The Core: Yonder Mountain String Band

Mike Greenhaus on June 8, 2022
The Core: Yonder Mountain String Band

The veteran jamgrass band returns with their first album in five years— and the first to feature new member Nick Piccininni—Get Yourself Outside.


Straight-up Unemployed

BEN KAUFMANN: They say not to put all your eggs in one basket. But, guess what I did 24 years ago? So, we became straight[1]up unemployed in 2020. I’m forever grateful to Colorado for taking care of me during that time because it was really unknown. At that point, we were like, “We’re not able to tour, but also can’t drop off the map.” So we started doing these audio/video song presentations once a week. And that established this routine of us all meeting on Zoom or FaceTime to work on new song ideas.

ADAM AIJALA: We’re in all four time zones. Ben’s in Nevada City, Calif., Dave [Johnston] and I are in Boulder, Colo., Allie [Kral]’s in St. Louis and Nick [Piccininni]’s in upstate New York. It’s obviously a lot harder to book flights, and we couldn’t meet up for a while. But, in December 2020, I said, “I’m gonna make some folders in Google Drive—dump any idea, whether it’s a voice memo or lyric, into your folder and then we’ll all listen and work on them during our next Zoom call.”

This was the first time that Nick had ever co-written with anybody and, from what I can tell from his writing, he definitely didn’t like being stuck at home during the pandemic. He wanted to be out there. We’re grizzled old men next to him. [Laughs.] But, he’s been very prolific. Generally speaking, I am not one of those people who needs some sort of adversity to write. I’ve never written a song through extreme emotion and being stuck at home didn’t make me feel very inspired.

ALLIE KRAL: My role as a fiddle player is that I come in after everything’s written and put my little cherry on top—I’ve never gotten the writing bug. Usually, when the guys are writing tunes, I’ll be able to put my two cents in there because we’re practicing the songs as they’re evolving. But, this time around, they were doing it at home, and I was in a place during that creative process where I wasn’t really adding much at all. [Laughs.] It wasn’t until much later that I put at least some fiddle ideas in there— and that was way after all the songs had already been completely written.

Advanced Planning

BK: It didn’t seem right to make a “best-of-the-music[1]we’ve-never-recorded” album because Nick joined [in 2019,] right before the pandemic. He plays every instrument, has the best voice in the band and people haven’t really gotten to know him yet. So this was an opportunity to introduce him to our small world. We ended up pre-recording a version of the record before we had even booked studio time—we had Get Yourself Outside really mapped out to a degree that we’ve never done before.

AA: Eventually, we brought this version of Get Yourself Outside to this engineer, John McVey, who we’ve worked with for our last three records. And while things did change a little bit, more or less, the songs were done so we banged through everything much quicker than ever before. I’m definitely not as prolific as some of the other guys. Dave works on writing all the time—and not just music. He writes a lot of lyrics, too. But, I know what my songwriting strengths and weaknesses are, and I also am not very beholden to my own ideas. I don’t need to take sole credit for a song.

AK: There was a tune that Dave wrote that I sang on, and it was really uncharacteristic for my singing comfort level, which was a huge learning experience for me. So I was nervous about how that would go—whether or not the practicing that I had done would be good enough. I learned a lot about my vocals and how to control them even more. This was right before Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year, so it was summertime and I had my family with me. Mama just went to work and then we rented an Airbnb southeast of Grand Junction near Table Mesa the next day and had a little family vacay. It was so cute.

Undercurrent of Uncertainty

BK: There’s an undercurrent of uncertainty in these songs. Even right out of the gate with “Beside Myself,” the world’s turned upside down. Nick’s writing about how he’s got to be somebody’s gardener because he’s got to work. Each year that we’ve been doing this has had its own flow. It’s an irregular rhythm, but there is a predictability to it: I’m home, I’m on tour, I’m home again. And now there was this new dynamic we had to engage with. So there’s this uncertainty with all of our individual romantic relationships in there.

Usually, when we show up for Yonder records, I’ve got at least a handful of songs to contribute—whether or not they all make the cut is a different story—but for this one, I was struggling to come up with one. There were some silver linings to the pandemic but, for the most part, I did not feel inspired at all. I had to make myself sit down and be creative. And I was only writing about being scared or worrying about how I was going to take care of my family. I didn’t want to sing about any of that—I didn’t want to write from a fear[1]based space, even though that was what I was authentically navigating at the time. I’m really good at worrying—that’s a very comfortable head space for me to be in. So that was my own personal fist-fight: coming up with what would be my primary contribution songwriting wise and having it be something that was just not so depressed.

I’ve dealt with depression my whole life. It’s not always 100% full-on happening. It’s a continuum, and you navigate it and talk about it. But, the slippery slope is feeling almost borderline self-indulgent about feeling depressed. I could very easily find myself saying, “Holy shit, I’ve been sitting in this corner of a dark room for two weeks. That doesn’t seem good.” I’ve put in a lot of time with therapy and open, honest expression. And I’ve realized that what works is forcing myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve learned how to kick-start different things creatively when I’ve found myself in a place that didn’t feel particularly creative. I’ve said to myself, “How do you get out of that mindset and climb your way back to a place where you can even conceive that there’s a light at the other end of the tunnel?”

In the Nick of Time

AK: I will take credit for bringing Nick in. I met him through his old band Floodwood, at least 10 years ago, at the Summer Camp Music Festival. A couple of the guys from moe. started that project so that they could get their bluegrass on and invited some central New York bluegrass players to come play with them. The jamband scene was certainly new to Nick at the time, but he just slayed the banjo and the fiddle.

I would go sit in with Floodwood, and we would do double fiddle stuff, and we always had a blast. And through the years, I stayed in contact with all the musicians in that band. And when we were looking for a mandolin player for Yonder, we were thinking about everybody. Nick has the ability to play every instrument that he touches with all of his heart and all of his soul. It’s just such a charismatic dynamic that you’re immediately drawn to.

Sometime in the middle of our search, I saw a video of Nick singing, and I was like, “That dude’s got a great voice.” He was playing the guitar, and it dawned on me: “If he can play guitar that well—and I already know that he can play fiddle and banjo that well—then I bet you he can also play mandolin.”

We tried him out during a few gigs and asked him if he even played mandolin. He said, “Send me your hardest stuff and I’ll see if I can hang.” And, sure enough, he could hang. It is hilarious that mandolin isn’t even his primary instrument. I feel like I’ve made a little dent on the history of Yonder, but really there was so much that had happened before I came in. But with Nick being such a good friend, I didn’t have the “getting-to-know-you period” that the other guys in the band had, which was interesting.

AA: We played a show when Jake [Jolliff ] was still in the band at what was basically an apple orchard in upstate New York, and Nick came and sat in on fiddle. Then, in the spring and early summer of 2019, we had a couple of last-minute gigs pop up. Jake is a road dog so, whenever Yonder was off the road, he was out with his band and he already had stuff booked when these gigs came up. They were decent money and they were good looks so we were like, “We gotta make this work.” And Nick showed up totally prepared.

Then, in the fall, we had another show pop up that Jake couldn’t do. That was around the time that we had been in talks with Jake about him moving forward with his solo project and whatnot. So we mentioned Nick as a possible replacement. We knew that it would work onstage but we had to see if it would work off the stage, too. But, after hanging with him, it felt really natural. He was home schooled and comes from a small town. I grew up in a small town with a similar blue-collar mentality. He’s got a good sense of humor and he’s easygoing. And having a multi-instrumentalist is awesome and something that we lways thought would be an advantage. It opens up more avenues, and it gives any of us an opportunity to play a different instrument.

BK: The second iteration of Yonder reinforced that this band has always been about the energy and the connection between the band and our audience—it’s not about the notes that you play. And that is what we lost when we decided continue on without Jeff. We got away from that. None of us are the best at our instruments, but there’s still something happening here—there’s a magic. So one of the things that we knew—when we knew that we were going to make another change—is that it had to be about the energy. And Nick has that energy.

Jeff Austin’s Legacy

BK: My ability to engage with Jeff and his legacy once he passed away [in 2019]—is very complicated. I know it continues to be hard for a lot of fans to understand why the original Yonder Mountain had to end. And I get it, I really do. For me, by the time that the original Yonder called it quits, it was necessary that we weren’t around each other anymore. And the subsequent iteration of Yonder was my space to breathe again.

Through a lot of personal work and psychological work, I was able to see all these codependent things that had happened during the first 14 years of Yonder Mountain— these not good, not healthy dynamics. If that band had tried to stick it out for another couple of years, it would’ve been really bad. But then, you’re trying to figure out: “What now?” It took me all of Yonder 2.0 to have enough time and space to reassess what music even meant to me.

And the whole situation surrounding Jeff’s death was very surprising, very shocking. Just prior to that time, I personally felt that enough time had passed, and that I’d done enough of my own searching and personal growth work, that I could even begin to entertain the idea of us all being in the same room again together for 10 minutes—forget about playing music together again.

And, unfortunately, we never had that opportunity. And I’m not suggesting that was something that maybe would have even happened anyway. There’s a lot of moving pieces there. But it took me every moment of that time to even begin to be able to look back and remember the good times, rather than the dysfunction and chaos that led to the end of that project.

Returning to the Road

AK: I needed a break from touring so that I could have some home time with my family, but I was never looking for a break from playing music. I don’t want to negate all the sorrows that happened, but, really, there was an upside to having that time because I have a little one back at home. It was nice to enjoy that consistent family time and I was able to do some projects around the house. For the first month, I did absolutely nothing but, after that, I started itching to get back on the road so I reached out on social media to start teaching lessons.

And I had no idea how cool that would end up being because, in the past, I had mostly taught a lot of beginners how to play classical violin. That’s all fine and dandy—I love that—but this time around, I had a lot of people who knew exactly what my particular style was and wanted to learn that. And it made it really fun because I had a bunch of advanced students who were diving deeply into the aspects of jam. It actually helped me learn so much because I was going back to the basics and really picking things apart. And then I would keep my fiddle out after those lessons and practice all these old classical tunes and a few fundamentals and some fiddle tunes.

AA: We are slowly bringing back songs that we haven’t done yet with Nick or that we ditched with Jake. We made a spreadsheet years ago with all of our songs and we’ve slowly been updating it. Ben, by far, has the most songs of all of us. But, in the short time Nick’s been with us, he already has roughly the same amount as me and Dave. On our last tour, we only got seven shows in before COVID but, with the exception of the brand new stuff, we didn’t do any repeats for seven shows. And we are going to do some of what I would consider to be some of Jeff’s prettier, more melodic songs.

We also have already been dumping some new song ideas into those same folders that we used for Get Yourself Outside. We already have about a half a dozen or more songs in the mix. We’ll probably try to get into the studio this fall or early next year—unless we decide to do a record of songs that we have already written or decide to re-record some of the songs off these EPs we did in 2020 when Nick had just joined the band. But, we have been working on ideas on the bus and over Zoom.

BK: When we decided to break up with Jeff, we made a very conscious decision to both continue calling ourselves Yonder Mountain and to not touch any of Jeff’s material. Our thought process was: “If the fans want to go hear all of this amazing stuff that Jeff wrote, they should go see Jeff.” And, though I didn’t follow his career with a microscope, I was surprised that he stopped playing all of those Yonder numbers. I get that he wanted to do his own thing, but I feel like that was a mistake. And it was actually a little sad for me to hear.

We continued to run in some of the same circles, and I started to hear that people weren’t going to see him. It was especially weird to me after he passed away because his memorial show was this enormous outpouring of passion and love for him and what he contributed to the scene. And I’m sitting there like, “Where the fuck were all of you people?” It’s easy to show up now, but this dude was in the trenches, playing gigs and going from town to town. He was trying to sell tickets to his shows, and y’all never showed up for him. It pissed me off. Granted, I had my own history with Jeff. We didn’t like each other for periods of time, and that’s fine. We butted heads—we were so similar in some ways, but so different in other ways. And that’s what makes a really interesting musical relationship at times, too. But, I remember being so angry at the scene. Everybody’s saying what a genius he was and how everybody’s going to miss him—I was angry at a lot of things. But, where that shows up now is that we are going back through Jeff’s catalog of songs and we are bringing some of those back to Yonder Mountain.

If you look at all the shit that Yonder Mountain has had to eat over the course of our career—especially when the initial group separated— we’ve done our very best to walk the high road. And, as we begin to bring some of these songs back, it’s not lost on us that it will be triggering to some people. But it’s my hope that—in the same way that I’ve experienced a progression and transition in my own thought process, feelings and heart—I hope that happens for the fans and audiences, too. Life is too short.

Jeff was such a foundational part of my life and the Yonder Mountain String Band. His songs were such a foundational part of this band and, now that he’s gone, it feels like our responsibility to bring back some of this music. That being said, there are some songs that he wrote that I will not touch with a 10-foot pole. There’s not a single human being on this planet that could perform them in a way that would feel like anything other than a mockery. Jeff was a singular person—and thank god for that. The world can’t handle two Jeff Austins. [Laughs.]