Trampled By Turtles just want to rock a banjo without being called a bluegrass band. Is that so wrong?
Trampled By Turtles has all the makings of a bluegrass band. Fiddle: check. Mandolin: check. Banjo: check. Hellfire pace: check. But they’re not a bluegrass band. Ryan Young, the band’s fiddler, says he understands why they get mistaken for one, considering the instrumentation and tempo, but that Trampled By Turtles is more like a rock band that plays acoustic instruments.
“Our music is definitely influenced by bluegrass,” he says, “but if you want to be all technical about it—and usually bluegrass people are very technical about it—then it’s kind of obvious that we’re not a bluegrass band.”
When it came time to choose a name, the members purposely stayed away from anything that had the word “river” or “mountain” or “boys” in it.
“It couldn’t be something like, the Blue River Mountain Boys,” says Young with a laugh. “That was the only thing that was just off limits.”
Regardless of what you call the band, or their music—and there’s really not a good description of what these guys play—Trampled By Turtles has gone from being a local act in their native Duluth, Minnesota, to being American roots music darlings, raking in fans from young country punks to old-time roots fans. They cross age and demographic lines as easily as they blur genres, and they do it without a shred of pretentiousness.
The down-home feel of the music also seems to run through the band, which has been together for 12 years, with no turnover—no one quitting, no breakups, and relatively little drama. Young attributes this to the fact that everyone is “just real mature” and that they’re all aware that the Trampled By Turtles sound, which ranges from fast and furious to slow and spacious, depends on all the members being there.
“There’s a way that we automatically play with each other, without talking about it or without thinking about it,” Young says. “People complement each other’s playing rather than getting in the way of each other’s playing, and we do it in such a way that sounds like us.” He adds, “If one of us was swapped out, it would sound not like us.”
Perhaps the members’ closeness comes with being from Duluth—not exactly the first place that comes to mind as a roots music hotbed. But Young explains that while Duluth may be overlooked, it’s a city rich with creative and artistic talent of all kinds, including music.
“Considering how small the town is, the size of the music scene is incredible,” says Young, explaining that there are “hundreds and hundreds of bands.” He adds, “There are plenty of towns [the size of Duluth] where there is a nonexistent music scene.”
Within that music scene, Trampled By Turtles is a standout band, along with the indie minimalist band Low, whose frontman Alan Sparhawk was tapped by Trampled By Turtles to produce their most recent album, 2014’s Wild Animals. What emerged from the collaboration is the latest example of a slow but steady change the band has been making—away from insanely fast tunes that require musicians and listeners to hang on for dear life—to slower, more orchestrated numbers rich with layers and instrumentation. Where everyone used to play everything all the time, Trampled By Turtles now puts more focus on composing parts for each instrument.
“From my perspective, we’re kind of just doing the same old thing we’ve always done,” he says, explaining that the biggest difference in the sound is that the band is using overdubs in the studio to fill out the sound a bit. “It’s not a thing where we sit down and say, ‘Let’s play slower songs. It’s just worked out that way.”
Trampled By Turtles will perform at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 29 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $20/adv, $25/door. 423-1338.