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Interview: Trampled By Turtles' Dave Simonett

Dave Simonett
Dave SimonettZoe Prinds-Flash

by Diane

April 08, 2022

Dave Simonett talks to Diane
Dave Simonett talks to Diane - Part 2

One can never be exactly sure about why Duluth’s music scene is so superior. Low, Gaelynn Lea, Charlie Parr, and Trampled by Turtles are just a few artists that lead the charge in one of Minnesota’s most beautiful cities. Dave Simonett, frontman of Trampled By Turtles and Dead Man Winter, certainly has his thoughts.

He’s also intentional about keeping it that way. His latest endeavors include the new Palomino Grant, in partnership with Duluth Homegrown Music Festival and Cambridge Family Dental. They are inviting the top two applicants to “battle against artistic mediocrity” with the help of $5,000 or $2,000 in award money. All musicians living in the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior, WI can apply.

Local bluegrass favorites Trampled By Turtles will also return to Duluth’s Bayfront Park on July 9. It’ll be the band’s first hometown return since 2019, a year they attracted 10,000 Bayfront attendees. Local Show host Diane caught up with Simonett to learn more. 

Transcript edited for clarity and length.

On the Palomino Grant
It’s a way to chip some money back into that scene that has fostered us for so long. There's also a side prize, and that's opening for that show that you just mentioned with us and Jenny Lewis at Bayfront, if you want it. Maybe someone's like, I don't want it. That's not my thing. You don't have to. But yeah, you could spend the money on gear, recording, touring, any kind of band expense would be legitimate.

On what playing in the Duluth/Superior area means

When I was about 18, I think it was my first open mic that I played at Amazing Grace in Duluth, I found that to be an extremely fostering, artistically diverse and inclusive music scene. I think maybe the size of the town has a lot to do with all of those things. It's not a huge city, as you know. But it's big enough where it can have a few venues and it can have some bands; but it's not big enough to where there's 100 bands that sound the same. Everybody was really encouraged, and I feel like still is, to find their own little space in the musical world there and not get too attached to somebody else's sound, so to speak. So, I felt like all those things combined me for this really artistically exciting, independent-minded music scene at a place I was really thankful to have started out in a place like that. Our earliest shows in that town – I didn't know of another band that had similar instrumentation to us. So, our bills would be a hip-hop group, a punk band and us or whatever. And to me, that was so cool. I still like doing that kind of stuff. And I think that's just from coming up in that place.

Duluth’s vibrant music scene

I think a lot of it is probably luck and timing. I remember I read this book that David Byrne wrote, How Music Works, and he talks about how a scene gets fostered in a place. It's a combination of, you have the artists there, and you have to have a place for them to perform. And you have to have an audience. And all of these things kind of have to happen at the same time. You could be a songwriter and move to – pick a town. But if there's nowhere for you to play, and there's nobody that's interested in doing it, that's not going to happen. Or you could open up an incredible venue, but if there's nobody to play in your venue, then the scene is not going to happen.  

In the late ‘90s, early 2000s, when I was living in Duluth and starting bands, at that time, that city just had all these things. Plus, it's a fairly inexpensive place to live. It has beautiful scenery. It had all these other qualities going for it … It wasn't a business decision for anybody. Nobody was making any money, but a scene was fostering there just simply for the act of doing it. 

Duluth Homegrown Music Festival is a shining example of what came out of that. You still get 100-and-some odd local bands playing for free every year, just to play, and setting up at all sorts of crazy little venues. So, besides the geography, it's the people and certain people live in a place at a certain time, and something can build from that. I feel like that's what happened in Duluth.

His relationship with nature

For me, it's really central. My passion is out there. I hunt and fish and camp and paddle through the Boundary Waters. And when I'm not playing music or recording or touring or whatever, that's what I'm doing and that's what my kids are doing. And that's just where I kind of recharge – that's my outlet. So, it definitely shows up in songs. I don't think I could help it if I tried.

Trampled By Turtles’ early years and how they rose to fame

We started in 2003. Our first show was a three piece. It was me and our banjo player Dave Carroll and mandolin player Erik Berry at Sir Benedict's Tavern. And all of us at the time were in other bands … And eventually those other bands all split up and we were left with Trampled, and we were all into it. We played through a few shows in Duluth and it was starting to feel good. We decided to try to make that all of our musical focus.

The next step to all of our logical brains was to try to go on the road. And this was 20 years ago, next year … When we started there was not really any social media or Spotify. And touring was a lot different, and how you promoted yourself was very much smaller. We didn't have a record label. We didn't have anything. We just called people and asked if we could play there. Somebody would recommend a place, and I was booking the band and calling random bars and telling them that we had this band from Duluth and wondering if we could play there. 

And so it's kind of innocent looking back on it now. Our circle kind of slowly got bigger and bigger. We'd go to places and then six months later, we would go back. And then a year later, we go back. And we were lucky enough to consistently have more people showing up. But I'm talking like, the first time we’d go to a town, there'd be 15 people, sometimes zero. And then hopefully the second time there were 30 people. So it's kind of a long road. And we're still working on that plan even now. 

It was a really exciting time, though, in my early 20s, to do that; and to just get into a van with my best friends, and drive around and sleep on people's floors and play music. It was like a great adventure.  It's scary to do, though. None of us had anything else we wanted to stick around for. None of us had a good job, or none of us at that time had kids. And so it wasn't a big sacrifice to go out and make no money and play music. It was actually the opposite of that. 

Hopes for the Palomino Grant winner

Gas money or a studio time, all those things can be really big barriers that we hope that this little pile of money from the grant could hopefully help somebody jump a hurdle little sooner than maybe they would be able to otherwise … It's a different experience going into a studio for a few days, and getting somebody else's ears on it and maybe some nicer gear, and all that. Those little things can really help out.

Bayfront Park memories

Most of them are weather related, but it's the risk you take when you play outside in Duluth. It could snow in July. We did have one rain out ... There were a bunch of bands but Doomtree was the band before us. And that's when the lightning started. So they had to get off the stage. And then it was still raining. But pretty much everybody knows in the music business, you can't play with lightning in the sky. Nobody will let you get on the stage, even if you really want to. Too much gear out there. 

So the lightning stopped for long enough where we're able to get on stage. And then I think we played four songs, and then it came back and we had to get off ... I told everybody, "We'll be back – if you can wait." But it ended up being a long time. Hours went by. And those poor people finally just had to go to their cars because they were just soaked. It eased up enough for us to get back on stage. And I think it was maybe two hours later. We were sitting backstage the whole time just drinking and pondering if we're gonna get back out. 

We got back on stage, and pretty much just the front roll was still there. And we played the rest of the show, and it was a blast. It was pretty much playing to this big empty field of mud, but also 60 of the most excited people that we've ever played for. 

What to look forward to at this year’s Bayfront Park concert

We were pretty excited to get Jenny (Lewis). All of us are really big fans of hers. And she's got a connection with Minnesota music. She's got a lot of buddies here. Actually, her band is gonna be all Minnesota guys this time around, which is cool – all friends of ours. And then, in the next month or so, getting to figure out who's going to be that third band, whoever gets the grant. So I'm really excited to look into the applications that are already coming in. 

On navigating the pandemic

It seems fine now. We toured a bunch last year, and that was a different story. Everyday something was getting canceled, or friends that we know had to cancel all their shows. Everything was just dropping. And at the shows, it felt kind of heavy everywhere. Everyone's in a mask that you see. And everybody's showing cards at the door. It was still really fun to play. But it's like — "Cool, play music. But don't look at me too much." It's just a weird environment in which to do what we do. Now, depending on where we are, most of the places, I can't even tell it's happening. Which, thankfully, all of us have stayed healthy. A couple of guys got COVID, but not while we're on the road. And so it's worked out just fine. And it's always that possibility ... for everybody out there playing music or running a venue or whatever. Things getting shut down. And we know that it can happen at any time. But as of day to day, on the ground, it's fine right now.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.