Catching Up With... Yonder Mountain String Band
In Yonder Mountain String Band, where improvisational jams are the axis around which the group's entire live show turns, a comfortable, all-contributing dynamic is essential. With Adam Aijala’s guitar work, Dave Johnston’s banjo picking, Ben Kaufmann on bass and Jeff Austin on mandolin, the Yonder Mountain boys have found a formula that works: Take rootsy bluegrass influences, add in some rock ‘n’ roll, and seek out an adventurous audience. Following yesterday's (Sept. 1) release of his band's fifth studio album, The Show, Austin found some time in between entertaining house guests and a busy tour schedule to catch up with Paste and discuss the recording studio as a playground, the "jam band" label, and how much Yonder Mountain isn’t like Wilco.
Paste: You guys have been on the festival circuit this summer. Have you enjoyed that? Do you find it really different from your solo shows?
Jeff Austin: Yeah, well, of course. You’ve got 75 minutes or 90 minutes to get your message across to people, instead of where, with our own show, under our own name, we’ve got three hours to be able to build and kind of take them where we want them to go. So yeah, it’s incredibly different. [laughs]
Paste: Do you have a preference for either one?
Austin: No, not really I don’t want to be rushed, is the one thing. I don’t like rushing. You know, sometimes we’ll come to a point with festivals where we’ve got a segue portion at the end of the show and we just don’t have enough time. If we wanted to stretch one thing out, or one thing went running long, or somebody’s talkative The one thing I don’t like is being rushed, I’d say that’s the only major drawback from festivals. A two-hour set would be great, 'cause then you could really get a lot across, you could really develop the set instead of just going out there for 75 minutes banging out all this stuff cause you want to keep people’s attention. You want to keep the energy high.
Paste: You guys are known for your live shows. When you’re playing, is it a lot of jamming, or is it all planned beforehand? How much of your show is live improvisation?
Austin: Oh, no, we don’t rehearse. A lot of bands, some bands, might rehearse their improvs and their jams, ours is a completely free-form improv session. Yeah, I think the idea of rehearsing an improv part, well then it’s a rehearsal, it’s no longer an improv. The whole description of the word is "improv." I don’t think that’s ever happened. So, no, we don’t rehearse.
Paste: Do you think, now that you have been playing together for 11 years, do you think that has changed the dynamic of the band, since you’ve been playing together for so long? Is it just natural?
Austin: Oh, of course, I mean that’s a natural thing. If it hadn’t changed I’d be really concerned. [laughs] It’s changed, how? Do I put my finger on what’s changed? No. We have more faith in each other; it’s like somebody says, “Come with me, I’ll lead you down this road and I promise I won’t let it fall apart.” You know there’s more of that. Just interband relationships have developed and stuff like that.
Paste: Yeah, definitely. Have you guys been playing a lot of new stuff or old stuff recently?
Austin: We have been playing a bunch of new stuff, a lot of new material of mine has been coming through lately, and there’s a whole bunch more just sitting waiting to be acknowledged and brought into a live situation. Now that we have the new record out, there’s a small handful of songs that we haven’t played live that we’re still rehearsing. And next week when we go back on the road we’ll be rehearsing a lot more of those and making sure those are ready to go.
Paste: So about your new album, The Show comes out Sept. 1. What do you think is different about this album compared to your past stuff?
Austin: I don’t really know. To be honest with you, I’m trying to think what’s different. We allowed ourselves to just continue to embrace the studio, and put drums on tracks and we used different kinds of effects and different kinds of ideas. We continue to say that the studio is a place where it’s a different kind of playground than a live show. Like, we’ll take advantage of situations that present themselves in the studio, now, rather than shun them. I think that would be the biggest difference.
Paste: What was the writing process like for this album?
Austin: We wrote separately for this record, unlike the last record where we had a number of songs that were written kind of together. This is all pre-existing material with the exception of one song: There’s a tune called “Dreams” that we all wrote together. And that was it. The rest of the material—shit, there’s a couple songs that are four years old, there’s a couple of songs that are newer than that, but still not brand new stuff. The majority of stuff on the record, people have heard.
Paste: Oh, cool.
Austin: Yeah, so the process for this one was bringing in material that we were really excited [about] and wanted to get on this record, that we thought were pretty strong songs I’d say with the first record we did with Tom Rothrock, who did this record as well, part of the process of writing together was breaking down barriers and learning to work with him, too. Kind of breaking his ideas.
Paste: I see. Also, on this album, you have a pretty wide range of sound, and the songs don’t all sound the same. A song like “Rain Still Falls” is pretty country-folk, while “Isolate” is completely different.
Austin: [laughs] Yeah, a little bit different.
Paste: Do you think that’s just a result of writing separately, or do you all draw on a lot of different influences in your work as well?
Austin: I think that’s gotta be a combination of both. Also, too, with a tune like “Isolate,” we’re at a point where we feel comfortable sharing that emotion with people. The fact that Dave [Johnston] felt comfortable recording that, it sounds very, very different and people aren’t sure what to make of it. But I think that comes with just age, and we’re getting a little more comfortable in our shoes and this is who we are. It’s another part of who we are.
Paste: Yeah, for sure. “Isolate” really stood out to me as sounding a little different. Is there any more of a back story for where that came from?
Austin: It’s not my tune, so I don’t really have much of a back story on it. All I know is that the whole idea of it was just to really tap into the emotion of the words that Dave had written. I think you’d really have to talk to him to get like a full understanding of what it means. For me, I was just trying to create a sonic mood of what the words sounded like to me. That ebb and flow, that pulse, that hypnotic kind of beat that goes along with it.
Paste: So which songs did you write on this album?
Austin: I wrote “Out of the Blue,” I wrote “Belle Parker” with my friend Benny Galloway.
Paste: Where did “Belle Parker” come from?
Austin: [laughs] That’s a divorce tune; that’s a tune about my ex. It’s about just utter loss and frustration, and not wanting to give up on love, and wanting to know that everything is gonna be alright. But sometimes you’ve just gotta stand outside in the rain and scream at the wind, you know what I mean? Not to get too flighty on you, but that’s kind of what that means. Other people are like, “Hey, I love that song, it makes me and my wife dance every time,” I’m like, ok man, I’m glad you have your meaning to it, cause I have mine! That song, I sat on that for a long, long time and had the chorus written, had the verse form idea kind of there, and then Benny Galloway—who’s a dear friend of mine and we’ve written a bunch of stuff together—he helped me sit down and really bring it home. I have certain people that I write with [like] that, where I’ll have an emotion to a song, like I’ve written something that I know Todd Snider would contribute greatly to because it’s an emotion I think he could relate to.
Paste: Right, that’s cool.
Austin: And then I wrote “Fine Excuses.” So yeah, the four tunes of mine on the record are those.
Paste: It seems very evenly divided.
Austin: Yeah, we’re a pretty evenly divided band. This isn’t Wilco, you know. It’s not all my stuff, and the band is the band that plays it. That’s what that group is, and it’s a beautiful thing, but the way that we’ve always been, we’ve got four guys that like to write and four guys that like to sing, we got four guys that like to relay their emotions to an audience. What a rare thing! And it’s the Beatles influence in all of us, those guys had no writers in the band, I mean they all wrote, with the exception of maybe Ringo who didn’t get as much stuff put out there. Also, too, we’ve all got strong ideas and they’re all pretty valid. I think the fact that we give each other the support and the confidence to stand individually and be supported by the other three is something that really differentiates us from a lot of groups. You may have a band that plays 80 percent of one person’s material, over the course of a show, and 10 percent of somebody else’s, and five percent of another and five of another. Our show kinda works where, I may sing the majority of stuff in a night, that’s always been the way it is since the beginning of the group, but it’s not all my material. It might be a cover song, it might be a song written by another friend of ours. We’ve always, since we’ve first been together, taken that approach. Where we vote on things—since we’ve gotta all decide. The goal is not to team up against one person. Which happens, from time to time.
Paste: Does it?
Austin: Well, we’re four dudes who’ve been married for the last 11 years. [laughs] It ain’t all roses! So we just try to keep it on that level where we’ve got four minds inputting things. And I think that’s what has allowed the band to be what it is. If it was all of my stuff, it would sound completely different.
Paste: Yeah, like a solo record.
Austin: Yeah, or just a different kind of emotion.
Paste: Do you think all four of you come from the same place, influence-wise?
Austin: No, I mean we all have a connective thread through our influences, but no, definitely not. My influences are incredibly different from Dave’s, are incredibly different from [the others]. That, I think, is what gives us a wide range of ideas as well.
Paste: Yeah, definitely. And geographically you’re from different places as well.
Austin: Well, two of us are from the Midwest and two of us are from the East coast, relatively close to each other, so we’ve only got two different camps. But when I write songs, they tend to have a Midwest influence, and of course my time here in Colorado comes into it. And those guys write from their perspective.
Paste: What do you think about the jam-band label? Do you consider yourselves part of that? Since you do improvise on stage?
Austin: You know, at this point, it’s almost like a girlfriend who yells at you all the time. I used to fight it, like, man, that’s such a generic term. What does it mean? It’s like when you say “rock ‘n’ roll,” you have a sound in your head. When somebody says “jam band,” you can either think of what we do, or what the Disco Biscuits do. The only connective thread, I think, is an adventurous audience who may say, “Hey, I’ve never gone out and seen a band with a banjo before.” And the Biscuits have an adventurous audience who say, “Hey, I’ve never gone out and seen a band who plays live rave music before. And live instrumental music before.” I think the connective thread in the jam-band scene is an adventurous ear by the audience members. Think about the festivals that are labeled as jam-band festivals—High Sierra! Umphrey’s McGee headlines one night, and right before them is the Del McCoury band, and the audience is as big for both those bands. It’s a special thing. So it used to kind of frustrate me basically somebody somewhere just put no thought into it, and they were just like, “Oh, these bands jam, that’s what they’re called.” I used to be like, oh that’s so wrong, that’s so cheap. But now, whatever. It’s a label, deal with it. It’s like being called a hippie. What is your immediate connotation of what the word hippie means? Dirty, unshowered, doesn’t have a job. Well, I got friends who are hippies who are very successful people, and they put out good things out of their heart, but yeah, they’re hippies. So it’s kind of like, fuck it, I can worry about it or I can not worry about it. And I’ve decided to stop worrying about it. There’s a lot of other things in life to worry about. Like what am I gonna have for lunch? [laughs]
Paste: Yeah, that’s true. So your album comes out next week, and then you’ll continue your tour?
Austin: Well, we go out next week and do a quick little run, and then we come home, and then we play our biggest show of the year at Red Rocks Amphitheater on the 28th. Then we go out and do a week of shows on our own, play some cool amphitheaters, do a run with Dave Matthews Band. We get a little bit of September off and then we’re off and running again in October.