Americana folk singer-songwriter Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles talks about their first album after the band’s hiatus, Life Is Good on the Open Road.
The beloved Americana bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles is finally back and more fast-paced than ever. Their upcoming album, Life Is Good on the Open Road, brings the group together again for 12 solid tracks of good ol’ toe-tapping tunes guaranteed to appeal to the masses.
Between Trampled by Turtles’ 2014 album, Wild Animals, and Life Is Good on the Open Road, and the new one, lead singer Dave Simonett released a solo effort, Furnace. Under the moniker Dead Man Winter — and with support from Trampled by Turtles bandmates Tim Saxhaug and Ryan Young — Simonett’s solo project turns heartbreak into a musical crescendo.
Much like Furnace, Trampled by Turtles’ new album has a touch of gloomy undertones, but the band’s “we’re all in this together” attitude makes Life Is Good on the Open Road an enjoyable and highly relatable compilation of songs.
Recently, C&I touched base with Simonett to talk about the making of Life Is Good on the Open Road, songwriting, and how he turns personal hardships into high-intensity tunes.
C&I: What’s behind the name Trampled by Turtles?
Simonett: You know, we’ve been trying to come up with a good story for that for about 15 years, but not really anything. It was just when we started out, we started as kind of a side project. All the guys were playing in rock bands in the same town and we wanted to try an acoustic thing here and there. And, you know ... we just came up with a list of names and that was the first one that we all didn’t hate, so we just went with it. We only had one show at the time, so we didn’t know we were going to be stuck with that forever.
C&I: Do you remember any of the other potential band names that you guys came up with?
Simonett: You know, I don’t. I think one of our guys still has the notebook that we all wrote them down in. I would have to see them — it was so long ago.
C&I: You guys are about to release your first album after a hiatus. What do you hope your fans will get out of Life Is Good on the Open Road?
Simonett: That’s a really hard thing to predict, you know? I think everybody hopes that people will like their work, but that’s something I’ve definitely tried to avoid — thinking about it, making anything really — is how it’s going to be received because I feel like that can kind of taint the process. I think we’ve always been pretty good at making music that we want to make at the time, and so, hopefully, it’s seen as another piece of our life’s work and a snapshot of where we are right now. But beyond that, it’s kind of out of my control, and I think you could go crazy wondering what people are going to think about it.
C&I: What are some memorable stories along the way of getting the album from concept to actual release?
Simonett: It wasn’t anything too crazy going on. We’ve been off the road for a couple of years, and most of us have been doing stuff on our own or with other people, which was really nice. We’ve never really taken an extended break before; we’ve been touring pretty much full time the entire time we’ve been a band. So it was nice to slow down and experiment with other music and play music with other people and all that. But at a certain point, I called the guys and, I don’t know if everybody was feeling the same way, but when I checked in with everybody, everybody was super-ready to make a record together and play music together for the first time in a bit. So it was a pretty natural and organic thing. I didn’t see, like, a sign in the night sky or anything like that. It was just, “Hey, do you guys want to make an album?” and everybody was down with it. So we went in Pachyderm Studio, which is outside of Minneapolis, at a place where you can stay at a house. We stayed there for a couple weeks and tried out a bunch of music.
C&I: While you guys were on hiatus, you released your solo album, Furnace, under the moniker Dead Man Winter, which dealt with personal topics like loneliness and depression. What was it like for you to put yourself out there and be fully vulnerable?
Simonett: It was a little bit stressful, actually. I mean, I knew it was going to be when I made the record, I think, but definitely, I got tired of doing it, to be honest with you. I don’t regret any of it, but it was something I needed to do at the time. I don’t think I’m generally that open in public, as far as talking about music or getting too — I mean, I write a lot of personal stuff, but I think I usually attempt to mask it a little bit, or at least in my opinion. I got a little shy about it towards the end. I just kind of wanted to stop talking about it, if that makes sense.
C&I: What’s it like transitioning from writing for Dead Man Winter to Trampled by Turtles? Do you approach the two differently?
Simonett: No, it’s really the same. I feel like 90 percent of the material I write could probably be just fine in either group. ... I think I first decide what kind of project I want to do next and then I write songs with that in mind. But I don’t alter the process of writing in any way, really.
C&I: For Life Is Good on the Open Road, what was the writing and producing process and where did you draw the inspiration for the sound from?
Simonett: The writing process was my normal writing process, which is, you know, just groping in the dark and writing whenever I could. The idea for how the record ended up coming out, though, was one of the few times we’ve actually gone into a recording session knowing what we wanted to do. Usually, we just go with the flow over there and see what comes out. But we definitely wanted to make a raw-sounding, live-sounding kind of album. We were pretty unrehearsed — we might have done that differently had we more time together — but that was fine with what we were doing. And then in the process of recording it, it was pretty much just us sitting in a circle in the studio and playing the songs, just like we would’ve been in the living room or something like that. But that was kind of the vibe we all wanted. When we were starting out, that’s how we always recorded because it was necessary. I mean, we were broke and there weren’t too many studios in Duluth, Minnesota. It was just a comfortable way to go about it. We didn’t have an outside producer; it was really casual. It’s a really fun way to make an album, I’ll say that. It’s just a vibe that’s really hard to capture if you’re trying to capture it, like just sitting around and playing in a relaxed way. It was an extremely fun recording process.
C&I: I read that you guys actually retreated to a cabin in the woods.
Simonett: We did do that, just to kind of get back together and we did that before the recording. Our banjo [player’s] family has a cabin in northern Minnesota, so we went up there and just hung out for a weekend. I had a small handful of the songs kind of done. From there we played some music but mostly just hung out together. We hadn’t been in the same room for a long time. Normally, when we’re touring or when we’re busy with each other, we’re with each other constantly. So it was fun. It was kind of like a retreat. We just went and hung out and cooked food and played music. It was a great bonding experience.
C&I: Since the release of the band’s debut album, Songs From a Ghost Town, how do you think your music has evolved?
Simonett: I’d like to think it has, but as far as how, aside from the fact of us just getting older and absorbing so much more stuff in our lives, I think that’s probably why it evolves. There’s some technical things: We’ve added a couple of instruments and that type of stuff, but I feel like we’ve also just gotten so much more comfortable playing together. We’ve gotten better as a band and I think a little more open to exploring different sounds with the instruments we have.
C&I: Do you all have a favorite track you’re most proud of?
Simonett: You know we haven’t talked about it, so I don’t know. I think, which is typical for me every time we make a record, I usually have a favorite, maybe, in the studio and then later on I’ll have a different one that I like the most. And then by the time the record comes out, I don’t really listen to it anymore. I’m tired of hearing my own voice.
C&I: What was your favorite song for this one?
Simonett: I think my initial favorite was called “We All Get Lonely.”
C&I: Who are some singers and songwriters that have inspired your creative development and made you want to become an artist?
Simonett: Well, there’s a lot. I could never list them all, for sure. The first person that made me want to write my own songs was Bob Dylan, which is probably a typical answer for somebody in my situation, I guess. But I still go back to that guy’s work dumbfounded by what he was able to do. I have a lot of friends right now in Minneapolis who are making music that I’m constantly inspired by. It’s really hard to differentiate which ones have created anything specific in me or whatever, but it’s more like everybody I’ve ever seen, maybe, if they show up to me. And I think any songwriter — any musician, really — is just kind of an amalgamation of all the stuff that they’ve soaked up and it just mixes inside of you somewhere and comes out with your own accent.
C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring?
Simonett: A s---load of it. We do it forever. We have a lot of stuff coming up, for sure. I think we’re all at home trying to get our minds ready to switch back into that lifestyle, but we’re pretty solidly busy till the end of the year, starting in May.
C&I: How different is touring with a big group from working in the studio?
Simonett: They’re two different jobs, for sure, easily. It’s playing music, you know, but even just playing music on stage versus in the studio is different enough because it’s such a tightrope walk on stage. You only get one shot at everything and it’s in front of people. Studio is more like you’re crafting something and you spend time on it. [Playing] live is exciting as hell. I love it in its own way. But touring just has a lifestyle; it’s a unique thing, maybe. We’ve been at home for a bit now and just switching your schedule, your time — you go to sleep at a different time, you wake up at a different time. Playing a concert every day is a real roller coaster in your head, a little bit. You know there’s anxiety and sometimes ecstasy, almost, and sometimes not. It’s an exciting life, but it’s kind of chaotic. But I’m ready to go back on the road. I’m excited.
C&I: Have you guys messed up a time or two live?
Simonett: Oh, every show. ... It happens all the time, for sure. And everybody does that. But ... we’re a completely live band, where we don’t have any tracks or anything like maybe a lot of bands are using now. So it’s kind of up to us. And that’s part of the excitement of doing it: We’ve all messed up enough where we know that it’s possible at any time to really screw up. That’s never boring when it’s like that, and it can be pretty embarrassing to tell this, but usually it’s fine. We’ve had train wrecks happen on stage before. You know most bands have, and it’s just part of it. Sometimes, if you go see a show of a band that you like and they’re having a hard time, I mean, every band has shows like that. It’s just part of the gig.
C&I: Is it hard to put the same amount of energy into every show?
Simonett: I think because of the possibility of things going wrong, it’s not hard. ... Even if you’re playing the same songs every night — maybe we’re not good enough to do that every night and have it perfect every night, but [having it perfect] would be terribly boring, I think. ... We switch up the show quite a bit to keep it interesting. Even if we didn’t, it’s still walking up on stage in front of a huge crowd of people. It’s something I’ve done for most of my life, but I’m still not used to that. That still freaks me out and it’s still exciting and scary — that alone keeps it not boring.
C&I: What’s something fans might not know about you?
Simonett: Well, I don’t know. I think if my fans don’t know something about me, it’s probably on purpose.
C&I:, What are some of your favorite places when you go home to Duluth?
Simonett: Anywhere near Lake Superior, I could say, probably for everybody. We’ve all kind of spread out in the last few years, but I feel like that lake — it’s probably akin to somebody that lives by the ocean for a while. It’s just a large body of water that is almost a magnet. It’s got a very home feeling, and when we’re back in Minnesota, we usually end up up there, just to stare at that lake.
For more information on Trampled by Turtles and their upcoming tour dates, visit their website. Photography: David McClister