A city of approximately 86,000, Duluth, Minnesota sits on the western corner of Lake Superior, just two hours and change due north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. It’s a small city, yet its history is long and rich. Duluth was settled by fur traders and copper miners in the early and middle 19th century, and perhaps due to its long, hard winters, it is the home of the world’s first indoor shopping mall: Lake View Store, built in 1915. Today it’s usually overshadowed by the Twin Cities, both culturally and economically, yet Duluth boasts a busy arts scene—in particular a small but vibrant music community.
“It’s a very healthy scene musically, but it’s so small that if you’re in band that’s playing around town, then you probably know everybody else who is in a band that’s playing around town,” says Dave Simonett, vocalist/guitarist/chief songwriter for Trampled by Turtles, a local string band that formed in Duluth in the early 2000s. “It seems like there’s always one or two of each kind of band—metal, indie, country.”
“Duluth is very much an underdog city,” says Alan Sparhawk, founding member of the venerable indie act Low, which formed locally in the early 1990s. “We’re out on the edge of civilization and just far enough away from a fairly sophisticated city to constantly remind you that we’re not really a part of what’s going on. But the scene is just the right size for people to experiment.”
There probably aren’t two more popular or more innovative Duluth acts than Trampled by Turtles and Low, yet the disparity of their music—fast-tempo bluegrass-pop vs. glacially paced indie rock—suggests the breadth of the scene that produced them. Low all but defined the slowcore subgenre in the 1990s, yet have proved such durable musicians and such wily songwriters that they have outlived any and every trend of the last two decades. Founded as an acoustic side project that soon dwarfed its members’ main bands, Trampled by Turtles have become one of the most innovative string bands around, taking a set-up that might sound stale in 2014 (acoustic instruments, lots of strings, a grounding in old time) and making it fresh and distinctive. The musicians from both acts have known and admired each other for years, have seen each other play countless times, and have hung out at spots like the Red Herring. “If you’re playing guitar in a bar around town,” says Simonett, “then you probably know Alan.”
In retrospect, it was inevitable that the two groups would work together in some capacity. And now they have. Sparhawk produced Trampled by Turtles’ new album, Wild Animals, their seventh and you’d say their best if their previous full-lengths weren’t also so damn good. In true Midwestern fashion, the partnership came about somewhat sheepishly. Independent and hard-working, the Turtles had always self-produced their albums, usually recording quickly in a day or two, but they were considering hiring an outsider to helm their latest, if only for a change of pace. “This is our seventh album,” says Simonett, “so how do we continue to grow, at least in our own eyes? We could try to get another perspective in the studio with us.”
Sparhawk agreed that they needed a boost. “I thought they were at a point in their career when they should spend more than two days making a record,” he explains. “I knew it was in their nature. There’s not really anybody in that band that’s bossing anybody else around. It’s a very loose and open thing, but I thought it was worthwhile for them to have an outsider come in. I don’t know whether I was telling them or asking them necessarily, but since I had known them from the beginning, I had a couple of opinions about what they should and shouldn’t do.”
The Turtles and Sparhawk finally convened in January 2014 at the secluded Pachyderm Studio, just outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul. It was the dead of winter, with polar vortices dumping snow all over the Midwest, so the band was sequestered in the middle of nowhere, with no other place to go. “We went in and I had them set up in a circle so we could try different ways of setting up amps and pick-ups and things like that,” says Sparhawk. “At the center of the circle was a stereo mic that became the anchor—the starting point for the music. I wanted to try to find that point where it sounds like music and not like four guys trying to play music.”
Immediately, someone came down with the flu and passed it around the band. “Everybody started getting extremely sick,” Simonett recalls. “Someone had to sit out the sessions every day. I think the only people who didn’t get sick were me, [mandolin player] Erik [Berry], and Alan. We’re the ones who have kids, so maybe we had built up an immunity.”
What might have ruined the sessions instead became a useful tactic for dividing the musicians up and rethinking their roles in the band. Recording in relatively piecemeal fashion—often with Ryan Young’s fiddle tracked separately—they had more time to reflect on arrangements, to heighten the atmosphere in the music, to get things right. “I can say this because I’m one of the ones that didn’t get sick, but it was one of the most enjoyable recording sessions I’ve ever had,” says Simonett.
The band didn’t have to sacrifice their identity to move forward, either. Despite that outside perspective, Wild Animals certainly sounds like a Trampled by Turtles album. It’s full of heartfelt lyrics, indelible melodies, sharp picking and strumming and the kinds of musical flourishes that distinguish the band from so many of their peers. Yet, there are new tricks on here, like the tensile fiddle drone that provides the backdrop for the title track or the bass dirge that pushes “Lucy” along so steadily. “I wouldn’t say I was skeptical,” says Simonett. “I just didn’t know how it was going to work. We’ve been doing this for so long that sometimes it’s hard to accept that big a change. But I think the first test would be to try it again.”