Erik Berry of Trampled By Turtles on why they won't play songs off O Brother Where Art Thou?
Catch Trampled By Turtles this Saturday, June 22, at the Westword Music Showcase.
Trampled By Turtles, due at this weekend's Westword Music Showcase, was started in 2003 by a group friends from Duluth, Minnesota, who knew each other from playing in various bands. Liberated by the freedom and mobility of playing acoustic instruments, the players honed a sound that happened to benefit from a renewed interest in the timeless rustic sound pioneered by the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe and later championed by the Grateful Dead and later still by acts like the Yonder Mountain String Band.
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We recently spoke with mandolin player Erik Berry about what drew him to the violin, the nature of the band's famously natural rhythm without a drummer and how people still ask Trampled By Turtles if they can play something from the O Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack.
Westword: You started the band ten years ago. What older music were you discovering around that time?
Erik Berry: I think that was about the time that Dave Simonett had discovered Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers. Mine wasn't older music, so much as it was the Garcia/Grisman duet record, which is newer versions of older music. When I started playing mandolin, the only mandolin playing I had in my record collection was [David] Grisman's work on American Beauty. Through that, I got into Ricky Skaggs, so when I started listening to newer recordings of older songs, I hadn't started digging back yet. But that was the germ of it.
Did you ever get to see Charlie Louvin play?
No. We seemed to be following him on one of his last tours. We played a lot of the same venues; his posters were on the wall, and sound guys talked about him and stuff like that.
He was great. He played Twist and Shout Records in Denver in 2007 and then at the Bluebird.
When you got into that music and some of the other older music, like Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, what about that music appealed to you more than the rock music you were making at that time?
Well, the big appeal I didn't expect, and it's a very practical answer: When I would go to Dave Simonett's house to practice, all I had to bring was my mandolin. Previously, I had to lug in my bass amp, and then go back to the car and get my bass and my bag of stuff, and then I'd have to set it up. Suddenly, it was like, "Oh, I could walk to his house," because I could carry this thing twelve blocks. It was like, "Wow, that's cool! This is great!" Honestly, that's what we all liked about it.
For years, we had a backpack and our instruments, and we really tried to make that work. Nowadays, we have a whole trailer full of gear that has more stuff than any rock band I've ever been in. In the early days, it was really kind of how light and portable it was. And then, suddenly, we were still making music, and we could still even play actual rock songs. They didn't sound like the records, but we could do it and kind of rock out. I think that was the big appeal. Now the banjo player would probably say he didn't like carrying his banjo twelve blocks. That's because his banjo was heavy.
Then, like I said, I was listening to contemporary versions of classic bluegrass. I started playing mandolin in kind of a bluegrass-oriented band. Previously I had only played mandolin in a Pogues-ish band -- which was what we were shooting for. So I listened to a lot of Irish music, but in that band, I had an amp, and we had a drummer. This was the first band I had been in when there wasn't drums, and I didn't know what to listen to.
I went to the record store right around that time, and the person at the store steered me toward a Yonder Mountain [String Band] record and a Bill Monroe record. Kind of, "Here's how it started, and here's kind of what's happening now." I thought that was really good. I liked the Yonder stuff, and it did what it had to do for me, and I wasn't as much into the improvisational [aspect to it]. But Bill Monroe and those harmonies? Wow!
From there, I started digging deep into Bill Monroe and then the Stanley Brothers. Then it was sort of like, "Listen to this cool song. Listen to this cool song." The music itself was really able to do it for a long time. But then to add to it, Dave Simonett was writing, so we didn't feel like we weren't trying to be a museum piece. The harmonies weren't exactly traditional or the parts weren't exactly traditional, but so what? This song is one week old. My part is the traditional part for it.
All of those things were swirling around. We were coming from a kind of rock band background where someone writes a song and you try to come up with a part for it. Then you try to come up with a part that's a little bit different for the next song. Whereas in bluegrass, it sort of seems they're all interchangeable because the focus is the song. But for us, the equal focus was on the song and the parts we were playing. And we were learning on the job.
There's a bluegrass community in Duluth, but it's hard to break into. It's kind of close knit, and they get together for some pickin' parties. They're friendly, but if you come in and do something different, they let you know. I've been to one once or twice after Trampled started. I thought, "I know how to play these songs." But I found out that wasn't my scene. When you jam with someone, it's a special occasion because it doesn't happen that often. It's not a mainstream musical taste. Even now, that it has become quite a bit more popular, still, liking the old stuff is a little bit weird. Part of it is the fidelity of the records. It's like a club, and it's cool to be in a club, but when you're not in the club, it's hard to get in.
What drew you to mandolin?
I was a guitar player before I was a bass player. Bass was the instrument I was always playing in bands. It was like, "Hey, Berry, our bass player can't make our gig Friday night. Do you think you could learn our songs and fill in?" That was my introduction to being in bands, and I loved it. I was in jazz ensemble in high school, and I had taken classical guitar lessons. I had entered college as a Classical Guitar major, so I was in a really brainy guitar focus. Suddenly playing bass in a band on Friday night? Wow!
After college, those opportunities weren't as prevalent. I was actually working as the editor of a small town weekly newspaper. I got an English degree, and got a job working in Wisconsin. One of the things I was covering was the opening of a new antique store, and the guy had a 1940s mandolin on the wall.
I had this sort of flash of, "If I had that thing, I wouldn't be the seventh guy with a guitar around the campfire." I ask him how much he wanted for it. However much it was, he said, "If you pay me cash, I'll sell it to you for ninety bucks." It was one of the few times in my life when I was single and had some disposable income, and I said, "Sure!"
What I really liked about it is that I could play bass lines on it with a guitar player, but they were up higher. So it was kind of like another melody, but I was thinking about it like a bass line. And if there happened to be a bass line, it wouldn't interfere with what he or she was doing. What I missed about playing guitar was playing chords. So, suddenly, I felt like everything I liked about playing guitar and much of what I really liked about playing bass I could do on the mandolin, too, and nobody I knew played one. When I first started playing, I was teaching myself Bob Dylan songs, some Grateful Dead songs and some rock and roll. Irish music was the first traditional music form I tried to learn on the violin.
You toured with this band pretty early on?
The first time we played out of town was three months after our firs gig. It was in July of '03. I had moved up to Duluth from Decorah, Iowa -- where I went to Luther College. I worked at a bar when I moved back to Decorah after the newspaper job burned me out. So I had really strong connections for a show there; another guy had connections in Wisconsin. So we put together a four-day tour.
Our bass player, Tim [Saxhaug] had played in another band, and they went on a couple of tours. He was excited about how we got along a lot better in the car than his other band had. It's not just that easy to get in a car and drive hours to a gig and crash on a floor. I'd done that with other bands, and it wasn't as much fun as it is with this band.
We first went to Colorado a year later, and that was our first real haul. We didn't know anybody and we played to five people because they happened to wander in.
The very first place we ever played in Colorado was in the bar at the Mishawaka Amphitheater. We actually did know somebody there. A friend of mine was running an open mic there, and we got there a day early to check it out. We went there and played a few songs to literally three people and the staff. When we headlined there a couple of summers ago, it was a kind of triumphant, "Yes!" Then we played a brewery and went to Gunnison and played a brewery there, and then we wound it up Denver at Dulcinea's Hundredth Monkey.