Punk rockers don't die, they just go acoustic.
While that's not exactly a great T-shirt slogan (and certainly would elicit some scowls from old-school punkers still plying their trade), it is something of a recent trend within the bluegrass realm, with bands like Split Lip Rayfield, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Trampled by Turtles leaving their punk and rock roots behind for successful forays into the world of twangy acoustic music.
Trampled by Turtles, though 10 years old, is the latest band to stand in the spotlight with its recent album, Stars and Satellites, landing on top of the bluegrass charts. But it wasn't always this way for the band from Duluth, Minnesota. When the five-piece first unplugged and got together, it was just to do something different.
"There were no real expectations except that we wanted to get together when we had time and play our acoustic instruments in the living room," banjo player Dave Carroll says by phone. "Once we started doing that a few times, we realized we had something more we wanted to work on."
Still, many of the rock and punk elements already flowing through their veins carried over. With little recourse, TxT embraced the "speedgrass" label, playing original and traditional bluegrass songs frequently at breakneck speeds. The concept worked well in concert, as audiences moshed over screaming acoustic guitar or mandolin solos worthy of a Metallica record. The band even tried to emulate that live feel on record, though it often led to the songs being played even faster in concert.
"Some of the songs we recorded we learned to play live faster and faster," Carroll says. "On Palinono, we actually played them slower but [couldn't help but] learn to play them faster."
Carroll insists, however, that the slower songs from Stars and Satellites will stay slow.
"The slower ones are made to be played straight," he says. "'Walt Whitman' we play just a little faster than how we recorded it, but it's an uptempo song anyway. The ones that are meant to be waltzes or slower ones we'll keep that way. It gives the audience a break and a chance to catch their breath. And it gives us a break, too, because we don't feel like our arms are going to fall off."
The entire process in creating Stars and Satellites was different, Carroll says. The band sequestered itself in a remote Minnesota log cabin "full of angles and warmth" and set about making a more traditional, albeit contemporary, bluegrass album. The band slept, ate, and recorded at the cabin without distraction. The result is a laid-back set of songs with a delicacy and calm surpassing anything the band has done in the past, one that allows the nuances of each track to stand out rather than wash out.
"That was definitely a conscious effort to make a record that really could breathe," Carroll says. "It was really relaxing and we just learned the songs as we went along, as opposed to trying to recreate the live feel as we had with the previous records. We've really evolved from the first one, where we were just trying to get a feel for it. Once we had a couple in the bag, we wanted to capture our live sound with some faster stuff. Then, for this one, we wanted to get a little more mellow."
Mellow on record, perhaps, but on stage Trampled By Turtles still kicks acoustic butt. After all, ex-punkers, even ones doing bluegrass, can only slow down for so long.