Interview: Yonder Mountain String Band

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Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band has forged their career the old-fashioned way, with blistering live shows that feature extended jams, original sets and tons of energy. The quartet also know a thing or two about musical instruments: FJ readers will remember YMSB's Jeff Austin writing about his Nugget mandolin in FJ #18. The group recently came through Seattle and we sat down to talk about their gear, their live shows, their Northwest String Summit and the perils of playing Telluride.

Fretboard Journal: You guys are in the midst of your tour right now. What gear are you using?

Jeff Austin: I play an '84 Nugget, Eldora-made, my [Mike] Kemnitzer. It's my pride and joy. Her name is "Heart Attack." 

She gives me a heart attack every time I take it out of the case. I have a Collings MF-5, made a couple years ago, put together actually by [Bill] Collings. That was great. Then Drew Emmitt sold me this, his old Nugget. He had bought the mandolin years ago; I was there when he bought it. I said, "If you ever want to sell that, and you don't sell it to me, I will find you... " (laughs)

So he called me a couple years ago, and I've owned it since '08.  Love it. Wouldn't play anything else.

Dave Johnston: I'm playing a Stealth banjo by Scott Vestal. Just got it a year ago in October. Scott's a good builder and I like and enjoy playing it. 

Adam Aijala: I bring two D1 Collings out, which have the mahogany body, basically, the D-18 version of a Collings. One of them is about three-years-old; the one I'm playing tonight is — I think it's an '05-'06. But I got them both brand new. They work real well with pickups that we use, and whatnot. So I'm happy with that.

Ben Kaufmann: I play an Eminence upright bass, made by Gary Bartig in the Twin Cities. I run a couple different pickups through it, and we've modified them a little bit. I play through Ampeg gear exclusively. For what we do, with the amplification volumes that we get, I find that a proper upright — a full-size upright bass — when you amplify it, the overtones are also, obviously, amplified. So, with this smaller-bodied, skinner bass, you get more of a true fundamental. You eliminate the overtones. We run two pickups: one for the real low-end stuff, and then one that'll pick up more high-end and fingerboard noise, so you can approximate the sound. I just love it. 

FJ: I would imagine your concerts would be brutally hard on gear. Do you always have a backup instrument waiting? 

JA: We all travel with backup instruments, definitely. I get my stuff checked out pretty regularly by Woodsongs Lutherie, in Boulder, Colorado — John Eaton and Mike Stephens. Stephens, has been working on my mandolins for 11-12 years now. I use Baggs for a pickup, and I step into a Neumann mic for solos and stuff.

DJ: On the Stealth, I have a Fishman Rare Earth. That's a pretty good pickup. And then I've got a Jerry Jones in my other banjo. But I think I like the Rare Earth better.

JA: It's all about pushing the volume. Like tonight, in Seattle, it's sold out. To reach the back of the house, in a room this size. Or at a Red Rocks, you know, it's 10,000 people, or at Bonnaroo where you've got 50,000 people! You've got to push the volume, and the gear's part of it, but it's also our front house engineer, Ben Heinz. 

Last year we did the festival called the All Good Music Festival. We played after Widespread Panic, and we were louder than Widespread Panic. Our db meter read higher than them!

You know, it's part gear and part his skill of taking what we do and amplifying it cleanly to the masses. It's not like it's a mush; it's very separated.

FJ: We're backstage at your venue, it's a half-hour before your sound check. You're going to play a show in a few hours. How do you approach a gig? How do you figure out your setlist?

AA:  Set lists are basically are different every night; we never play the same show. What we play depends on what we played the last time we were in town. So we're looking at the set list of the last time we were in Seattle. No repeats.

JA: Tonight, there'll be a group of people that are on tour with us, and there'll be a group of people that are doing the whole Northwest chunk. But for probably 50-70% percent of the audience, this is where they have to see us. They don't get to travel somewhere else, they see us in Seattle. If we come through and we do maybe the same jam session, or segue pieces that we did last year, that's just lame, you know? We're coming into town, we should give them a different show. 

We will be looking at the set list of what we played last time. Not only that, we'll be looking at the show we have to play tomorrow night in Eugene. We can say, "Okay, so played this in Eugene last time; we didn't play it here.  So there we go," we put in the place, you know. 

It can be a mental workout.

And the other thing is that on this tour alone, we are introducing new songs. Tonight we'll play two brand new songs that I don't think have ever been played. We'll play a couple that we've maybe only played once, and we're putting almost 15-plus songs into the rotation on this tour alone. And that's not even all the material that we have; we could put 20 new songs in the tour. 

We try to be very conscious of giving the audience the best show that they can have, whether they can travel or whether they can't; whether they're doing this entire tour with us, or "It's my Saturday night, I'm going out, and me and the wife are hitting the Yonder show." We want to make sure that we don't just go up there and kind of go through the motions. That's never been who we are. 

FJ: With all these fans following you on the road, do you end up bumping into them randomly on the street all the time? 

JA: I was just at the [Pike Place] Market and ran into a big crew of 'em. Then I was walking with a good friend of mine and—and they were, "Jeff—Jeff." I've learned to sometimes not turn, because you just never know. I just ran into some people who are doing this whole run with us: they were in Montana. That's amazing, you know, that's a lot of energy.

FJ: You're on the road so much. Do you mostly write your songs on the road, too?

BK: It's probably different for everybody. I find that I don't write well on the road, everything is sort of focused on performing the songs that, you know, just basically not making mistakes and doing that. So I'm really focused on live performance. At home, I guess I tend to relax a little bit more, and my mind's not so busy with other things, like where is the bus parked? What city are we in?

AA: In the past, it's been pretty much wherever. I don't usually plan on writing, so sometimes it's on the road: I can think of a handful of songs that are new or that I've written part of on the road, and then finished at home. I don't know that I've written an entire song on the road, but I can't say for sure.

We were home in March, and the four of us got together maybe two or three times, but I got together with Dave a couple times, with Ben and Jeff different times. We did more writing last month than we've done in a while, mostly at Dave's house 'cause he's got the little guy there. It's just an easier to place to meet. The last two months have been really productive. 

JA: [At home], I know how my espresso machine works. I know when I start pacing, I know something's gonna come. But writing on the road can also be fun, too, because you get all these different stimulus — from fans, to shows, to live performances where we'll be in a moment of improv and I'll start just singing something and it'll turn into a song. There are a lot of our songs that started that way: "Follow Me Down to the Riverside," "King Ebenezer," this other tune called "Rosalita" that I'm working on. A lot of things just  come out of a space of trust. I'll sing something, Ben will hit a lick that'll set my brain off... that part of writing on the road I like. 

FJ: You guys have your own festival, the annual Northwest String Summit. How does the lineup for that come about?

JA: We invite our buddies. It's a family picnic. There's no coincidence to the lineup. The Travelin' McCoury's are there because we love hanging out with those guys, and they're good energy. Danny Barnes has been there every year. And he will continue to be. 

BK: It's a good opportunity, too, for us to meet and showcase new bands, people who are coming up. I'm not the hugest fan of contests or adjudication, but we have a band contest, and anybody can enter and everybody gets a chance to play in front of the whole crowd. It's part crowd response, and our own judgment, as well. There are two bands playing this year we met this way. 

I remember when we were starting out and getting shots, getting a chance to just like play so people would know who we are. It's that whole mix.

Sometimes, it's a real treat: we got to play with Billy and Mickey [Kreutzmann and Hart] last year... 

JA: Next thing we knew, "Hey, you guys! Would you want to play some music?" "Um, yeah, we'd love to!" 

DJ: We got to play with Bill Frisell...

JA: And Mike Gordon. We just had these really cool experiences, and the cool thing is, is we've been so lucky to meet so many creative people. I don't know if people are just friendlier, or more open. I have friends who are in the rock scene and work with high-profile bands that are selling out Madison Square Garden. They've said, "Yeah, there's some really not nice people in the pop or rock industry." In this portion of the music business, it seems like people want to come out and jam — they just want to hang out, and they just want to play.

BK: Our audience is very unique. It's not a bluegrass audience, it's not a sit-down, clap at the end of the solo [audience]. It's everybody's up, you're in every single moment. So when you get some of these pickers who are used to a sit-down show — I'm thinking of Dan Tyminski, for example, "The Man of Constant Sorrow." We got him to sit in at this festival that we do. The experience is so different when you're receiving a rock & roll energy. You can see these guys pick up and go, it just like it blows their mind, you know?

FJ: Who's on your wish list that just hasn't worked out schedule-wise, for like…

JA: Sam Bush. It just hasn't happened. I've also wanted to have Jeff Tweedy come out and play. I think he would dig it. I think it would give him a cool little vision of what's going on. And I wanted to get the Nels Cline Singers out there, because I thought that would just trip people out. 

FJ: Completely!

JA: People would be like, What the hell is this going on over here? This is craziness... Willie Nelson. 

FJ: Is it more intimidating to play at Bonnaroo in front of 50,000 people or a small festival for a few thousand?

JA: They both have their fun little challenges. I'm a sucker for a crowd, so the more the merrier. I love it. I love playing the intimate little situations, too, but the last time we got to do Bonnaroo was really something. We got to play right before Krauss and Plant, and I looked over and there is Robert Plant standing on-stage watching us play, bobbing his head, thumbs up. I never stopped looking at him! We have a monitor engineer and we have in-ear monitors and Kevin, our engineer, is like, "Jeff, you've got to face the crowd. You've got to face the crowd." I'm like, "It's Robert Plant, and he's liking what we're doing!" 

DJ: At the first Telluride [Bluegrass Festival] we ever played, I was so nervous. That's like our hometown, too. I think about the first time we played Red Rocks, I wasn't nearly as nervous. I don't know what it was. Back then, we were thinking that we really were a bluegrass band, instead of just being the weird mix that we are.  

BK: Telluride is also a notoriously difficult stage to monitor.

JA: You know, singing at Telluride is "the most difficult stage" you can sing on. The most difficult stage. Emmylou Harris will tell you that. Sam Bush will tell you that. Everyone will tell you that. It's the head game, the whole thing, the tradition of it and the shed itself. And the fact that you're standing there and you're looking at the most beautiful thing you've ever seen in your life. You're standing there going, "What are we doing up here again? What?" It's fascinating stuff. 

FJ: What's next for you guys? Any recordings?

JA: We're trying a cool little experiment on the road, and it started last night. We have all this new material; we also have some older stuff that we may be interested in recording. We've always wanted to capture the live essence of who we are, because the studio record is one thing, but when you come and see us live, I believe that's the experience. Like Ben says all the time, "You've got to come see us live; don't just listen to a record." It's not just the music, it's the whole experience: the vibe, the people, the crowd.

So we've got a recording system on the road with us. We're recording on-stage — not during the show, but before the show. Yesterday, we were at [Missoula's] Wilma Theater, and we put the theater on lockdown for a while — nobody in, nobody out. We turned off everything that we could possibly turn off, with the exception of maybe a few fans that have to keep everything cool, so nothing blows up. And then we tape and it's just like being in a studio. You can sing live if you want to, you could leave out a space for your solo, overdubbing is completely possible, because we've got enough separation with where we stand. 

It was a huge, eye-opening experience. I don't particularly do great in the studio, the pressure gets to me. When you're sitting there trying to get your solo right and it's the thirtieth time you're trying to do it, it really sucks. But I feel incredibly fearless on stage, and we all do. So you get that experience where we're in our element — we're on stage, and we're just able to just play. I can walk over to Ben and we can interact. I believe that stuff transfers, when you listen to the recording. It started yesterday, and it's going to just keep growing, and growing, and growing and be great. Now we look and go, "We can record here. We can do this here. We can do that here." The road is our recording studio, and what a better place, because we're on the road six months out of the year. 

It's a great idea. We've got the crew to handle it, that's the most important part.  The technology exists, but you got to have a competent crew, and our crew is the best. 

FJ: It is a great idea. What are you recording into for this?

BK: It's a ProTools rig. As an independent band and as independent artists, everything's self-financed. So we're trying to get the best quality out of the smallest package.

[Editor's note: We will soon be posting videos of two new Yonder Mountain String Band songs from this interview. Check back soon!]