For the last 13 years, Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band has rocked stages across the United States with their fiery brand of progressive bluegrass. Building a contemporary approach to such traditional style, the four piece (Dave Johnston, Jeff Austin, Ben Kaufmann, Adam Aijala) have developed a niche for energizing the college circuit and satisfying the purists. Their unique, fast-pickin’ throwdowns have become a thing of legend, and not just in the packed clubs and apres ski barns. Yonder also host two huge festivals; the North West String Summit in Oregon and the Harvest Fest in Arkansas.
After a successful New Years run in their home state over the holiday break, the band looks toward mid-February and onward to hit the southeast and Midwest markets. Glide’s Tyler Curtis sat down with Jeff Austin (mandolin and vocals) and Ben Kaufmann (bass and vocals) to discuss the recent happenings and the overall state of bluegrass.
Before we get into your music, I was just reading up on your past tour, and saw that the Infamous Stringdusters opened up, and will once again be doing so for your upcoming tour. Do you guys have a preference or say in who opens up for you?
JA: We usually tend to not have bands open up for us, and if they do you’ll notice that some instances like Todd Snider or…
I know Railroad Earth has opened up for you guys.
JA: Yeah, they’re usually buddies of ours. So, it’s a great way to have a great camaraderie with friends on the road, especially with the long trips to have a great ton of energy injected into the situation, and it’s no coincidence that it’s always friends supporting us. During the tour in October with the guys (Infamous Stringdusters) it was just great, because we would have a sold out show and when the Dusters were onstage maybe by their second or third song at the latest, the venue was either full or three quarters full. People were wanting to come in and check them out, it wasn’t people saying “Oh, I’ll just wait in the parking lot until Yonder comes on.” They wanted to be in there and what that does is it maybe gives them exposure in a market that maybe they play to less people than we do, and it builds some great energy in the room so that by the time they’re done on the stage, they’re so pumped.
Because sometimes you open for a band and there’s nobody there, and so it gives them a big boost of energy, and then when we get out there the room is so full of energy. And we were all playing together as many nights as possible – we were doing these encores where we would fit both bands on stage. When it hits that point, it’s just great and it carries over to the next day. That kind of stuff is contagious with these bands.
To build upon that, I know you played earlier in the year with the Stringdusters and Railroad Earth at Red Rocks during the summer. How did it feel to headline Red Rocks with as you put it, your friends?
BK: Red Rocks is a different kind of thing, man. Especially with it being our home turf, it’s really sort of crowded, so it’s not really the best place to do the intimate show with your friends thing. It’s not like being on tour with each other that’s for sure, because the other two bands; the Dusters and Railroad Earth, they rolled in on their own tour buses and they had a show the next day. It’s not like hanging four days at a festival, you know what I mean?
JA: This was our fourth year that we’ve headlined Red Rocks. We sold out the first year, we sold out this year, and the two years in between we were 500-600 tickets away or so. We had done this before and we really wanted to put together a slamming bill. We knew that Railroad Earth has a great audience here, and the Infamous Stringdusters are building a crowd, which was evident when they took the stage how many people were in there. It’s a thing where we tend to do a pretty good crowd in Colorado on our own; I would hope so after working there for a long time. It was cool to bring some bands in there just to expose them to the crowd, you know. It was very strange reading some of the reactions and some of the reviews when the show was over, but I’ll keep those opinions to myself. But it was great in our back yard with a bunch of great musicians to kind of be rockin’ throughout the night.
I’m sure that Railroad Earth was more laid back opening for you than they were when they opened for the Allman Brothers at Red Rocks a year or two ago.
JA: It’s interesting opening up for the Allman Brothers man. I’m telling you that much. You gotta pick before one of the seminal bands of our time. We did it before there and it was raining pretty hard, but we stood there with a smile on our face saying “Wow, look at what we’re getting to do.”
How about the festival scene? The Harvest Fest and North West String Summit. Give me a little bit of background on where the idea for these gatherings came from.
BK: Well, how should I put it… It’s a great excuse to get together with like-minded people I suppose in general. And then we were in positions where we could basically call and have anyone we wanted show up. The festivals are two totally different vibes. I mean, they’re both wicked cool for completely different reasons. Jeff, would you agree?
JA: Oh absolutely. For me, internally, I know it was watching bands like Phish have their big gatherings like the Great Went where I know they would have some other bands, and it’s like, ‘wow, check out what you can do. You can have your band play the headlined spot…’
I know that Del played a Phish festival, I just interviewed him and we were discussing it.
JA: And it may have been your interview that I was reading, the Del interview where he was talking about that. So for me that was an early influence. And then when we conceptualized with the guys who throw the String Summit, “Hey, let’s do this thing in the North West, and maybe we could have different bands…” It’s been a goal of the band. Recently I’ve been interviewed a few times and have been asked about this and I’ve brought up that we’ve always had a goal of having a festival in a few areas in the country, almost the four corners; somewhere in the north west, somewhere in the south west, somewhere in the Midwest and somewhere in the north northeast. Now we’re so lucky to have the string summit that last time it was so full that they were clearing extra fields to park people, because people showed up and we said “Alright, you can come in,” so that was ten years of work on that festival to really get it to pop. And then this year with Harvest Festival, if there weren’t two times the amount of people as last year, my eye sight must be going bad, and I don’t think it is. To watch that kind of growth, that was great because now we have the North West kinda vibe, because even though it sold out last time doesn’t mean we won’t stop working our ass off to make it stay that way.
And then Harvest Festival which really showed what surge was possible, we’ll keep on working on that. Now that gives us encouragement to kind of go, “Alright, let’s look around.” And for me, I immediately know well, alright…this past October we did a few night run where it was Portland, Maine, and Vermont, and holy mother it was just, the energy from those people… We played Portland, Maine on a Wednesday and there were a thousand people, which was two and a half if not three times as many people as the last time we played there. The Stringdusters opened and the crowd was in the room when they were playing. So, that area of the country, and the Carolinas. We’ve always had a kind of vibe where people come out and go crazy.
Kinda the down south bluegrass sort of states.
JA: Yeah, but not even the bluegrass states. States that are interested in progressive stuff. Just look at North Carolina. You have the Medicine Show guys, and bands from even 10-12 years ago that have that kinda vibe. Blueground Undergrass and that kinda stuff. Then of course you go up into the Vermont areas where bluegrass history goes so far back. But who knows whether that will be implemented this year, or drawn up over the course of this year and implemented next year.
I know that the New Jersey-New York area would love to have you for a multi night stay.
JA: Well, we’re gonna do three days at the Garden this year, Memorial Day Weekend, you can confirm that now. (Laughs) I’m only kidding.
Well, I know that Del told me that you guys are going to be back at Delfest…
JA: I can neither confirm nor deny that. [We can now confirm that Yonder will be at Delfest] But on the New York, NJ side, it has been a constant place of work for us.
Well, onto your upcoming tour… Anything you’re looking forward to bringing to the masses on your journey across the country?
BK: Well to answer this question, I’m expecting my first kid on the 24th of January, so I don’t know if I’ve thought that far. Jeff, you gotta steal this one.
JA: We’ve been following kind of a pattern, and sometimes patterns are good, and sometimes you fall into patterns that become contented with the status quo. So I think this year I’m looking forward to going into a bunch of different markets and making a different impact and really slam these places that we used to absolutely crush and maybe the audience has fallen back a little bit. That’s my interest; going into some of these markets and reinstating ourselves as who we are and what we can do and show what we can offer to people who come out and see us play live. I’m looking forward to this upcoming year and then see how we can shake it up for the year coming up. I
’m not just talking about 2012. I’m talking about 2012, 2013, and beyond. New ideas that we can bring about in order to implement positive change and positive growth amongst an organization that’s kind of running on a new life. If I can go direct, I fucking love playing Atlanta, I love playing The Tabernacle. I want to go back in there and level the place, day after reconstruct it, put it back together, and figure out what the hell happened. I’m taking that as a personal duty on this next tour. Not ignoring any other market, but for me, that’s one that I want to stand on that stage and look out at the house with no more room for another person and just get this shit eating grin on my face and go “The work is worth it, and this is the payoff for it. So keep doing the work, and pay offs like this can happen.” That’s what I’m really looking forward to is going into places like that, Orange Peel, and make that the thing that everybody’s talking about. We’ve got great new material that I really believe in, we’ve got sweet support from the Dusters, so yeah… That’s what I’m really kinda looking forward to. Also, some killer fucking restaurants.
BK: Yeah, there are some great restaurants out there.
Do you guys plan on recording that new material, or will it be a “play it on the road” kind of deal?
BK: Not sure… Jeff? (Everyone laughs.) I can take a shot at it. I go back and forth between the importance of having a record and the state of reality, which is that we don’t really sell records. In the production of an album, you have the potential to grow and take leaps and bounds as a band with how you’re creating and there’s a value to that. But, I don’t know if it’s 150 grand. And you can do things for less expensive as well, but when you get into working with really creative people and heroes and whatnot, the producer fees escalate. I’d like to make a new record; I’d like to think there’s still some sort of viability for selling music, it’s very easy to be on top of the bluegrass charts in Billboard… You know what I’m saying? You don’t have to sell that many records.
JA: It’s true. I have faith in the new material, I just had a 10 day little away time and wrote a shit load of tunes and can’t wait to show it to the guys, and everybody has a backlog of material, but do I want to spend $250,000 on a record again and have it sell jack? No, I have no interest in that. I would rather take $50,000 and build a flying car or whatever.
So, something you can actually use.
JA: Yeah, I could use a flying car. Sounds awesome. I think once again, with reinventing the wheel with how Yonder may tour, it’s also that same way with how to put out a record. We’ve been in the discussion of some creative ways to go about releasing a record. We’re not the Avett Brothers. We’re not Mumford & Sons. We do not have a giant record deal that pushes our shit like crazy and takes granted, great material, and it exploits it to such a wide array of people and gets it song of the year nomination. That’s not who we are. We don’t have that deal. We don’t have that image… That has not been built around us with the benefit of great material. What we have is great material and no record deal and nobody to go to the Grammys and say “Hey, check these guys out” and nobody to pitch us to this person or that person.
For us, it’s finding creative ways to expose, and like Ben said, we’ve never sold records. Have we done okay on some records? Yeah. Have we sold 100,000 copies of one record? Absolutely not, not even close. Would I like to? Every day I would like to do that. If a band tells you they would not like to have a successful record, they are lying to your face. And don’t believe anything they say to you. If they say, “Selling out, I don’t want to do that.” Bullshit. You don’t bust your ass in the van, and the rickety ass RV to be unsuccessful, and to not gain recognition; that’s a lie and they’re lying to you. And you should hang up on them. I’m not lying to you, I would love to sell a shit load of records but what we need to do is come about a creative way to do it. Does that mean releasing small segments of maybe songs by each one of us and making it an EP, and then combining all the EPs somehow into some sort of packaging so people can buy all the music together? Look at what Louis C.K. just did… Are you familiar with what he just did?
JA: He just recorded a concert at the Beacon Theater, created a website for it, and released it for five bucks.
Didn’t he use LiveDownloads or some sort of similar host?
JA: He used something like that and funded the whole thing himself. He came out and said sincerely, do me a favor… It’s five bucks. You get it, you can stream it, you can download it, and you can whatever. Don’t be a jerkoff and just buy it. And he made a shitload. Then again, he is Louis CK and he is a pretty successful guy. But, that’s what I’m talking about; this new creation of a way to distribute the art. He said, “What do I do; sign with Columbia Records and they put me on as a comedian and I release my record and I sell 35,000 copies and get totally screwed and don’t own the concert? Or, do I fund it all myself, start a website, and roll like that.” I think that’s the era that we’re in, is the necessary time to really get creative. You’re creative enough to write the song, and go into the studio and figure out how to record it the best. There should be a part of your brain that says, “There’s more I can do with this. There’s more I can do to be creative with releasing this.”
Looking at the overall look at bluegrass music… Ever since progressive bluegrass has been getting more popular, there has been an ongoing war between “new”-grass and “old”-grass. From the point of a band in the new-grass category, are you guys content with the state of bluegrass?
JA: Well, I’ll interject to quote a line from one of my favorite shows, The Wire: “You can’t call it a war, because wars end.”
That’s a perfect quote. It really is never ending. Del told me from his “legendary” point of view, he says “I play it how I feel it, and that’s what these newer bands are doing.” And I couldn’t have agreed more with him.
JA: I just can’t believe we’re still called a newer band and we’re coming up on 13 years old. (Laughs) It’s like when people call me young. Me? Young?
Photos by Tobin Voggesser