Dave Simonett laughs heartily when asked whether he's ever been stopped for speeding. As lead singer, primary songwriter and guitarist for the pedal-to-the-speed metal roots group Trampled by Turtles, he immediately gets the joke.
"I save the speeding for onstage," he says from his home in Minneapolis, where he has just put his 4-month-old daughter Lucy down for a nap. Admitting that he got caught going 65 in a 40 two years ago in the countryside outside Duluth, Minnesota, Simonett was thankful the cop left him go with only a warning.
"Just slow down, man."
Sure, officer, as long as you confine that to driving. Together for eight years, these manic Minnesotans, who occasionally slow it down, prefer to play music in the fast lane without worrying whether they'll thrash and burn -- or get ticketed.
They recently made the rest of the country take notice with their fifth album, Palomino, released in 2010 (Banjodad Records). And it's full speed ahead (check out the opening salvo of "Wait So Long," soon followed by "It's A War") for a group that includes Tim Sauxhaug (bass, vocals), Dave Carroll (banjo, vocals), Erik Berry (mandolin) and Ryan Young (fiddle).
Admittedly a non-traditional Americana band that's willing to exceed whatever limits the tried-and-true bluegrass community place on them, Trampled by Turtles realize what they're up against.
Yet, the quintet that once performed shows in front of 10 to 20 people in Colorado ("It was to the point where we almost stopped coming," Simonett says), headlined a sold-out concert on April Fool's Day 2011 at Denver's Ogden Theater. Now they are poised to make their first appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival this week.
It's their first visit to the Colorado mountain town, and Simonett and Co. are grateful for the opportunity. They plan to stay for the entire four-day weekend that includes headlining a sold-out NightGrass show on Thursday (11 p.m., Palm Theater) before hitting the main stage at 4:30 p.m. Friday. "It's kind of half-work, half-vacation... or maybe like nine-tenths vacation and one-tenth work," says Simonett, half-joking but still hoping to get a chance to go fishing.
Anyone willing to name their band Trampled by Turtles obviously doesn't take themselves too seriously. Told there must be a great story behind the name of the band, Simonett just laughs and says, "We've been trying to come up with one for eight years."
As it turns out, they were booked for two shows under the condition they had a name. Simonett says Berry finally delivered one "that we didn't hate."
"You think Trampled by Turtles is bad," he offers. "... We came up with some really, really terrible stuff."
Simonett knows his way around bands, though, having performed with various rock and punk acts (including Simple Junction when he was 18 or 19). In 2003, he was 23 when Trampled by Turtles, his first acoustic-based project, was formed.
As a child, he learned to play piano from his grandmother. Simonett's mother, Judy Harrington, also was musically inclined and "everybody on my mom's side of the family plays something."
While Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt struck an immediate chord and he was introduced to other acoustic music through friends who "have some ex-hippie parents, and we definitely raided their vinyl collection," that phase was put on hold after he learned to play guitar. "The weirdest thing for a bunch of white kids from Duluth" (where he briefly attended college) came when he joined a short-lived heavy rock band that somehow morphed into a hip-hop act.
"The music I was listening to was all rock; and I loved punk rock when I was in high school. I still do," says Simonett, who moved to Minneapolis when he got married in 2005. He mentions indie punkers such as Lagwagon, Pennywise and Face to Face, all of which he saw at an all-ages venue in Mankato, where he first grew up.
Some of that independent punk spirit apparently rubbed off on Simonett. He doesn't hesitate to speak his mind while discussing the rigidness of traditional bluegrass, making sure to exclude events such as Telluride and Delfest, Del McCoury's Memorial Day weekend event in Maryland that they just played.
"A lot of bluegrass bluegrass festivals aren't really our thing," says Simonett, who also plays in an alt-country band with Saxhaug and Young called Dead Man Winter that will release their first record in August. "A lot of people just like one style of music and that's it. And like a whole weekend of that is enough to drive me insane, no matter what it is, you know?
From left, Dave Simonett, Erik Berry, Tim Saxhaug, Banjo Dave Carroll, Ryan Young.
"We've played a couple of bluegrass festivals where we've been the only band in maybe 50 bands that weren't in suits standing around one microphone. (laughs) I mean even if the bands are fantastic, which they almost always are, I don't know how you can listen to the same bands for three days. We've always had a mixed reception at that kind of environment. We kind of take it as a good challenge ahead of time and a good situation to really focus on just doing what we do and not try to morph into something we're not."
Simonett doesn't mind saying he definitely remains -- "more than ever" -- an unabashed music fan, no matter the genre. Trampled by Turtles also made their debut at Coachella this year, playing an afternoon set in the California desert that was "hot as hell" (102 degrees), but he got just as excited talking about Arcade Fire, who "put on one of the best concerts I've ever seen."
Simonett also got to see Robert Plant and Band of Joy perform in Minneapolis this April thanks to his friends in Low, a Duluth-based band whose songs "Silver Rider" and "Monkey" were covered on Plant's superb BOJ album and in concert. With Plant closing Telluride on Sunday, Simonett imagines the possibilities for Trampled by Turtles.
"Maybe we can get Robert Plant to sing with us," he says, his mind naturally racing before he finally puts on the brakes. "... But I don't know if I could handle it."
There's only one way to find out, but expect Trampled by Turtles to punch their own ticket.
MORE FACE TIME WITH DAVE SIMONETT
Simonett offers thoughts about himself, the festival-going experience in general and Telluride in particular:
1. Best festival experience
"Rothbury, the first year that they did that (in 2008). The bands that I got to see were fantastic. I got to go see Modest Mouse, which I like a lot. I got to see Snoop Dogg, which was a great, great concert. It was real diverse like that. And then from a band point of view, the hospitality and the backstage area was like a five-star restaurant -- with a full bar. That might sound a little pretentious to make my best experience, but when it's your job, things like that matter." (laughs)
2. Worst festival experience
"There was a tiny festival in Minnesota that we played maybe our second or third show at. It was called the Earth Tribe Gathering. And it wasn't bad because of the people that put it on, they were very nice. It was bad because we were camping and our mandolin player (Erik Berry) decided to sleep outside on the ground, rolled off of his sleeping bag into a huge patch of poison ivy and spent the night sleeping face down in there. And we were awoken at sunrise by this guy who couldn't see and we had to rush him to the hospital."
3. How did the invitation to Telluride come about?
"As far as I know, they approached us this year. To be honest, we've been trying to get on that thing for three or four years. And I'm really thankful now that it hadn't happened before because I feel like we're really at a good point to make our first appearance there."
4. Have you played shows in a high-altitude setting and, if so, what's it like?
"We just did a show at Winter Park, we played Breckenridge a couple times and (the Belly Up) in Aspen (all in Colorado). It's definitely a challenge. We smoke too many cigarettes and spend too much time at sea level. (laughs) ... As the singer, it definitely takes a toll, for sure. But so far, none of have collapsed or anything."
5. What can you tell us about yourself that most people don't know?
"Most people probably don't know that I was born in Germany. My dad was in the military (stationed in Landstuhl) at the time. I went back maybe 10 years ago, and then my wife (Annie) and I went last year. Pretty cool."
Publicity photo courtesy of Trampled By Turtles.
For a limited time, get a free download of "Wait So Long" the opening track from Trampled by Turtles' Palomino:
The "Faces of Telluride" series leading up to the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival will conclude with a profile of singer-songwriter Nora Jane Struthers, who will perform on the main stage with the Bootleggers after winning last year's band competition. Part 1 of the series on banjo player Abigail Washburn can be found here.