feels like the edge of the world a little bit because beyond that, north there’s not another major city as far as you want to go really, until you start coming back south I guess. So it’s kind of on the edge of the wilderness. It’s like a two and a half-hour drive from Minneapolis, which is kind of our music and cultural hub in Minnesota. So it’s fairly close to that but it’s definitely a separate being. It’s kind of a college town, it’s an inexpensive place to live, a lot of musicians and artists live up there. But I think it’s the combination of being a little bit gritty, and cheap and it’s beautiful and so it’s a good place for music, I think.
HERWICK: Did it inform your songwriting; does it inform the sound of your band?
SIMONETT: Well, I think the answer to those questions is yes, but I’d have a hard time…I mean songwriting would be a little easier because so many personal experiences happen that end up, whether in a literal form or not, in songs, for sure. But sound…I think there wasn’t really a burgeoning folk scene there at all when we started. I think there’s probably much more of that now. I mean there was some around but it wasn’t like young kids were playing this kind of stuff. For us it was kind of a novelty, we didn’t know of a band with a banjo in it in town. And I had never listened to old-time folk music or anything before the stuff I dove into when this band started. Before we started writing our own music we used to just try to find old bluegrass and folk songs and learn them, because we had never really listened to it before. So I don’t think northern Minnesota had much to do with that part of it at all. If the same guys would have met anywhere that might have happened, you know?
HERWICK: So what was drawing you to that then? Where was it coming from?
SIMONETT: I think it was just a balance issue, I mean we had all been playing in rock bands and wanted something where we could still play in bands but have something where we could do a quiet acoustic show once in a while. And we got excited about the music we were learning.
HERWICK: Which was what?
SIMONETT: Like Woody Guthrie and Bill Monroe and this old American music that none of us really grew up with and none of us really knew and somehow kind of got a little bit of a line on and were interested in. So it was really just a different form of music to play for kicks. And then when the rest of our bands eventually all split, we thought maybe we could try to write music like we did for other bands, but with this instrumentation and see how it works.
HERWICK: Was it a struggle at first? Or was there a learning curve?
SIMONETT: Yeah, I think the hardest part that I experienced was playing in a band without a drummer. And now we can’t play with a drummer. We’ve tried a couple times and it’s like ‘you’re too straight,’ you know? The rhythm is too right. So we kind of grew into this connection where rhythmically we learned how to do it. But at the outset, for sure, especially in the places we were playing which we couldn’t really hear anything, that was a challenge. I think in the beginning, too, it was much more of a ‘let’s emulate a certain thing,’ you know what I mean? Like it’s going to be a totally for fun band, let’s play old bluegrass songs and then we’ll write a couple that kind of sound like that. And then it was a pretty conscious decision, at least on my part, to say well if this is what I’m going to spend my musical life doing for the next few years then I want to try to do something of our own. Let’s make our own songs and try to come up with some kind of sound of our own so we’re not just a cover band anymore. That was a challenge because when you’re in a rock band, at least the bands that I’ve been in, it’s just the sound of a rock band. I’ve always been in kind of garage rock-y, rough bands and we didn’t really have to think about what it sounded like a lot because that’s just what it was. But we were consciously trying to not sound like something I think, for a minute.
HERWICK: So, it’s interesting that you were talking about not playing with a drummer. I read something recently about rhythm and dancing, and they were saying the rhythm isn’t what the drummer is playing; the rhythm is something that everybody in the band is agreeing upon.
SIMONETT: Yeah, that’s a great quote. That’s very true.
HERWICK: So as a band, with the number of people you have on stage, how do you guys interact? How do you guys find that agreement? Especially without a drummer to sort of lead you guys there.
SIMONETT: Right, at least a meeting point anyway. I don’t know. I think it’s pretty subconscious and it’s just part of being a musician. I feel like rhythm may be one of those things that would be really difficult to teach somebody. Maybe you can learn this, I don’t know but it’s just a sense of a regular time structure that you have to share with these people. And it’s not always accurate, I mean we lose it once and while and it changes throughout songs but as long as you’re all together it’s fine. So I don’t know how to explain it or how you get it really. I think when you’ve played with a lot of people, some people you have that connection with and some you just can’t find it. Even if they both know how to count to four, you know what I’m saying? So I think it’s just a blessing of being with the right people at the right time.
HERWICK: Were there moments in this development as the band came together, as you guys started to grow into this, is there a story or moment where you remember being like these are the right guys? This is working?
SIMONETT: No I don’t think so. I think I always felt that way actually, I don’t think I questioned it. I mean it was fun playing with Erik in the beginning and when Dave joined on it just became more fun. And then when we got a bass player it was like bigger and better. So I always felt like no matter what happened I was enjoying what we were doing and it felt like it was working to me. And I think with the beginning of the band, what it was, we all didn’t have any expectations for anything, you know? We were just hoping to get a show once and a while. So every little success that the band had especially early on, but even now, comes as a nice surprise. So I can’t pinpoint a moment where I was like we have something here. We just knew we were enjoying it.
HERWICK: Was there a moment or series of moments or a time period over the last 12 years where you sensed that shift from having no expectations and just trying to find a sound to ‘holy shit we’re professional musicians in this band right now this is working’?
SIMONETT: Probably when I quit my job, I guess. I mean everybody that’s played in bands and really wanted to do it for their living, whether that ends up working out or not, there’s that time period where if you start to tour a lot, those early years of touring you’re losing money all the time and it’s really hard to balance that. Being able to pay your bills, you need a job. But being able to tour, good luck finding a job that’s down with you leaving all the time to tour. So there’s just this kind of jumping off point where you just have to say ‘screw it, I’m just gonna go for it. I’m going to do this full time, if I have to live in the van then that’s what I’ll do.’ And I think that was a definite point where everything got a little more focused and we started to try to be better. Better at music but also at the music business, for whatever the hell that is now, and to learn everything we could about what it’s like to have a life as a musician. And it was a little bit freaky, but I don’t regret it at all, it’s pretty great.
HERWICK: So, many records and over a decade later, how is this latest record different from your first record?
SIMONETT: Shit, it’s a lot different. I think, you know? But I feel like it’s been a steady progression, and not towards anything but just movement, you know—forward. I mean our first record we recorded in an old church in Duluth called Sacred Heart and I think we did the thing for like 800 dollars. It was like two days, we sat around the mics and played the songs. We were just happy to have ourselves recorded; it was a huge deal. Now by this point that thought of how to be a little bit different does come up and recording is such an infinite process, there’s so many directions you can go and people you can work with and places to record and all those things have such an impact on the sound of the record. So I bet, well I don’t bet I know, that this time was definitely the most thought we’ve ever put into recording a record. And that’s gotten more and more each time around. We worked with a producer, which we had done just a little bit before. We spent two weeks in the studio tracking, where we normally would go for like four days or five days. So it was a much more thought-out and slow, and I say slow process but I mean it in the way we took our time with it and really worked out the songs a lot in the studio and spent the most time trying to make everything the way we want. So that was intense. It was really fun though.
HERWICK: So I hear you’re a baseball guy?
SIMONETT: Yeah, I grew up playing baseball and watching baseball.
HERWICK: Are you a Twins fan?
SIMONETT: Yeah. It’s not an easy thing to be right now.
HERWICK: When did they win, ’87?
SIMONETT: And ’91.
HERWICK: That’s right. Kirby Puckett?
SIMONETT: Yeah. Kent Hrbek was my favorite.
HERWICK: I could see that. But I heard today you had a little bit of a baseball moment.
SIMONETT: Yeah, yeah we met a gentleman at Newport who works behind the Green Monster doing the old school scoreboard thing. So when we met him at Newport he offered to show us around when we came into town and made good on it and we went over there today and got to go behind the wall and see where they hang out in this tiny little cave and do the scoreboard like they’ve done since…I don’t even know when that park opened up, but a long time.
SIMONETT: Alright. I think they’re the same number plates, these heavy metal plates. It was really interesting to see. It’s the first time I’ve ever set foot on a major league field so that was pretty cool to me. I definitely felt pretty nostalgic walking out there, even though I have no connection with Fenway, it was great.
HERWICK: I’m going to throw a song title at you, just give me a story or a thought about writing it or recording it or playing it live. Ok, here we go. “Alone.”
SIMONETT: “Alone” was first played…I remember this because I had just written the song back stage in San Francisco after sound check and we rehearsed it once and decided that we’d play it on stage that night and it was…really bad (laughs). I remember that song having a rough start and then becoming one of my favorite ones to play.
HERWICK: What makes you stick with it? Like how come you play that song and it’s a disaster and you don’t say let’s abandon it?
SIMONETT: Because we all knew it was the first time. I mean the amount that we tour, we have very small chunks of time in between so we don’t rehearse that much. So if we’re going to do something new it’s got to be on stage and usually if that’s the case I’ll tell the crowd like ‘this is brand new for us too, so see how it goes’ but it’s really a cool way to rehearse because you really have to try your best, you know? You only get one shot at it.
HERWICK: “Wait So Long.”
SIMONETT: “Wait So Long” is our smash hit [laughs]. As close as we’ve ever gotten to that. Hopefully as close as we’ll get to that, actually.
HERWICK: That’s all you’ve got on that one. “Are You Behind the Shining Star.”
SIMONETT: “Are You Behind the Shining Star” almost wasn’t on our new record. I put it out on a solo EP last year and I thought we were done tracking and asked if we had any other songs we’d like to try and our producer Alan brought that one up and he liked it. And we tracked it and he really pushed for it to be on there.
WATCH: “Are You Behind the Shining Star” live at House of Blues Boston:
HERWICK: How did it differ, the version that you cut for the band?
SIMONETT: Well the other band that I recorded it with was pretty loud, like spacey guitar rock outfit. The feel is fairly similar actually, but it’s a lot lighter and bouncier with Trampled. The other one was pretty raw. I kind of like having the two versions, I really like recording songs in different formats, it’s really cool to do that I think.
SIMONETT: “Winners” is about Duluth. That’s one of the few songs I can actually pinpoint what it’s about in its entirety. It’s about a specific time for me there. Normally I can’t write like that, but that one just kind of came out.