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Published: 2001/07/17
by Bob Makin

Yonder Mountain String Band: The Music Lingers in the Mountains

It's not every day that a band gets to be produced by one of its main
inspirations, but that is the case for Yonder Mountain String Band, winner of
the New Groove Jammy Award last month at New York's Roseland Ballroom. The
accolade has been one of many honors bestowed upon the Boulder, Colo.-based
"jam-grass" band within the last few months. Others include mainstage gigs at
the Telluride Bluegrass and High Sierra Music festivals and getting an
enthusiastic response to its own two-day Dexter Lake Festival in Oregon with
new-grass fiddle-mandolin great Darol Anger.

But probably the biggest dream come true for Yonder Mountain String Band — mandolinist Jeff Austin, guitarist Adam Aijala, banjoist Dave Johnston and bassist Ben Kaufmann — is getting to work with Tim O'Brien, one of the band's biggest influences. A new-grass band in the vein of New Grass Revival, Hot Rize is a big chapter in the history of the Colorado bluegrass scene. O'Brien passed the torch by helping Yonder Mountain capture much of its live sound in the studio, while still honing in on strong arrangements and harmonies. The September-bound 'Town To Town" will be a follow-up to the recent live outing, "Mountain Tracks Vol. 1: Live at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado, September 29 & 30, 2000," and 1999's studio debut, "Elevation," which was produced by progressive bluegrass dobro great Sally Van Meter and featured performances by her, Anger and his longtime partner, guitarist-mandolinist Mike Marshall. All three releases are on Yonder Mountain's own Frog Pad Records, which is modeled after fellow Boulder bluegrass-based jamsters The String Cheese Incident's SciFidelity Records. I spoke with Austin about the band's bright future, as well as the inspirational Rocky Mountains. For more info, check out www.yondermountain.com. How did it feel to win the Jammys New Groove Award? *It was one of the highlights of this crazy whirlwind we've been on with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the High Sierra Music Festival and the Dexter Lake Festival. It was an unexpected chocolate cream in the middle of the box.*

What is the Dexter Lake Festival?

We organized it ourselves with two production companies that did all the trenchwork. We organized the musicians. The main focus was to have a lot of our friends come play and get heard a good amount. We finished each evening. Keller Williams was before us both nights. One night The Slip played. A band called Umphree's McGee was there as well. We had Darol Anger sit in on fiddle with our band. The first night he played the entire show. It was just like, 'Oh my God. This is a dream come true.' He's one of the original freaks. We had a Sunday morning workshop and Darol sat down and talked about the acoustic music movement, how Bill Monroe put together bluegrass, then he brushed over the period of time in the early '70s with California acoustic music. And he said, now there's a big boom for bluegrass. We had to stop him and say, 'Uh, Darol, you just happened to be a part of that little movement in the '70s that redefined acoustic music forever. He brushed over it like was yesterday's news. *Kelly Joe Phelps also was there. He was just awesome. What a great musician.*

What were the two production companies?

*Segue Productions and The Silver People Presents. Both are run by young guys the same age as us. Nobody's over 30. More people showed up than we had hoped. We had 1,000 people for the show, two days of camping and a late night tent. It was a dream of ours. This year we'll have two two-day outdoor events and we'd like to develop that into four events. The second one is coming up in Texas in October. We're working on it now.*

Texas? Why not Colorado?

*Colorado has so many darn festivals, and we're a part of so many of them, especially this year with the Telluride, Groovegrass Fest and Ned Fest, the Four Corners Folk Festival. There's like eight or nine festivals in Colorado. Next year we're planning one close to home.*

What did you think of your Jammys' jam with the Derek Trucks Band, Col. Bruce
Hampton and Robert Randolph?

*It was awesome. I was definitely a little gun shy. I was the lone acoustic soldier between these two major slide players — Trucks and Randolph. They were rippin', and me, I'm just this little mandolin guy. But playing with Col. Bruce was definitely fulfilling a dream. And to have Trucks and (Kofi) Burbridge there, that gathering of people. I was honored to stand one foot from the Colonel singing 'Turn on Your Lovelight' while I played a mandolin solo underneath it. I'd like to do that again for sure.*

Maybe at one of your festivals.

*That would be awesome. The other thing is that Trucks is one of the nicest people I've ever met. He's amazing. He's like this reincarnated guitar god. You just watch him and you can feel that coming off him. But then you talk to him backstage and he's so real, so down there.*

How's the second studio album coming along?

It's totally finished as far as mastering and tracking. The only thing we're awaiting is artwork. It sounds weird but we've gone back and forth the past two months. We want to do a really good design. We live in a time when one person can buy a CD on the Internet through a download. With 'Elevation,' you could download that, but then you'd miss out on a lot of photos and lyrics and packaging that we hope is interesting enough to buy the CD rather than just download it. What we're trying to do with this one is to figure out the creative packaging that make people want to go buy it in the store rather than just download it or burn it for a friend. The artwork will be finalized in a week, then it's out the door. *We originally intended to release it in June, but it hit us that we released the live record in April so to release a studio record in June would smother the live CD. And we're really proud of that. There's a lot of original music on it. We want to get that one fully exposed before we put out the studio one. In the fall, we'll get a better boost with it because our fall is getting so pumped full of dates, what better way of backing a studio release than a fall filled with dates.*

How will it be a departure from 'Elevation'?

The way we recorded it, our choice in producers. The new CD is called 'Town By Town,' and Tim O'Brien recorded it with a real live feel. Tim was a member of Hot Rize. He's one of the most respected musicians in bluegrass. Our first record was produced by Sally Van Meter, who's amazingly respected musician bluegrass. But it's a very different feel than 'Elevation.' It's a perfect blend of live show and studio. You get some liberties in the studio setting. It's more produced and arranged, but you want to transmit the energy of the live show. That's a constant challenge, but we put those two together in the studio. With 'Elevation,' the songs were written before the band got together. With 'Town By Town,' the reason it's called that is because all of the 14 tracks except two are autobiographical about things that happened while were in the band. A lot of it deals with the road, the hardships and joys, all the pleasures and demons the road can give you. I can't wait till it comes out. *A lot of the songs we play live a lot so they're familiar, which is nice. It gives people a familiarity when they buy a new CD. We've played 'Peace of Mind' a lot live.*

How much did the material on the new album come together by performing the
songs live?

*A couple of my tunes did, especially the more jam-based songs. The majority of my songs on the album push the seven- or nine-minute parameters. One's a little four-minute tune. But mine are the more jammed out kind of numbers. 'Peace of MInd' is about missing the one I love. It's a fantasy tale of me being on the road, thinking of us driving together on this huge drive home, but instead it's me sitting in the van with a bunch of guys. 'New Horizons' also came about live. The others are more arranged tunes that grew up in rehearsal and in the studio. But they have a live sense too.*

Will you put the new record out on your own or a larger label?

It'll come out on our own label. One of the things all four of us were unified in from the beginning was a strong desire to do this, I don't want to say on our own, because we love good help from people who genuinely are interested in our best interests. But one of the goals was to establish our own label by putting out music on our own and seeking a distribution deal so that it would become a solid, recognized label.

Like The String Cheese Incident.

*They're example is fantastic. We watched how they maintained full control of their music by maintaining full control of their business: traveling, booking, management, production, sound and albums. Since the beginning, we created own label because we were afraid somebody else might tell us, 'That's good, but you are a bluegrass band. Maybe you should not put out these jammed out songs on an album. Maybe you should do a solid bluegrass album because that's what sells.' But that's not us. It's jam-grass. It's bluegrass, but it's not afraid to jam. It's set up like bluegrass without drums and the jam doesn't need the drums to push the jam into a space that keeps the audience interested in 10- or 30- or 60-minute jams.*

Is it the live album the first in a series of live releases?

*Definitely. I think it will be a live one every other one. We want to put out a minimum of one a year. Not to steal quotes from somebody, but a live album is nothing else but a good snapshot of where the band is at that point in time. That album is where we were in September 2000. The next one we put out some time early next year will be where we were in the summer and fall of 2001. We're gathering recordings from this year.*

How can you afford to do all this? I mean, I'm in a band, and I can't even
afford to buy a new microphone, and I make a pretty decent living as a music
writer.

From the beginning, we had a lot of communication with people we admired who were successful, like Leftover Salmon and String Cheese. The advice the String Cheese guys gave us is once you get out there and start to make decent money from shows and merchandise, you can pay yourself ridiculous amounts of money, but then you'll just have to keep borrowing money to keep making CDs, stickers, posters, T-shirts. They managed to find out just how much they needed to make to survive and then reinvested the rest into their company to become independent. We don't want to be dependent on anybody. We want to support ourselves. At first, we started with friends who helped us get our albums out. They helped us with money, but the main goal was to have no debts to anybody but ourselves. We didn't want to owe $500,000 here and $200,000 there. The reason we're able to do all these recordings is our touring schedule. It makes sense. Luckily, we've been able to be successful and now it's starting to develop in all areas of the country. This time last year, the West was really strong and the Midwest, but the Northeast and Southeast, people knew about us, but now they're really into it. The East is starting to catch up with the West and the West is exploding. The East hopefully will turn into the same thing. We just keep ourselves on the road so our schedule is how we can afford to do all of it. As things get better everywhere, we're able to make more decisions. *We're also dealing with a great deal of good karma. We've had video crews come to festivals and do multi-camera shoots for a quarter of what they normally would charge. They just like our energy, what we put out. They don't want money to limit us to do this sort of thing. In April, we played two big shows at the Boulder Theatre. The fella who does the screens and the light show at the Fillmore in San Francisco came out for it. We played there in February and after, the fella that does the psychedelic lighting said, 'I want to do this again. I see you've got two big shows in Boulder. How about you pay me a third of my price, I'll pay my own fare and I'll do the two shows.' These are nothing short of miracles. People are helping us out because they know we're not about quitting. We're not going to do this this year and quit next year. They want to see us keep growing and take it as far as we can go. It's a lot of leaps of faith from people who give us good karma, positive energy, positive everything. That takes you back, when you think that people are willing to multi-track for nothing. It's very humbling. I have to sit and take a moment to myself and say, 'What the hell?' Man, this is really blowing me away.'*

I love the way you stick a Peter Tosh-like scat-rap to 'Legalize It' in the
middle of 'Keep On Going.' Peter Rowan does a lot of reggae-grass. Why do
reggae and bluegrass naturally go together?

The people who were first doing it, were folks like Rowan and Newgrass Revival. They were musicians who grew up listening not only to bluegrass but mostly to rock, the Dead, reggae. They had the desire to take all the music they learned and put that into their music. We've made that our goal too. The music we listen to we put into the music we play. We know how to make it adaptable. We've come upon songs we'd love do by The Beatles, Black Sabbath or The Who. We'd love to do a version of 'Sweet Leaf' but there's too much drums. We do 'Crazy Train.' But bluegrass and reggae got together in the early '70s with people like Rowan and Sam Bush. They took the music they loved and transferred it into bluegrass. Reggae fits bluegrass really well even though it's a drum-driven kind of music. Adam, our guitarist, is really influenced by reggae. He listens to it more than any of us. That's an influence he didn't want to forget and brought into the band. It works well. It's a nice break in the beat. If you've got people dancing all night to a bluegrass beat, all of a sudden you throw in a reggae beat and people really react to it. That's something new that they can wiggle to and get into. *That song developed live. We had to put it out on the live CD. We couldn't take that tune in the studio. It would have been stale. Luckily, we got a good version from those Fox Theatre shows. I'm glad you like it. It's a neat challenge, scat singing.*

What's the difference between when you guys all play around one microphone
versus all being plugged in. What does that force you to do and what do you
enjoy most about the single mic?

*The single mic allows to present our music in a different way. And it's
visually exciting. You watch Del McCoury and his band, the majority of the
time they gather around one microphone and you think, 'How can all that sound
come through that one thing.' Part of it is just emotion. It's neat. It's
also a challenge for us to play the whole listening game. You're really
acoustic up there. That's as acoustic as music can get. One of my favorite
things is getting around a single microphone. The tone when you plug in is
still a pretty acoustic tone, but it's still got an electric edge that moves
people in a different way. The only member of our band that doesn't plug in
is Dave. He plays his banjo through a microphone on a stand. But one of my
favorite things is getting around a single microphone because of the tone you
get. You hear how the mandolin sounds as the pick touches the strings and the
sound goes through the wood. And the voices have a unifying sound when we
sing through one mic. It's a different blend of natural elements. And it's
cool to do a 15- or 20-minute jam through one microphone because you've got
to keep listening. It's like a dream-like state almost. You remove yourself
but you've still go to keep the rhythm tight. I've heard things on
tape that I don't remember happening.*

What brought you guys to the Boulder area?

*The music. The scene had developed when I had come out about three-and-a-half years ago. String Cheese was breaking out and playing to more and more people. Leftover Salmon … everybody knew who they were. They were playing mainstage headline sets. Also it's just a community. If you're a bluegrass musician, you can jam five or six nights a week within an hour radius of where you live. There are so many bluegrass musicians in Colorado. Hot Rize, this where their home was. For us all, the band Hot Rize were heroes like Newgrass Revival. And they're from this area. And there's Sally Van Meter, a world-famous dobro player. She was in the band The Good Old Persons that was part of the second phase of the California revolution of bluegrass.*

Bluegrass started in Appalachia and the progressive bluegrass scene in California mostly was in
Northern California. There's also a big scene in Colorado. All of those areas are mountainous. Do you
think the mountains have to do with those pockets of bluegrass?

Definitely. They've got a vibe you can't ignore. If you look at 'Elevation,' many of the tunes were inspired by the mountains. I came up with the chorus for 'Half Moon Rising' while walking to Adam's house while the moon was coming up. The mountains carry a lot of inspiration with them. That's undeniable. The music stays with the mountains. That's not to say it can't be contagious anywhere, but in Boulder, bluegrass really has been recognized as a hot place for bluegrass since the mid-'70s. The heyday comes and goes, fades away from the public eye, but the bluegrass boom in Colorado would still be as big. Picks still continue. Musicians come from across the world to play venues here. Also, you've got the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the Rockygrass Festival, all these festivals. Telluride's been going on some 28 years. That's energy right there. That's mountainous inspiration if I've ever hear it. *The music lingers in the mountains. The inspiration is indescribable . Going for a walk in the woods in the Rockies or just sitting on a rock behind my house looking at the valley across the way, that sounds like a bluegrass tune right there.*

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Bob Makin has been writing about the jam band scene since 1988. Jam bands can
send him info at makinclan@aol.com and material to PO Box 6600, Bridgewater,
NJ 08807.

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