If ever a band could rip your heart out, have you stomp on it, and keep you enthralled with the entire experience, Trampled By Turtles is that band. The five-piece’s brand of bluegrass combines piercing lyricism with musicianship that soars, and when the time is right, they’ll have you doing the jig—even if you didn’t know you had it in you. Mandolin player Erik Berry took a break out of the band’s recent schedule that’s included stops at Letterman and Bonnaroo to do the unthinkable—field a morning interview.
IN: Trampled by Turtles was initially a side project from the members’ electric rock bands, correct?
BERRY: Our lead singer Dave Simonett’s band had broken up and at that last gig, all his electric gear was stolen. We weren’t technically a side project, but we weren’t what he was thinking he was going to focus on. It was out of necessity for Dave. He knew it had to be acoustic.
IN: Walk us through the songwriting process for the band.
BERRY: If they have words, they’re Dave Simonett tunes. Almost 100 percent. Dave gets the tunes to a point that I call “coffeehouse ready” where he can play an acoustic version by himself. He doesn’t have to look at the lyrics. He doesn’t have to remind himself how the chords go. He really has the songs learned by the time he starts playing it for us. Then we come up with stuff to play on it. The vast majority of the time we’re given free rein to come up with what we want. We also have instrumentals that are written by me or Dave Carroll, our banjo player. It’s more or less the same process, but instead of it being Simonett getting it ready to go, it’s the mandolin or banjo taking the lead.
IN: The lyrics throughout the latest album seem extremely personal at times. What’s it like performing songs that come from such a vulnerable spot in another person?
BERRY: How emotional or personal a particular tune can be changes with repetition. The first time he writes it or plays it for us, it might be difficult for him. He might have to really dig into it, but after we’ve played it 50 or 60 times, it’s not quite like that anymore. There’s a little more performance going on. I don’t want to diminish from his feelings about what he’s writing about, but it’s not as emotional of an experience. Having said that, I’ve been surprised how the recent audiences have allowed us to get into a quiet space where those songs can really present their full power. These are real songs about real things. That’s important.
IN: The upper Midwest has a deep history of folksy, introspective music by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bon Iver. Is there something about the area that lends itself to that type of music?
BERRY: The winters do. In Northern Minnesota in Duluth, the snow can last from October to April. It can be really cold for a long time. When I first moved here, I told a friend of mine I was nervous about the winters. She told me that I’ve experienced weather this cold, just not how long it’s going to last. During winters that long, if you’re an artist, you hole up and practice your craft. There’s not much else to do. One thing that’s really beautiful about this part of the world is there’s a lot of artists who aren’t musicians. Potters, metal workers, painters, and that sort of thing. A lot of people are always working on something.
IN: Have you noticed a resurgence in acoustic music in the last couple years?
BERRY: The first time I ever played mandolin in public was after I had only been playing a couple months, and I wasn’t very good. I had my mandolin and a friend of mine had a banjo. He wasn’t very good at the time, either. We pulled out our instruments at a party and played a song that was basically G and C, with no words, and we weren’t grabbing the chords as clean as we could. There’s no doubt in my mind that had we been two guys with guitars, we would have been told to stop. Instead, everyone was transfixed. I’m certain it was the first time the people at that party had ever seen anyone play mandolin and banjo in person. That was in Moorhead, Minn. Now there are several wonderful string bands from there. So there’s definitely a change. Why it’s come about I’m not sure.
IN: Talk about the contrast between being in the studio and on stage putting on a show. From everything I’ve read and heard, you guys get pretty rowdy.
BERRY: There’s definitely an energy exchange between the audience and us. It’s impossible for me to play the mandolin the same way I do on stage as I do in the studio. It can make shopping for a new mandolin extremely difficult. I’ll be in a store beating on one of the instruments as hard as I can and I still know it’s not nearly as fast and as heavy as it’s going to be on stage. Trying to replicate that energy is a lost cause.
Photo: Trampled By Turtles Official