News Column

Minnesota's highwaymen: Six days on the road with Trampled by Turtles

August 24, 2014

By Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Aug. 24--Pre-show jitters? Not when there's a constantly replenished supply of beer and whiskey. Even the public-radio brunch in Louisville, Ky., was sponsored by a bourbon company.

Not when there's an experienced five-man crew that stays on top of the six musicians' every move -- from the puddle-soaked stage lighting in Black Mountain, N.C., to the wham-bam turnaround in Rochester, N.Y., when a calamity halfway around the world made them hours late.

Not when there are far worse gigs to remember. As with any band that has spent nearly a decade working its way up the venue ladder only to get to the break-even rung a few years in, there's a war story in nearly every city. Like one of the members' Odysseus-like adventure trying to score pot for the band in Washington, D.C. Or the time in Philadelphia when the promoter paid them with a carton of cigarettes.

"And that's still not our lowest-paying gig ever," the band claims.

Most Minnesotans like to spend their summers outdoors, close to home. Minnesota musicians, however, do the opposite. With the summer festival circuit calling, they hit the road -- only to spend most of their time cooped up in a bus, van, backstage trailer or greenroom.

Trampled by Turtles, the Minnesota band with the busiest schedule outside Minnesota these days, hit the East Coast last month for the release of its seventh album, "Wild Animals." The summer foray culminates back home with Festival Palomino, the band's own daylong bash Sept. 20 at Canterbury Park in Shakopee.

It gets easier, but it's still not easy. Standing behind the giant stage at Louisville's Forecastle Festival with 10,000 fans getting restless on the other side, the band's sandy-haired, blue-eyed frontman, Dave Simonett, quietly conceded between his last pre-show cigarette drags that he still sometimes feels rattled by the rush. "You just learn to kind of dive in," he said.

Dive in we did. Starting the morning after a "Late Show With David Letterman" appearance, Trampled took us along for six days of myriad promotional gigs, a headlining set in hard-core bluegrass territory and a finale at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Ky., where Minnesota's elder road legends the Replacements also played.

Hardly the salacious, sordid, soggy adventure that a Replacements tour would have been 30 years ago -- although these guys are no choirboys -- a Trampled by Turtles tour nonetheless proved disorienting and crazed in a whole other way.

The insanity comes simply from the ping-pongy schedule, hitting two cities in one day and waking up in a third city whose name you've forgotten. It comes from days dictated by the bus driver's legally stipulated sleep schedule, and such sign-of-the-times music industry to-dos as a Reddit Q&A and Billboard's newly invented Twitter chart.

It was easy to see why many bands wind up hating the rigmarole, and one another. It was also easy to see why this particular band thrives on the road.

--?--?--

"We own our own record label. We fund everything ourselves through touring. We get a little bit through record sales, because those have gotten better for us over the years, but it's 2014. We don't have a lot of money coming in on the record side."

Dave Simonett, singer/guitarist

NYC > WASHINGTON, D.C. > NYC

Wednesday, July 16

Gigs: NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert," Reddit Q&A

Everyone was still smiling over how the fiddle player got his back scratched by Letterman on national TV the night before.

"Let me get that for you," the late-night host said as the burly, thickly bearded Ryan Young reached to relieve an itch at song's end. Banjo player Dave Carroll later quipped, "He's never going to wash his back again."

While the rest of the band hit a Chelsea watering hole to watch themselves on TV after the late-afternoon taping, the singer went back to their rented bus to crash.

"All the nerves and anticipation of playing that one song build up all day, and then suddenly it's over," Simonett explained. "I felt completely drained."

Not even a big New York TV taping alters the bus' usual 2 a.m. roll time. As on most nights, the band members and crew spent the overnight drive to Washington, D.C., sleeping in their bunks, piled three high and six per side. A sardine-can comparison works, especially when the smell builds after a couple weeks out.

While their bus driver slept in D.C., the band somehow wound up in a garish limo minibus with black tinted windows and a leather wraparound couch. "There's even a hole to put a stripper pole," bassist Tim Saxhaug cheerily noted as they pulled up to National Public Radio's regal new headquarters near the U.S. Capitol.

What at first looked like a MÖtley CrÜe entourage turned into a Boundary Waters portage once the band members started unloading gear in their North Woods attire.

Among the odder gigs that bands play circa 2014 is the virally popular "Tiny Desk Concert," taped for NPR.org. The concerts actually do take place at a desk, which belongs to "All Songs Considered" host Bob Boilen, who got turned on to Trampled by Turtles three years ago at the South by Southwest Music Conference.

Boilen pointed out the restrooms, and Saxhaug instantly ran there. "The smallest bladder in bluegrass," Young mused.

Mandolinist Erik Berry checked his phone for reports from home. "I'm missing my son's last baseball game of the season," he said all too matter-of-factly.

The band's knowledgeable, T-shirt-clad co-manager from New York, Geoff Harrison, 36, traveled with them but stayed well-connected to the office. Yesterday was record-release day, after all. He excitedly reported that Trampled ranked in the top five on Billboard's Real-Time Twitter Chart (for tweets about a band or its album).

Harrison more convincingly emphasized the enormousness of the "Tiny Desk Concert": "These things get half a million page views."

About 50 people crowded in to watch Trampled's set, including NPR's brand-new CEO, Jarl Mohn. After only a few minutes to set up -- this is one gig definitely performed unplugged -- the band tore through three songs from the new album. Boilen asked if they wanted to hang out.

"You got any beer?" Simonett asked.

Nope, but NPR's new palace does have one heck of a salad bar. As if following a when-in-Rome dictum, the musicians all lined up and piled on the greens there -- the only green they would receive for the gig.

"We eat like this every day on tour," the band's woolly-smiled banjo player claimed. It would not be his last fib of the day.

While their van was tied up in D.C. traffic, the band started the Q&A with fans via the social-network website Reddit, with the fiddler typing on his phone.

Among the A's and Q's, the favorite response seemed to be, "Like toilet water splashing on your butt." The question: "What's it like listening to your earliest albums?"

While there's truth in that reply, the band didn't take most of the questions seriously. "Somebody asked who my favorite banjo player is, and I said me," Carroll said. "That's just a baldfaced lie."

--?--?--

"I crave it. I could be on the road most of the year. I'm excited and get into the swing of things right away. I've joked about putting a roof and walls around my bed at home to make it more like sleeping in a bunk."

Tim Saxhaug, bassist

NYC > ROCHESTER, N.Y.

Thursday, July 17

Gigs: "CBS This Morning," Rochester's Party in the Park

"Are you guys actually still a Duluth band, or have you all moved to Brooklyn?"

CBS news anchor Anthony Mason was doing his part to kill time with the band. An hour earlier, their sound check was just ending when TV monitors around the room started showing footage of an airplane crash in Ukraine.

The day started out unusually relaxed for band members waking up in $300-a-night mini-rooms at a Manhattan Holiday Inn. Nobody even tensed up when word came that the fiddle player had just gotten in the shower two minutes before the CBS van arrived.

As the van rolled up Avenue of the Americas, talk turned to the Q&A session from the night before (the "toilet water" line earned traction on Twitter) and the odd nature of TV royalty payments (the mandolinist recently received an $11 tax refund from California).

The band quickly learned about the odd world of TV newsrooms. As the Ukraine tragedy took flight on air, staffers one by one disappeared to the main news studio.

Tour manager Mike "D" Tholen clutched his phone tightly, checking the time and logistics of their next gig.

They had a 51/2-hour drive to Rochester. The bus and crew had left that morning with most of the gear. The band was in danger of missing its set time.

As he often does when things get tense, the banjo player cut the air with a joke. Under a photo of the Dalai Lama that was taken on the same set, he asked, "You mean the morning-show greenroom doesn't have a coke bowl?!"

Finally, with images of missile launchers and President Obama showing on the screen, the band was given a throat-cutting signal by a CBS staffer. The gig was off.

Apologies were exchanged. So were sandwiches. Many sandwiches, in fact. Realizing that they wouldn't have time to stop for a bite, the band shoveled the finger foods off the greenroom catering cart into their bags. Once again, food would be the only form of payment.

They made it to Rochester with a half-hour to spare.

--?--?--

"Traveling in a bus is a luxury. It gets cramped in here for sure. If everybody is up, there's not really 12 places for people to sit. Somebody has to go lie down. But that's nothing to complain about. Having this crew has made our lives so much easier."

Ryan Young, fiddler

PHILADELPHIA > BALTIMORE

Friday, July 18

Gigs: WXPN "Free at Noon" broadcast, Sound Garden in-store

A seasoned road hound who did many tours of duty with Steve Earle and once got to punch Ryan Adams in the face (at the singer's request, no less), Trampled sound technician Matt Svobodny looked even happier than the band did about being at WXPN's renowned World Cafe Live.

Part nightclub and part radio studio, the NPR affiliate's three-tiered, 300-capacity venue rivals any small theater. "It's always a treat here," the Minneapolis roadie said before the band's performance, broadcast live on air and over the Internet.

As screwdrivers from the bar and Duluth gossip circulated in the dressing room, singer Simonett stepped out for a smoke. He shrugged off the prior day's mad dash, citing the day's real tragedy as well as a more tumultuous moment from the band's tour annals.

Headed to Montana in the late-'00s, they got stuck in Wall, S.D., for two nights due to heavy snow. They finally dug out their van, only to find it wouldn't start. One very crammed tow-truck ride to Rapid City and eight hours of sketchy driving later, they pulled up to their gig in Bozeman, Mont., to find fellow Minnesota openers Lucy Michelle & the Velvet Lapelles playing their set a second time, stalling.

"It's hard to complain about anything that goes on these days," Simonett said, fondly adding, "That's when we got to know Eamonn, too." (Cellist Eamonn McLain, the band's newest member, also plays with Michelle.)

During the band's six-song set, Simonett told their Philadelphia story about getting paid in cigarettes. "It's nice to see it evolve into all of you," he said to the crowded room.

As fast as the setup in Rochester, they tore down the stage and tore off to Baltimore. In a rare daytime bus ride across three states to make another unpaid gig, some of the guys slept. Most hit their phones for e-mails, texts or games. The mandolinist tried the bus' Apple TV to watch "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," but the streaming video proved to be a trickle.

"It took me 21/2 hours to watch an hour-and-a-half movie," said Berry, Trampled's resident chicken farmer.

In Baltimore, the guys did as much listening as they did talking.

"I saw you at [Del McCoury's] DelFest and was blown away."

"I've listened to you guys every day for at least the past year."

"You guys changed my life."

The band was treated to comments such as these as they autographed copies of "Wild Animals" at the Sound Garden, an uncommonly large record store in an unusually nice part of Baltimore.

No wonder bands still do record-store appearances even though they rarely make money on records. The store was already filling up with fans when the band pulled up to perform another six-song set on a Murphy-bed-like stage that folds out of the wall.

As at every gig that week, numerous fans from back home popped up in Baltimore. One even brought an old sampler CD, "Mayor's Mix: Duluth Homegrown Music," with a picture of the city's hip young mayor, Don Ness. Trampled's banjo player grinned as he reached for his phone to text Ness:

"I just signed your face."

--?--?--

"We limit the lengths of our tours so everyone gets to go home and see their wives and family. That would be the hardest thing about touring now. Before, the hardest thing was playing a show till midnight and then packing everything up ourselves, loading into a van and driving halfway across the country to get to the next gig."

Dave Carroll, banjo player

BLACK MOUNTAIN, N.C.

Saturday, July 19

Gig: Pisgah Brewing Co.

With the Appalachian Mountains outside Asheville shrouded in fog and misty rain as the band wrapped its pre-show sound check, Trampled's mandolin player opened up about his darkest days in the band. Berry was 30 and had to hit up his parents for money.

"The band was $15,000 in debt, and I had my first kid on the way."

Having kids -- a boy and girl, just like the band's frontman -- was a whole other challenge. Nowadays, though, Berry figures he gets in more "dad time" than he would working a 9-to-5 job with a half-hour commute. He even invented a game with the kitchen clock to underscore this to his son.

Still, the time away doesn't get easier. "It's hard talking to them [by phone] because it'll be loud here or they'll be in the middle of something there."

Three weeks is the most that Trampled stays gone now. They rent their tour bus in spurts and fly in and out of cities to maximize their time away. This method does not minimize expenses, though.

Having a five-man crew doesn't come cheap, either. Theirs is a seasoned, middle-aged crew, too, not young metalhead dudes found through the local Guitar Center.

Jon Carter came aboard this year to oversee monitors and other stage matters after working for They Might Be Giants. Guitar tech Dave Feirn last toured with Brandi Carlile and has crazy road tales from his old band the Janis Figure.

The senior member is production manager and lighting guru Scott Stranberg, a former First Avenue staffer who has worked with everyone from MotÖrhead to Weezer. (His Rivers Cuomo stories rival Svobodny's Ryan Adams tales.) A slender, high-wired guy, Stranberg walked onto the bus in a bit of a huff after sound check.

"They're a little inexperienced here," he said, admitting, "I'm the guy who doesn't worry about being popular with the promoter or local production staff."

This was the first sold-out show at ­Pisgah Brewing's year-old mini-amphitheater, so the brewery treated the band members to bottles of Sold-Out Ale, made just for them.

Just as impressive was the age range of the fans, with high school and college kids singing side by side with older bluegrass lovers. With 2,200 tickets sold at $25 apiece, the gig would gross more than $50,000.

Trampled's experienced crew certainly earned its take-home that night.

When Berry broke a string just a minute into the hard-plucking song "Walt Whitman," Feirn had another mandolin in his hands in time for the mid-song jam. When half the stage lights went dark five songs into the set, Stranberg recognized the problem: The connector cords were "lying in the middle of a North Carolina rain puddle."

Not to mention, the crew also had to put up with the banjo player's good mood. With the house lights dimmed and the crowd cheering for the band to take the stage, Carroll grabbed tour manager Tholen's walkie-talkie and feigned panic.

"Hey, Scott. I just kicked over all your lights and farted on all the amps. What should I do?"

"I love you, Davey," was the dry response.

Tholen is the crew member who faces the most grief and logistical curveballs and somehow remains the most even-keeled.

Tall and curly-headed, with a deep, Seth Rogen-like laugh, he has been enjoying Carroll's banter since they were college roommates in Duluth. The travel agent, scheduling guru, baby sitter and seemingly best friend of everyone in the band, he is also the guy who sees to it they get paid at the end of the night (by check; the days of cash and/or cigarette payoffs are long ago).

As car lights streamed from the parking lot a half-hour after show's end, two band members hung out backstage drinking their Sold-Out Ale and talking shop with Scottish opening band the Dirty Beggars. A couple others chatted it up with a trio of pretty young women who -- coincidentally or not -- had found two of the three guys in the band without rings on their fingers.

"You ready?" the show's promoter asked Tholen, ushering him into a trailer. That was the one and only part of the tour the band didn't want to see reflected in print. But Tholen did share one fine detail: Merch sales that night were particularly good. "About $4 a head," he said. Translation: $8,800.

The crew kept earning its keep. The tour bus and trailer couldn't back down to the stage and risk getting stuck in the mud, so a smaller truck was rounded up to shuttle the gear. "Twice the fun," Svobodny cracked.

--?--?--

"From the very first time we got in a car together, nobody played music that everybody else hated. Nobody ate something that drove somebody else up the wall. That's why the band I was in when I was 20 years old never drove to Colorado, because we would've killed each other. We've been very lucky from the very early days, it's been kind of effortless."

Erik Berry, mandolinist

LOUISVILLE, KY.

Sunday, July 20

Gigs: WFPK "Bourbon Brunch," Forecastle Festival

"One of the best rock 'n' roll shows I've ever seen in my life."

Trampled's frontman wasn't the only one gushing after seeing the Replacements. "Not a bad way of turning 40," said the band's elder statesman, Berry, who was nonchalant about spending his birthday on the road. He turned 30 the day the band played its first gig outside the Central time zone, and has worked most birthdays since.

Held in a riverfront park, Forecastle drew about 25,000 people for its final day -- many of whom showed up for Trampled's late-afternoon set.

The band was resoundingly happy with the large turnout and rowdy response. "You're making it too hot out here," one fan yelled after the barnburner instrumental "Sounds Like a Movie." Even better, the crowd listened to quieter new songs such as "Winners."

In fact, the band seemed chipper all day. A noontime radio broadcast, sponsored by Four Roses bourbon, came with obvious benefits. More local distillery product, Ole Smokey Moonshine, was supplied backstage at Forecastle -- far tastier than the authentic Kentucky moonshine that marred a Lexington gig years earlier, immortalized in the Trampled song "Feet and Bones" ("Those boys from Harlan came, and they don't mess around.")

Most of the drinking waited until after set time, though. And then it came on like one of Young's fiddle solos: woozy and loud, yet graceful and beautiful.

"It's a nice last hurrah for them on this trip, which was a little extra chaotic for them," Tholen explained/warned earlier. The band would fly home the next day for a three-day respite before continuing the summer marathon at such famed venues as the Newport Folk Festival and Denver's sold-out Red Rocks Amphitheater.

With an early-morning flight to get home to the family, the birthday boy left the party early. The rest of the members wouldn't fly out till midday, so they rolled on to see Forecastle headliner Beck finish it off.

The band loves festivals, and not just because they're among the biggest paydays of the year. "We all got into this because we love music," Simonett said. "A lot has changed, but not that."

They greeted Beck's song "Golden Age" with open beers, a big singalong and even a few air-guitar chords. If it weren't for the other fans cutting in to rave about their show, you wouldn't know this bunch from any other set of close friends in the crowd looking for a good time.

Chris Riemenschneider -- 612-673-4658

___

(c)2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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