Trampled by Turtles takes KY by storm Derby Weekend

Article by Matt Wickstrom
Photos by Tom Wickstrom and Kim Blackburn

Minnesota’s finest Trampled by Turtles, Devil Makes Three and Elephant Revival combined for the ultimate trifecta in Louisville over Kentucky Derby weekend for a sold out show at Iroquois Amphitheater. Before the show I was able to sit down for a chat with TBT’s mandolinist Erik Berry.

 

Matt Wickstrom: “I’ve gotta start out by saying that mandolin is probably my favorite bluegrass instrument. I’m a huge banjo fan too, but mandolin has such a beautiful, distinct sound that draws me in every time. How did you first get started playing mando, and did you mess around on any other instruments prior to the mandolin?”

Erik Berry: “Yeah, I was a pretty serious guitar player. I actually went to college as a classical guitar major. Somewhere along the line I’d have musician friends who were in bands with a bass player that could never make it. It was one of those things where they were like “Hey Berry! I know you can come in and nail these songs in one rehearsal. Can you help us out?” And I loved that; didn’t expect it either because I was a jazz and classical guitar player and I’m playing bass in a rock band. It was pretty rad.”

“A few years go by, and I had the opportunity to buy a mandolin at a local antique shop for cheap, so I just did, because to be honest I was tired of being the seventh guy with a guitar around the camp fire. [Begins picking on mandolin] …And this thing is smaller. What I’ve found too is those cool bass lines that I love playing I can still play on the mandolin, but they don’t sound like bass lines, so you can play them with a guitar player, and it’s kind of like a lead part but it’s also not. There’s also that percussion, so I can play chords. It seems like everything I’ve ever wanted to do on it I could do on it, I just wish it was a little lower pitch, but…”

MW: “Now how many mandolins have you gone through since picking that first one up from the antique shop?”

EB: “Quite a few. That first one is long gone. It’s replacement is long gone, and so is it’s replacement, but then we start getting into ones that I still have. I think I still own less than ten.”

Tom Wickstrom: “How many do you take on tour?”

EB: “Four.”

MW: “If you had your own hypothetical Mt. Rushmore of mandolin players, who would you have etched into it?”

EB: “Bill Monroe, Mike Compton, David Grisman, and the fourth one would keep changing. Right now that fourth one would be Andy Statman. I’ve known who he is for a long time, but it wasn’t until this last winter when I really started checking him out, so right now he’s number four, but it’s a revolving door, and a lot of non-mandolin players go there too as well. A lot of guitar players go there. Ralph Stanley’s there, although he plays banjo. A big influence on how I play bluegrass music on the mandolin is by listening to how Ralph Stanley picks it on the banjo.”

MW: “Trampled by Turtles has released seven studio albums I believe, the last being 2014s “Wild Animals”. Would you say the recording process grows easier the more you work through it?”

EB: “Yes and no. For me personally, I’ve enjoyed it more. I’ve gotten more comfortable with not being a perfectionist, and I’ve gotten more comfortable with the imperfections of a first or second take. I myself now have more ability to step up to the plate when the tape is rolling and deliver something I’m happy with, but in many ways it’s still sort of the same thing. It’s like “Oh my gosh! That’s what we sound like?” …And then some of the records have been more experimental than others, trying the studio out as an instrument itself. “Wild Animals” had a lot of that going on.”

MW: “I can’t remember who said it, but I saw a quote somewhere from someone in the band saying you all experimented extensively with harmonies for “Wild Animals”?”

EB: “Yeah. We had Alan Sparhawk producing that, and he was really just not shy about telling us to do something or not do something. I remember at one point on the track “Wild Animals” he was being very specific to all of us about how to play. There’s a bunch of mics and stuff up, and we’re not even using headphones, we’re listening to each other in real-time, and he’s like “Maybe you should listen to what we’re doing”. So we walked in an were like “Woah! Listen to all that reverb and delay and everything. Maybe I should have some headphones on.” And pretty soon thereafter, the following take I believe, is what made it onto the record. He played it for us, then we went out and put ‘phones on and played it ourselves, and that’s the one. There’s a lot of him pushing us. On the track “Wild Animals”, there’s this part where I go [Begins fast strumming, ending with a single, suttle pluck of the string] you know, and that was all Alan (Statman). He told me to do that. He was like “I want you to this, I want you to do that. I want you to let that chord ring, I don’t want you to play anything while it’s ringing, just let it ring…” He was really particular with what he wanted us to do, which is why we wanted him there, so it all worked out.”

MW: “With “Wild Animals” being almost two years old, do you have any plans to hop back in studio, or is your main focus currently geared toward touring?”

EB: “Touring. We are trying to dust off some of the older songs we haven’t played in a while.”

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Photo by Tom Wickstrom

MW: “In terms of set lists, do you guys go into each show with songs already planned out, or are the sets improvised while you’re performing?”

EB: “A bit of both. Generally how we go about it is 85 percent of the material show to show is the same, but where it appears in the set list is subject to change, and then the other 15 percent is a rotating thing. Lately we’ve been mixing things up a bit more, so it might be closer to 75-25.”

MW: “Have you been mixing in any Prince covers? I know he’s also a Minnesotan who had a huge impact on the area.”

EB: “We’ve been doing “Nothing Compares 2 U”.

MW: “What has Prince’s music and overall legacy meant to Trampled by Turtles?”

EB: “I hate to date myself here, but I was ten years old when “Purple Rain” came out, and it was pretty amazing to hear guitar like that on the radio. In the early 80s it wasn’t really a guitar-oriented pop scene, and I was a kid so I listened to pop. I remember “Lets go Crazy” coming out and thinking “This is awesome! Woooooow!” I never actually considered myself a diehard Prince fan though. I enjoyed his music, but didn’t own his records or anything. I was surprised by how much his death impacted so many people. We had the Minnesota Public Radio going the whole time it was happening and that was all they could talk about. My wife and I sat around listening to all of it in awe.”

MW: I feel like I’m kind of in the same boat. I never listened to Prince a whole lot, and unfortunately it took his untimely death for me to realize the power of his music and how much he meant to so many people.”

EB: “My favorite Prince tune is “Sign of the Times”. I had a solo gig like two days after he died and I played that on the mandolin.”

MW: “Over your years of playing solo and with Trampled by Turtles and other projects, what is one thing music has taught you about yourself?”

EB: “Well, I have been rather struck by how when I wasn’t a professional musician how important playing music was, and now that I am a professional musician how easy it is to backburner it. A lot of it too is that I’m a dad, but I was a professional musician first, so I never worked my straight or day job and been a dad, so I don’t know if I’d like that less or not. Then this last winter I learned I need to be playing more music back on the homefront. I don’t really know how to articulate it, but it’s like being 27 and working as a cook at a restaurant like “Man I can’t wait to get outta here!” and then being on tour wanting to get back home to play catch with your kid.”

MW: What’s it like being away from your family for months at a time on tour?”

EB: “It’s tough, but I’m home a lot too. Everyone likes to say “It must be hard”, and it’s all hard. When you have to put on a tie and go sit in an office and you’re away from your kids doing that, it can’t be easy. I had a friend who used to climb power lines and do maintenance and repairs. Our wives would have the same conversations together about us being away from home working, but when we’d get together and he told me about how he had to climb power lines in the rain and wind to work on stuff, which made me realize I’ve got it pretty good going around and playing music.”

MW: “Thank you for your time Erik!”

 

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