A Sound of Their Own: An Interview with Yonder Mountain String Band

Yonder Mountain String Band
The Show
Frog Pad

Whether you call it Progressive Bluegrass, Jamgrass, or otherwise, the Yonder Mountain String Band has a sound all its own.

Combining bluegrass and other roots music with a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility, the band has spent the past decade gaining a sizable following on the road while maturing as songwriters and musicians along the way. For their latest release, The Show, they once again teamed up with veteran producer Tom Rothrock (Foo Fighters, Elliott Smith) and the album debuted at number one on the Billboard Bluegrass charts. Band members Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals) and Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals) sat down with PopMatters to discuss their relationship with their fans, the dangers of cover tunes, and the future of YMSB …

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I know your last couple of records went to number one on the bluegrass charts. Given your success, have you gotten any feedback from the remaining old guard of bluegrass, or have any of those traditional artists extended their support?

Dave: It’s really funny, the purists, when they look at the Yonder Mountain String Band, they kind of dismiss us, which is okay. But we’ve also had some really heavy hitters in the bluegrass world, like Sam Bush and Danny Barnes, who’ve always been very supportive of the record. And I think they like what we’re doing, how we’re pushing the boundaries a little bit. So, I guess it would be kind of weird to consider them old guard but they are definitely prominent figures in the bluegrass world, so getting that kind of feedback from those types of folk, that’s kind of cool.

In the ten years between Elevation and The Show, what’s changed about the ways you guys approach songwriting and working in the studio?

Ben: The variable that was introduced was Tom Rothrock as producer. And obviously he comes form a totally different background, so when a meeting of the minds happened the essential element of change was the idea that even though we thought we were breaking out of the box with the live shows and everything, it was time to pursue examining the nature of that box, and just challenging that and challenging ourselves to incorporate influences that we had from growing up and not really listening to bluegrass, and bringing in some of those influences from the more rock ‘n’ roll side of things. That was my music that I listened to growing up, so to deny that side of ourselves was — it doesn’t make sense. You have to grow and continue to express yourself honestly. So I think it was the right time to challenge ourselves with new ideas, and being in Tom’s environment facilitated that.

So we started to write songs together, we experimented with different sounds, different approaches to songwriting, and under his guidance, we started to put together records that did have a different sound. And for me, at the time of those recordings I felt it really captured the spirit of what was going on with the band. As far as the bluegrass categorization is concerned, does The Show really belong in the categorization of bluegrass? I don’t know. I do know that a lot of those songs have become staples of the live performances. And ultimately, that’s still where Yonder Mountain shines: in the show, being a part of that energy. That’s always been what we have been, primarily a performance band. You’ve got to come to the shows in order to get it. The records are a good way to afford ourselves the ability to explore. So I think the people who form opinions based on records get a part of the picture, but they don’t see the whole picture.

To me, the most obvious difference on the Rothrock-produced material is the presence of drums. How do you feel about the general reaction to having drums on the record — whether it be fan-reaction or otherwise?

Dave: For me, the idea of having drums on the record was that it would be valuable when it came to enhancing the sound of certain songs — which I think it does. I think the fans got a little down on us for having drums on the last couple records, with the thinking that the drums were going to become a permanent part of the band. I can’t recall any specific reactions but, looking back on it, and having some perspective on it, I feel like the drums were not an overpowering thing that were going to swallow up the band and change the dynamic. I feel like they were a very appropriate accompaniment for those particular songs, and I think the fans have sort of mellowed out about it now.

Ben: What I found with the fans was, when you listen to the record once, you go, ‘Wow, this is different’. But as you listen to it, two, three, four, however many times, that’s when you start to get what we were going for. So if initially somebody said, ‘I’m not sure about this’, once they do listen to it they do like it.

Then there’s the reassurance of coming to the shows and seeing that we don’t have a drummer, and then the challenge as musicians, and in this case one that is greatly rewarding, is rearranging material for different lineups; in this case rearranging a song that had drums on the record for a performance without drums. And the challenge is to make it work, and to continue to have that effectiveness in the translation of that song.

But in truthfulness, there are so many times where I’ve heard from people who, when they came to the first show, they didn’t realize that there wasn’t a drummer in the band. We’re able to create this really percussive element during the performances and I think it really surprises people how much ground, and sound, we can cover without a drummer and still have it be loud enough and drive people. I’ve always thought that was the feather in our cap to be honest, that we don’t need a drummer to fill rooms of a certain size, or play before or after bands that are drum-driven bands. We’ve never had any problems with that, especially as we have grown and matured as musicians.

Are they any plans for another Mountain Tracks compilation in the near future?

Ben: It’s not in the works right now. Our next project is going to be a studio record — or rather, a different kind of approach to a studio record. And because now we are releasing the live shows within 24 hours of being performed, fans now have access to every live performance. And essentially, they always have had access to every live performance we’ve ever done.

So for me, doing another live record — just to keep it interesting for myself — it would have to be a very unique take on what the live record could be. I’m always kind of hip to the idea that we go back to our roots, so to speak, and do a small-room, all-acoustic, live performance, as opposed to just recording some songs from shows. And that, at least, would warrant some thought about another Mountain Tracks.

But every song from every show is available so quickly now that the live record seems to be less important, which is a shame in some ways because, to be honest with you, those records sold the most. And some of our live records, they were at the top of the bluegrass charts for longer than our studio records.

You guys are pretty well known for your eclectic covers. What goes into the decision to cover a song live — whether it’s a classic rock song, an old folk tune, bluegrass standard, etc.?

Dave: That’s a good question. I feel that, often times, the choice to cover a particular song, is less of a conscious decision and more of an intuitive process, you know? I don’t think we have a set of criteria, for a cover tune. If there is one, I don’t know about it [laughs].

Ben: I think one thing, too — there’s sort of an inherent issue with how, if you cover a very, very well known and popular song, you can run the risk of being remembered as That Bluegrass Band That Plays “Crazy Train”. I mean, we did that song kind of as a laugh, but it stuck. And that’s the last thing that I want to happen. What I want to happen is for people to listen to the music that we write, and listen to the lyrics that we write and be known as an original songwriting band.

So, you have to walk a very fine line. If there was a criterion, for me, it’s that the cover songs can’t be super well known, or if you’re gonna do something like that, you do it once and you don’t do it again. And I’m sure you can appreciate that, because being known as That Bluegrass Band That Plays “Crazy Train” feels so dismissive to me, given the other things that we’ve accomplished, that I’m very leery of it.

Tell me a little bit about the Harvest Festival. Last year was Yonder Mountain String Band’s first time headlining it, and I know this year you’ll be doing the same. How did you guys become affiliated with that event?

Dave: How it came together was a buddy of ours suggested that we draw another festival comparable to the one we draw in Oregon called Northwest String Summit.

Ben: And to expand on that, that festival [Harvest Festival] had existed for a number of years, but it was, for lack of a better term, languishing. And the promoters, who are the same promoters who do Wakarusa, weren’t getting the results they had hoped for. So they thought, if we were so inclined, we could sort of step in and — not take over, but put our stamp on it and have it become our own thing that we have a lot of input with.

Wakarusa’s sort of that very eclectic, rock ‘n’ roll driven theme, and Harvest’s the more acoustic balance to what that is. And just last year, which was out first time putting our name on the festival, it performed much, much better than it had in past years, and was successful enough so that this year we have a bigger budget, we can draw bigger names, and we can really start watching the thing grow. It doesn’t really have any size restrictions so we can really, with some cleverness, build this thing into a pretty big-name festival, I think. And just watching the experience of the people who were there, it was pretty special for everyone.

What are some of your favorite venues to play around the country? Or is there any particular show you’ve played over the years that stick out in your mind, where you go, ‘Yeah, we were on that night’?

Ben: As far as venues, Red Rocks — that’s just it. And everything else in comparison … there’s just nothing like it. So then we get into theatres … The Tabernacle in Atlanta is really cool, there are a few House of Blues venues around the country that are very special, but the reality is that your experience as a musician onstage is vastly different than that of a given audience. We are hearing different things, we are relying on our own mixes, you know, and so what I hear on stage is totally different than what people get to hear in the house.

So the only way I have to judge it is by the kind of energy and reaction I feel from the audience. And if I’m experiencing that abundance of energy, then I assume we’re playing well. Then I ask people who are out in the crowd; I ask our front of house engineer — who I think is the best in the business — and I’ll ask our lighting director, and I’ll ask our tour manager, ‘So, how did that go?’, and they give very honest reactions. But I never listen to the live shows, or I never listen to recordings of them, I should say. So for me, my criterion for whether or not we were “on” a particular night is entirely based on the energy I’m feeling. It’s kind of an esoteric thing.

You guys have been together for over ten years now. Where do you see Yonder Mountain String Band going in the future? Are there any particular styles of music, or sides of yourselves, that you would like to explore? Or is there anything you feel you haven’t accomplished as a band that you would like to accomplish?

Dave: As far as exploring different styles of music, I don’t think — this is just my personal take on it — but what I think we need to explore, really, is Yonder Mountain String Band. We need to explore what is really unique about it, and it’s relationship to the fans. I don’t see any major changes or anything like that, but it’s highly likely that we continue the natural change of progression.

Ben: I’ll approach the subject from a different angle and talk geographically. For me, a necessity is Europe. I think that we have to explore Europe and Great Britain and achieve the same level of success over there. And from Europe, the World. I have every expectation — I can’t say need because I’m not attached to the outcome — but I have a desire to bring this music to other people in slightly different, or vastly different, cultures, and at the very least see how it goes. I have an external belief that it will go well, but I feel a personal need to have this band step out of North America and extend our horizons. That’s very, very important to me.

Are you guys planning a world tour anytime soon?

Ben: Nah, we’re talking about it, but that would be after we make this new record and getting into the 2012 timeframe.

What’s something about you guys that fans might not know about — whether it’s stuff you guys are into, what you do on the road, or something else of that nature?

Dave: Something someone might not know about me is that I have been reading the HarperCollins Manual for Writing Sentences.

Oh yeah?

Dave: Yeah. It’s pretty exciting.

Ben: For me, I’ve been studying Buddhism. I am also almost two years into sobriety, which has been a tremendous thing for me to achieve. And I am trying to get back to a place in myself where I can only relate to the experiences I had with music when I was 13, 14, 15 when music was the greatest high I could possibly imagine. I couldn’t imagine anything better, more pure, more wonderful, more special than music. I would come home from school everyday and I would listen to music, I would learn music, I would play music, I would transcribe music, and it was the greatest thing.

And over the course of the years, as you tour, the more you feast with it, you can very easily slip into a state of being where you chemically alter yourself to achieve what you think is the best way to connect with music. And I would make an argument that that’s total bullshit, for me. It was a completely wrong way of thinking. In retrospect, it was a total waste of time and now I’m trying to find that 15-year-old kid who really had it figured out way more than I had it figured out for the last ten years.

And it’s a wonderful challenge. Everyday I feel like I get a little bit closer to that. I can certainly tell you that I feel more joy in writing and performing music, and performing with my three bandmates who are just spectacular people and musicians. I feel more joy now than I have felt in an indeterminable length of time; it’s almost indescribable. I wish I could find a way to have you feel the way I feel in my heart about music these days, in order to do it justice.