Photo special to Fargo Monthly
Trampled By Turtles are set to headline Roots on the Red, a one-day celebration of Americana at the Bluestem Amphitheater. Several acts, including Michael Franti, will perform on the main stage and the two side stages, Fargo Brewing Stage and Blackbird Pizza Stage, throughout the night.
Trampled By Turtles formed in 2003 in Duluth, Minn. After performing, recording and touring together for nearly 15 years, the band announced a hiatus in the fall of 2016. Several band members worked on solo or group projects during this time, including frontman Dave Simonett, who released an album with his other band, Dead Man Winter.
All six band members met in banjo player Dave Carroll’s cabin in October 2017 for their first time together in nearly a year. Over three days, the guys got reacquainted with each other and learned if their musical chemistry was still there.
It definitely was, and their first record in four years, entitled Life Is Good On The Open Road, came out on May 4, 2018.
I got the chance to chat with mandolinist Erik Berry before their show on Friday about the band’s unexpected year-long hiatus, why Moorhead will always have a soft spot in his heart and more.
Music has always played a big role in your life. How did it impact you growing up and when you started playing instruments, and how does it continue to impact and inspire you?
Erik Berry: My parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was very young. I’ve often said I was four, but I expect I was actually five when I was in kindergarten. I don’t remember learning how to read music; it’s something I’ve always been able to do in my conscious mind, just because of piano lessons at such a young age. And I didn’t care for them very much, and I would complain about having to take them. And my parents just, I don’t know what made them do this, but they were like, ‘you can’t quit until you have four more instruments under your belt.’ And I really disliked the piano, so I was motivated. [laughs]
Once the whole orchestra was a possibility, I signed up and learned to play the viola, and once the school band came up, I started playing the saxophone. And then I finagled some guitar lessons, and then I was like, ‘four instruments? I’m out of piano!’ It was in the summer between sixth and seventh grade that I picked up the guitar. That was one of the ones that really kind of clicked for me.
It’s my opinion that the whole thing’s a positive reinforcement loop. If you get excited about music, you play music more. When you play music more, you get better at it. You get better at playing it, you get excited about what you can do with knowledge, you know, and that works for anything, not just music. The mandolin, which I play with Trampled, I picked up 10 years later when I graduated from college and I was working in my first real job, which was a newspaper editor for a small weekly newspaper. That was like the sixth or seventh instrument that I had learned to play.
Trampled By Turtles recently took a hiatus after more than a decade as a band. What was that like, and how do you think that impacted you personally and as part of the group?
Berry: The going into it was kind of the most drama Trampled ever had. We’ve been pretty lucky being a fairly drama-free band. No one’s ever quit. We’ve added guys, but the same four guys that played the first gig are still here, including me, so we’ve never really had someone saying they wanted out. So dealing with that was an interesting thing, like why would you want to stop?
The pace had to change, and it’s kind of too bad that we learned the hard way during that, that it’s okay to talk about how you feel about stuff. Because I think there probably will be another extended chunk of time off, not coming soon, but sooner than 12 years or whatever it was the last time. I think we’ve learned that’s it’s healthy for us as individuals and it’s healthy for us working together. There’s a lot to be said for it, but to me, personally, it took being in the break for months to realize that. The break started kind of as a bummer, you know what I mean? And so I had to see the positives for myself in real time.
I guess one of the more interesting things that happened is I always have a little bit of music, I call it my interior song monologue, just going through my head, and at some point in March of 2017, I noticed it was not very Trampled by Turtles-y anymore. And I don’t really know how to describe what it had become, but it had changed, and I found that really fascinating. And mostly just to keep myself busy and to pay bills, I played a lot of gigs. I put together a Grateful Dead cover project with my friend Marc Gartman in Duluth. Me and Teague Alexy did an Irish music project, and those are very different from each other. I learned a lot from working with two other professional musicians who I knew and was friends with, but we hadn’t really sat down and collaborated like that before. At the end of it, it all wound up being full of positives. It came about in a way that didn’t feel positive when it started, so I guess I think of the time off as me learning how to see the benefit of it.
So you all got together last October in a cabin for the weekend, and what was going through your mind before you got there and then once you arrived, what was your mindset at that time?
Berry: It’s really hard to think about those three days without putting it into the context of the Las Vegas shooting, which was the night before. Also, I drove over listening to music on my phone, so I didn’t hear that Tom Petty had died before I got there. That shooting really hit me hard because Trampled has played outdoor music festivals in Las Vegas underneath giant hotels. I’ve had in-ear monitors in, so I’m not exactly sure if I would ever be in that position that Jason Aldean’s band was in, would I react as slowly as they did? I expect probably. And maybe it’s because I knew I was going to see those guys in a couple hours but I was just like, ‘man, I want to hang out with the Trampled guys.’ So it’s impossible to think of that experience without those two really horrible things for American music happening.
A lot of what we did wasn’t musical. It was kind of reminding ourselves that we liked hanging out.
It wasn’t like, ‘I can’t wait to see these guys and hear what they’ve been up to.’ It was a little bit more like, ‘I need to see these guys today.’ It was very good. We all call it a weekend, but it was a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. It’s been called a weekend since it happened, but it was not Saturday and Sunday. A lot of what we did wasn’t musical. It was kind of reminding ourselves that we liked hanging out. And that was really kind of the most fun about it. It’s just being around each other and hanging out, you know?
All of you played with different bands during the hiatus, and that made you think a little bit differently about how to approach and perform music, and so how did that kind of combined with your guys’ chemistry in performing live come together for the new album?
Berry: I guess I don’t really know, but recording that new album was really this… the phrase ‘like riding a bike’ got tossed around a lot. It did not feel like we had to reinvent ourselves and learn how to play with each other all over again. I couldn’t describe it. I don’t even know if I could teach it, you know? But it’s there, and it’s a real thing.
I guess the big one that I think of in concrete terms is Teague is really into crafting the intros and outros to songs and things like that, and Trampled doesn’t really do that, and so it was kind of nice to have some clues on how to maybe do that. And you can hear that a little bit in the way that some of these tunes are compared to our other albums. Ryan probably was the one who was able to bring in the most different experiences because he was doing a lot of recording, like a lot of recording other bands’ records and producing other bands’ records, so he heard a lot of different type of music and was working with it.
It did not feel like we had to reinvent ourselves and learn how to play with each other all over again. I couldn’t describe it.
You’ve played in the Fargo-Moorhead area several times over the years. Being from Minnesota and the Midwest, what’s it like playing in this area as compared to other places?
Berry: There’s this sense when you play Fargo, and it kind of amplifies the further you go into North Dakota, of thank you for coming here. I know it’s a place that gets skipped by major touring artists, and when we were coming up, it was just four hours away from Duluth. It was easy to find crash space on people’s floors.
It’s always had a soft spot in my heart because the first time I ever played mandolin in public was at a house party in Moorhead. A buddy of mine was going to Concordia, and I went to go hang out with them. I brought my new toy, which I’d only been playing for a month, and he got out his banjo and said ‘let’s try some stuff.’ And so we sat down in the kitchen and ran through a couple of tunes, and now having known a few really great bands that have come out of Fargo-Moorhead in the folk-bluegrass vein, in that spring of ‘99, I don’t think any of those people ever saw a banjo or mandolin being played in real life before because we were not very good, we were not playing very complicated stuff, it was not fast, and we had that kitchen spellbound in a way that hasn’t quite happened since every other time I’ve played the mandolin in front of people. I never not think of that whenever I go back to that part of the world.
What’s your favorite song to perform live, and why?
Berry: I don’t know, all those tunes on the new record are really, really fun to play, and since they’re new and fresh, there’s still that sort of a sense of finding all the little nuances that are still in there. You can find new stuff in tunes for a long time. The last couple of months, it’s been really fun, just some of the other songs we’ve been belting off. Like we’ve been trying to add a tune we haven’t done [in a while]. Because there’s this group of like 25 tunes that we said, ‘obviously when we get back together, we’re doing these 25 songs.’ And it’s been fun bringing in another 25 that don’t get played as frequently, but we try at every couple of shows like, ‘here’s one that’s being dusted off for the first time in a few years.’ And that’s been super fun, too, just revisiting the catalog.
Check out their top tracks on Spotify here:
Find out more about Trampled By Turtles on their website. The all-ages Roots On The Red show will be Friday, Aug. 24 at the Bluestem Amphitheater. The gates open at 5 p.m., and the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $27.50 in advance and can be purchased here.