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Exploring Yonder Mountain String Band

06:01 PM Friday 4/8/11 | |

Talking with members of Yonder Mountain String Band is something akin to going on a road trip with longtime friends who spend the time bantering and joking. That is, when they’re not carving out a career as one of the more unique groups on the touring circuit today.

YMSB consists of Jeff Austin (mandolin, vocals) Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals), Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals) and Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals). Founded in 1998, the band came together when Austin and Johnston happened to meet Kaufmann and Aijala one night in a tavern in Nederland, Colo.

Since that fateful evening YMSB has toured with Dave Matthews Band, sold out Denver’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre and even warmed up for a future president when it played the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Pollstar recently spoke with Austin and Kaufmann in a conversation that varied from Marx Brothers-like quips to comments on how the group creates a sound derived from bluegrass, country and folk and then mixes it up with rock and even a little R&B for an end result defining the Yonder Mountain String Band.

Is Yonder Mountain String Band a rock band playing bluegrass or a bluegrass band that sounds like a rock band?

Ben: It feels like I’m in a rock band even when we play bluegrass. It is what you think it is, what you believe it is. I always wanted to be in a rock band. I look over and see a mandolin, a banjo and an acoustic guitar, but I feel like I’m in a rock band. I used to feel like I was in a bluegrass band. I don’t know if that’s the nature of the volume we achieve in a live show. Bass isn’t a traditional bluegrass bass sound. I was always aiming at that 1970s Ampeg sound and that’s a rock and roll sound.

Has it always been acoustic or do electric instruments manage to sneak in at times?

Jeff: Sometimes when we play with a drummer. A couple of years ago for New Year’s Eve we had The Lee Boys with us and we did a set of Stevie Wonder kind-of music and Adam played electric guitar. Every now and then we’ve had guests play electric with us. But, with the exception of Ben, we pretty much stay on the same instruments.

Ben: Every now and then I play electric bass, maybe once or twice a night. I love playing electric bass because I grew up with it. But it really depends on what the song wants. For some of those maybe poppier stuff, I prefer the sound of the electric bass. I think maybe a lot of them [the audience] would prefer we have no amplification, just sit around and play acoustic instruments in a room for 10 people for the rest of our lives. That would be their ideal show.

Is every decision a group decision?

Jeff: It’s pretty democratic. Four heads working are better than one. Our house engineer has been with us for about 10 years so his input is just as strong as anyone who holds an instrument onstage. It’s also helpful because you get such a variation in the songwriting. Use Wilco for example. You have got a great band and a great songwriter, but you know it’s going to be [Jeff] Tweedy’s music. The other guys in the band may help him out but it’s kind of going to be his show and he’s going to call the shots.

Every one of us writes and has a passion for it. That’s why we’ve gone with that approach. It really allows the band to have different voices throughout the course of a show.

How would you describe Yonder Mountain String Band to someone who has never seen or heard the group?

Ben: The first thing I would say, is you have to see Yonder live. That’s the first thing on the list of how to get to know this band. So you go see them live, and take five people randomly from the crowd and ask what album I should get and see if you get some kind of consensus. Every one of our shows exists online and you can download them from an archive site for free. If you’re interested, you saw us and liked what you saw and heard, and you want to find out what we sounded like a year ago, what we played last week or what we sounded like on our first show ever, you can find that stuff. It’s an historical record.

If someone has never heard us before, you can expect a band that looks like a bluegrass band in the sense that it has these acoustic, traditional instruments. You’re going to get volumes that are rock ‘n’ roll volumes. Nobody is sitting down. It’s a big party. Don’t expect your expectations to be correct. I dunno, Jeff. You ever figure out how to answer this one?

Jeff: It’s a big fuckin’ party. You better come with shoes tied tight because it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen for a long, long time. We don’t do a 75-minute set, thank everybody and come out for an encore or two. That’s our first set, about an hour and a half. Expect the unexpected and get ready to have a big fuckin’ party. That’s what our shows are.

Was that always the plan when Yonder Mountain formed, or did it evolve organically?

Jeff: It really evolved organically. When we first got together there were attempts at the time to be the best little bluegrass band we could be. Then, as we got together and played, we really liked playing the traditional bluegrass stuff. Then we started feeling our way to who we were and what kind of music we were going to play. Discovering segueing songs into one another. Two of the first tunes we learned was a tune of Ben’s and a tune of mine that had a lot of breadth [and] a lot of places where a guy could let it fly.

There was a place in San Francisco called the Club Cocodrie. I don’t even know if it’s still open anymore. We played there in 2000. The band actually got together in late ’98. That night in San Francisco I think was one of the first times we stretched stuff out and said, “Let’s play. Let’s take this song and make it go into that song.” That was the organic development of what we sound like now.

And we never put limits on it. In the beginning we were kind of like, “We’ll play bluegrass music and sing in tight harmonies and everything.” Once we let go of that while still holding on to the tradition and the coolness of the harmonies, songs and the context of the tunes, that’s when we became ourselves and started sounding like Yonder Mountain.

Were you friends who already enjoyed playing together and went on to start a band, or did you come together with the intention of starting a band?

Jeff: That was always the intention. I saw Ben play in a band he was in. Dave and I were in a band in Illinois and Adam was playing a couple of tiny gigs around town with some buddies. So, when we got together, it was definitely, “Let’s be a band.” When we first asked Adam, “Hey do you want to be in a band with me, Ben and Dave,” it wasn’t, “Hey, let’s sit around and jam.” It was “Let’s be in a band and let’s do this.”

I think all of us were young, single, didn’t own a house, maybe owned a car and had a job we were willing to part with. It really set itself up well. It wasn’t “I got a house and two kids” or “I have a job, I’m helping with my dad’s grocery store or whatever.” The intention was always to hit the road. We had very open discussions about that when we first got together just to make sure we were all in this.

What were some of the jobs band members had to give up?

Jeff: Dave and I worked in a kitchen. Ben, didn’t you work on a support line?

Ben: Basically, let’s say you have an insurance question and you worked for a company like IBM. There were dozens of companies. If you didn’t understand the insurance [details] you would call this number and you would talk to me. Then I would call the insurance companies and talk to my people over there and basically make sure people weren’t getting fucked. It wasn’t a terrible job, but it still sucked because anything for me other than playing music would suck.

I would say the person who gave up the most was Adam. He was on unemployment from an injury from when he worked with the Forest Service. So he had it pretty cush.

Jeff: We really did live off of Adam’s paychecks for a while. He hurt himself on a government job. There were times when we went out on tour and go, “Alright, we made about $400 over three weeks. Now, what are we going to do?” Adam did have to give up a lot, but in the end I don’t think he minded.

Ben: It was a genuine injury. It was knee surgery. He fucked himself up pretty good.

Jeff: To this day it [the injury] still bothers him.

Ben: The truth is from the minute we got into this bar in Nederland where we met, we all started playing this one song. And from the minute we hit those harmonies, I knew. I was sure there was going to be hard parts, but knowing there would be didn’t prepare me for how difficult and challenging at times this lifestyle is. But I never doubted we would succeed. I can’t see into the future. My actual dreams don’t come true, thank God. Otherwise we’d be ruled by biped-talking German Shepherds wearing army hats. That’s not a good scene.

But I always knew it would happen. I always knew it would work, that this was the right thing. You just gotta figure what kind of planetary alignment has to be the case where four people living in different places show up in the same bar, play different instruments that complete the whole. They all sing, they all write songs, they weren’t married, they didn’t have kids. They didn’t have some kick-ass job at IBM. All these factors had to fall in place for us to even say, “Let’s try.” 12 years later, we can look back on it, and go, “Wow.” It’s going to be more towards the end of my life before I can look back and make sense of it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because of complete foolishness or maybe it was because I was so young that it was the best thing I had ever been a part of and had shown the most promise. But I never doubted. I always thought we’d be here 12 years later, playing shows and writing music.

After playing together for 12 years, in moments when you’re not performing live, recording, or rehearsing, do you still find time to play just for the enjoyment of playing together?

Jeff: Oh, yeah. Over the last month when we had time off, we would get together and work on some tunes together, new stuff and do some writing together. The thrill of discovery at those rehearsals was pretty cool to see. It’s a long, hard road and people change, go through things and make changes in their lives. We’ve been up and down, here and there. Shit, anybody who has spent 12 years together is going to have that. And the spot we’re in now, it’s a really cool thing to get together and just play. “Let me show you this tune. Let me show you that song. Check this out.”

Ben: It definitely still exists. It’s really good right now. It’s really fun.

When you do get together after a break, do you ever find yourselves playing songs you just heard on the radio or TV just for fun? Is it ever that spontaneous?

Jeff: We try to make each other laugh a lot. We’re pretty good at making each other laugh, playing stupid little songs we’ve made up. We have more inside jokes during a show than a lot of bands. It’s pretty good stuff. It adds such a nice portion of levity to the whole thing of being professional and giving the audience your all. It’s nice to have these moments when you can laugh at each other, laugh at something stupid that went on or someone in the crowd that’s cracking you up.

Most of what we do is spontaneous. There are bands that go out there and have the same jokes, the same dialog between songs. We try to avoid that. We might hit on something like a cool little joke or a phrase we really dig and stick with that for a while, but there’s a ton of spontaneity in the music.

What’s a bigger thrill? Being in the moment while performing on stage –that is, being in that zone where everything works wonderfully and the playing is superb, or walking offstage after having one of those moments knowing you really nailed it?

Ben: They’re both good and in order to appreciate them the most you have to be in the moment. The trick is when you’re performing, and it’s the best sort of thing and you’re really in the moment, some part of conscious awareness is not in control any more. [It’s] more like floating on the river, going where it takes you. I’ve heard musicians talk about losing track of time. Your conscious mind lets control go to some other place.

I learned a long time ago not to get too proud of myself for what I thought was a great show. Invariably, I’d go up to someone and say, “That was so awesome. That was great.” And I would get a response like, “Was it?”

Now I say, “I had a great time.” Or, “That was the best time. It felt so good,” without having to categorize it as the greatest thing since indoor TV. Really being in the moment, I find the awareness of the moment goes away. They’re both equally magical. I guess if I had to pick, being in the moment playing that music, having that interaction of energy and sound and movement with the audience. That’s probably my favorite. Afterwards, you’re coming down off of the high. Depending on the show, it’s taken me days to come down. Being in the moment is probably better, because it’s all happening. Then after the moment, you’re probably going, “Wow, I’m tired.”

Yonder Mountain String Band has used drummers from time to time. Do you ever get any flack from purists complaining that drums don’t belong in bluegrass?

Jeff: There’s Yonder Mountain purists that make a fuss about it. “Yonder with drums? That’s not the Yonder Mountain I like.” This is always my favorite, [fans saying] “Yonder Mountain music is supposed to…”

Now, wait a minute. Only the music itself can determine what it’s going to sound like. I love it when people try to get up on their high horse and say, “Yonder back in 2002, they’d probably never used drums.” Really? Don’t you have anything better to bitch about? But it’s kind of complimentary.

Ben: What I learned the other day is our manager used to manage Earl Scruggs for 30 years. And Earl, when he wasn’t playing with Bill Monroe and he had the Earl Scruggs Revue, he always played with drums. The master and innovator of the five-string banjo, the guy without which, none of this happens, he had drums in his band, basically forever. So whenever one of those bluegrass purists start to get a little uppity, I say, “What do you think of Earl Scruggs?” [They’ll say] “Love him, blah, blah, blah.” And I’m like, “Yeah, he was, wasn’t he” Okay, I’m going to leave you now. And I’ll just take my information and go over here and I’ll let you maybe figure it out one day.” He had drums in the band. The godfather of bluegrass banjo. So, what the fuck? That’s history, man. You should know your history, for these people who complain. And they do. Oh, boy do they.

But there is a history of drums in music with these instruments in it. When you add drums to it, is it bluegrass? I would say no. But then again, I’d say unless you’re Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury Band or Jimmy Martin whose passed on, then you’re not really bluegrass anyway.

Is there something you’ve wanted to tell the world about Yonder Mountain String Band?

Ben: This is the thing for me, the challenge, I think, is that even though we’ve been together for 12 years, because it is such an underground thing, so many people still don’t know who we are. The thing I’d love is there to be an occasion for everyone to see the band. There’s a really special thing that’s happening here, a unique thing. Is it for everybody? I don’t know that anything is for everybody. But I think it’s a pretty interesting thing and I’d love for people for whatever reason to be able to go and see it.

[For instance] take the community of people called Deadheads who like The Grateful Dead. There’s such a parallel between musical influences, the crowd and the vibe, but if you asked 99 Grateful Dead fans if they ever heard of Yonder Mountain String Band, I’ll bet they’d say, “No.” That’s crazy. So, that’s the big thing for me. I’ve got to figure out a way to sneak inside everybody’s dreams and plant suggestions. That’s not illegal, is it? I’ll just use the traditional method of subliminal advertising in commercials.

Tickets for Yonder Mountain String Band’s Aug. 20 headlining performance at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre go on sale April 9 at 10 a.m. local time. Tickets are currently on sale for the band’s Harvest Music Festival in Ozark, Ark., Oct. 14-16.

Currently touring in support of 2009’s The Show, YMSB will release a new album in the fall. Upcoming shows include Missoula, Mont., at the Wilma Theatre April 8; Seattle’s Showbox At The Market April 9; Eugene, Ore., at the McDonald Theatre April 10 and Bend, Ore., at Midtown Rink April 13;

For more information, click here for the Yonder Mountain Band website and here for recordings of the band’s past shows posted at the Internet Archive.