Minnesota five-piece Trampled by Turtles has taken its indie-bluegrass sound to music festivals like Coachella, Stagecoach, Outside Lands, and Lollapalooza. With a career that began in 2004, bandleader, guitarist, and vocalist Dave Simonett has a lot to say about money in the music industry and the importance of spontaneity in performance. We spoke with him about that and more, ahead of the group's 4:10 p.m. set this Sunday on the Arrow Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
Considering that you use only acoustic instruments, you explore a lot of ground. How do you keep the music fresh to yourselves and your audience?
When we started this band, we wanted to play old-timey bluegrass music. But when it became our full-time pursuit, we all kind of decided together that it didn't have to have any rules. It doesn't have to be a folk song or a bluegrass song. All of us have backgrounds in rock music. [We'd say], how can you play this song with a drum kit? Take that away and try to do it with our band. That's been kind of limiting tonally, but also a nice challenge. It keeps it exciting for me to write — to come up with something that we haven't done before. It's a creative spur that's brought on by limitation.
What value do you think there is in stepping away from digital music and going all acoustic?
I'd like to say I find something kind of romantic about it, but I like it all. I have a rock band, I love recording on the computer, playing with synthesizers, all of that shit. There are stereotypical things people say about acoustic music, like it's more honest. But I don't think it's any more honest, it's just a matter of taste.
You're from Minnesota. What stands out about the music community in San Francisco?
I love that area. I love the whole state of California, actually. We've been wanting to do Hardly Strictly since we became a band. I think a lot of festivals in the folk-American world are kind of chalked-up. You find a bluegrass festival that's all four guys in suits. This one is such an eclectic mix of music. It's not what we think of as folk, like a guy with an acoustic guitar in the '20s. It's the actual, what's-happening-now folk music, which I think is really, really interesting.
What about the fact that Hardly Strictly is free? Does that change the experience?
When you don't have to shell out 50 bucks, people are just happier to be there. They're receiving something. When you buy a product, when you pay something, you have expectations and you want to feel like you've made a good purchase. When you go for free, everything is a gift. I might be in the minority as I really like the music business, as it allows for a lot of freedom and I've had a great time working in it. But there's definitely a perversion of your art when you have to start worrying about money. The more you take money out of that pursuit, the simpler and more beautiful it becomes.
What's your process for crafting a song?
I really don't have a method. It seems like the more I try to write, the less I actually write. My main way of going about it is just trying to remain open to whatever song might appear. Sometimes it's a narrative, sometimes it's a hypothetical situation, sometimes I have no idea what it's about until after it's done. Sometimes the music will come first, and sometimes the lyrics will come first. It's kind of exciting.
I know you took a different process with 2012's Stars and Satellites in terms of your studio time and where you did the recording.
We had five free days in a really busy touring time and wanted to lay down tracks for some new material, with or without the goal of making an album. I had a lot of half-finished songs or brand-new songs, most of which the band had never heard before. So we went in in a very casual way. Recording is one of my favorite things to do, but our band has always felt a little bit awkward in a formal recording environment. We went up to what was a vacation rental on the north shore of Lake Superior, this beautiful custom-built log home. We slept there and recorded all day just out in the woods. It was super comfortable and everyone felt really relaxed. We did it mostly live. It wasn't like recording that I'd done in the past — it really was like friends playing music together. Instead of trying to nail your part, you're kind of on the edge of, "Do I know the next chord?" When you get through it with that attitude, it can turn out really cool and sometimes you capture things you never would have done if you had been thinking about it.
Can you tell me about the name "Trampled by Turtles"?
It was just a joke. Literally, it was the first name that everyone didn't hate. It just kind of never went away, and it's been a kind of mixed bag, because it's a stupid name, and I'll be the first person to say that. But it's part of me now. If you're looking at a band you've never heard about, you'll be like, "What the fuck is that? It sounds like it'll be the weirdest jam band you've ever heard." But it's part of me now, and it's family to me now.