By A.C. Kruse-Ross
Trampled By Turtles returns to the beautiful Meyer Theatre on March 20 to dazzle audiences with a one-of-a-kind mix of sonic influences. The band merges the technical precision and tempo of speed metal with the lyricism and emotive qualities of Bob Dylan, and performs songs distinctively their own on acoustic instruments.
Their last two studio releases, “Palomino” and “Stars and Satellites” were staples on the Billboard bluegrass and alternative charts and the band went viral with the video release of the song “Wait So Long.”
We at Scene were fortunate enough to speak with fiddle player Ryan Young via telephone back in Minneapolis, St. Paul after performing two shows at Mountain Song at Sea, a four-day, Miami/Key West/Cozumel cruise featuring premier bluegrass, folk and acoustic artists.
We spoke to Young about his transition from aspiring classical music performer to fiddle player, the band’s most recent release, “Live at First Avenue,” and get an insight into the band’s upcoming album — their first to utilize a producer (Low lead singer Alan Sparhawk) — expected to hit shelves this summer.
Scene: I know you’ve told it before, but I understand a robbery after a gig is attributed to Trampled By Turtles getting its start. Can you share that story with our readers?
Ryan Young: Dave Simonett is the guitar player for Trampled By Turtles, and before Trampled by Turtles was a band, he was in an electric rock band. They were playing a show in Duluth and at the end of the night some people were helping him load up to help him out and somehow he ended up losing his guitar, it never made it over to his vehicle. At the time, he was a very poor college student and he couldn’t afford another one, but he did have an acoustic guitar. So he’s like ‘Well, I guess I’m going to start playing acoustic music.’ Which he did with his friend Erik Berry who’s our mandolin player.
They started out playing a few original songs, but also some traditional Irish tunes and folk music. That’s how it all started, kind of by accident.
Scene: I understand you were the last to officially join the band. What were you doing up until that point, at what stage was Trampled By Turtles at as a band?
RY: About the same time Trampled By Turtles started, my band started, which was Pert Near Sandstone. We played similar music; both bands were acoustic and playing folksy music. At one point, Dave the guitar player, and Dave our banjo player, played a side-project show with the guitar player from the White Iron Band, they opened up for my band Pert Near Sandstone in Minneapolis and that’s how we first met.
Long story short, I ended up joining them for their third record, “Trouble.”
Scene: You began playing the fiddle at age 11, and since that time, you aspired to be a classical musician, but this was a struggle for you. Can you explain?
RY: I love classical music and I did love it at the time as well, but I wasn’t really good at it. You know how in orchestras they have chair assignments; first chair, second chair, third chair? Well, I was like 13th chair. I was always way in the back. I never quit because I enjoyed it so much, but then once Pert Near Sandstone was about to start — that band started with a guitar player, a banjo player and myself — the guys said ‘What would you think about learning how to fiddle?’ And I said I’d try it and it didn’t take me long. I really got the hang of it quickly, which was great because then I had an excuse to play my violin — now called a fiddle — because I wasn’t good enough to be in an orchestra, not a professional one anyway.
Scene: If you had to pinpoint the difference between the classical learning and the fiddle style, what was it that really opened things up for you?
RY: Well, in fiddle music, the thing you have to keep track of is the chords and a lot of times the chords are very, very simple, like two or three chords in a typical folk tune. I can keep track of that and I can hear it if the song goes around a couple of times. For me, fiddle music meant improvising, it meant coming up with my part on the spot, which for some reason was easy for me. I know for some people that’s a very scary thing. If nobody is going to tell you what to play, you don’t know what to do, as you don’t have anything to play. I can just make it up and it came really easy to me.
Scene: So that’s a bit like the jazz musician’s realm with the improvisation played over top of chords?
RY: Yeah, it’s very much like that, although folk music is typically a lot simpler. But it is a similar mindset.
Scene: I’d like to switch gears a bit and talk about your most recent album, “Live at First Avenue.” You guys hit the Billboard charts with the 2010 album “Palomino,” you followed up that success with “Stars and Satellites” in 2012. What prompted the decision to release a live album at this point in the band’s history?
RY: We were going to play three shows in a row at First Avenue and I don’t even remember whose idea it was actually. Somebody was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we record [those shows] and even video them, that would be fun?’ Everyone was like, sure and so we did that. At the time, it wasn’t like, let’s record it and make a live DVD, it was just let’s record it and see how it turns out. It ended up turning out pretty good so we did the full thing with the live record and the DVD. Had it not turned out, we probably might have used it for some youtube stuff or maybe used it as a promotional thing, but it ended up sounding pretty good.
Scene: Now that series of shows at First Avenue, were those celebrating the band’s 10-year anniversary?
RY: Yes, that’s right.
Scene: About the band’s history, with the new live album, that makes the band’s seventh release, but arguably it has been the last three that have been commercially successful. Do you have an opinion as to what may have been a turning point that led the band to commercial success? Some people claim that your music videos may be the key factor to this while others suggest your live show is more important. What are your thoughts?
RY: I don’t think it was any one thing. Definitely, there is no question that our youtube video of “Wait So Long” was very successful. In a small way that went sort of viral. People liked it and would put it on Facebook to show their friends and then those people would like it and pass it along to their friends — it ended up getting a whole bunch of hits. So that was a big part of it. That at least got our name out to people. Whether they became fans of us or not, maybe so or maybe not, but at least they had heard of Trampled By Turtles then.
And with the live show, the feedback I’ve gotten, this is where we make our hardcore fans. They come to a show and then they’re like ‘Okay, I get it.’ We have a wide range of tunes that I think helps us too. We have fast, loud, in-your-face songs and then we have mid-tempo ones, we have the slow, pretty ballads. I think it’s the fast ones that draw the people in initially, and then they come to hear the slower ones and whether the song is pretty or the lyrics are really good, they come to appreciate something about them.
Scene: Speaking about the band members here: all of you had a history prior to Trampled By Turtles of playing in more traditional rock ‘n’ roll type bands. What part, if any, has this early experience had on the success of Trampled By Turtles?
RY: I think it’s huge actually. I don’t think we’d be nearly the band we are if that wasn’t the case. We’ve never ever called ourselves a bluegrass band, other people do, and I understand why they do as that’s the closest thing — or the biggest umbrella you can put us under. In our minds, the way we approach it is not bluegrass, we don’t consider that at all, we just write the songs and play what we think sounds good rather than doing what somebody may have done in the past … or in recreating what’s already been done.
That’s the case, not just in bluegrass, but in all areas. We don’t even try to recreate our own heroes. We have our influences, sure, and you can hear Bob Dylan in our music and you can hear metal in our music. You can hear old-school country in our music and we’re definitely influenced by these things but we don’t try to copy any of it.
I think just having that background as opposed to having, say a bluegrass background where the members were hardcore bluegrass fans and therefore the music [they made] was traditional bluegrass — which is fantastic, I love traditional bluegrass — but that’s what comes out of them because that’s where the background is, where ours is so eclectic, that makes our music different.
Scene: Would you say that diverse background opens you up to a broader listening audience?
RY: Yeah, I’d say so.
Scene: I believe that last year, when you guys came in to town, the Meyer Theatre seats about 1,000 people and you guys sold roughly 900 seats…
RY: That sounds about right.
Scene: At this point, is there anything you’d like to mention to get those remaining 100 butts in the seat this time around?
RY: (Laughs) As a music listener and lover myself, the only way I’d go to a show of somebody that I wasn’t really familiar with would be by checking them out first and luckily we live in the future now and you can just go on the Internet and type in Trampled By Turtles and see what we sound like. I think I would suggest to people, if they really want to see if Trampled By Turtles is something they’ll be into, don’t just listen to one song, check out three or four, because our stuff is not all the same. We’ve got a wide variety of feels. Like I mentioned earlier, we’ve got fast and loud, and the slow, pretty ballads. Listen to a couple and see if there isn’t something that strikes your fancy and listen to the words. Dave Simonett is one of the best lyricists I’ve ever met. He’s incredible.
Scene: I understand Dave keeps the real meaning of his words to himself, even with the rest of the band; he leaves things ambiguous doesn’t he?
RY: I’ve never heard him explain a song ever, and people have actually asked him to and he’s like ‘Nope, I’m not going to.’ And I can agree with him on this as I write songs too, but not with Trampled By Turtles. It’s better if people listen to a song and have some sort of a connection to it, if they like it in any sort of way they might have a mental picture of what these words mean and if somebody was to be like ‘No, that isn’t what that is about, I was actually doing something stupid when I wrote that.” Then all of a sudden, it blows that image away and it was better before, when they could relate it to their own life.
Scene: That’s part of being an artist isn’t it? You create it, but in a way, it no longer belongs to you anymore. People internalize these things and they take some ownership of things themselves.
RY: Exactly. It means a different thing to every single person that listens to it. It’s awesome.
Scene: Ryan, is there anything at this point that you feel we should discuss that we haven’t, anything you’d like to mention?
RY: For people that would care, we just got done recording a new studio record and that’s likely to come out in August. The working title for it — this isn’t set in stone — is “Wild Animals.” That may change.
Scene: That’s great, can you give us any insight into what to expect with this album? I know that your last album (“Stars and Satellites”) had a more laid back and melodic feel than its predecessor, anything you can tell listeners about this release or will we have to wait and see in August?
RY: Well, this is the first album that we’ve worked with a producer on, so we got Alan Sparhawk from Low. He came in and produced it and we’ve never worked with a producer before so what that means is, he’d come in and listen to a song and say, ‘Hey, you know what this song should do?’ and he’d rearrange it or tell us to change what we were doing … he’d have little ideas and say ‘As a player, you know it would be better if you did this one little thing different, try that and see if it works.’ And nine times out of 10, it was a brilliant idea and made the song more complete and many times better.
For more information on Trampled By Turtles or to pick up a copy of “Live at First Avenue” visit the band’s website at trampledbyturtles.com.
Tickets for the March 20 performance are available by visiting meyertheatre.org or ticketstaronline.com.