We Have Minds That Think Like Comic Strips:A Conversation with Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin
Jeff Austin began his bluegrass odyssey in Illinois. There were some bumps along the way but eventually he wound his way to Colorado where he helped to promulgate a new generation of jamgrass with the Yonder Mountain String Band. In the following interview with fellow musician Thomas Oliverio (from the Paducah, Kentucky-based Bawn in the Mash), Austin describes that journey, ruminates on where it might take him next year and looks back at that eureka moment when he first said, “Aggressive music and guys with high voices? Sounds like me! I can do that!”
TO: So, what are you up to right now?
JA: To be honest with you I’m sitting here, writing out a very serious piece I’ve been working onIt’s a possible Chicago Cubs line-up for next year. I’m trying to figure out exactly how we can get these trades done. I will go chain myself to Wrigley Field until they make all the changes. So I’m sitting here, trying to figure this out we’ve resigned Neifi Perez today to a two year deal. Ah, enough about that. My mind is obviously on baseball.
TO: So can we expect a Sam Bush-esque variant on the “Hey Ozzie” song from you?
JA: Oh, you know, I’m trying to work on my Derrek Lee song, trying to not make it sound like Lee’, by Tenacious D, but its hard not to.
TO: Switching gears, I was over at the IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association Fan Fest] when Yonder was playing the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville. We walked over at the start of the second set, and Sam Bush had just walked on stage.
JA: That’s great, it’s hard to walk away from the IBMA’s
TO: It’s harder to walk away from David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, & Pete Rowan singing together in the green room, but I knew your show was going to be cooking.
JA: Oh wow, a lot of soft singin’ going on there. Wow that’s awesome…Well, you know the IBMA will give that to you. I remember one year I went as a spectator. I watched Michael Cleveland play for probably four or five hours. I sat down and played for a little bit, then I got up, and stood there watching him- it was amazing. He sat in the middle of the circle, and everybody was around him. He was calling, well not calling but kicking off pretty much every single tune- it was just awesome just to be there. This wasI guess 1995 or 96- he was a young man, just tearin’ it up. I was like, oh man- he is so good. That’s my favorite part about any of those things.
TO: This year I walked into the restroom at the Ryman, and Sam Bush, Roland White, & Jason Carter were all lined up, using the urinals.
JA: Thatta boy! Well, they do travel in packs. Hell, it was Roland. You gotta be near Roland White. He’s one of the two guys that started my whole mess. He and John Duffy were really the first.
I had heard Grisman on American Beauty and on something else, I can’t remember what it was, like a bootleg or something; but Roland White with the Kentucky Colonels and John Duffy with the Country Gentlemen were the first two mandolin players I really identified with, cause they had guts. They had a lot of guts, ya know? They really stuck with me. Duffy’s still my favorite, he’s got balls. I don’t have any politically correct way to put it. That man would just play the hell out of it. It didn’t matter if every note was absolutely dead on perfect or technically this or that, it was just guts. I’d watch him any day, he’s God to me, he is my lord!
TO: I’ve taken a couple lessons from Roland; he’s such a mellow, cool dude. The first time I met him I was obviously nervous, but after a couple minutes it was like talking with a friend.
JA: Wowthat’s what I’ve heard. I’ve neverI’ve said hello to him once, something like, “Thank you Mr. White, thank you for your music..” That kind of thing. Not wanting to walk up and bug him, just wanted to say something. That and the fact that I was nervous as hell.
TO: You just finished a four show run with Sam Bush- what was that like?
JA: In the general sense, it was so cool it was unbelievable. It was so natural, it just really happened. We didn’t freak out or sweat about it. We didn’t send him 10,000 discs of music and said ahhthisandthat’, and before the show we weren’t like ohmygodahh’, this is got to be like this and exactly like that’. No, we said, You know what man, you know what you’re doing, we’re just glad you’re coming along to hang out with us, were just gonna play some music.’ And we did, and it was for me personally just so exceptionalWell he…he knows my name- and that’s pretty crazy. I don’t know if I’ll have a day that I don’t think that’s pretty damn cool.
I got a phone message from him and I was like holy shit, you’ve got to be kidding me,’ because he, Roland and Duffy were the first guys I heard and when I saw Sam I was just like, oh my God. This guy is it.’ He has just great, great technical skill. Just look at the people who choose to have him interpret their music. Jazz guys, classical guys, he even produced [Chris] Thile’s second record.
So Sam to me I would like to someday feel how Sam gets to feel just what he’s accomplished with music- I really look up to him for that. And then to have him, not only know my name and say hi, and genuinely care how I’m doing and everything but being on stage with him-truly WITH him- ya know? He’s not just this guy that we are paying to come out and be a special guest, and we’re doing our thing and he’s doing his thing. No, he was playing with us. And that is rare. We do a lot of shows with Darol Anger, and Darol is really like our fifth member. He is so knowledgeable about what we do, the turns we take, and the chances we take. Sam got that right away, he picked up on that.
This last year at Telluride, he came up and played half of our set with us, and it was awesome. We were like, could you sit in with us’, and he was like. Ah, fuck, absolutely’ So he comes up, and we kind of told him before the set, You can stay for the whole set, we’re not gonna throw out any curve balls- were not gonna be hurlin’ stop-time in there or anything, it’s pretty self explanatory.’ He was like, Ah man I’d love to’, and it was that genuine excitement.
That was where it really started, that was where it bloomed. The next day at the festival, I ran into him and said Thanks man. We should do this. You should jump on the bus with us for a few days and do some shows, that felt good.’ And he agreed, and finally we got it worked out where we were able to do it. But it was that thing, standing on stage and playing with him and he played a lot of fiddle then he’d pick up the mandolin, and I was just like, Ho ho here we go’ I guarantee you could probably look at every single photo that was taken while he was playing mandolin onstage and my eyes are probably staring at his right hand, and his left hand. I can almost be sure of that. It was a true thrill, but it wasn’t awkward or unnatural, and that was the best part of it.
Like when he showed up in Nashville, we had called him because that was the week after we did the shows with him, and we said, Sam, we miss the hell out of you. Get your ass down to the show, we’d love to have you hang out, bring your fiddle, we’d love to have you play, but if you just want to chill and hang we’d love you to come down and just be our guest and just be part of the family ’ And he said, Oh yeah, I’ll definitely bring the fiddle.’
He came down and I said Sam, you know, second set, would you come up right from the start and play the first bunch of tunes’ , and he was like Hell, I’ll play the whole thing with you, I’m here to play.’ You don’t want to make anybody feel like they have to. When we invite people to sit in, we genuinely say Hey, first and foremost, we just want to invite you down, come down to the show and hang out and have a good time. We’d love to have you play, but don’t think that’s why were calling’. To have Sam say, Well, I’m here to play’ and I said Do you want to play the whole set?’ and he replied well yeah’OK-kick ass-alright-that’s awesome.
That’s a long-winded explanation of it, but ya know, that’s the only way I can do it. It was extremely exhilarating, a real charge. It was our last tour of the year. We did a lot of touring this year. Every time we were off we would fly to Los Angeles to work on our new record. So for him to come in on the third week of a four week tour and give us this great dose of energy, it was awesome. It was sad to see him go, and when he did we were like No, come on, don’t go- is there anyway you can fly out and do the gig then fly back and do the next gig with us?’ It was exceptional, and we will definitely have him out again.
TO: It’s an experience simply listening to his music; I could only imagine how great it is to be playing with him.
JA: Well, I tried to be real conscious and real present when it was happening. I thought, Don’t just stand here and take it all in like you are watching a lesson,’ which in part I couldn’t stop thinking that it was, because I truly wanted to say oh man, check that out, lets see if I can do that’ and then he’d do one of his rapid chops, and then I’d do one and he’d say Yeah! Alright!’ then we’d do another one together.
But just to watch everything, to see him enjoy it for him to really get into it- and the crowd totally embraced it. It was just nice that it was so natural. Were lucky in that we’ve had very few moments where we had someone play with us and it was weird. We’ve had very few of those, luckily, because a lot of people in this genre of music are, like you said, approachable and accessible, and as long as you’re not a freak ball.
TO: During the show you announced that you were thinking about coming down from the mountain to check out the Nashville scene.
JA: I felt bad for doing that, thinking why the hell did you say that?’ It was kind of idiotic to say, like a hey, look at me’ kind of thing. I was truly caught up in the moment of how genuine the crowd was, the emotion the crowd was giving us and all our musical friends were thereI’m an Irish catholic boy. I can watch a laundry detergent commercial and get emotional. It’s not too hard for me to get choked up- and to have Sam there and to look off stage and see Jeff Coffin and a bunch of the guys from the Flecktones crew , all these friends of ours. It is something I’m definitely contemplating. I’ve been working on some songwriting this year with some friends out there, I don’t know, I don’t want to sound real hippie dippy, but it might be a real beautiful trip. It might be just a little burst of something I need.
TO: Well, there’s definitely a plethora of pickers down here.
JA: I’m a fan of music all across the boards. There are great players in Nashville. Great musical minds that are there, great songwriters. I’ve always been interested in having songs that I write be recorded by other people. Sometimes the emotion comes out but I hear somebody else’s voice singing. That’s something I’ve always been passionate about. We’ve been together now for only seven years, the band, seven years and a couple of months, and I’ve talked to the guys, and I don’t feel that it wouldn’t damper anything we are already doing.
I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt us. My commitment is first and foremost this band. However, I have interests in songwriting and I have friends in Nashville who have basically taken me under their wing and introduced me to some folks, it seems idiotic to ignore. Hell, I flew to Nashville three times this year and I was home in Colorado like five times. So I was like, this might work.
I’m a Midwest boy. I grew up right outside of Chicago, and its one step closer for me to get back to my home place. I’ve had way too many dreams over the last few years about moving back to Chicago. Nashville might be a good starting point. But I don’t know. Right now I’m sitting in Colorado staring out the window and I’m thinking, wow, this is pretty nice night. Look, it’s snowing on those peaks, it’s probably going to snow tonight’
Also, we spend so much time together as a band that when we are home everyone has their own families, girlfriends or wives. When we get home we are passionate about that side. We don’t spend a lot of time together when we are home, we really don’t. We’re not a band that beats ourselves up if we didn’t rehearse so many times before we leave for a trip. Our live show is too spontaneous and too happenin’ to put yourself through that crap. If there’s any rehearsing to be done, it’s over new material, or ideas of where to go with a song. And hell, I can jump on a plane and be back in Colorado in an hour and a half. I may have spoken too soon, but it’s definitely something I can really see happening.
TO: You blew your cover; you are going to have to move now.
JA: Yeah, I really screwed up. I’m a terrible lurker on any kind of chat board that we have, because I genuinely want to hear what people think, like concerns or if security sucked at one place, or they want to hear a song we haven’t played. We should pay attention to that kind of stuff. Without the people listening to the music it doesn’t really work. So yeah, I blew it, and now everyone thinks I’m leaving. Nashville would be a great, inspirational place for me to be. I’ve already fallen under Chief Niwot’s Curse, so I’ll have to end up in Colorado someday. But I don’t have a single box packed and my dog is content living in Colorado.
TO: Have you ever considered doing a bluegrass opera?
JA: That’s funny. The bluegrass opera is something that has come up a lot lately. I would love to do something like that. But how to make it, how should I say ithow to make it not suck and not stupid is the ultimate goal. With Yonder, our bass player has written a series of tunes that all connect and when performed back to back, it encompasses about 75 or 80 minutes. It’s a story that he conceived, of this situation, and it’s almost operatic.
TO: You’re talking about the sheriff tunes- Mothers Only Son’, On the Run’, etc.
JA: Yeah, the Sheriff Saga. It involves the Sheriff of this small town and his wife. And the main character, he pretty much gets it on with the Sheriff’s wife, and the consequences of that ensue. It’s very Sondheim-oriented, if we are going to go full on, operatic, musical theatre dork talk here, which I’m ready for. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I always wanted to do classical voice or musical theatre, that medium really fascinates me. And I was always really intrigued by the shows that transferred it well, that didn’t transfer it in a cheesy kind of way. You know I love the classics, but Steven Sondheim, he’s a composer that really has some brilliant ideas. You know, bluegrass opera, that’s funny, somebody just two weeks ago asked me the same thing.
TO: When I think about The Who’s Tommy’ or even Phish’s Gamehendge’, Yonder is one of the bands that come to mind who have the creativity and imagination to pull something like that off.
JA: Gamehendge is a great example. Wow, I never thought of that and I’m even a Phish fan, that’s ridiculous. That’s a brilliant sequence, these interludes of music. That I think will be the next element to the Sheriff’s tale, the addition of musical interludes. We already have one that was an old tune we kind of put in the middle of On the Run’, it’s called High Cross Junction,’ which fits very well.
It’s cool of you to say that, I definitely take that as a compliment. We have minds that think like comic strips, that’s why I love playing with these guys. You can say something, and it paints such a mental picture in everybody’s mind, and it paints very similar mental pictures but not too much the same, with enough variances to make it interesting. That’s the joy about playing music in this band. You can throw a musical idea out there, and it unfolds like a comic strip, one frame after another.
TO: Yes, like a storyboard of music.
JA: You know, I’ve been messing around with a different idea. Actually when I first met Dave, I came up with this concept called The Marauder of San Miguel’. What it was is San Miguel Island, this little tiny island, they have these sea lions and every year they come to the island to mate. I can’t believe I’m telling this story. It’s so oldI catch shit for this thing all the time because I was young and ambitious.
I read this story about this island where these sea lions gather. Scientists would study them constantly, like their mating patterns, the growth and shrinkage of the population, etc., and this one year they noticed that they were finding females crushed to death, literally crushed to death and they had no idea why. They found these huge pile-ups, one after another after another, every bone in their body was shattered. What they went on to discover is that due to some strange genetic flaw, the male sea lions were three to four times the average size of a sea lion. They were trying to mate with the females, but were crushing them due to their size.
The article was calling it the Marauder of San Miguel,’ so I thought, That sounds like a good concept for some instrumental music.’ So I wrote this thing and it is like six pieces long. It never really came to life, it was a little ambitious. To this day I still want it to happen. Noam Pikelny found out about this piece that I wrote and brought it up not too long ago, and I swear it stopped me in my tracks. I was laughing my ass off, saying, How did you hear about this?’ Because I wrote it when I first met Dave Johnston. So maybe I need to revive the Marauder of San Miguel’ that everyone laughs at me for because they think it’s strange that a bluegrass symphony be written about a large, crushing, male sea lion who is just trying to have sex. It might not make it at the ol’ IBMA next year, but that’s ok, I’ve got to try. I may be old but I’m still ambitious.
TO: There are 525,600 minutes in a year- what have been the best 10 (musically) for you so far in 2005?
JA: To be honest with you, I’d have to say it would be the July 4th weekend when we played at Red Rocks for the first time in the history of the band. We did a tour this summer called the Big Summer Classic with the String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, and a bunch of other bands and it was our first gig on that tour. We had been at the High Sierra Music Festival right before that. Then we came to play at Red Rocks and I’d say the first five minutes and the last five minutes of that set were just freaking epic. Just nuts. It was packed to the gills. I have no better way to put it: It was a cream dream.
We’re a little four piece bluegrass band and we’re standing in front of 10,000 people at Red Rocks and they’re going nuts- They embraced us truly like we were their hometown boys. We played right before String Cheese, the place was jammed to the gills, and as soon as we started, the whole place rose and started dancing. It wasn’t like we were just some band on the bill. It seemed like the whole audience, even though a different band was the headliner, was genuinely excited that we were playing. It was just amazing. Talk about emotionalOh God! This little Irish boy was on the edge the whole night: Screaming, Yelling, Weeping- It was a blast.
TO: What song did you open with?
JA: We opened with a tune that I wrote called Follow Me Down to the Riverside’.
TO: That’s a pretty rip-roarin’ number.
JA: Yes, it’s a really aggressive tune. Ok, you are familiar with it. Yeah, it’s aggressive as hell. I think I said something like, There’s nothing else we’re going to open with. We have to open with this or I’m not going out there (laughs). We got to go out there and get it right off the bat.’ Everybody was just like, Absolutely, that’s what we’re going to do’, and everybody was aggressively going after the emotion of the crowd right off the bat. Not saying, Lets open with something kind of soft and bring them in slowly, no, we’re going to grab them, pin them against the wall, it’s time. Here we go’
And the crowd just responded right along with us. It was a true moment, one of those moments you really hope for, one you wish for when you are a band starting outeven years into the career of your band. We opened up with that tune, then went into Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown’, and we closed with Holdin’ by John Hartford. We did two, good ole John green songs, because the crowd was into it. I think we were all on the same level. It was magical.
There were other times that were really kick ass, like our set at Telluride, especially the last ten minutes. But I have to say Red Rocks, we were all on the same page, we were all talking the same language, the crowd was excited. It was freakin’ epic. It was hard to leave. We finished the set and wanted to say, Alright, we’ll see you in a few minutes!’ The applause went on for a while after we walked off stage. It was a genuine moment, we were really embraced.
It was why we couldn’t have done this in any other state in the whole country. We started this music that we have chosen to make, and started this band that we had chosen to start; we couldn’t have done it anywhere else. The music audience out here is just way open. We walked out there that night and the audience kind of said, Give us what you got’, and we said, Ok, here you go.’ I think that night when we walked off, we said something like, If we never play another show again, we’re completely satisfied’ but we will play many more.
TO: Red Rocks is Mother Nature’s Carnegie Hall. Hell, John Tesh has played there.
JA: Oh, it is. It’s really the gates of heaven. You are on stage, and you look up, the sun is settingStanding there you think, If I’m lucky enough to go to a good place when I’m done, this is what it will probably look like’. You’ve got these great big crazy walls on each side, the steps in front of you, and the crowd. It was amazing. I know at least one song from that show, maybe two, will go on our upcoming live record. The energy was just too much. This is a pretty recent thing, but we got to put it on there, you can hear how excited we were. The reason we do live records is it’s a record. A record of the time, Hartford said that- That’s why I put out records; It’s truly a record of that time’.
TO: Hartford also said, “Every musician is up against his own limitations.” What are your limitations?
JA: Oh man, you’ll have to start another tape (laughing), because the list is massive. As far as playing, it’s how I approach learning how to play the mandolin, or what I call learning the mandolin. I never sat down and learned Butch Baldassari’s way to play Soldier’s Joy’. I never sat down and learned how to play Roland White’s version of Black Mountain Rag’. I stood with a group of guys who looked at me and said, We don’t care if you can only play one note, play it hard, play it fast, and just play it with your guts.’ So my biggest limitations are left hand technique.
I actually tried a few years ago to just relearn everything. I said, I want my melody lines just perfect, beautiful and rolling’ I sat there and just got so pissed offpissedangrybeyond frustrated.like, If I threw this mandolin, would it survive?’ It’s like the woodworker saying, That damn saw’ I’m totally blaming the wrong thing. As I sat there and tore myself apart, there’s a mandolin player out here named Greg Schochet, and he’s amazing. I love him. He’s very aggressive, he plays with guts, and he plays with great technical ability. We were in a jam one night, playing something that I can’t recall, and I was trying to play the perfect little beautiful floating melody line that I had learned off of the little tape that I had boughtand I got so frustrated, I was beet red and so pissed, because my fingers wouldn’t do it.
We finished and were taking a break, and Greg said, You really shouldn’t worry about it that much..’ And I replied that I wanted to just tear apart everything that I’ve done and start again, so I produce a sound that people will look at me and say, Well that sounds like how a mandolin player should sound. You are accepted’ He looked at me and said, Are you crazy? Look at what you’ve accomplished. You play like a person who desires to play mandolin. Don’t change anything; you will end up regretting it. If there are certain things you want to learn, great. But don’t sit there and try to tear yourself apart, that’s asinine. Do people come to see you at your shows? Yes. Do you particularly care if every one of them says, Wow, what a technically great mandolin player?’ That is one of my biggest limitations.
I approach the instrument in a totally different way, completely backwards. I learned a lot of music very quickly, and I didn’t learn everything as clean and precise as it should be, but I’d rather play with people who have my mind frame and mind set than some arrogant little bastard, some cocky little jerk who says, Well if you don’t play it like this, then I’m not going to play with you’ Luckily, I haven’t met too many of those people. When I have met them, the relationship doesn’t last too long- Wow, cool, nice playing with you, gotta go’ That’s definitely a limitation of mine. I just try to play what I feel, and what I hear, that’s what I try to play.
The word virtuoso is the most grossly overused word in the history of language, at least recently. Everybody is a freaking virtuoso. Somebody mentioned that when they were interviewing me. I said, Wait one minute. I’ve got to stop you there. Don’t call me a virtuoso. Don’t do that to me, because I’m not. There might be two people in all genres of music today that I would consider virtuoso.’ I’d rather just lay my guts out there and have it be totally wrong and off key than stand up there and play a lot of bullshit. I know a lot of these words can’t get printed, but boy I’ll tell you it’s the only way I can put it. If I ever start doing the other, I hope somebody slaps me, because that’s not how I perceive music.
TO: I remember the first time I heard you play. It really jumped out and spoke to me. You definitely have developed your own sound on the mandolin; I’ve never heard anyone play like you, which is good because that is the key to playing this stuff.
JA: I can’t even tell you how genuinely cool it is to hear you say that. That’s my biggest thingwhat pisses me off is you’ve got people who want to be clones of this guy or that guy; people want to learn all the licks that someone else has made famous. Why? Why in the hell would you want to do that? Learn those ideas, but don’tThink about how many bands you can listen to and say, oh, that’s so and so playing. Oh no, it’s not? Who is that? I’ve never heard of him.’ I’m not using names on purpose. Oh, well I’ve never heard of that guy, but he sounds just like this guy.’ That kind of stuff just gets to me. Why bother trying to play music? Like when people play electric guitar, and use all the same pedals as someone else, so they can mimic his soundOh man, come on!
That’s why I think the music world was at a loss when Mark Vann died. When you hear him play banjo, there is no doubt in your mind who that is. That’s Mark Vann, right there. He may pull off a little Bela trick, or a Scruggs roll, but that is Mark Vann playing the banjo, and he played it like nobody else.
That’s really cool to hear you say that, because that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I don’t want to sound like anyone else. Sure, I’ll sit there and learn Sam Bush’s chop ideas, his muted chuck, chuck’- you know- But I want it to sound like me. I also want our band to always be approachable. Some hardcore bluegrass fans will look at us and say, How do you guys have this audience? How do you play to 4,000 people, on your own, in Denver? How do you go to Portland to play for a few thousand people?’, and I’ll say, It’s because we are approachable’. We try to keep ourselves very approachable. If you are going to sit there and downplay people for doing their own thing if this doesn’t sound like that then it’s wrong.’We don’t do that. If we did, we would have never been a band in the first place. I would have never been in a band with Dave, in 1995-96 in Illinois, that never would have happened. He had that open mentality and so did everybody else that he introduced me to. I would have never ended up playing with them. We would have never moved out here and found Ben and Adam. So, I’m glad you feel that, we’ve always wanted to be that way. My favorite compliment we still get today is, I don’t like bluegrass music, but I love you guys.’ That’s the plum in the tree. So, hopefully you like us because we sound like people and we are giving you something genuine.
TO: Our fiddle player just got 7th place at Winfield in the mandolin championship (Walnut Valley). It was his first time there, and he isn’t a traditionalist, he plays what he feels. So someone may call out a tune, possibly a traditional number, and he might have never heard of it. Some people will treat you differently because you don’t know the names of 50 Bill Monroe or Jimmy Martin tunes. His advantage is that he has an amazing ear, and as soon as the tune begins, it’s like he’s been playing the tune for years.
JA: I think every musical genre can have that kind of thing going. In the Blues genre, hey man, if you’re not 60 years old or had 10 wives, and kids all over the country, you can’t play the blues. You don’t know the blues because you grew up middle class and were raised in Indianapolis or something’. If you are a rock band, and you didn’t do this or that, then you can’t play, or if you are a jazz hound and you didn’t go to Berklee, then you can’t play, you don’t know anything. They all have that, but I’ll tell you, Bluegrass has some of the nastiest of that.
TO: The Bluegrass snobs.
JA: I have taken so much crap and attitude from people; just shrugging us off- Next please’. We’ve taken so much of that, it really pisses you off. I can’t help it that I grew up listening to heavy metal, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Grateful DeadThat’s what I grew up with. When I heard bluegrass, that was it. I knew it- Boom! Aggressive music and guys with high voices? Sounds like me! I can do that! That sounds perfect.’ Dave and I would be in Illinois, and go to these bluegrass festivals where people wouldn’t even let us stand and play with them. They’d sit there and give us so much shit. You know what the shame is in that? There’s probably a lot of great musicians who have to put off, because these people are threatened, or I don’t know what it is. I’m no psychiatrist, I’m not going to analyze it but it’s got to be an insecurity. Hell, when I react that way to things, it’s an insecurity, you know?
TO: There are definitely enough cool people to play with that you don’t even have to be around the negative ones.
JA: Exactly. That is the joy of this music. Like I said, I haven’t met too many of those people, but the relationships haven’t lasted that long. It really bothers me when people brush you off. We’ve had organizations, people, and groups say a lot of crap about us, about our standing in the bluegrass community and how we are destroying the music- this isn’t the direction the music needs to go-type of thing. Well, a lot of the audiences are dying out but they say, We don’t need your kind of audience.’ What the hell is wrong with you? All I want to do is play this music from my heart, with a lot of passion. Hopefully that’s what I’m doing, and if I’m not, then tell me that I’m not doing that. Don’t tell me that I am hurting something, because that’s a load of crap.
TO: There are enough traditionalists out there, although I think you all do a fine job when you are playing unplugged.
JA: You know what Earl Scruggs said the first time I met him? I was standing next to Dave Johnston, my friend who got me into this music, thank God for him. I was standing next to him, and Earl walked over to us and said, “You boys, you sure are doing the music good, I haven’t heard music that powerful in years.” OKKKK! You know? I want to tell that to those people just to get the satisfaction, like, Put that in your fucking hat’. One of the founders of your precious music really loves what we do.
When Pete Wernick introduced us at the IBMA three years ago, I’ve neverI love Pete. He is a dear friend of mine, he’s a mentor as well, but he is a friend first. I have never had a friend say such nice things to this crowd. He said some things that I was just in awe of. We started playing, and that audience just walked out. That part of it really bugs me, it’s ignorance. We’ve talked to folks who are in the same boat, and have been playing for 35 years, never been asked to play the IBMA, and they don’t understand it either. Oh well, its not going to detour me, I’m still going to play.
TO: Well I wouldn’t feel too bad because this year at the IBMA’s, Larry Sparks, who is incredible, played his set and Tony Rice, Pete Rowan, Bryn and Sharon were up next. It seemed like half the crowd walked out after Sparks finished.
JA: Well, there you go. It’s Tony and Pete. But I can’t blame people for not hanging out and listening to something they may not like. If there’s a band I don’t like, I probably wouldn’t stay.
TO: Well if you like bluegrass and don’t like Tony or Pete, you are kidding yourself.
JA: When I listen to bluegrass music, I listen to hardcore, traditional music. I remember this one jam when I first met Dave, we went to one of these old time bluegrass festivals, and I had a huge beard, and hair the way down my back, and Dave had this long goatee that he had in one huge dread. We were playing with these good ole, central Illinois boys in Decatur, Illinois. We were pickin’ with them and this one guy just loved it- You boys know the harmonies, you know the kick-off’s’
Then there was this other guy who just was not into it, and we did Crossroads’, and I said, you and me old timer, let’s sing it. He was a great tenor singer and I said I’ll sing underneath you any day, lets do it.’ We finished the song, and this one guy wasn’t quite sure what was going on, and he looked at Dave and said, Which road are you on?’ And Dave replied, I’m on the one with good bar food.’ It was really spontaneous when it came out, and we thought, maybe we should leave.’ It’s funny to sit there and catch hell. I mean, ask me who my first mandolin heroes are. Ask me what my first bluegrass records were: Songs Old and New, The Country Gentlemen. I’ve come to learn that, I’ve got friends in rock bands, friends that are jazz musicians, and they get the same crap. I don’t know what it is, maybe fear. If people just opened up, the music would have a lot more growth, more options.
TO: So, if you could play half as well as any mandolin player, who would it be?
JA: Sam Bush, there’s no doubt. Sammy combines all theWell, hold onit’s got to be a tie. It’s got to be a tie between Sam and Jesse McReynolds. That freakin’ cross-picking is from the devil. It was brewed in the fires of hell, I don’t care what anybody says, I know he is a devout gentleman, but he met somebody at the crossroads and they gave him a gift. That thing is nuts. It’s the one thing over that past few years that I have tried to work on, my speed at the cross pick. Then I’ll throw in some Jim and Jesse and just laugh. All cross pick. Sam and Mr. McReynolds, I’d have to say.
TO: What type of pick do you prefer?
JA: I use a standard Golden Gate pick. I like them because they are big, fat, you can get hold of them. I had a Flatiron Performer, F model, which was my primary mandolin for a long time. I said, OK, if I’m going to do this, I need to spend two grand on an instrument.’ I bought it years ago, in 1997. When I bought it I was playing with a standard rock pick, a pointed pick, and it was too sharp. My friend Ethan James, one of my absolute dearest friends, a total musical mentor to me, the guy who said, play it fast and hard, play with your guts, that’s what I want to hear’, he said that, he’s to blame. Microbiologist, brilliant man, beautiful guy. He said, Hey, I’m playing with this Golden Gate on my guitar, here, have one.’ They have three rounded edges, and it really brought out that mid-range, low end sound on my mandolin. It sounded better from the very beginning, then I moved to fatter strings and the pick sounded even better. It just works for me. I tried using a big fat Fender, and it just didn’t work. The Golden Gate does it for me.
TO: Well, some people you ask and they say, I don’t give a fuck, give me a nickel and I’ll play with it’
JA: Nickels are good. Quarters, not so much. A lot of imagery on the quarters, they can be distracting. Especially with all the new collectors quarters.
TO: Yeah, I played with a Sacagawea once and it really threw me off.
JA: Nice. Well, that will break some strings.
TO: So I guess you still play the J-75’s?
JA: Yeah, with the 11.5 on the E string. Still playing the Collings MF-5 that I got almost two years ago. That thing is just great. I am getting ready to begin the payment plan with ole Mr. Kemnitzer, working on a little Nugget. That’s what I’ve always wanted to play. It’s particularly a Colorado thing, but also, Drew Emmitt, who is a dear friend of mine and a huge influence, his Nugget just sounds incredible. So I’m beginning the process to get one of those in my hands. I talked to Mike (Kemnitzer) about 6 months ago, and he was excited to build this mandolin for me.
TO: Do you still have the first mandolin you ever owned?
JA: Yeah, still have it. The Oscar Schmitt A model. Cost about $180. You know, that little sucker served its purpose and got me hooked. Now that thing has been thrown across the room, but into a couch with a lot of pillows so it landed safely. That thing was a canoe paddle.
TO: Final question, what does Yonder have in store for 2006?
JA: The main event next year is our new record, we are really psyched about. It’s coming out on Vanguard Records. We are amped. There’s a lot of mutual respect and they are really excited about us, which is the only reason we signed the deal, or we are getting ready to sign at least. They really believe in what we are doing. They understand what we are doing, and encourage us.
We’re putting out a record like nothing we’ve ever done before. It’s really aggressive, a lot of co-writing. Over half the material is written by the four of us and the guy who produced the record, Tom Rothrock. Tom has never worked on a project like this. He didn’t know who Earl Scruggs is, who John Hartford was, and who the Country Gentlemen were. He comes from a rock/pop kind of mind frame, and he was a perfect fit. We really hit it off. He was the only one who could have gotten this out the right way. There’s tons of experimenting on it, but it’s all tied together. One song talks to next very well. There may be singles on it, possibly on the radio. If we sell X amount of copies we may do a video. Its like, Oh my God, a totally new experience. Cool, bring it on.’ We will be playing a lot of shows in 2006 as well.
We did 90 shows this year, which compared to years ago when we were doing 140, it seems like less. But instead of doing ten shows in Pennsylvania, we can just play one in Philadelphia, which we are grateful for, we’ve worked hard to get here. My guess is that we’ll probably play a few more shows in 2006 then we did this year. We’ll be doing a lot of radio work next year, a lot of playing on air or talking to the host. We are going to do a lot of two night stands. People have really started to travel with us, and this will make it more appealing.
We are going to be adding a lot of different sounds on stage, as far as equipment goes, so we can manipulate this new music that we have created, so we can reproduce it on stage. That was one of the main standards regarding the new record. We said, we have to be able to produce the sound in a live situation.’ If we are going to use an effect, an amp, a pedal or a loop, it has to be reproducible on stage. It will still be the four of us, but Dave might play guitar on a song, I might play electric guitar, Ben will play bass and Adam will play a slide, or Adam’s playing banjo and Dave is playing electric guitar. People may be shocked to see a couple electric twangers on stage. It’s a natural progression for us; kind of a throwback to the music we all grew up with. Its also a progression to keep us excited about making music and to keep the audience we already have to see the evolution of the band, and also to speak to people who aren’t familiar with us.
It’s going to be a big year, we are really psyched. We are putting a lot down next year, really laying it all out there. We are doing some experimenting, and I’m not going to say that we won’t play with a drummer every once in a while, because we might. But, it’s not going to be a dramatic change where every song has drums. That’s just idiotic. That’s like, You like this? Well, screw it. We’re doing this now.’ No, that’s not how we are. I’m amped, I’m ready to go. There are side projects in store for next year, and we’ll see if I end up in Nashville. Who knows?