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Duluth-based speedgrass band Trampled By Turtles plays Bayfront Festival Park on Saturday. (Photo by Zoran Orlic)

Trampled By Turtles preparing for Duluth show, release of new album

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During one of the coldest of the cold spells this past winter, Trampled By Turtles was holed up in Cannon Falls, Minn., working and re-working the tracks from its follow-up album to “Stars and Satellites.”

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With them, for the first time, was a producer — a veteran to the music scene who could provide a perspective from outside the five-man speed-grass family. They needed someone they trusted and respected, someone familiar with the band’s discography.

The answer: Alan Sparhawk of Low.

“We gave him free rein to tear apart our ideas and put it back together again as he sees fit,” said mandolin player Erik Berry. “And he was not shy about doing it.”

The result is “Wild Animals,” a 10-song album scheduled for release by Thirty Tigers on July 15. Trampled By Turtles probably will offer at least a sneak peek when it headlines a four-band bill Saturday at Bayfront Festival Park. The gates open at 4:30 p.m. for a concert lineup that includes Doomtree, Low and Haley Bonar. Tickets are $25 in advance at etix.com and Electric Fetus and $30 at the door.

Duluth is home

There is a long relationship between the members of Trampled By Turtles — Dave Simonett, Dave Carroll, Tim Saxhaug, Ryan Young and Berry — and Low front man Alan Sparhawk. They are all internationally touring acts that claim Duluth as a home base. (Though, in recent years, some members of the bluegrass band have scattered to other cities.)

Beyond that, the musicians are friends.

Berry credits Sparhawk with giving the band opportunities to face fresh listeners back when they were first touring. In mid-2000s, Sparhawk asked Trampled to open for Low during part of its West Coast tour.

“It was our first time in front of a large crowd there, in front of a significant audience that wasn’t from the bluegrass or jam band scene,” Berry said. “This was an indie rock scene. To have it be a successful experience was very horizon-broadening and eye-opening. That was due to Alan Sparhawk.”

Over the years, there have been casual convos about Sparhawk working with the band on an album. Sparhawk said he knew Trampled had a history of making records quickly without a ton of planning — a method that has served them well so far.

But, he said, there is a difference between motivating yourself and having someone else do it.

“I remember thinking to myself that maybe if someone was yelling at them and telling them to do it again, they’d push themselves a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes, that can be a huge thing.”

When it came time to record “Wild Animals,” Sparhawk was part of the crew and traveled to the newly renovated Pachyderm Studios in southeastern Minnesota. The band spent about two weeks at the space — best known as the birthplace of Nirvana’s “In Utero,” but also the studio behind albums by Soul Asylum, PJ Harvey and the Jayhawks.

Signature sound

Sparhawk said he approached producing Trampled By Turtles’ album in a way that is similar to how Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy handled producing Low’s 2013 album “The Invisible Way.”

“A lot of what they do, nobody can touch,” Sparhawk said. “And sometimes, the trick was just staying out of the way and making it happen.”

Other times, it was about taking charge of determining the worth of a take.

“I think it’s a lot easier to make music when you don’t have to worry about if it’s any good,” he said.

The album has remaining traces of the quick-fire bluegrass attack that has become Trampled By Turtles’ signature sound. There are also thick swells of string and weepy violins, old-timey country two-step music and catchy pop moments.

“It is kind of a different record,” Berry said. “I don’t think we reinvented the (Trampled By Turtles) wheel.”

The band has released the video “Are You Behind the Shining Star” and other song snippets have cropped up the band’s YouTube channel.

Minneapolis-based City Pages mined the vignettes posted on the band’s YouTube channel for hints of what’s to come.

“ ‘Are You Behind the Shining Star?’ could be the most straightforward composition on an album that heads into weirder TBT territory still,” a music writer wrote. “It’s showing growth for the group and a bridge to an artistic realm with even fewer boundaries.”

The major music publications have yet to post reviews. Locally, KUMD 103.3 FM has been playing a mix of songs from the album.

The station’s listeners — whether they’re tuned into a folk show or one for jam band fans — really like the band, music director Christine Dean said.

“Their sweet stuff is the melancholy stuff,” Dean said of “Wild Animals.” “They’ve got nice arrangements of the instruments off each other and nice harmonies.

“I think it’s great that they’ve evolved, and their fans are following them in that direction.”

“Stars and Satellites”

Trampled By Turtles released “Stars and Satellites” in 2012, and it was an album that continued the band’s momentum, a seemingly organic growth.

“I do appreciate that it has been a natural progression,” Berry said. “It’s been like climbing a mountain full of plateaus. We’re about to go to a new plateau.”

The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart. And the band landed its first national television performance, playing “Alone” on a late-April 2012 episode of “Late Show with David Letterman.” The band was a sub for Tom Waits, who had to cancel his appearance.  

(Letterman’s critique: “Great, great, that was wonderful, am I right, Paul?” For the record, Paul Shaffer, the show’s longtime music director, responded “Lovely music, just great.”)

Nine months later, the band got another shot at post-prime time, playing “It’s a War” on “Conan.”

This time, the band is already booked for Letterman’s show. Trampled plays July 15, the day the new album drops, and this time, it’s not a fortuitous fill-in spot.

The band will tour internationally this fall.

Berry said the work has been done and now the band just waits.

“The struggle has already happened,” he said.

“I have faith that at a certain level, things will keep progressing. If something happens, you deal with it.”  

Sparhawk said that what Trampled By Turtles is dealing with is way, way bigger than what Low has experienced in its 20-plus year career.

Still, he knows how some of this feels.

“There is this critical mass that occurs in front of 400 or 500 people who are excited to hear you and know your songs,” he said. “There is a line that is crossed and the energy perpetuates itself.

“This is a really intense thing. It’s beautiful because it’s positive. People love you and they’re excited you’re there and they’re happy you’re there. When you get more than 500 people in a room feeling that, it gets ridiculous. It shakes your ribcage and makes your lungs quake.”

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