Being Trampled By Turtles

Mandolin maestro Erik Berry on success, hats, <br />and why standing is better than sitting

Ten years ago, a few dudes from Duluth ditched their bands, swapped rock for bluegrass, and came together under a name that was neither predictable nor logical: Trampled By Turtles. The quintet—Dave Simonett on guitar and lead vocals, Tim Saxhaug on bass, Dave Carroll on banjo, Erik Berry on mandolin, and Ryan Young on fiddle—has since redefined bluegrass, taking it to levels and tempos never before explored. This month, they embark on a statewide tour to celebrate their 10-year anniversary. We asked Erik Berry to look back.

Does it feel like it’s been 10 years?

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s rather unbelievable when I think of the 10 years previous to when we started—all the different bands I was in, moving around. I’ve been in Duluth 12 years now. It’s cool; I’m happy. But it’s a surprise that it’s been so stable.

Was there a point when you guys all looked at each other and realized you’d made it?

I don’t know what “making it” means—it sounds too goal-oriented. I see it as an ever-expanding upward spiral: you start playing your hometown club, you get a little bit bigger, travel outside Duluth, then outside Minnesota—every time that happens it expands your horizons.

Certainly the band has expanded its reach since 2003.

The whole growth of the band over 10 years has been natural and unforced. We’ve been fortunate that people have liked us, and that there haven’t been any horrid obstacles. Not that it’s been easy, but it’s been graceful. When the Duluth record came out [in 2008], someone used the word “traction” to describe our progress. I like that.

You’ve approached each album differently, making Duluth in a tiny northern Minnesota studio, Palomino in a warehouse, studios, hotel room, and basement. What’s the story behind last year’s Stars and Satellites?

The circumstances were a little tricky. The only time we could record was around when my baby girl was due to be born, in late August 2011. My condition was that I had to be able to go home every night. Our sound guy and a friend in real estate helped us find the cabin we ended up using. Actually, it was more like a luxury vacation home—that place has more square footage than my house! It was 12 miles from my place, had rooms for all the guys to stay in, plus a hot tub, sauna, and garage that had been converted into a bar.

Sounds tough.

We had friends up from Duluth all the time—it was like a super-fun working vacation, and I had new-dad high on top of it. All that can be felt in the record.

Obligatory reflection question: What was it like going on late-night TV for the first time?

The first one was Letterman. Someone else had cancelled, and we were touring when we got the call: “You’re gonna be on in five days.” We had to drive from North Carolina to New York. It was really intense. A lot of fun, but definitely not chill.

For years, you guys would sit to play. When did you start standing at gigs?

June 2010 at The Elbo Room in Crested Butte, Colorado—a tiny little bar. I used to know the exact day. We’d played there in January or February of that year, sitting, but because it’s so small, no one could see us except the six people in front. People were pissed. So the next time we played there, we decided to stand. I thought it was going to be a one-show deal, but it was so much more comfortable.

You can stretch out now. Bluegrass requires elbow room.

I used to get so cramped playing seated that by the end of most shows I couldn’t do the mandolin solo for “Wait So Long.” Standing up was so much more comfy—and fun. Three of us were instant converts, two were on the fence. Now we’re all fans.

What’s the story behind your cowboy hat? This ain’t Amarillo.

I got sunburned really badly the summer of 2009 doing yard work, so the next spring I decided I needed to get a big straw hat. I couldn’t find anything around here—the big hats they sell in Minnesota make you look like you’re going on some vacation to the tropics—and bought this one when we were playing Stagecoach in California. When you drop $90 on a hat, you’re not just gonna throw it around or leave it in the van for someone’s backpack to squish. But you also can’t wear a hat like that without making a statement. I decided to start wearing it all the time so it wasn’t just a prop.

What’s the grand plan for the next 10 years?

The grand plan is to keep doing this successfully and happily. Which I define as not having to find another job. If we can keep doing what we’re doing without having to get second jobs, I’d say that’s successful. 

Trampled by Turtles’ anniversary tour opens April 4 in Duluth and wraps up May 10 in Moorhead.

Ellen Burkhardt is an associate editor for Minnesota Monthly.