Nothing Bling-Blings’ Like the Banjo: Yonder Mountain String Band’s Dave Johnston
In just a few years of performing and touring together Nederland, Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals), Jeff Austin (mandolin, vocals), Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals), and Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals) YMSB have shown that while their instrumentation is about as old school as you can get, their approach to bluegrass music is anything but. YMSB’s live shows and live releases (Mountain Tracks, Volumes 1 and 2) show adventurous picking, drawn-out jams, and song to song segues that fit the jamband ethos perfectly. But it’s the quartets studio releases (1999’s Elevation and 2001’s Town By Town) that have shown the band is just as capable of making authentic bluegrass. With this year’s release of Old Hands, YMSB has teamed up "archetypal Mountain Man" Benny "Berle" Galloway and furthered the band's reputation as being equally capable on stage as it is in the studio.
Bluegrass and jamband fans aren't the only ones listening, either. This year also marked quite possibly the first time in music history where a hip-hop artist sampled a bluegrass band as Bubba Sparxx sampled YMSB's "To See You Comin' Round the Bend" (from Town By Town). The sample appears on the track "Comin’ Round" on Sparxx’s new album Deliverance.
I had the chance recently to have a chat with YMSB's Dave Johnston about "Berle," bling-bling, and Bubba.
MP- In the live setting the band is well known for drawn out jams, yet on your latest album there isn’t a song over four minutes long. To your mind how do you strike the balance between the studio and the live performance? To what extent does one impact the other?
Dave Johnston: We maintain that balance with regards for what we can do and how much of an impact we can make per venue. Recording in a studio, the chances of making an impact are better with having great words and good arrangements whereas in the live performance you kind of have that symbiotic energy happening between the crowd and the performer and we like to exploit that to give everyone a really good time. So it usually ends up being that we'll stretch out or jam a little bit more. But one of these days, and I think it won't be too long, I'm pretty sure we're going to take a whole month off and just record everyday or something like thattry to get the really intense live feel for one of our studio records.
MP_ Benny Galloway holds writing credits on every track of Old Hands, can you tell our readers about his relationship with the band?
DJ- Benny Galloway is an old friend of ours and Jeff and I met him a long time ago. We met him at a little bluegrass festival in Colorado and played a lot of music with him and realized all the music we were playing was his music and we really liked it. We introduced him to the boys and such and after a while we kind of got the idea that "Damn, Benny Galloway has this extensive catalogue of really great tunes that he wrote and continues to write." So we decided that we could make a coherent album out of just his tunes. Benny is pretty much the archetypal "Western Mountain Man." He's really kind of a rugged guy, but really generous and sweet toohe likes to elk hunt and fishhe's a really an outdoorsy type dude. He reminds me of what you would think of a typical Western person in the 1890's. Sort of like that.
MP- Sort of the John Wayne guitar player type?
DJ- Yeah, but John Wayne is like a cheap copy of Berle. John Wayne is not the real deal. We really like performing his (Galloway's) material; it just kind of has a Western ethos that kind of fits our band.
MP- How did Bubba Sparxx’ sampling of the band’s song come about?
DJ- According to intelligence, there's a small cabal of people who actually listen to Yonder Mountain String Band and Bubba Sparxx. Apparently, one of these people had given him (Sparxx) a copy of our album and he really liked Ben's song "To See You Comin' Round the Bend," which is really cool because we had difficulty getting that one to come together in the studio, but when it finally did come together it was really a fun tune to listen to. We're really psyched that Bubba actually has an open musical mind and is cool about it.
MP- Have you thought about doing a co-billed tour with Sparxx?
DJ- I would do that. It would be an interesting amalgamation of fans. [Laughs]
MP- Have you guys noticed any residual bling trickling down your way since you’ve entered the hip-hop world?
DJ- [Laughs] Baby, when you play the banjo it's bling-bling all the time alright? And you can quote me on that. We've seen a really flattering article about Bubba Sparxx' record album in the New York Times that referred to us in generous terms, so we're real excited about that. We have gotten a little more exposure because of it and it's really cool because that what music is about is that sort of thing."
MP- I suppose you have to take the exposure wherever you can get it.
DJ- Yeah, I play on a record with Bubba Sparxx, you can't buy that kind of P.R.or you can, but it's going to cost you. But we got paid for that kind of P.R.
MP- Does the band have any other projects in the works at the moment?
DJ- Everyone kind of has projects in the works. Jeff just put a solo record in the can that will come out in March. We're just all working on tunes. I know Ben has a big backlog of songs. Adam's got stuff going on. We just have a lot of unassembled material. It's kind of like we got the boxes from the department store, now we just have to put it together. Someone will come to the band with anything from 30 to 90% of an idea and the band is usually very cooperative in doing musical consulting.
MP- Back to Old Hands, how did you guys get such an impressive list of guest musicians to show up? [Note: Old Hands was produced by Sally Van Meter and features Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Darol Anger, Dirk Powell, and Casey Driessen].
DJ- Sally is an old friend of ours; she produced our first record (Elevation). And she was like one of the first people to say, "Hey, this band’s good." We’ve always respected her opinion and her musical taste, so we thought it would be a really good idea to get her to produce again because she gets a good amount of stuff out of us. When we made our second record, that’s how we got to meet Tim O’Brien (who produced Town By Town), who is on the record playing fiddle. It turned out he ended up being a really good friend too, and his musical opinion we hold in very high esteem as well. Sally got Darol and Mike Marshall to play on our first record, and they were into it. Ever since then our relationship with Darol has grown pretty well. We just met Jerry this year and we got to know him through Tim and I guess everyone liked the songs well enough to want to perform on them and I'm glad it happened. It was great. They're all so nice and just sweet people and such otherworldly musicians that it's really an honor to have every one of the guests that we had on the recordthey're all really at the top of their forms. It was really intimidating at times but it was great to keep company with them and maybe one day I'll be that good.
MP- When the band started touring, did you think it would have gotten so far in just a few years progress?
DJ- No way. No way [Laughs]. Are you kidding me? No way.
MP- So what’s the secret to the band’s success thus far?
DJ- The secret is that none of us know what the secret is. I think playing music is really a privilege and a lucky thing to be able to do. If you really love to play, the work that is associated with itthe traveling and ruined personal friendships and stuff like thatit's all worth it. To me, it's an honor to share the stage with those three guys and an honor to make music with the people I've made music with and I want to do whatever I can to make sure it stays that way. Maybe that's our secret.