Henry Ford once said, “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” It’s a credo taken to heart five albums ago by a little folk-bluegrass outfit from Duluth, Minn., called Trampled By Turtles.
The band, playing The City today, recently broke through with an acclaimed sixth effort, “Stars and Satellites,” and an animated video for the single “Walt Whitman” courtesy of the Adult Swim cartoon “Squidbillies.”
From its unusual name to high production values via its own BanjoDad imprint, Trampled By Turtles has maintained its integrity over the years — even when hit-sniffing major labels came calling.
“Record companies have been very interested in us,” says Turtles mandolin player Erik Berry, a former rock bassist who first formed the group as an experimental acoustic duo with guitarist-vocalist Dave Simonett after the singer had all of his electric gear stolen.
“But we’ve always wanted to have that same sort of control we’ve always had, so we examined a few deals and almost signed a couple. But I personally really like being indie like this. I like it a lot.”
Since 2003, these underdogs have done things their own idiosyncratic way. Berry picked up mandolin as a fun alternative to bass, and when he started backing an initially solo Simonett, the duo didn’t know much about the twangy sound it was planning to pursue.
“So our bluegrass style came later,” he says. “I bought my first bluegrass record after this band started, because I was like, ‘Whoa! I need to figure out what to do here!’”
Soon, banjo plucker Dave Carroll joined the pair, and his fiery fretwork, coupled with the forlorn fiddle of Ryan Young, helps propel “Walt Whitman” and other “Stars” barnstormers such as “Sorry” and “Don’t Look Down.” Tim Saxhaug on bass rounds out the band.
When Carroll’s father put up the $2,000 for their first sessions, they christened their imprint BanjoDad in his honor; it’s now distributed through Thirty Tigers/RED.
In Duluth, there are two key studios that most bands use, says Berry: “The chummy clubhouse one where it’s OK if you spill a beer, or the pristine converted church where you can’t even drink a beer on site. But everything is affordable, so local bands really focus on having a good-sounding record.”
But the adventurous Turtles chose to track “Stars” in a North Woods log cabin dubbed Soleil Pines.
Even though the Turtles chose a weird name for the group, Berry chuckles when thinking about others on his quirky list of possibilities, like The Ruminants. When he ran them down for his bandmates, he recalls, “They said no, no, no, no and every single name got crossed off. Except Trampled By Turtles, which got a maybe.”