Yonder Mountain: How Did a Little String Band Get So Big? (Relix Revisited)

Sarah Hagerman on April 22, 2011

Tickets go on sale today for the 6th annual Yonder Harvest Music Fest, so we thought it fitting to revisit this piece on Yonder Mountain String Band from October 2009_

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The early evening glow falls upon Horning’s Hideout, a sanctuary located 20 miles west of Portland, Ore., where the pines reach for the skies, the peacocks squawk, and this weekend, a music festival makes its annual return. Parents lead kids by the hand, navigating precariously down the hill and through hula hoopers and hippies to “the bowl,” an area in front of the stage. Older couples lounge on blankets in the shade, while assorted freaks and bluegrass geeks gather in clusters – old and new friends greet each other. Yonder Mountain String Band’s eighth annual Northwest String Summit is about to kick off.

“Imagine being a kid and this is your weekend,” mandolin player Jeff Austin muses from an RV nestled backstage, picking through a carton of raspberries. “You may go to camp or be a Boy Scout or Girl Scout. But then you get to come to something like this.” Horning’s Hideout, it seems, brings out everyone’s inner child. When Austin first arrives at the grounds, “I run around the pond and look at all the newts,” he says. “That’s what I do when I get here. I’m like four years old. Give me a pail and a little moss and I’m going to catch this little fucker and I’m going to name him and I’m going to keep him!”

That joyful spirit is infectious for bassist Ben Kaufmann. One year, he came across a group of kids at the pond and a boy decided to share what he caught. “He puts [a newt] in my hand and I say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” recalls Kaufmann. “And he says, ‘You know they’re poisonous, right?’ I drop it and kind of freak. And he says, ‘I’m just kidding!’ I totally got busted by a nine-year-old!”

This sense of youthful community is valuable, Austin says. “My mom let me go to Grateful Dead shows when I was 12 or 13 years old. The things that taught me. And I think about these kids – it’s like a sense of community, a different sense of giving and caring – we’re all here together. If you create something, you’ll have this beautiful bubble that will occur.”

Bassist Ben Kaufmann asks rhetorically, “Remember naked dude?” The memory in question is about a fan, out of sorts and out of clothes, who launched himself onstage three years ago, eventually leaping off of the stage and running through the crowd up the hill.

But as Austin tells it that’s not the whole story: “For the negative things that he was going through, the community stepped up and embraced him – literally embraced him – got him somewhere and said, ‘No matter where you’re at, you’re in a safe spot.’ And that guy, he’s still here. He hangs out. What a great thing.”

Austin’s assessment offers perspective not only on the environment of the String Summit, but also on the fan base that reunites annually to make the experience what it is. As Kaufmann describes, “It’s real family. Not like Rainbow Gathering family.” One year, a baby fell asleep on the stage. She’s now seven and is one of many kids that the band has watched grow up in the audience. Austin mentions a couple that he met last year while signing autographs who figured out that they conceived their son at the festival. ( “We’re making babies, here at String Summit! The love is happening.” )

Fans have gotten married on these grounds. People have mourned the loss of loved ones. Austin also mentions Stella Fleming, the recent widow of Sandy Alexander, a much loved taper who was instrumental in spreading Yonder’s music in its early days. “She lost someone amazing, but she’s here and this is all going to go right into her,” Austin says. This weekend, with Alexander’s loss weighing on many hearts, the feeling of a community pulling together as one is especially apparent. Kaufmann’s father is also buried here.

Walking through the campgrounds at Horning’s and fanning out into the woods beyond the amphitheatre area, you run into folks that you talked to for only five minutes the year before. They remember you. It’s just that kind of festival.

The foursome met at an open picking session at The Verve in Nederland, Colo. in 1998. Austin and banjo player Dave Johnston came to Colorado via Urbana, Ill., having played together in a band called the Bluegrassholes (slogan: “a drinking band with a bluegrass problem” ); guitarist Adam Aijala made his way from Sterling, Mass., where an injury forced him to give up a forestry career; and Kaufmann, who originally hails from Stow, Mass., left NYU film school early and moved out to Boulder, Colo. Even in the early days, the band members found themselves more readily embraced by a freewheeling jam crowd than the traditional bluegrass scene. As one fan said this weekend, “If I want to see note-perfect bluegrass picking, there are many great bands I could see. I go to Yonder because of their unique energy.”

That energy is contagious. Shows will travel between darkly rendered murder ballads, where Austin will skat with psycho killer intensity, to bright sunshine, where an uplifting tune can buoy the spirit with happiness. Extended instrumental improv can break down into near chaos, or the four can wind tightly around fast-picking bluegrass numbers. Their distinct personalities – Austin’s boundlessly energetic rabble rousing, Kaufmann’s ruminations, Aijala as the center of cool and Johnston’s wry quips – make live performances very personable. The stage banter is part of the experience whether it’s about baseball, enlightenment on the “Sheriff Saga” (Kaufmann’s song cycle about a sheriff who kills his wife and her lover), fan interactions that the band observes or anything else that may spring to mind. The year following “the naked guy incident,” Austin molded the tale into a ghost story, complete with a flashlight under his chin.

After nearly 11 years of touring and playing roughly one hundred shows per year, the band can sell out a night at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colo. or two nights at San Francisco’s The Fillmore, draw sizable crowds at festivals including Rothbury and Bonnaroo or play to 300 people at the House of Blues in Houston. It can be a capricious ride, but one that’s given way to opportunities such as playing the Democratic National Convention last August.

With a reputation and fanbase built on Yonder’s live shows, the studio recording environment offers its own artistic challenges and possibilities. On its new release The Show (the second record produced by Tom Rothrock of Beck, Elliot Smith and Badly Drawn Boy), the band is continuing an approach to define the distinct studio identity that it began to craft on 2006’s self-titled release.

“There’s a beauty to playing live, but truthfully when you’ve got valuable time with Rothrock in L.A., you’ve got to get to work,” says Austin of working with the veteran producer. One of his most important influences on the band was on the songwriting level, encouraging collaboration for the previous record. “We unified, we wrote songs, we edited,” Austin says. “And it worked. Those lessons followed us, and we put them to use on this record and executed them in a way where communication was more open.”

On The Show, the joint song writing continued. Johnston explains, “More band members are pairing up and writing together. It’s these amalgamated personalities happening with certain songs. Something isn’t as identifiably a Dave song, or as identifiably an Adam or Jeff or Ben tune. It seemed like there was a clearer communication channel for input and suggestions. For some reason, the songs that made it to the record were those.”

This is especially evident on the Neil Young-tinted “Dreams,” which all four co-wrote. Each takes a verse that seems to dive into part of their lyrical personalities – Austin’s raw emotion, Kaufmann’s ponderings, Johnston’s evocative observations and Aijala’s concise, striking imagery – and intertwines to create the total picture of heartbreak and hope. “Honestly” and “Rain Still Falls,” meanwhile, are the result of Aijala and Johnston’s own writing process.
“I enjoy a mixed bag of lyrics and stuff that keeps you guessing as opposed to the cut and dry,” Aijala says. “That’s why I like writing with Dave – he’s a really good editor.”

“Adam’s really fun to write with, you know?” Johnston agrees. “He understands what writing is about. It’s messy and it’s not easy.”

For Kaufmann, Rothrock’s sonic impact is also clear for listeners: “On the first three albums (1999’s Elevation, 2001’s Town by Town and 2003’s Old Hands ) everything’s not predictable, but there’s nothing shocking. From Old Hands to the self-titled one, [the change] is shocking.” Indeed, the first three albums reflect more of a traditional bluegrass sound, capturing the set-up-and-play aesthetic. Moving beyond these parameters and into examining studio production possibilities was another shift marked by the self-titled release.

Austin concurs. He feels that the previous Rothrock album was “the first time we really used the studio as a studio. We didn’t go in trying to be someone else. We used it for ourselves and as ourselves. We had such a beautiful experience doing the self-titled record, so we went into this one with no holds barred. Be prepared, now that we’ve got this freedom.”

The band recorded The Show over the course of three sessions last year with a final session this past January. “To me, each session had a really specific vibe,” says Aijala. Also, certain sounds changed. “My strings were pretty dead for most of the sessions, by my standards,” Aijala continues. “On stage I usually change them every two to three shows or so. At that point last year, I think I played a dozen shows on the same set of strings. So when I got in the studio, I was really liking the sound and so was Tom.”

Rothrock also advised Austin to alter his mandolin playing style for the song “Isolate.” “He wasn’t really conducting, it was just ideas,” says Austin. “I would look over at him and I’d be playing the mandolin, and instead of these subtle chord changes and notes, he said, ‘Don’t move. Just one position, don’t move.’ In and out, up and down, hitting the lower strings and giving it a chime like bells.”

On the whole, Aijala and Johnston both describe The Show as a “snapshot” of where the band is artistically, while Austin says, “It’s as close as you could get [to a setlist]. It opens with ‘Out of the Blue’ and closes with ‘Casualty.’ In the middle there are some longer songs – you know it really is [a setlist], we put together the order of that record for months.”

Rothrock was pushing for ten tracks, pointing to examples of classic albums that consist of ten songs. “He had a good point, conceptually and historically,” Aijala explains. “But I thought there were certain songs that weren’t going to be on [the album] that needed to be on it.”

Of the 13 tracks, eight are re-examinations of road-tested material. “One of the things I could see people maybe having a problem with is the lack of brand new stuff, especially for people that come see us all the time,” Aijala notes. “But then again, they might be open enough to see that it’s a snapshot of that song at that time.”

New songs, such as the eight-minute long, shimmery of “Honestly” that eventually breaks into a gallop or the poppy, gas pedal pusher “Complicated,” are certainly stretching into new territory for the band. And “Isolate,” a haunting, minimalist song, stripped down instrumentation with a steady heartbeat is at the album’s center.

Ultimately, The Show has a more defined rock feel than past studio efforts. While Yonder’s self-titled album features Pete Thomas, of Elvis Costello fame, playing drums on two tracks, he appears on six songs of the new album’s songs, including “Fingerprint,” “Belle Parker,” “Criminal” and “Steep Grade Sharp Curves.” The drum production is more prominent on the album, a move that will no doubt cause some friction in the fanbase. But beyond playing a handful of shows during the past couple of years with Jon Fishman (Phish) and Rob Koritz (Dark Star Orchestra), the band doesn’t use drums when performing live. Although it tried out using drums in the studio, the quartet has no plans to become “Yonder Mountain Rock Band.”

“The reason you go to the studio is because you can do stuff that you can’t necessarily do live,” says Aijala. “I don’t know that fans agree, but I always thought that’s part of the idea – that you have more resources in the studio – so why not try?”

If anything has stayed the same for Yonder over the years, it’s having a deep appreciation for its roots without ever feeling too tied down. As the new record indicates, Yonder is always open to progressive explorations.

“The fact that our fans even embraced us in the first place – I think that maybe the majority of them are open to seeing that change, open to seeing that progression,” Austin says. “I can’t worry about that too much. If I did, the music could get stale. You’d start to only allow yourself to write in a certain avenue. Or to play in a certain avenue, like, ‘Oh, we’ve been playing this song for 15 minutes, we should probably stop.’ I think if I worried about that too much I would…”
“Stay the same,” Kaufmann finishes. “But that’s not how the world works, unfortunately. I’d love to live forever. But it’d probably be boring.”

Austin theorizes: “We’re the TV generation. Flip, flip, flip with the remote. It’s nice to have some change and have something different happening at all times. But I have spoken to people that have been like, ‘Aw I really don’t see you guys as much as I used to because you guys have changed.’ And I can understand that – hey, I stopped going to see Phish.”

While committed to home-grown events like the Summit that have come to define Yonder, the band readily admits that it has aspirations to reach a wider audience. Earlier in the summer, the band received a call from the “home office,” asking Yonder to play “Complicated” at Rothbury so that it could be filmed and sent out for television consideration. The band is now “doing funny things, like trying to get on TV,” says Austin.

“We want to go to Leno, Letterman and Conan,” says Kaufmann matter of factly.
“Because what a cool thing!” Austin enthusiastically concurs. “We’ve wanted to do that forever. That’s a childhood dream. If we ever played Letterman I’d freak out, I would faint, I could not meet him!”

The band’s success for such possibilities hasn’t always come easy. “We’ve been told for our whole career, ‘Well you can’t do that, this will never work, you’ll never get to do that,’” says Kaufmann heatedly. “We got so sick of it, especially proving people wrong.”

Austin nods his head in agreement. “You beat the piss out of yourself proving people wrong,” he says.

“I’ll never take what we do for granted,” Aijala reflects on the ride so far. “We’re so lucky and I know it. For any kind of B.S. that we have to deal with, I can’t really ask to be doing something better. I’ll always play music whether I’m in a band or not. So to be able to do it for a living is pretty lucky. ‘Cause it can go away, you never know. People could all of a sudden start hating on Yonder – that’s it,” he says laughing.
“Nothing is bullet-proof, man,” Johnston observes.
“I think it’s awesome – what we’ve done and how far we’ve come,” says Aijala. “It’s fulfilling to be your own boss. I just take my dad’s advice: ‘Why you gotta make a big deal out of everything?’ I carry that with me. Just don’t make a big deal out of anything and you won’t be too happy or too sad or too mad. Any extreme is not really necessary.”

As the sound of a Dobro rolling from the stage wafts through the dusty air, Johnston muses, “The best joys and sorrows are always private.”