Five questions with: Ryan Young, fiddle player for Trampled by Turtles

Trampled by Turtles w/ Actual Wolf

U.S. Cellular Center, Club 5 — Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8 p.m., $26.50

Iowa Arts Festival: Trampled by Turtles w/ Parker Millsap

Main Stage, downtown Iowa City — Saturday, June 2, 2018 at 9 p.m.

Trampled by Turtles takes the Iowa Arts Festival stage on Saturday, June 2. — photo by David McClister

Trampled by Turtles, a folk-rock/bluegrass band with Minnesota roots, are headlining this year’s Iowa Arts Festival. They perform in downtown Iowa City at 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 2. Currently, the band is touring in support of their new album, Life is Good on the Open Road, their first record in four years. Admission is free, although donations to support the festival are always welcome. I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Ryan Young, the band’s fiddle player with the band, for a few minutes on a Friday afternoon.

This tour and the new record come after an unusually long break. What happened? What did everyone do during the four years?

We had been going since 2003 pretty much nonstop until 2014, with a few short breaks if someone had a kid. This was, by far, the longest break we’d ever taken. Dave Simonett, the guitar player, was going through a bunch of stuff — life things happened, all at once … and so he quit the band. We thought that was it. I think he kind of freaked out, and … wanted to start fresh in his life. After he cooled down and realized what he did, he called it a break … the rest of us were happy because we like playing together. We couldn’t really replace him. So we gave him the time we needed.

Everyone has their own other bands they play in, or other things they do. Our bass player makes movies. I have a recording studio and plays in other bands, like Pert Near Sandstone — we were all keeping busy during the break.

In the meantime he put out a solo record with a bunch of personal themes to it about his life at the time. Once he did that, he called us up and asked if we would get back together. Initially, we just got together — we went up to a cabin our banjo player owns. We hung out, played some music together, tried to see if new music would happen. It did. Everyone had a good time, we got some new tunes together — and fast forward to last December when we went in and recorded. That’s the backstory.

How was it to return to the group after an extended break?

It had been a year and a half since any of us had seen each other — we’d call or email or text, but we don’t live in the same area. The banjo player is in Colorado, I’m in the Twin Cities, the mandolin player lives up north of Duluth. Getting together was nice. We started playing music again, and it came back fast. Everyone in the band is good at what they do and we play really well together, and as soon as we played music again together, it came right back.

What was different about recording Open Road? What do you like most about it compared to your earlier material?

This record was made in the traditional Trampled by Turtles style, the way we started making records. We sat in a circle and put microphones in front of us and played each song two or three times and picked the best take. On Wild Animals we tried having a big shot producer and engineer and had a bunch of outside help. We did a bunch of overdubs and layered a bunch of things. There’s one song where I did a lot of violas and violins — it turned out great, and it was something we wanted to try. So we did. But this record — it was a new beginning so we went back to the start.

I like … both ways. I appreciate overdubbing and perfecting it. I like being in the studio and making records, but for Trampled by Turtles, since we play together so well — it’s not really necessary. It’s fine to do the way we did on Wild Animals, and it sounds great — but we don’t have to do it. We can do more of the Neil Young style of hitting record while you practice, and everyone listens to each other really well and some accidental genius happens that we couldn’t have made happen if we tried.

What excites you most about the possibilities of playing the new songs live?

It’s a good batch of songs. We put together a good record — if people give it a chance, it may be one of their favorites. In that respect, it’s cool because I think the new songs are good, not just new. But I also like them because they’re new, because we haven’t played them a thousand times.

What do you appreciate most about bluegrass as a musical style? What do you think it opens up to musicians? What made you incline toward bluegrass fiddle as opposed to other kinds of string work?

I didn’t grow up with bluegrass — I listened to everything else. I thought that country in general, and even the bluegrass I’d heard, was really lame. When I was introduced to it when I was older, I appreciated it. It can be highly improvisational in some of the ways that jazz music is. As a player, I can play the same song night after night, but play it differently night after night and not play the same thing twice. It’s a lot more creatively fulfilling. If I were in another kind of music, it’d be the same song or the same arrangement or the same as it was on the record. For a lot of bluegrass, the song goes where it needs to go at the time.

Trampled by Turtles sticks to an arrangement pretty strongly compared to other bluegrass bands that I’ve been in — verse, chorus, banjo solo, verse chorus, mandolin solo, etc. But the individual notes that we play and sometimes even the feel that we use is in flux and doesn’t have to be the same every time. I really like that. Pert Near Sandstone, my other band, is similar — but they change the arrangement every night. We look at each other, and then decide what will happen on the spot. It keeps you on your toes, and it’s fun and exciting to live by the seat of your pants.

[Bluegrass fiddle] was an accident. I don’t consider Trampled by Turtles a bluegrass band — I don’t care if you call us that. Technically we aren’t — we’re just a rock and roll band that plays bluegrass instruments. That’s really where our mindset comes from. We didn’t set out to be a bluegrass band; it’s more a matter of playing acoustic instruments (initially it was a mandolin and guitar at coffee shops). The banjo was the next to join, and he was just learning banjo — he saw the duo playing each week, and he joined. It is starting to look like a bluegrass band, but there was no preconceived thing. I was playing fiddle with Pert Near Sandstone, met the other guys, and I ended up joining. So: We look like a bluegrass band, and it sort of sounds like it, but if you get into the nitty gritty of what bluegrass is and does, we’re closer to Neil Young than Bill Monroe in terms of the structure of the songs and how they’re written and played.

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