On Trampled by Turtles' Latest Albums, New Dynamics Emerge After Brief Hiatus

The innovative bluegrass band returns to Cleveland on Jan. 30

click to enlarge On Trampled by Turtles' Latest Albums, New Dynamics Emerge After Brief Hiatus
Dave McLister

Tim Saxhaug was sick, and yet it was time for his band, Trampled by Turtles, to hit Pachyderm Recording Studio in Cannon Falls, Minn., and assemble an EP comprising five carefully selected cover tunes. The bass player was pulling double duty as vocalist on two of those songs, and his voice was nearly shot. Cellist Eamonn McLain picked up some of the backing vocal work on most of the songs, but Saxhaug still needed to cut his lead vocal tracks.

They recorded The Faces' “Ooh La La” first, but by the time they got to Warren Zevon's mournful “Keep Me in Your Heart,” Saxhaug had just two or three takes to nail it. In the recorded version, on the cheekily titled Sigourney Fever, you can hear the scratchy rasp in his voice, something that actually adds another layer of charm to the song. Nonetheless, there are just certain things you can't predict when you're planning to make an album.

“The secret is just making it feel natural for yourself,” he tells Scene. “I don't think you have to worry about whether anybody else is going to hear it that way.”

Some of these songs had been played now and then over the years, giving them each a comfortable, lived-in feel from the studio. Saxhaug had brought a number of covers to the Turtles over the years, and he was looking for something sparse to prepare for the band's July 6, 2019, hometown show in Duluth. It was a choice between “Keep Me in Your Heart” and “Don't Let Us Get Sick,” off Zevon's Life'll Kill Ya. As each musician began contributing their voices to “Keep Me in Your Heart,” the song took on fresh life as a Turtles composition, something that the fans up in Duluth really got into and something that fit nicely alongside stuff like Radiohead's “Fake Plastic Trees” and Iris Dement's “Our Town.”

“Since the beginning, like a lot of bands, you fill out your time with a lot of covers and things like that,” Saxhaug says. “Even since we've built up our original music catalogue, usually at shows there's one cover in there. We've built up a number of them over the years and always toyed with the idea of maybe throwing one on an album here and there, but it's just never felt appropriate.”

With that EP in the books now, Saxhaug and McLain are joined by the rest of the Turtles for this winter tour—Dave Simonett (guitar and vocals), Dave Carroll (banjo), Erik Berry (mandolin) and Ryan Young (fiddle). You can find them onstage at House of Blues on Thursday, Jan. 30.

Sigourney Fever follows 2018's full-length, Life Is Good on the Open Road, a finely wrought and well-rounded album that sees the band toying with more contemplative dynamics on their songwriting. Like other records, this one was similarly recorded in the quiet confines of Pachyderm Recording Studio, something of a second home for a band that's been actively writing its own story for more than 15 years together.

“Isolation works really well for us,” Saxhaug says. At Pachyderm, the band holes up in the studio for a time, leaving only to pick up groceries in town. It's precious now, too, in a way that may not have been as evident to younger incarnations of the band. After a yearlong hiatus in 2016-2017, the band regrouped at Carroll's cabin in Grand Rapids, Minn., hanging out and tossing around some ideas for songs that would eventually land on Life Is Good. It was there, in the cabin, dusting off the absence felt among the musicians, that they realized anew the importance of the underlying friendship in this band.

click to enlarge On Trampled by Turtles' Latest Albums, New Dynamics Emerge After Brief Hiatus
Kimberly Mock
As the musicians gathered at Carroll's cabin in October 2017, they were each hit with the unfortunate news of Tom Petty's death. Together, they listened to his records and jammed out some early sketches of new Turtles songs. Consciously or not, the Petty influence is certainly woven throughout the material on Life Is Good on the Open Road.

And where the guys might have spent much more of their early days in that sort of setting, gathered closely in tight quarters, sharing music and digging deep into their collective sources of musical inspiration, well, they're older now. Time is now slipping by at a different pace. Creative curiosities have led to several successful side projects. The point is it's become less common to have those moments of clarion camaraderie. Hitting their longtime haunt at Pachyderm is vital.

“I think it's a good thing,” Saxhaug says of their recording sessions. “Most of the time we spend together is basically just the studio and the road at this point. So, when we're all off living separate lives, it's nice for the recording process to have us all living together. I think it helps really reestablish that connection.”

On the band's 2014 album, Wild Animals, they brought in Alan Sparhawk, founding member of fellow Duluth indie band Low, to help produce their latest work. With his experience at the helm of a patient, deliberate, endlessly moody band, Sparhawk nudged the Turtles into slower territory. For a band whose bluegrass chops were built on fast-paced rippers and complex walls of sound, this was something new. This was something exciting.

The move toward gentler pastures also coincided with the musicians' other creative outlets, lending them space to explore new sounds that hadn't appeared in full on past records. When the band was recording “I'm Not There Anymore,” there were takes when Saxhaug found himself so lulled by Simonett's rich vocal work that he missed his cue on bass and had to redo it.

“We're not playing trying to force blazing speed all the time now, which is frankly something I was growing tired of,” Saxhaug says. “From my viewpoint in the band, I'm the one that kind of has to do the exact same thing every time. That bluegrass-country one-and-three thing is what you have to do. So, for instance, 'The Middle,' you know, a song like that is really fun for me.”

With fiddle and cello driving much of the energy in “The Middle,” Saxhaug finds space to develop interesting bass lines. Still, the music on this last record isn't a far cry from the band's 2010 single, “Wait So Long,” a banjo-led barnburner that held a Top-10 Billboard spot for 52 weeks. The tempo is mind-bending and thrilling, certainly, but here, in this new landscape the Turtles have painted for themselves, there's room enough for all sorts of ideas to flourish.

“Maybe that's one way we are different now — trying to use a little bit of silence instead of having to bombast it with sonic energy constantly,” Saxhaug says. “It kind of feels like nobody really has anything to prove right now. Especially with the last album, I feel like the attitude of just serving the song is a little more of a priority now, rather than standing out as individual musicians.”

Trampled by Turtles
with Them Coulee Boys
8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 30, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $29.50-$49.50, houseofblues.com.