Monday, August 15, 2011

Dave Simonett (of Trampled By Turtles) Discusses Dead Man Winter's "Bright Lights" LP

A lot has been happening with Trampled By Turtles since I last spoke to singer, guitarist, and songwriter Dave Simonett in November of 2010. TBT has been touring consistently, including an extensive round of summer festivals, and winning over crowds filled with newcomers and loyalists alike. As the momentum continues to build for TBT, Mr. Simonett has something else up his sleeve: Dead Man Winter.

Dead Man Winter is a full-band affair, in the alt-country sense of things, and Bright Lights is the band's debut record. Although Mr. Simonett leads the band's lineup, which includes fellow TBT bandmates Ryan Young and Tim Saxhaug, this is by no means a Trampled By Turtles record.

Bright Lights is filled with the kind of dependable, insightful, and lasting songwriting that Mr. Simonett has delivered consistently with Trampled By Turtles for years. The acoustic instrument repertoire of his other band has been shelved for a much more sonically expansive, plugged-in album filled with guitars, bass, drums, and more.

I had the pleasure to talk with Dave Simonett about Dead Man Winter, as well as talk a little bit about what's next for Trampled By Turtles.

Hi Dave, It's good to speak with you again.

Dave Simonett: Hi Chris. Yeah, I remember our interview last year. Man, it's been a busy summer.

So, let's start by digging right into Dead Man Winter. You have a new record called Bright Lights coming out on August 16th. How did Dead Man Winter come together?

DS: I had been wanting to do a full band thing for some time. Before Trampled By Turtles,  I had always been in rock bands. I missed it a little bit and I had started writing a few songs that I thought would be fun to try out with a different lineup.

I guess you can say that Dead Man Winter kind of took an organic route. Trampled was recording Palomino, and we did a bunch of that in my friend Erik Koskinen's studio. Some of the other people who rented out the studio decided that they didn't want to work there anymore, so I took up that spot. Erik and I just started playing around together and when various people would come and hang at the studio, we would just play together with the amps, drums, and whatnot that was there.

Slowly I decided that I would try out some songs on these guys and see how it worked. We have been at it for a year and half, but up until 6 months ago we had maybe only played a couple of shows. So it's been kind of a slow process. It's all still kind of evolving. Everyone who plays in this band right now plays in other bands. So a lot times someone won't show up so someone else will be playing on drums, or someone else will be playing on whatever. So it's kind of a loose outfit.

Would you say that Ryan and Tim from Trampled, who are in Dead Man Winter as well, are constants in this band with you?

DS: Well, they hadn't been earlier on. There was someone else playing bass when I started this because Tim lives in Duluth and I'm in Minneapolis, which is a couple hours drive. So when I started, I just picked guys that were all here and that live close to me out of convenience. The other bass player had a kid and Tim said that he wanted to fill in, and ever since then we have been playing together. So for the last 6 months Ryan and Tim have both been in every show. The convenient part about that is that when Dead Man Winter is busy Trampled By Turtles isn't, so we can always be on the same schedule together.

Any chance of having a Trampled By Turtles and Dead Man Winter tour?

We did one show outside of Fort Collins, Colorado a few weeks ago. Honestly, it's something I have kind of avoided. Trampled does a lot better on the road than Dead Man Winter, but it is kind of a nice thing for Dead Man Winter because it's gets us into bigger rooms, but on the other hand it makes for an exhausting night. Also, it's hard to mentally focus on two different kinds of shows. So it's probably not going to happen a lot. Maybe just once in a while.

Plus, they also seem like much different kinds of projects for you.

DS: Yeah I think so. It would be fun. I mean, part of me would really like to try a tour together but I'm not sure if everybody would be into it. But at the same time, I also don't want to bring that on the rest of Trampled like "Hey this is my project, do you mind if we play every show together?". I wouldn't want it to be like "The Dave Show" in any way. I really wouldn't want that to be the case.

The first time I listened to Bright Lights, I was surprised when I heard the full band version of "New Orleans" from Trampled's Palomino album.

DS: Actually, that was the original version of it. I actually recorded that long before I even brought it to Trampled. Trampled is going to start working on a new record pretty soon. It's funny, because we have been playing some of the new Trampled songs in Dead Man Winter already and they haven't even been played with Trampled yet, and vice-versa. I would kind of like to keep all of that open and be able to do a couple different versions of things. That's been really fun for me.

Do you find that by writing all of time and going back and forth between projects, that there were instances that some things felt right for Dead Man Winter but not for Trampled By Turtles, and vice-versa?

DS: Yes, but the great majority of songs that I write I can probably make work with either band. I have tried some songs with both bands and some I like better with one than the other. Some songs just naturally go towards Trampled and I don't even try with Dead Man Winter, because I just know. The same has also been true when I have written a song and I just know it's a Dead Man Winter song.

But for most of them, I find them inter-changable, and the benefit there is I know I can do both. But another part of me wants to keep the projects as different as possible, so sometimes it's hard to decide. What I have found is that it really comes down to what record I'm working on at the time. So if we have almost an album's worth of songs for a new Trampled record I'll keep going in that direction. But if I am working on a Dead Man Winter album, the songs I'm working on could just as easily go that way.

So it's kind of like whichever direction your nose is pointed in?

DS: Yeah, I mean there's only so many hours in the day (laughs).

It sounds like your songwriting is almost always in process. Since you are in two different kinds of bands, do you find significant differences in your songwriting approach while steering yourself either towards Trampled or Dead Man Winter?

DS: I think in the initial stages there's not really any difference at all when it comes to the lyrics and chord progressions. With Trampled, I mean it's kind of a "bluegrassy" lineup, but none of us like to limit ourselves to that form when it comes to the songs. Some of our newer stuff would definitely fit into a rock setting. I mean it's not your typical two-note bass type of bluegrass thing. But, I find that it's really interesting to do that kind of stuff with Trampled, with that instrumentation, because it really gives it something special to me.

I'd say that later on in the writing process there are differences. But early on, I don't see much difference at all. I guess the major difference would be when it comes to the recording. I feel like, for better or for worse, there's a lot more possibilities sonically if a song goes with Dead Man Winter because there is no set instrumentation in that band. The members always kind of change and I actually do a lot of the recording by myself- like a lot of the guitar work and other different instruments that go on. So that's a little more "limitless" maybe.

But when a Trampled song gets recorded it definitely starts with the five of us playing so there's all of the instruments in the song almost of the time. We may add things on later, but rarely is anything subtracted. But on the Dead Man Winter record, there's a couple of tunes that I did that were based on work I did mainly on an acoustic guitar with a couple of things added later. And I enjoy that a lot- the kind of limitless things you can do with the songs just as much as I enjoy working a song into the Trampled lineup to try to find out what we can do to not make the instruments sound the same all of the time.

It's interesting to hear how you go back and forth between bands. I just naturally assumed that Dead Man Winter re-recorded "New Orleans" for Bright Lights, but to hear that it was actually a Dead Man Winter Song and then became a Trampled song is surprising.

DS: I think that's probably going to be the case. I mean, "New Orleans" came out first on a Trampled record a long time before this one.

Will Dead Man Winter be touring?

DS: There is definitely a plan. Trampled has two months off, so we'll be heading to Colorado and then up to Alaska. For me, it's nice to pick and choose. I mean those are really just places where I would like to go. It's kind of why it happened. We're putting the album out and I'd like to do a little touring, and those are two of my favorite places to go, so right now it's really informal like that. Kind of like "Hey, let's go to Colorado for five days".

It's not really as a strategically planned tour as one with Trampled By Turtles, but I would definitely love to keep the possibilities open. I would love to go on tour with this band, it's just that it becomes more of a logistical issue- like with Trampled's schedule, the other band members' schedules, and I mean, to be honest: financially it's hard to take a new band on tour. So you kind of have to make sure that it's worth it and that it makes sense for everybody involved.

It's lot of sacrifices.

DS: It's different now. When Trampled was touring and playing the venues that Dead Man Winter plays, we were all in our early 20's and had very simple and potentially easy lifestyles at home. So it was kind of this group effort like "Well we're going to commit to do this and do it all of the time and just see what happens". Now, that we're all a little older and all of the guys in Dead Man Winter have homes and families and such, it's hard to ask them to leave that for an extended amount of time for little money. It's got to be worth something more. You know, for me it's always fun. But to ask other people to join you in something, I just feel that there's got to be something more in it for them.

Trampled has always been an equal partnership. From the beginning we have always been in it together for the long haul. But Dead Man Winter is my project. So for me to go out and hire a band is something different. Touring is a fun lifestyle but it is also mentally hard. I mean, are these grown men with children at home really willing to go sleep on people's floors and play for ten people every night for a band that might not really be around? It's not really anyone else's number one priority.

So, to answer your question (laughing): Yes, I would love to go out on tour with this band as much as possible in addition to Trampled.

Trampled had quite an exciting summer playing a lot of festival dates. Can you talk a little bit about these experiences?

DS: Sure. For us it has been the most awesome kind of surprise. For the last year and a half something kind of caught with the band. This past summer we just felt blessed because most of these festivals that we got to play were ones that we have been wanting to play for years. I can remember a time when we thought that we never would do these kinds of shows. So going to Coachella, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Winnipeg Folk Festival, and the Newport Folk Festival was just the biggest fucking gas. We just had so much fun.

For a lot of them, we were lucky enough to play decent time slots and good stages, which is always such a crapshoot. Like at Coachella, you probably needed a magnifying glass to find us on the poster (laughing), but we got to play on the main stage which was such a treat. And the response was good- which was great. It was kind of like that all of the time, where the response felt really good everywhere. Plus, all of the festivals were extremely well run. It was just so much fun. You never know how long these kinds of things are going to last, so we're just enjoying the hell out of it right now.

Dave, that is so good to hear. I'm so happy for you guys. Can you talk a little about the next Trampled By Turtles record?

DS: Thanks. Well, we're trying to finalize when we can get back into the studio. It's looking like September we'll start recording. We've been playing a few of the songs live, but I mean just a couple. It's funny, I really don't know what this record is going to sound like. I'm not going to know until we really start working on it and begin recording. I know how the two tunes that we have been playing sound now, but the studio tends to change things so much. It's not like when you're playing live and you only got one quick shot at it. So, we'll see what happens. I don't know yet if a kind of  theme for the record, sonically, will develop or not.

What I can tell you is that we are planning to do the record in an interesting location. We're going to be up at this tiny little town hall in far northern Minnesota and our sound engineer is also our recording engineer, and he's going to be moving his studio into this little building. We wanted to do an interesting recording location this time around anyway, and since our mandolin player and his wife are having a child, he needs to be close to home. Since they live out in the country in Duluth, and this place is out in the country and close by his house, it kind of all works out for everybody.

So we'll do a basic kind of track recording up there with a 16-track tape machine and some pre-amps and that's about it. That's about as much as I know at this point. We'll see how it all works out. We've always had a lot of fun recording and nothing has ever worked out the way I thought it was going to, so I'm really excited about it.

Trampled By Turtles has some dates lined up for the fall already, including the one here in New York that I am looking forward to. Will you be playing any new material on those dates?

DS: Oh, fantastic! Yeah, for sure. Hopefully we'll be playing more of them than we have been. It's kind of funny because this has been the longest we have gone without putting out another album, so we're all kind of itching to put new songs into the live set. There's a mix of interest in trying to hold off on that. I think it's because we do play a lot and especially with the way things are now a days, you can play a show and tomorrow it's up on You Tube already. Those kinds of online videos are not really the first impressions of the new songs that I want people to see. So for us, we try to find a balance between playing a ton of new stuff and playing just enough new songs to keep it all interesting for us and the crowd. But yes, there will definitely be some new songs in the set.

Well Dave, thanks so much for taking the time to discuss Dead Man Winter and sharing some news on Trampled By Turtles. I'm looking forward to Trampled's New York show in November. Good luck with it all.

I appreciate you doing this Chris. Thanks for taking the time, and we'll see you in New York!

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