Erik Berry from Trampled By Turtles – Interview

Minnesota locals Trampled By Turtles have been turning heads inside and out of their hometown as their critically acclaimed album Stars and Satellites climbs up the Billboard charts to #32. Not only is this bluegrass band (or should I say “rock-influenced-string-band-that-plays-music-through-amps”) breaking through in the popular arena, but they have also found their way to thousands of fans at this year’s Sasquatch Music Festival.  I had the opportunity to speak with Erik at the festival and this is how it went down.

On How They Came to Be

Vancouver Weekly: It is quite a different experience to watch you guys perform live…How long have you been playing together?

Erik Berry: About nine years. April of 2003 was our first show.

Vancouver Weekly: How did that come about?

Erik Berry: Pretty gracefully. We were living in Duluth, Minnesota. I was playing in a band…Dave Simonett was playing in a band…Tim Saxhaug was playing in a band. Our bands did shows together.  We kind of knew each other from that and Dave wanted to get an acoustic thing going.  He started playing acoustic shows and he played a solo acoustic set opening for my bands last show in Duluth during which I invited myself to play mandolin with him and I think that he felt he couldn’t say no. Cause I was a bass player…I was known as a bass player. I didn’t play mandolin.

Vancouver Weekly: Were you playing bass in the same style as TBT?

Erik Berry: Oh…I was playing rock n roll with a pick (dut dut dut dut).  My favorite bass players are like Darcy from the Smashing Pumpkins and Sid Vicious from the Pistols.  I like aggressive hard rock bass but I came up and played the 1 2 and he was like ‘that was pretty good. Why don’t you play a few more with me’.  He called me a few days later and said, “I got another show.  Would you like to play it with me?” and we started duo shows.

And doing one of those [shows], our banjo player saw us, had a few pints of liquid courage, which is spelled B-E-E-R… (did I put to many Es in that?) And ah…he came up and gave us his number and said that he was hearing banjo parts in his head.  I’d love to try playing with you [he said]. We got his number and he walked away and we were like ‘Man, I’d love to have him…that’d be fun…I hope it works…’

Right off the bat it was such a cool vibe. And Dave and Timmy had done a little bit of work together. So he was kind of a natural to call. Ryan the fiddle player – he actually didn’t join us until we’d been a band for 4 or 5 years.  He came on board in ‘07. But you know we just started playing.  It wasn’t meant to be anything. 

Bluegrass or Not?

Vancouver Weekly: Was it originals in the beginning or was it mostly standards?

Erik Berry: There was some…there was a lot of standards.

Vancouver Weekly: Was it like a bluegrass thing in the beginning?

Erik Berry: We were calling it that.

Vancouver Weekly: Cause it’s not really that now?

Erik Berry: It’s not really that now. It never really was a lot like that – but Dave had this book called the Bluegrass Parkinglot Pickers Fakebook or something like that. It had lyrics and chord changes and we had a few records but when we first started playing, I’d never heard someone like Bill Munroe and the Stanley Brothers before.  I got into it kinda right away. I was like hey, I’m playing in this band ‘there’s no drums’.

I play mandolin…what should I listen to?  And the guy at the record store is like, “You should listen to Bill Munroe.”

Vancouver Weekly: ‘and that’s what I’m gonna do’

Erik Berry: That’s what I’m gonna do.

Vancouver Weekly: So that’s what you recommend?

Erik Berry: Listen to BILL MUNROE. But we were also listening to Hank Williams Sr. and taking just as much influence from some of that other 40s and 50s country music that also doesn’t have drums…but its not bluegrass music at all.

Vancouver Weekly: You guys sound like a drum kit.  I was looking at each of you playing up on that stage and it’s like you’re just one piece of the kit. One guy adds to the hi-hat part and the other ads to the kick. 

Erik Berry: It’s very percussive.  We’ve done some experimental work with a drummer and it’s weird because the drummer handles it all and we don’t know what to do.

Vancouver Weekly: I feel like it would lose quite a lot.

Erik Berry: Yeah, that was our experience. When we first started we weren’t very good and we use to joke that we’re not a bluegrass band cause we’re not fast enough.  Now it’s like we’re not a bluegrass band cause we’re too fast.

On Inspiration

Vancouver Weekly: Do you guys write together as a band or is there a single writer for the tunes?

Erik Berry: If the song has words, it’s a Dave Simonett tune.  Every now and again when he’s kinda stuck on a lyric for this one part, one of us will say, “What about this word or this phrase?”

But throughout our entire history, the other four of us collectively have written a line and a half of lyrics…so no.  If it has words, Dave wrote it.

He gets it coffeehouse ready. He gets it where he can play it on guitar. He doesn’t have to look at his notebook to see what the lyrics are or what the chords are. He’s learned the song himself and so he can say “it goes like this”.  He almost always has it envisioned as far as what tempo and feel and stuff he wants.  Sometimes we’ll work on a tune and we’ll go back to the drawing board and he’ll say that he wants to try it twice as fast or half as fast.  For the most part, he has an idea of how he wants the song to go.

When he plays it for us.  We listen to it the first time and then we try it again.  Most of the time our initial ideas meet with his approval and we’re free to keep evolving.

As we keep playing the songs something else that’s really cool happens, which is why Ryan and I have learned that he-does-this and I-do-this and if we-do-this together it’ll go like this.

That’s why the live show is so different from the record.   Cause the record is really trying to capture that spark of creation and the live show…it’s not a spark of creation…it’s a re-creation, and it’s something else.

I’m coming up with this metaphor right now so it might be clumsy but it’s sort of like – What do you like better. Do you like it when you see that fire first startin’ [with some kindling to get it going]? Or do you like the full on bonfire which you can just chuck a board onto? It’s just gonna do what it does.

Well,…I like ‘em both.

Vancouver Weekly: I noticed a trend at Sasquatch in which bands were performing instrumental music. It’s nice to hear you guys doing some of that. Are those just jams or are those songs you all worked out together?

Erik Berry: No, those are songs.   Well that song you heard today [for example].  That was a banjo song. But it’s sort of the same thing.  He gets it basically coffeehouse ready and he plays his banjo song and we come up with parts for it.  And when it’s one of mine. It’s sort of the same thing.   Like here’s a mandolin tune.  You know, that’s probably the biggest influence that traditional bluegrass has on us. Because traditional bluegrass plays those you know. Like Bill Munroe writes Munroe Mandolin instrumentals and wrote banjo instrumentals and wrote fiddle tunes. And this is like gonna shelf the banjo player you know. And we always kinda felt that we could do that. It’s appropriate for a string band to do that. To have an instrumental tune or two in a show.  Now we’re free to write whatever we want. Like I’ve written some instrumentals that we haven’t done in so long that I’m just assuming failed an audition somewhere along the line (chuckle…).

On Travelling

Vancouver Weekly: I can see you guys being a hometown favorite at some point. Was there a point where you guys were like “we can’t play here anymore…we need to start touring more?” 

Erik Berry: We were always interested in touring. Particularly Me, Dave and Tim the bass player had been in a lot of bands and we’d seen what happened with bands that get pretty popular in a town.  If you don’t do anything with that…you burn it. You burn it out.

You see, it might be awesome to see a band every other Friday night but after you’ve done that for a few months, you tend to be like… “well, I can see them next time”.

Vancouver Weekly: How do you make that transition?

Erik Berry: You just start playing other towns.  The very first tour we did…we told a friend of ours that we wanted to start travelling and she helped us with a couple of gigs. I moved to Duluth from Decorah, Iowa and I knew a venue in Decorah so I got us a gig there.  I went back to my old town and we kind of done that. Our first tour we played like three dates.  It was a long weekend. Then Iowa.  And then a place across the river from Winona, Minnesota. And then we played a little festival a friend of ours was putting on at a suburb of Minneapolis.  And it was a start. And what we found by doing that was that we travelled together well.  Nobody likes a type of music that someone else absolutely hates so it’s a sticking point.  We just sort of got on well in the van together. And that was a big discovery because previous bands we’d been in that we tried to do little tours with didn’t work like that. And it had nothing to do with that music. But it doesn’t matter what the music’s like if you can’t stand being in the car with somebody you know.

We just sort of had this goal of “Let’s just get ourselves out to Colorado because…damn, we need to see the mountains”. We got friends out there…This type of music does good out there… You know, there was a lot of reason’s why we picked Colorado but we made that first Colorado tour in July ’04.  I remember cause the day we left I turned 30.  So it was July 20th 2004.  It was the day we embarked on our first tour out of our time zone.

You grow up admiring bands and you read interviews with bands and they talk about that.  You can’t burn out your hometown.  And we were kind of lucky. We never really did burn out our hometown.  We just kind of stopped playing there is all.

It was sort of something we knew we had to do. It was like “Do you wanna do this indefinitely or for as long as you can?” Cause if you don’t travel. You’ll probably be done in a year-and-a-half.  Even if you don’t break up.  You’ll just stop playing.

Vancouver Weekly: So how do you find the road now? Is it easy or is it tough?

Erik Berry: Well, It’s kind of a mixed bag.  It still is a joy.  And part of it is cause you’re asking me right before I get to go home. It’s like our last stop.   So you know…if you had asked me like two days ago… I’d probably say something quite different (…chuckle).  No, I mean.  I got two kids. I got a wife at home.  I refuse to say it’s hard cause there are lots of dads that have a much harder life than I do. I get to travel doing what I love for a living. When I go home, I get to spend everyday with my family. That’s awesome.

But you know…they don’t get to see their dad for a couple of weeks in a row. My wife has to be a single mom for a couple of weeks. But I love it.  I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t. When you look out and all you see is teeth.  I love it.

Vancouver Weekly: How long are the spurts?

Erik Berry: We do about two weeks. Sometimes we push it to three but we kind of learned early on. We’re in the middle of the country.

On Sound 

Vancouver Weekly: You guys have a sound that is unique and that I think isn’t really pigeonholed.

Erik Berry: Well that’s good. We reluctantly call ourselves a Bluegrass band.  I watched our bass player do it today.  Cause the bluegrass people hate it.  I did an interview last week with a guy from a bluegrass radio station and he said, “I saw on the poster for tonight’s show that you guys call yourselves a bluegrass band. Would you please defend that action?”

And I said, “You know what dude.  I will.” You try to explain what we sound like without using those words.  And he was like, “I’m not in your band. I don’t have to describe it.” So I was like well, “I would call us rock influenced string band music played through amps.”  He was like, “That’s accurate.”

Does it explain anything?  Not really.  It’s sorta like somebody bitching that Radiohead doesn’t sound anything like Buddy Holly.  I mean its rock ‘n’ roll right? Why doesn’t it sound like rock ‘n’ roll?

That’s just how we view it.  I love bluegrass music.  I love Bill Munroe.  I mean he died almost 15 years ago. He did what he did a long time ago. Favorite mandolin player in the world – don’t try to sound like him.

Vancouver Weekly: And it’s good that you guys don’t.

Erik Berry:  Yeah, I mean there’s no point in doing that.   But I’d be lying if I said that we weren’t hugely influenced by it.  And it’s just a band with that kind of line up playing what is it? If you can’t use the word bluegrass to describe it…what can you use?

Vancouver Weekly: Well thank you very much.

Erik Berry:  Thank you.

Photo by Pieter van Hattem

Ricardo Khayatte

Ricardo Khayatte