On Trampled by Turtles’ new album Wild Animals, the bluegrass-meets-indie-rock band focuses less on stylistic restraints, opening up to whatever sound found its way to the record.
In the past, singer and primary songwriter Dave Simonett had painstakingly separated his work into different categories, spreading them out between his various musical projects.
“This (album) seemed a lot more like he wasn’t worrying about that,” the group’s mandolin player Erik Berry told CMT Edge. “He brought the tunes he had to us regardless of what his intentions might have been when he wrote them.”
What emerged is a finely-tuned studio album spearheaded by producer Alan Sparhawk, co-founder and lead singer-songwriter of the band Low. He took Trampled by Turtles in a direction familiar to him, mainly by slowing things down and spreading the sounds out.
When Berry called in to talk about the project, he had nothing but praise for the fellow graduate of the Duluth, Minnesota, music scene.
CMT Edge: Coming out of two critically-acclaimed albums, where do you think the band was at musically when you started this new project?
Berry: Curious what we could do different. We sort of had that approach going into Stars and Satellites, too, but this was even more so. That’s why we ended up bringing in Alan Sparhawk to produce it and really trusting Alan’s taste and letting him go ahead and tell us what to play. Alan’s work was so graceful and easy and not weird, but it was a little different for us, which reflects in the way it sounds. Particularly how much space there is.
What about as collaborators and friends? Has the band’s relationship gotten stronger through this experience?
Oh, I think so. It certainly is nice to sort of discover what we’re all capable of doing musically. … Speaking for myself, personally, it was nice for me to show how I don’t have to be playing to fill every second of every beat — though I often do. Just stuff like that. It was neat to see what we’re all capable of when we stretch out, and then it’s given me different ideas. When you hear someone you’ve been playing with for 10 or 12 years doing something different, it makes you play different.
Has the songwriting process evolved over the years?
Yes and no. The majority of the material, Dave brings to us. It seems like his approach has always been about the same, which is he gets to a point where he can sing it and pluck it and then he brings it to us. Then we start putting stuff on it and that probably changes his intentions for the song.
As far as thematically, I feel like he is getting more and more poetic. I know he’s uncomfortable discussing it, but I guess I’m not sure why. My attitude about it is that it doesn’t matter what the author intended. It matters what you think about it. If the author didn’t want you to have your opinion, then he or she shouldn’t have put it out there in the world for you to read. I don’t know if Dave agrees with that sentiment.
I’ve only ever confronted him once about a lyric, and it was in “Keys to Paradise” on Stars and Satellites. I told him, “You got that one lyric about trying to figure out the ways to remain here, that always makes me think about me and my wife sitting around the kitchen table with a calculator and all the bills going, ‘How the hell are we going to do this?’” And he’s like, “Well, that’s exactly what that part of the song is about, except it was my wife.” It’s the only time that I’ve ever asked about it. I like that mystery.
To my ears, the album has more old-time influence, but in a very cinematic kind of way. How would you describe it?
I wouldn’t disagree with that statement. The cinematic part, a couple of tunes I think I know exactly what you’re talking about because I don’t sing on the record myself, so I spent a lot of time in the control room listening to those guys. There were a few tunes, the title track in particular, where I would have consistent visual images if I shut my eyes and let them happen.
The old-time influence, for me as the mandolin player, I agree with 100 percent. There were some tunes where I was very consciously trying to play simply without worrying about “let me show how complicated of a mandolin player I can be.”
There’s a definite ethereal quality to the whole thing. It’s great for just relaxing. Where does that come from?
I think a lot of that is who was mixing it — Alan and BJ Burton.
“Wild Animals,” I remember, we were in the studio working on it. At that point, we weren’t wearing headphones. We were playing the song, and Alan was making us play more sparse and more sparse and more sparse. After about five or six takes he’s like, “OK, why don’t you guys come in and hear what we’re doing to this?” So then we heard all the delays and all the studio fun that was going on, and he was like, “Now go out and try it again.”
That’s the take that’s on the record. We still couldn’t hear any of that stuff, but it was like seeing the method to the madness. They were kind of like the seventh and eighth members of the band at that point. Which is cool. That was what we were looking to do. We wanted that sort of collaborative experience.