Methodism in Middle America: TBT's Very Early Days

Trampled by Turtles at a Duluth basement gig in 2004.

In this excerpt from Bandbox's Trampled by Turtles zine, the group's founding members discuss the tight-knit Duluth music scene, the importance of workplace flexibility and being gifted a cooler of beer for their first road trip.

As told to Alex Rice

Backed by a popular pizza joint and armed with a name once voted the second worst of all-time, in their early days Trampled by Turtles treated even the most podunk bar like it was the Ryman. Says frontman Dave Simonett, “Every show was an orchestra hall for us...”

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Erik Berry (mandolin): I moved to Duluth in September 2001, after being invited by a friend of mine who was a native. One of her sales pitches to me was that she knew some guys in a band. I joined, and we were called The Castle Band and played every Thursday at Lakeview Castle in Duluth. Dave Simonett was in a band called Simple Junction that played Pizza Luce every Thursday, and there was one night they couldn’t play their gig, so they came to check out the competition. During a set break, they came over and introduced themselves and we invited them to jam with us, which was the first time I ever played music with Dave.

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Dave Simonett (vocals/guitar): Erik had just started to play the mandolin, so he and I decided to start playing as a mandolin/guitar duo. We did a few shows with just the two of us, and one was at a place called Fitger’s in Duluth. At the end of that gig, this tall, skinny kid walked up and asked if we’d ever want a banjo player. I didn’t know anybody playing folk or roots music in town, so I said, “Hell yeah!” That ended up being Dave Carroll. That was kinda the first formation of Trampled by Turtles.

 

Dave Carroll (banjo): I had never been in a band before. I was going to college and teaching myself banjo, mostly sitting in my closet so that my roommates wouldn’t be annoyed. I was a big Deadhead and loved a lot of classic rock, but after my dad gave me a banjo I started playing more traditional stuff. We had scheduled a practice for a Sunday at 7 pm, and I remember calling and asking if we could do 7:30. One of them was like, “Are you gonna watch The Simpsons? So are we.” I walked down to Dave’s, which was a few blocks below me, and we formed a little chemistry pretty quickly.

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Simonett: A couple guys from Simple Junction were graduating and moving to
Minneapolis, so we played one last show at Pizza Luce. It was quite the party! People were generously helping us load our gear out into our cars, but it got a little out of hand and somewhere in that process, somebody walked off with my electric guitar and my amp. I was living on couches and had no money. Trampled by Turtles was still a side project, but when I woke up the next morning and found out nobody knew where any of my stuff was, I thought, “Guess it’s time to dive head first into the acoustic band...” That was all I had left.

Trampled by Turtles co-founders Erik Berry and Dave Simonett at high noon on the interstate, getting some much-needed shut-eye.

Tim Saxhaug (bass): Dave Simonett and I had known each other from the scene and had always been like, “We should do an acoustic project sometime...” Then he called and said, “Hey, I'm jamming with these guys at my place, so come over and bring your bass.” We got a gig at Sir Ben’s in Duluth that was listed as The Dave Simonett Band, and after that we started brainstorming band names for our next show at Pizza Luce. We were purposefully avoiding bluegrass-y names, like anything that said “grass,” “boys,” “mountain,” “valley...” Trampled by Turtles has been with us ever since! We once came in second place on a list of the worst band names of all-time.

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Berry: It’s hard to emphasize how important Pizza Luce was in those early days. When Dave, Banjo and I were first rehearsing together, we were just hanging out and drinking beers, and I mentioned how it was difficult to organize gigs around my work schedule. Dave mentioned that he worked at Luce and that I should apply, so I did and got hired. It was basically stated to me, point blank, that unless there was a family time-off request, a musical time-off request would be treated as a priority. It was hard to get out of the Sunday brunch shift, but if I had a gig in Minneapolis the night before, I could. Playing at Luce every other Wednesday, more than anything, is probably why Trampled became Trampled. We all felt driven to go up there and play better every time, and Dave was very inspired to write. We were guaranteed some decent money and would get free drinks, and we were early on in our career so that was pretty cool. There were other venues in Duluth that were important to us, but Pizza Luce was absolutely vital.

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Simonett: Duluth had a pretty vibrant DIY scene in the early 2000s. There were a lot of bars where you had to bring your own sound system, but then Pizza Luce opened up a restaurant there that featured live music, and all of a sudden people were coming from Minneapolis to play. Scott Nelson, who was one of the owners and recently passed, moved to Duluth to start this Luce and brought this funky energy with him and created this whole new scene. If that place hadn’t been there, I don’t know what path we’d have taken. On our first tour outside the Midwest, we wanted to go to Colorado but didn’t have a booking agent or anything, so he helped us get shows out there. We drove up to say goodbye and he gave us $500 cash and a cooler of beer and food and sent us on our way!

 

Carroll: He was like, “Alright boys, make us proud!”

 Pizza Luce co-owner Scott Nelson, an essential figure in the formative years of Trampled by Turtles.

Read the rest of the Trampled by Turtles story, from Songs from a Ghost Town to Life is Good on the Open Road, in the Trampled by Turtles zine that comes with every copy of the Bandbox exclusive edition of Palomino!