Dave Simonett didn’t know what to expect when he and his Trampled by Turtles bandmates finally got together at a cabin last October.
After a decade of being stuck in a van and then a tour bus together, the members of Minnesota’s widely loved acoustic sextet went a full year without ever being in the same room together. They agreed to meet up at banjo player Dave Carroll’s family lake place near Grand Rapids, Minn., for a weekend.
There was loose talk of working on new songs. But mostly they just planned to hang out.
“We really hadn’t talked anything through, so I didn’t know if there would be any grievances to air or whatever,” said Simonett, frontman of the group and also the one responsible for shelving it.
As the members started arriving at the cabin, though, so came the news: Tom Petty had passed away. For a bunch of dudes in their 30s and 40s who mostly grew up in smallish Midwestern towns, that was a big one.
“We went down to the lake with a Bluetooth speaker and listened to just about every record of his,” Simonett recalled.
Along the way came lessons about how life is short, music is forever and a great band like Petty’s is a rare find, not to be undervalued.
No wonder that we already have a new Trampled by Turtles album coming out Friday, just half a year later.
With a title that optimistically points to what lies ahead for Simonett and his crew for the rest of the year, “Life Is Good on the Open Road,” the new 12-song collection, is the band’s first record in four years. It also marks the end to an almost two-year hiatus from the stage.
After a surprise gig Monday in Duluth — where Trampled formed in 2003 — the guys officially get back to performing Friday and Saturday at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul. Both shows sold out faster than the time it takes to tune a banjo.
There was a remarkable swiftness to the band’s initial reunion Up North, too.
“We played music together late into the night, and late into the next night, too,” Simonett remembered from the cabin. “It felt like only one day had passed since we were last together, not one year.”
Where they left off
One listen to “Life Is Good on the Open Road” confirms that sentiment; it sounds like Trampled never left.
The gallop-paced banjo and fiddle in the opening tune and first single, “Kelly’s Bar,” sounds as familiar and distinctive as the lyrical references to Red Wing and Winona and the adventures found in between. There’s more manic and rapid-fire string picking — from the band that proudly wore the “Ramones of bluegrass” tag — in subsequent tunes such as “Blood in the Water” and “Annihilate.”
The record also boasts plenty of slower, more melodic, lushly textured tracks in the vein of the band’s game-changing 2012 single “Alone,” including the contemplative but celebratory title track and the album’s rearview-mirror-tinted “I’m Not There Anymore.”
“We’re right back where we started off,” Simonett sings midway through the record, words he’s all too happy to echo when asked about how the album came about so quickly after the long lull.
Recording sessions took place in early December, once again at the famed Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minn., where the last two TBT albums were also made.
“It felt like it did a long time ago,” Simonett said. “For most of the recording, we just sat in a circle and played songs together. We didn’t have an outside producer. It was really low-pressure and easy. It brought us back to like 2007.”
Erik Berry, the band’s mandolinist, said of the sessions, “We really worked together. We all asserted ideas and tried out a lot of things in an open way. It was very positive.”
Still, not everything was same-as-it-ever-was when it came to making the album. The time off made a difference emotionally, if not so much musically.
“It never felt like the band was on autopilot or anything, but it had been our full-time job for a long time,” Simonett said. “Now, I’m more excited about playing with Trampled than I have been for years.”
Said Berry, “I think for the first time we didn’t all take it for granted that there will always be another Trampled by Turtles record to make after this one. So there was a real joy in making it.”
So if everything came together so smoothly and cheerfully after the break, why did Trampled by Turtles come apart in the first place?
“It was really my fault,” Simonett said. “My personal life was super-chaotic at the time, and creatively I really wanted to make the record that became the Dead Man Winter record.”
Road goes on forever
A more electrified side-project/moniker he started around 2011, Dead Man Winter became the vehicle by which Simonett wrote his most personal album to date, “Furnace,” written as he retreated to a temporary home in Red Wing following a divorce. He said he needed to “clear the decks” to get through that difficult record, which came out to strong press and favorable fan reaction at the start of 2017.
“[Trampled] toured so much, it was just too hard to find time to make that kind of record and give it the energy I wanted to give it,” he said. “Especially since I have two young kids, there was never time between Trampled tours to get much done.”
While Simonett focused on “Furnace,” the other members of his original band took on a wide variety of projects.
Bassist Tim Saxhaug started a film-production company in Grand Rapids while also touring in Dead Man Winter. Fiddler Ryan Young rejoined his prior band Pert Near Sandstone for some gigs while also producing them and younger acts in his home studio. Cellist Eamonn McLain played with Lucy Michelle’s band Field Trip. Banjoist Dave Carroll settled into a new home life in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and gigged a little around the ski-resort circuit.
While tending to his small farm along the North Shore with his wife and two kids, Berry stayed active in the Duluth music scene, playing solo acoustic gigs, starting a Grateful Dead tribute duo with Marc Gartman and making a traditional Irish record with Teague Alexy.
“I was happy to try other things, but I had to do it to pay the bills, too, so it was a little stressful,” he admitted.
“Dave clearly needed the break, and we’re all Dave’s friends so we didn’t question it because we wanted to support our friend. But by 2017, I think we were all happy for the break, too.”
While they admitted to getting burned out by Trampled’s demanding schedule before the hiatus, Berry and Simonett both sound unequivocally eager to get back to playing shows again. They’re booking gigs through the fall, including European dates and two more Minnesota gigs July 7 at beautiful Bayfront Park in Duluth and Aug. 24 at Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead (but no other Twin Cities dates are confirmed; not yet anyway).
“Touring is the one thing that Trampled has always done really well,” said Berry. “We’re lucky that way, and we all appreciate it.”
The album’s title track isn’t the only new song that celebrates life on the road. So does “Thank You, John Steinbeck,” an ode to the “Grapes of Wrath” author’s beloved book “Travels With Charley,” which Simonett reread at a pivotal point during the band’s long break.
“There’s a section at the beginning before [Steinbeck] leaves where he tells friends he’s taking this epic road trip, and most of the people say they wish they could go with him,” the singer explained. “Everybody loves the idea of a road trip, even if once you get out on the road it starts to wear you down and [stuff] happens.
“I didn’t ever want to take touring for granted. It’s what I always wanted to do. I’m lucky to get to do this. So I’m trying to remember that it’s pretty great to travel the world with my best friends, even if sometimes it does get hard.”
And if they ever lose sight of that again, Simonett and the rest of the band now know that taking a year or two off won’t mean the end of the road.
Trampled by Turtles
Palace Theatre: 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat., St. Paul, sold out.
Bayfront Park: July 7, downtown Duluth, with Bad Bad Hats, Charlie Parr and more. All ages, $25, eTix.com.