Erik Berry of Trampled By Turtles on why they won't play songs off O Brother Where Art Thou?
Catch Trampled By Turtles this Saturday, June 22, at the Westword Music Showcase.
Trampled By Turtles, due at this weekend's Westword Music Showcase, was started in 2003 by a group friends from Duluth, Minnesota, who knew each other from playing in various bands. Liberated by the freedom and mobility of playing acoustic instruments, the players honed a sound that happened to benefit from a renewed interest in the timeless rustic sound pioneered by the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe and later championed by the Grateful Dead and later still by acts like the Yonder Mountain String Band.
We recently spoke with mandolin player Erik Berry about what drew him to the violin, the nature of the band's famously natural rhythm without a drummer and how people still ask Trampled By Turtles if they can play something from the O Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack.
Westword: You started the band ten years ago. What older music were you discovering around that time?
Erik Berry: I think that was about the time that Dave Simonett had discovered Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers. Mine wasn't older music, so much as it was the Garcia/Grisman duet record, which is newer versions of older music. When I started playing mandolin, the only mandolin playing I had in my record collection was [David] Grisman's work on American Beauty. Through that, I got into Ricky Skaggs, so when I started listening to newer recordings of older songs, I hadn't started digging back yet. But that was the germ of it.
Did you ever get to see Charlie Louvin play?
No. We seemed to be following him on one of his last tours. We played a lot of the same venues; his posters were on the wall, and sound guys talked about him and stuff like that.
He was great. He played Twist and Shout Records in Denver in 2007 and then at the Bluebird.
When you got into that music and some of the other older music, like Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, what about that music appealed to you more than the rock music you were making at that time?
Well, the big appeal I didn't expect, and it's a very practical answer: When I would go to Dave Simonett's house to practice, all I had to bring was my mandolin. Previously, I had to lug in my bass amp, and then go back to the car and get my bass and my bag of stuff, and then I'd have to set it up. Suddenly, it was like, "Oh, I could walk to his house," because I could carry this thing twelve blocks. It was like, "Wow, that's cool! This is great!" Honestly, that's what we all liked about it.
For years, we had a backpack and our instruments, and we really tried to make that work. Nowadays, we have a whole trailer full of gear that has more stuff than any rock band I've ever been in. In the early days, it was really kind of how light and portable it was. And then, suddenly, we were still making music, and we could still even play actual rock songs. They didn't sound like the records, but we could do it and kind of rock out. I think that was the big appeal. Now the banjo player would probably say he didn't like carrying his banjo twelve blocks. That's because his banjo was heavy.
Then, like I said, I was listening to contemporary versions of classic bluegrass. I started playing mandolin in kind of a bluegrass-oriented band. Previously I had only played mandolin in a Pogues-ish band -- which was what we were shooting for. So I listened to a lot of Irish music, but in that band, I had an amp, and we had a drummer. This was the first band I had been in when there wasn't drums, and I didn't know what to listen to.
I went to the record store right around that time, and the person at the store steered me toward a Yonder Mountain [String Band] record and a Bill Monroe record. Kind of, "Here's how it started, and here's kind of what's happening now." I thought that was really good. I liked the Yonder stuff, and it did what it had to do for me, and I wasn't as much into the improvisational [aspect to it]. But Bill Monroe and those harmonies? Wow!
From there, I started digging deep into Bill Monroe and then the Stanley Brothers. Then it was sort of like, "Listen to this cool song. Listen to this cool song." The music itself was really able to do it for a long time. But then to add to it, Dave Simonett was writing, so we didn't feel like we weren't trying to be a museum piece. The harmonies weren't exactly traditional or the parts weren't exactly traditional, but so what? This song is one week old. My part is the traditional part for it.
All of those things were swirling around. We were coming from a kind of rock band background where someone writes a song and you try to come up with a part for it. Then you try to come up with a part that's a little bit different for the next song. Whereas in bluegrass, it sort of seems they're all interchangeable because the focus is the song. But for us, the equal focus was on the song and the parts we were playing. And we were learning on the job.
There's a bluegrass community in Duluth, but it's hard to break into. It's kind of close knit, and they get together for some pickin' parties. They're friendly, but if you come in and do something different, they let you know. I've been to one once or twice after Trampled started. I thought, "I know how to play these songs." But I found out that wasn't my scene. When you jam with someone, it's a special occasion because it doesn't happen that often. It's not a mainstream musical taste. Even now, that it has become quite a bit more popular, still, liking the old stuff is a little bit weird. Part of it is the fidelity of the records. It's like a club, and it's cool to be in a club, but when you're not in the club, it's hard to get in.
What drew you to mandolin?
I was a guitar player before I was a bass player. Bass was the instrument I was always playing in bands. It was like, "Hey, Berry, our bass player can't make our gig Friday night. Do you think you could learn our songs and fill in?" That was my introduction to being in bands, and I loved it. I was in jazz ensemble in high school, and I had taken classical guitar lessons. I had entered college as a Classical Guitar major, so I was in a really brainy guitar focus. Suddenly playing bass in a band on Friday night? Wow!
After college, those opportunities weren't as prevalent. I was actually working as the editor of a small town weekly newspaper. I got an English degree, and got a job working in Wisconsin. One of the things I was covering was the opening of a new antique store, and the guy had a 1940s mandolin on the wall.
I had this sort of flash of, "If I had that thing, I wouldn't be the seventh guy with a guitar around the campfire." I ask him how much he wanted for it. However much it was, he said, "If you pay me cash, I'll sell it to you for ninety bucks." It was one of the few times in my life when I was single and had some disposable income, and I said, "Sure!"
What I really liked about it is that I could play bass lines on it with a guitar player, but they were up higher. So it was kind of like another melody, but I was thinking about it like a bass line. And if there happened to be a bass line, it wouldn't interfere with what he or she was doing. What I missed about playing guitar was playing chords. So, suddenly, I felt like everything I liked about playing guitar and much of what I really liked about playing bass I could do on the mandolin, too, and nobody I knew played one. When I first started playing, I was teaching myself Bob Dylan songs, some Grateful Dead songs and some rock and roll. Irish music was the first traditional music form I tried to learn on the violin.
You toured with this band pretty early on?
The first time we played out of town was three months after our firs gig. It was in July of '03. I had moved up to Duluth from Decorah, Iowa -- where I went to Luther College. I worked at a bar when I moved back to Decorah after the newspaper job burned me out. So I had really strong connections for a show there; another guy had connections in Wisconsin. So we put together a four-day tour.
Our bass player, Tim [Saxhaug] had played in another band, and they went on a couple of tours. He was excited about how we got along a lot better in the car than his other band had. It's not just that easy to get in a car and drive hours to a gig and crash on a floor. I'd done that with other bands, and it wasn't as much fun as it is with this band.
We first went to Colorado a year later, and that was our first real haul. We didn't know anybody and we played to five people because they happened to wander in.
The very first place we ever played in Colorado was in the bar at the Mishawaka Amphitheater. We actually did know somebody there. A friend of mine was running an open mic there, and we got there a day early to check it out. We went there and played a few songs to literally three people and the staff. When we headlined there a couple of summers ago, it was a kind of triumphant, "Yes!" Then we played a brewery and went to Gunnison and played a brewery there, and then we wound it up Denver at Dulcinea's Hundredth Monkey.
Did you find that there was a loose community of like-minded artists and receptive audiences early on, or do you maybe feel that you helped to build that over the course of time?
I feel like there were whole lot of people that were kind of ready for the tones of their music to change. And I'm not certain they knew what they wanted it to change to. The very first time I ever played mandolin in public, I'd been playing for about a month. And a friend of mine had been playing banjo for three months, and we weren't very good.
We played a party in Moorhead, Minnesota, and people were entranced. If we'd been two people of the same talent level doing the same thing on guitar, there is no doubt in my mind we would have been told to stop. We were just playing a G chord and a C chord over and over. It wasn't good. There were thirty people watching mesmerized and probably because that was the first time they'd heard that music live and heard it in person.
Even a few years later it wasn't that unique. But I feel like a lot of our earlier crowds were kind of coming from a jam band background, so there's been a lot of loop pedals and long, distorted guitar solos. Suddenly, we were playing these really short songs. We weren't jamming at all. Everything was really organic, natural, not electric sounds.
I think people were like, "Wow, this is neat," but they were looking for something different. There's a lot of right-place-right-time stuff with us. If you'd have asked those early crowds what some of their favorite bands were, you'd have been told Umphrey's McGee, Widespread Panic and Phish and bands like that.
Of course, those bands were influenced by the Dead or Hot Rize, who were inspired by the kind of older music you were discovering around that time.
Right. We did "Rosa Lee McFall" once or twice. Some there was some common repertoire.
You've done some excellent covers over the years, like Pixies and Arcade Fire. What do you find interesting and challenging about reinterpreting that music?
I hope I don't burst the bubble, but we try to do the most straightforward cover we can. We just don't have those instruments, so it's going to sound different. We did have this kind of eye opening experience when we got a bi-weekly gig in Duluth for four hours, unless we could get someone to play with us. By the time we'd been a band for two years, the vast majority of our gigs had been at Pizza Luce. Both me and Dave Simonett worked there. We had to be a bar band so we would learn a lot of covers to fill up four hours.
When you talk to bluegrass mandolin players, they say, "Well, you're the drum in the band." So I would listen to what the drummers were doing on those songs and try to do something like that. We were actually trying to work up a Widespread Panic song, "The Waker," and there's a bit where the drum does sort of half time, and I remember trying to get that to feel right on the mandolin. There's a part where it's two percussionists playing and trying to get that made a lot of things slide into place for me personally. You don't have to make it sound like it, you have to make it feel like it.
I remember reading a review of one of our covers, and the writer wrote something like, "This is the way you cover a song: you make it completely your own." We had to chuckle about that because we tried to play it as much like the record as we could -- except it was a Beatles song and we weren't the Beatles, and we didn't have those instruments; we were us. We weren't trying to make it our own; we were trying to make it a super faithful cover.
That fits in with my first experience at a party. If we were a band with two electric guitar, a bass and a drum, and we tried to make it as much like the Beatles as we could, well we would sound like a bad Beatles band.
You did an interview with Vancouver Weekly, and Ricardo Khayatte compared your band to a drum kit in the way it works together. Do you feel that rhythm is the foundation of the songwriting?
Rhythm is definitely foundation of what I'm doing. If it's what Dave has in mind when he's writing? I don't think so. When he first brings songs to us, he gets it "coffee house ready," so that he can do it as a solo acoustic song. Some of them are a little bit more up tempo, but he never brings us a tune that's as fast as we play. He may say, "I want this one to be faster but I need your help to make it faster."
It really is a synergistic thing we do. When I play by myself, it's really hard for me to play as fast as I do with the band. I tried out a new mandolin, and I asked Dave to come help me in playing guitar. I played way too long on twelve different mandolins with him playing his guitar. I remember telling the guy at the shop, "I'm going to walk out of here buying one, but you may not like seeing what I do with these." But we really work together to get that rhythm and that speed.
For a few years we had a friend sit in on drums, and on the Bob Dylan song, "Isis." By the end of the song, he was pretty much playing nothing but fills and just going to town. He said, "I was thinking in my head I don't want to step on anyone's toes, so I just sat way back and let you guys play." I'm like, "Well no one's stepping up and playing anything; they're just playing the beats. So maybe I'll step up a little bit." The whole time he's thinking, "Yeah, this is Trampled By Turtles, and they play the beats, so I'm going to play something." It was really kind of fun that a drummer felt like he didn't have to play the beat because we were playing the beat.
Some people probably had expectations about what you do before the release of Stars and Satellites last year. Do you feel that it was a departure from what you've done in the past?
Yes and no. I know that when we were working on Stars and Satellites, we thought that maybe some people were going to think it was a letdown. There's a lot of slow songs. There's a lot of mellow songs. It's a much more introspective record than our previous work. We joked that it was our punk rock record. It was a record we were putting out because we wanted to put it out, even though there were expectations for Palomino II.
If they didn't like it, you-know-what 'em. It's funny, we were having that kind of attitude about a song like "Beautiful." But we really were. But if you listen to it in the context of all the records, there's stuff like that on all of them; there's just more of that on Stars and Satellites. So I don't think it's a super grand departure, but it was a little different and we definitely felt like, "Are we sure we want to do this? Yes we are."
You've often cited Bill Monroe as your favorite mandolin player. What is it about his playing and songwriting that resonates so strongly for you even today?
One thing that always struck me is that the recordings I was listening to were made in the '40s and '50s. There weren't a lot of studio tricks even available to those guys. When Monroe would take a break, it seems like that mandolin stepped up in a way that...I'm sure it was just him leaning into a mic and the way his hands held it but it was really powerful.
His tone and when he takes the lead he takes the lead. When he steps back, and Jimmy Martin is singing, with the banjo playing the melody, he knows what he wants the song to be focusing on but when he steps up? Whoo-oo! I really like that a lot. I like how simple and dry the recordings were.
Also the general excitement of discovering older music. It's not like had never listened to older music. I listened to some Charlie Christian records, and he's kind of a contemporary of Bill Monroe. But it's easy to get into this mindset of how popular music started in New Orleans and it headed up north. Then the big bands all fell apart, and the bop bands took over. But that's not the whole story. It's just the story as I understood it. There was this whole other river of music that's coming from the country. The thrill and excitement of discovering it was a big part of that.
To hear it being an influence on music I was familiar with was exciting. All of us in the band have pretty big ears. We all have our favorites. We all have the stuff we like to come back to. We all have our formative experiences that you can never really escape. But all of us are capable of listening to something we've never listened to before and getting into it. I think for all of us, especially in the days when we were driving around in the van and sharing albums like a Ralph Stanley record one of us had.
Then I remember discussions about like, "Well, you guys playing instruments taking solos probably can listen to more stuff than the rest of us." If you're bass player, I don't know how excited you get about bass playing on bluegrass records versus being a mandolin player.
There's that episode of Squidbillies you guys were on where the host calls you .38 Special and you say, "We're Trampled By Turtles." Has anything of that caliber of silliness happened to you on tour or playing the festival circuit?
Oh, nothing quite like that. But we have had people just flabbergasted that we won't play songs off the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Just shocked that we've never played "Man of Constant Sorrow," for example. So when we refused it's not just, "No, we're not going to play that." We don't know how to play that. So we've had people that are amazed that we can't.
Even recently: I'm four days home from a tour of Europe and the UK. The review of our show in Glasgow the guy was saying we really need to check out the Dillards' live record to learn how to tell a story between songs. And it's like, the Dillards? I like the Dillards, but they're the band that did the Andy Griffith theme song. There's some great players in the Dillards -- Roland White was in the Dillards. That's not a slouchy band. But they've got kind of a corny thing going on, too, in their stage show. Really? You want us to do early '60s campy bluegrass. That's what you're thinking of when you watch us play and think we're missing?
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