When the world you’ve known burns down around you, what do you do? Guitarist and songwriter Dave Simonett of bluegrass outfit Trampled By Turtles faced this reality as he stood among the ashes of his 10-year marriage that had just ended, a relationship that started when he was just 19. Looking for some kind of catharsis, Simonett retreated to an isolated cabin in northern Minnesota for a week. He took pens, paper and a commitment to capture his turmoil in song. The end result was the grouping of songs that end up on Furnance, Simonett’s latest release under this solo moniker Dead Man Winter.
Like spring buds popping up through the smoldered destruction from a forest fire, Furnace represents new beginnings for Simonett in a number of ways. It is the first time he chose to detail an intimate part of his life in such vivid, literal terms. It is the first time he approached songwriting with a different process. Probably most consequently, it is the first time he’s put his bread and butter band Trampled By Turtles on hiatus in 14 years to devote his time to a solo project. And for many fans of Trampled By Turtles, it will be the first time they’ve heard Simonett plug in and jam with a full, electric band, something he did with great frequency before Trampled took off.
Furnance is as varied sonically as the various emotions that swirled around Simonett in his winter cabin. “This House Is On Fire” is a lonely, country ballad about the beginning of the end of his relationship, while “Destroyer” is a sprightly, folk rock number with flashes of the Traveling Wilburys shining through the melody. “I Remember This Place Being Bigger” is a quiet, soft meditation that lifts like fog over a lake, one of the prettiest sounding songs Simonett has ever recorded. The end of the album closes in the electric embers of “You Are Out Of Control,” with guitars, organ and drums raging together in dissonance until they finally flicker to an end, like a fire whose exhausted it’s fuel and burned itself out.
The album is a pivotal statement from Simonett as both a person and an artist and Live For Live Music was fortunate enough to talk with Simonett over the phone about the album. Down to earth and genuine, our conversation went from recording Furnance with his new band to Trampled By Turtles’ friendship with Infamous Stringdusters and Greensky Bluegrass to how he wants to grow up and be a ski bum. Read the full interview below.
L4LM: You are releasing Furnace as Dead Man Winter. The album itself captures a significant part of your life in your divorce. But just as an artist who is tasked with making music, what was significant about this album for you?
Dave Simonett: I guess a couple things. The subject matter is one simply because this really is the first time I’ve written a whole record that was really literal about something that happened in my life, you know what I mean? So it was a little bit of a departure from how I’d worked before. Secondly, just kind of a little bit of a break from Trampled By Turtles and doing something with some different guys and different instrumentation. Everything was kind of new I guess, like starting a new band almost.
L4LM: Before you took your hiatus with Trampled, had you been pining to revisit sounds you had been making before the band took off? You had had your own electric band beforehand.
DS: That was a big motivator for sure. I always have done that, even when Trampled was super busy I’ve always had a side project or something and in the last few years it’s been different formations of this band. But I did want to actually release the record and go on tour. Logistically that was just impossible for me to do when Trampled’s touring, cause I got kids at home, whatever, everyone’s got other shit going on. To try and fit a record and a tour in between Trampled’s busy times was just not going to work. So in order to properly do this thing, it took us having to come off the road for a little bit.
L4LM: How does that feel being on your own again?
DS: It’s a mix. There’s a certain amount of excitement for a new thing, and creatively, the longer you do something the harder it is to keep it fresh; a relationship, a band, whatever it is. So on that side of things it is really exciting. But it’s got it’s own level of stress and it’s in an arena that I haven’t really worked professionally in for a very long time, like hiring a band and having it be my thing as opposed to being a part of a group. Even just getting ready and getting the tour lined up has been interesting and I’ve learned a lot already. But mainly I’m just excited to do it.
L4LM: Was the story captured on Furnance, the dissolution of your marriage, was that too personal to be told in a group setting?
DS: No I don’t think it was, not necessarily. I think it was more two things coinciding. The material was there so I had that, but at the same time, I had the desire to make a record with a different group. I think it was just timing. I don’t think I would have had a problem making this a Trampled By Turtles record if that’s where I was in my head. The Trampled guys are family so I can do anything with them and I can share anything with them, but it just worked out that way.
L4LM: You went out to a cabin for about a week to write these songs. It had been something you’d never done before in terms of your writing process. What prompted you to do that, to go off by yourself, if you had never done it before? Was that on a recommendation from someone or were you just trying something new?
DS: It was more of the latter. I had these songs or ideas for songs, I had most of the material boiling in there. But I was having a lot of trouble getting it out. I wrote songs and recorded them and it just wasn’t working. Where I went, in northern Minnesota specifically, but really anywhere in that kind of setting in solitude in the woods in the winter, that’s kind of my peaceful place to go. And I wasn’t in a peaceful place inside so it seemed like the logical thing to do. Got out of the city and just focused. I turned the phone off and just wrote. I kind of always squeezed in songwriting when I could; I think a lot of people work like that. You’re in a van and writing stuff down on a napkin, or for me, I’ll put the kids to bed and stay up late to write. I had time but I never devoted days to do it and it was a really rewarding experience. I’ve actually done it since then too. It’s a little bit intimidating sitting down and saying I’ve got to write for four days, but once I got in the groove it was amazing how freely stuff came out.
L4LM: I was a child of divorce and I’m wondering, if you were a child of divorce, how did that frame your thinking during that time?
DS: Yeah I was, my parents split up when I was 14 or 15 years old. Because it wasn’t necessarily a foreign entity to me I probably had an opinion of what it was, but it was completely inaccurate. I don’t claim to be unique in this experience; I know tons of people who’ve been through divorce. I guess I don’t really know how it shaped it. I don’t want to say that’s any kind of reason why it happened, but I don‘t have anyway of knowing. But I don’t think it helped (chuckles).
My kids definitely went through some stuff, but they’re both very young, five and three now, so they were three and one-and-a-half. So in their world they didn’t have a lot time with us together and they don’t even really remember. So it’s almost merciful in that respect.
L4LM: I wanted to talk little bit about specifics on the album. How did you get the musicians together? Two that stand out are guitarist Erik Koskinen and pianist Bryan Nichols. They added some great texture to the songs throughout.
DS: Thank you. Those are all really good friends of mine from Minneapolis. I play music with these guys off and on in various things. I play on their recordings, they play on mine, for years. It’s part of a group of guys who play in town together and I have tons of respect for all of them, so it was kind of easy. I’ve been playing Dead Man Winter shows for once in a great while, every six months or something, and lately these have been the guys I’ve been calling to play with me. So everyone on the record was my first choice and everyone was able to do it, so it was pretty organic I guess.
L4LM: Do you play any electric guitar on the album or do you stick with the acoustic?
DS: I do a little bit of guitar. Man, I love playing the electric guitar. Actually this is the second version of this record that I made. I made a whole other record initially that I ended up scrapping. It had a bunch of different songs on it and some of these same tunes worked up in a different way. But it was all electric guitar.
L4LM: That would be a cool thing to hear. It actually leads into my next question. The last song, “You Are Out Of Control,” is probably the biggest departure on the album in terms of the music I’ve ever heard you release. I love it, it is so electric. When I was playing it, it kind of melded into this Dead Meadow song that was next. What was the recording process for that?
DS: What is on the record was the first time we ever played the song together. I had the idea for the first part and I knew I kind of wanted it go on for a while, but that was it. So we just started playing and went out. That was actually the only time we’ve played that song together, that take is the only time (laughs). It was just right time, right place in the studio. Everyone just kind of went with whatever they wanted to do and we didn’t feel like we needed to try again.
L4LM: I’m always curious of this of artists who write their own songs. These are songs that obviously come from a very emotional place and raw place. How much of the origin of the song do you revisit when you play it live? In other words, if you wrote a song about your dog dying, how much do you relive on stage and how much is it just a song you wrote and are now performing.
DS: It’s probably right in between the two. The songs I wrote are now from over two years ago, but I also haven’t really played most of them live so I don’t really know. It’s not going to be water works on stage or anything like that. Making the record was an emotional thing, but once you get on stage, your playing these tunes every night. Just being on stage your brain is in so many places. Your trying not to screw up, your thinking about the actual performance and content a little bit more. It’s actually probably a lot easier, a least for me, it’s not the same for everybody. It’s a lot less emotional now.
L4LM: You’re about to go on tour here for the record, your going through April I believe. Once the tour ends are you going to move on to different things or are you going to work this for a little bit?
DS: We’re going to be playing through the summer and we’re looking into some fall things as well. I’ve been doing some touring by myself as well, which has been really fun. Past the record cycle, however long that lasts, I don’t really know. The Trampled guys are going to get back together and see where we are at creatively and if we’re going to make a record when I get back. It’s kind of an unknown right now.
L4LM: You mentioned you’ve been on a couple solo tours. I saw that you recently went on tour in December with Trampled’s banjo player Dave Carrol. It looked like a lot of fun, just some guys cruising around drinking beer, smoking weed and going skiing. What was that like?
DS: (Laughs) It was a blast man. We’ve done it the last three years now. He lives in Steamboat Springs and we just spend a week or ten days or something just cruising around mountain towns in Colorado, it’s the best. I mean, Dave’s one of my best friends and it’s just easy touring, just the two of us driving around in his truck. Really really informal, really low key and its honestly just getting on stage and playing with your buddy. I love doing it, it’s really healthy.
L4LM: Now, you’re also kicking off your tour in February at a ski party. How big of a skier are you?
DS: Yep, I’m a ski bum (laughs). When I grow up all I want to do is ski.
L4LM: What are your favorite mountains?
DS: I’m actually at a resort right now, Lutsen, up in northern Minnesota, which is one of my favorites. It’s not on the scale size wise or elevation wise to Colorado, but it’s a great place. Dave and I skied at Steamboat when I was last out there, that place is great. I think one of my favorites I’ve been to a couple time is Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe.
L4LM: That’s where I’m from.
DS: That’s great. I love it out there. The snow’s great, you usually get a ton of it, the weather’s awesome, it’s just great.
L4LM: One more question for you. Trampled by Turtles was an introduction for me to contemporary string band music, which led to Greensky, Yonder, Travelin McCoury’s, Infamous Stringdusters, all of that stuff. Actually the first time I saw you was when you went on a joint tour with the Stringdusters in Washington D.C. I’m just curious what your relationship is with other string bands like yourselves?
DS: Those two in particular, Greensky and Infamous, are all great friends. We’ve played a lot of music together through the years and we’ve all been doing this for about the same time. We’ve played smaller shows back in the day and bigger shows now and both those bands are probably our closest friends we have in that scene for sure. I mean every time we see each other at festivals its a great thing. All very cool dudes, just traveling the road together.
L4LM: Thanks so much for hopping on the phone and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your time on the mountain.
Dead Man Winter’s Furnace is out this Friday on January 27th, and the full tour dates are listed below. You can also find more information on the Dead Man Winter website.
Dead Man Winter Tour Dates
Feb 3 – Lutsen, MN – GNDWIRE Records Ski Party
Feb 10 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
Feb 17 – Fargo, ND – The Aquarium
Feb 18 – Duluth, MN – Pizza Luce
Feb 19 – Madison, WI – High Noon Saloon
Feb 21 – Philadelphia, PA – The Boot & Saddle
Feb 23 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair
Feb 24 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
Feb 25 – Washington, D.C. – The Hamilton
Feb 26 – Charleston, WV – Mountain Stage
Mar 9 – Menasha, WI – The Source Public House
Mar 10 – Milwaukee, WI – The Pabst Theater
Mar 11 – Chicago, IL – Schubas Tavern
Mar 20 – Bozeman, MT – The Filling Station
Mar 21 – Missoula, MT – Top Hat Lounge
Mar 23 – Seattle, WA – Tractor Tavern
Mar 25 – Portland, OR – Aladdin Theater
Mar 27 – Arcata, CA – Humbrew’s
Mar 28 – San Francisco, CA – Slims
Mar 29 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
Mar 30 – San Diego, CA – Soda Bar
Mar 31 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom
Apr 1 – Santa Fe, NM – The Bridge
Apr 2 – Colorado Springs, CO – Ivywild
Apr 4 – Denver, CO – Bluebird Theater