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Trampled By Turtles: Crossover bluegrass finds a place in everyone’s heart

Monday 14th, July 2014 / 15:10
By Gareth Watkins

trampled_by_turtlesCALGARY — Let’s start by answering your first question: Trampled by Turtles got their name from a Discovery Channel documentary. There were turtles, they were trampling other aquatic fauna, so Trampled by Turtles. The five members of Trampled by Turtles, all from disparate parts of the Duluth, Minnesota music scene, have, in their 11-year history, become the latest good band with a bad name, joining such luminaries as The Beatles, Neutral Milk Hotel, Metallica and, providing that you’re into screamo, every screamo band ever.

Their sound is, broadly speaking, bluegrass, which their violinist Ryan Young defines as “acoustic music in the style of Bill Monroe,” a 20th-century mandolinist and arguably one of the key figures in American roots music. Bluegrass is distinguished from the rest of old-time country music by its reliance on strings — if you see good ol’ boys out on a porch with only guitars, banjos, bass and mandolins, then you’re probably seeing bluegrass in the making.

Trampled by Turtles’ own take on the genre is far removed from moonshine and poor dentistry. They cite Bob Dylan and Neil Young as influences and have been part of line-ups as different as the Newport Folk festival and Coachella. “When we play festivals that are a little bit of everything, we’re the token folk band,” says Young of their crossover sound, “and when we play bluegrass festivals, we’re the token weird band. We can play all sorts of festivals and have an interesting place in them.”

One concession to traditional bluegrass is their lack of percussion and that creates a mournful, elegiac sound that has drawn the attention of Low’s Alan Sparhawk, who produced their new album, Wild Animals. Sparhawk and his band are something of a Duluth institution that Young cites as a major influence on Trampled by Turtles’ sound. None of the band’s previous albums had a producer, so bringing one on board was an experiment for the band that paid off: “He was full of interesting and creative ideas and we took his suggestions seriously. We made a lot better record because he was there. I think that this is our best record yet.”

Sparhawk didn’t just man the mixing deck, he got the band to go outside of their comfort zones: “He was sitting right there with us and helping us come up with ideas. For instance, he’d tell the mandolin player that he should play only on beats two and four and it would end up sounding awesome.” The players were encouraged to use some, unique approaches to playing. Sparhawk told Young, the band’s fiddle player, “‘I want you to pretend that you’re not Ryan Young the fiddle player. I want you to be —’ and he made up some name, like Marcus Nelson the fiddle player. ‘Now, you’re Marcus Nelson the fiddle player.’” He also got the band doing more takes of each track. On previous albums, they recorded songs in two or three takes; for Wild Animals they played songs 20 or 25 times, always with Sparhawk’s input.

Despite partnering with one half of the couple that made “sad-core” a genre, the record has a mix of up and down numbers: “There are some songs that are bleak, but there are also some very hopeful songs. It’s not going to mean the same thing to everybody.”

Tramped by Turtles will be playing the Calgary Folk Fest, which has a bill so eclectic that they will almost feel like the token folk band, something that I’m sure will make them feel right at home.

Catch Trampled by Turtles as part of the Calgary Folk Fest on July 24th and as part of the Interstellar Rodeo (Edmonton) on July 25th.

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