How Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy Polished Trampled by Turtles’ Overdue Album
Of course, Trampled by Turtles could have made a record during its long COVID-forced hiatus from touring. In fact, the guys have booked some studio time in the fall of 2020 at a reputedly remote facility in West Texas.
They are certainly happy now that those plans have fallen apart.
“We’re a band that all record in the same room next to each other,” singer/guitarist Dave Simonett explained. “It just wouldn’t have worked out well if we were all in masks and still tense and scared about the virus.”
With noticeable glee, the Trampled frontman added, “Also, if we had done it then, we wouldn’t have made this record with Jeff.”
Jeff Tweedy, that is to say the conductor of Wilco. Minnesota’s most beloved American folk/bluegrass band has recruited the lead singer of perhaps the most beloved American rock band in the world to serve as producer for their new album.
Titled “Alpenglow” and released on Friday, the 11-song collection is Trampled’s first record in four years. It will also likely become the band’s most beloved LP since 2012’s “Stars and Satellites,” the one that made the Duluth-bred all-acoustic sextet national festival stars and outdoor circuit.
In songs like cigarette-stained “Quitting Is Rough,” “All the Good Times Are Gone,” and “Burlesque Desert Window”—each peppered with lyrics about settling down and appreciating what you have—the band’s chord-playing sounds looser and more soulful (think: “Music From Big Pink”), while their expansive Gitche Gumee vocal harmonies sound more fiery and precise.
The band members credit Tweedy for making them rethink their arrangements and for insight into their songwriting process. But they also cite the fact that they waited to record after back on the road in 2021 after the longest break of their 19-year career as a band.
“Honestly, we’re having more fun than ever,” Simonett said.
Tweedy got to see that camaraderie firsthand when Wilco and Trampled co-hosted three Midwest dates in September 2021, including a blustery concert at Treasure Island Resort & Casino Amphitheater in Red Wing.
Trampled is finally playing its first post-COVID gig in the Twin Cities proper at the Minneapolis Armory November 26 a mid-term ride home on the fall hike behind “Alpenglow”.
In a provided statement, the Wilco frontman said, “I appreciate TBT’s musicality and ability to stay true to a genre, while stretching that same genre. It’s like you have to infiltrate it before you can separate it.
“They also have a brotherly thing, which is always a good feeling.”
The recording sessions took place in late 2021 at Chicago’s Loft, where Wilco has recorded all of his records since “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” in 2001. Simonett described the warehouse studio as filled with “a incredible range of guitars” and “the kind of heavy vibe you imagine”.
“All of that really suited us because the room itself is just one big room,” the singer continued. “We got there, and they only had six chairs in a circle, and that was it. The place was ready to go. It was so comfortable that most of the time we didn’t even have feel like recording.”
The setting was so informal, Simonett said, that Tweedy unwittingly got credit for playing guitar on several tracks: “He would just come out from behind the console and start strumming, maybe he was showing us some ideas .A lot of those parts hurt on the record.”
As a producer, Tweedy is known for only working with artists he really likes (see also: Mavis Staples, Richard Thompson) and for not doing much to change the sonic DNA of his subject matter. Another prime example of this Minnesota outing is Low’s minimalist 2013 album fronting Tweedy, “The Invisible Way.”
“Alpenglow” certainly follows this pattern. It’s still all acoustic, still filled with warm harmonies and fiery string flourishes (standout: violinist Ryan Young’s outro on “Quitting Is Rough”) — still unmistakably turtle-stomped. It’s just a great example.
“A band with our limited instrumentation – and having 20-year-old musical habits – really benefited from Jeff saying, ‘How about trying that instead?’ “, said stomped bassist Tim Saxhaug.
“Arrangements of songs like ‘It’s So Hard to Hold On’ and ‘All the Good Times Are Gone’ would sound much more ‘typical TBT’ without him. The intro to ‘It’s So Hard’ is all Jeff. Didn’t exist , and we wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t recorded there with him. And that’s one of my favorite parts of the album.
Simonett said much of Tweedy’s contribution also came early on, as he helped Trampled’s lead songwriter polish the songs before hitting “Record” in the studio.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, why don’t you try that instead?’ carried a little bit of extra weight coming from him,” Simonett said. “It’s not that I’m that valuable for this stuff, but when the advice comes from one of your favorite songwriters of all time … .”
Tweedy also chose one of his own songs, “A Lifetime to Find”, as the one that would benefit from Trampled’s unique touch. Wilco later recorded the ode to death for his double album ‘Cruel Country’, but it fits ‘Alpenglow’ like a well-worn glove.
“I loved the song and the storytelling in it, the phrasing,” Simonett said. “I love recording other people’s songs all the time, and in this case, it was really cool to sit down with the person who wrote it, hear them talk about it, and work with them on it.”
Simonett said his own songwriting for this record was slow at first, as it started early in the COVID lockdown.
Summarizing many lyrical “Alpenglow” themes – including his own personal rebound into newly fused family life during the pandemic – the Trampled leader said the hope he felt once his band came out of lockdown is one more reason why it is fortunate that this record has been set for an entire year.
“Everyone in our group lost their jobs during the pandemic, and things got so dark everywhere,” he said. “But there were a lot of lovely things going on in my personal life that outweighed all the ugliness in the world.
“Once all the darkness started to fade – at least a bit – and we were able to play some shows again, I started writing a lot more. This record was kind of born out of that blending of so many good things compensating for the bad.”
Trampled by turtles
New album: “Alpenglow” available Friday in stores, on streaming sites or on trampledbyturtles.com.
In concert: Nov. 26 at the Armory, Mpls., with Charlie Parr, $52-$72, ticketmaster.com.