A Decade on Yonder Mountain with Ben Kaufmann
“and standing in the middle of the winter night on a sidewalk that is not your home beneath cold red neons glowing as softly as if it was still summer” – Visions of Cody, Jack Kerouac
Yonder Mountain String Band celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2008, successfully navigating the treacherous fields of both jam and bluegrass to forge their own identity. And that isn’t exactly an easy thing to do as Jambands.com finds in this wide-ranging interview with bassist and songwriter, Ben Kaufmann. His views on music, the road, the songwriting process and his feelings about collaboration with musicians including Xavier Rudd and Jon Fishman are direct, humorous, and definitely speak of a man who has spent many miles thinking about what he does for a living. Lucky for us, it is a gift that he shares with a loyal and expanding fan base, and one, which Kaufmann feels blessed to have at each gig, as the following look inside a Decade on Yonder Mountain will reveal.
The band is currently on the road supporting their latest live release Mountain Tracks: Volume 5, which features a gig from July 21, 2007 at Promowest Pavilion in Columbus, Ohio and a series of tracks culled from 2004-2007 performances selected and sequenced by Kaufmann. They will also co-headline a summer tour with Keller Williams. This interview took place on the eve of YMSB’s Green Apple Music Festival appearance in San Francisco, which included a date at the Warfield Theatre with Fishman behind the drum kit. Kaufmann would also join Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, Joan Baez and Michael Kang on two Grateful Dead classics “Peggy-O” and “Friend of the Devil,” in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, April 20.
Our conversation began with casual banter about Green Apple with Kaufmann offering an opinion about these large scale events: “These shows are, obviously, great opportunities because you’re going to be playing for so many people. We’ve always been very lucky in that regard because you might have ten rock bands on the bill or something like that, but generally we’re usually the only band like us at one of these things, so by nature, we’re coming into it by doing something unique and that helps us get the ball rolling, at least.
RR: That’s what I’ve always liked about your band. Even at an event where you’d have bands that were somewhat similar to YMSB, there’s really nothing like the interesting way Yonder presents its music or the manner in which you choose to perform your set. I like the edge, well, maybe not edge, but the unique feel towards your music that may stand out on a bill. Would you agree with that assessment?
BK: Yeah, definitely. That’s why, I think, we’re all still excited to be doing this 10 years into it because I think there is something unique. My dad pulled me aside years and years ago, way before I even had what limited perspective on what we do that I have now, and said, “You don’t see it yet, but this is something special and you’ve got to fight to make it happen for as long as possible.” You sort of take something like that and say, “O.K. Yeah, sure. Really? Thanks, gosh.” I’m starting to get that. I do have that feeling.
The more people that we see and the more people that we hear play musiceven withinwe’re sort of isolated within the bluegrass world, but within the community here or whatever you want to call ityou start to see some other bands with similar instrumentation at the very least, but, still, I don’t hear out of those groups, the same thing that I hear out of Yonder. It’s exciting to be a part of something that you think is unique or original. If we weren’t, I’d think that we’d all gotten terribly bored by nowjust the nature of the short attention spans that we have, the time we grew up in and it is sort of a combination of many factors. We’re lucky that all four guys in the band write music and continue to write music. That’s good, too.
RR: How much of an advantage has it been for Yonder to have not been part of that traditional subgenre?
BK: Initially, it was never a conscious thing. We wanted to play wherever anyone would have us. When we started out, we played plenty of traditional festivals; we just never felt like people accepted us so much there. We developed a following really quickly, so there were people at the showseven in the early days, when that number was smaller, there was still a good number of people at every show that we played. I always felt that the bluegrass communityit sort of irritated them a little bit like “who are these young kids from Colorado? Why do they get to play for this cool crowd?” This 50-year old guy who has been bustin’ his ass his whole life, he’s clearly a master of his instrument, and he can’t draw 10 people in the town. I think that’s sort of irritating to some people within the establishment.
Imagine if you have two friends and every time you go over the one guy’s house, he always makes you feel like crap. (laughter) You’d probably go over the one guy’s house who makes you feel welcome. I think that’s just what we did. I think that is what everybody does, I guess. Go where you’re wanted. Follow that feeling and that’s what we did. For the rest of it, you can wander over into a historical perspective; looking back, I think it’s absolutely important that we were the only example of what we were trying to do at that time when we started. The timing surrounding this band has always been something very good. We’ve always been blessed with good timingwhatever we’ve done and that’s just luck, I think.
RR: Absolutely, but a lot of hard work, too.
BK: Oh, yeah. It’s a lot of hard work but there’s these sort of crucial moments that fell into place. I guess, for me, I’ve never worried about it. I don’t know. I don’t consider myself to beI have no feelings about divine intervention by any means surrounding this band, but, on the other hand, it always seemed that everything fell into place. Yeah, that meant we had to do a lot of work. None of us are scared of hard work. It beats the alternativeno work.
RR: What is the key to the buzz continuing with fans over the last 10 years?
BK: It starts on stage. You have to be presenting something that you’re connecting to in the moment. If you’re rehashing something, the audience is very sharp and they’ll pick up on that in a heartbeat. The other thing is that a lot of peopleand this is probably a good thing, I guessdon’t realize that we are 10 years old. I’m sure there is an interrelationship. We play the music very in the moment and if you do approach performance like that, if you are trying to be in the moment, every second, then, it sort of is an irrelevant issue how many years you’ve been a band because the only thing that counts is what is going on right at that moment. In that case, you’re just being bornto draw it to an extreme. Every set, every moment, when it’s good, is this brand new thing.
Just yesterday, in Eureka [California], there was somebody down in the front row, and I got a chance to talk with her after the show. She was 16 years old. I’m twice as old as that, and, in talking to this person and trying to figure out, because she obviously enjoyed herself and the musicshe liked itI was just trying to pick her brain: “why?”
That’s a good problem to have when you have young people into the music. That makes me hopeful that we can continue to do this. (laughs) I told her: “You realize that we’re 10 years old. We started this band when you were 6.” That blew her away. I was almost nervous that, all of a sudden, it had hit home: “You guys are old. I don’t like you anymore.” I took my chances and we had a really good conversation about it. I didn’t really glean everything that I wanted to learn, but I did get some information and it was cool. I don’t know. There is something in the music that is very dedicated to the moment. And, certainly, you have to be paying attention to the moment because we play so freakin’ fast, the tempos are outrageous at times and yesterday was no exception. When you are proceeding at ludicrous speed, you better be paying attention to what you’re doing or else the whole thing will come crashing down around your ankles.
RR: How do you set up those improvised moments where Yonder is able to slip different sorts of colors into songs to keep the band and audience interested?
BK: It’s absolutely unrehearsed, in the moment, improvisation and you just go for it. Remember to breathethat’s the big one. That’s what is ultimately the most fun. It’s also the most potentially terrifying because if you don’t know what you’re going to doif it is really an improvisational momentyou run the risk of having a train wreck. If you learn every note that you’re going to play and you only play those notes over and over and over again every night, you’d probably, in theory, be able to play a perfect rendition sometimes, but nobody wants to see that.
RR: Does the band use signals or collaborative little head nods to indicate a change?
BK: Sometimes. A lot of it is non-verbal communication. We’ve stared at each other, now, on stage, for 10 years, so even a widening of the eyes or a slight movement.
Sometimes, if you want it to go faster or slower, you sort of stand up on your toes ever so slightly for faster or sit back down on your haunches for a reduction in tempo. You can mouth chords to each other so you can have an idea where you want to change a chord all of a sudden, but, usually, it’s non-verbal. Somebody is stating a rhythmic idea or a melody and you try to attach to that, support it, and you can change it, ever so slightly, so it always has an evolving feeling. That’s great improvisationas far as free improvisation, and, often times, it yields really good things.
RR: Although I’m very familiar with your background, like you said, there may be a new fan that is 16 years old, and is just finding out about the band and wants to know more about Yonder Mountain. When did you start playing upright bass?
BK: I got my first upright bass in high school. I played it in high school, as well, but not very well. My hands are really small, so I found it to be really challenging to play that instrument; although, my father had a big band and he would regularly throw me into the fire and make me play a song or two with his band at their gigs. That was sort of trial by fire, but I never totally connected with jazz bass or swing bassto study that music is such a commitment. It’s a lifetime commitment to be a good jazz player, and I had other things that I was interested in.
When I moved to Colorado, the bass came with, and I had been listening to music that would eventually lead me to bluegrass, but wasn’t itself bluegrassBela Fleck and the Flecktones, for example [Author’s Note: in a wonderfully appropriate synchronicity, this writer’s other April site feature is with Victor Wooten, the longtime Flecktones bassist, and I had this bass and it just became very clear in Coloradoand Boulder, in particularthat if you had an upright bass, basically, you could work and get paid playing music in an acoustic scene.
A lot of these ads that they’d put up at the acoustic music shop were as simple as: “Heydo you own an upright bass? Do you want to come play our gig?” Of course, I always answered everything with “Yeah, sure, I’d love to play.” I got to meet a bunch of people and realized how thriving the scene was for acoustic music in Boulder. I have always been a bass player since I was super young. Even when I was taking piano lessons, it was the bass side of things that I always liked. I guess, right place, right time, again.
RR: You mentioned your father’s band, so I assume, therefore, your family was musically oriented, right?
RR: What music were you exposed to when you were a kid?
BK: Count Basiethe great Basie big bands from back in the day. Woody Herman. Dad was really into Stan Kenton and his orchestra. That was a little bit too avant for me. Some
classic rock stuff. We had a couple Beatles records. We had a bunch of 50s music, you know, the Oldies or whatever they called the Oldiesthat was definitely around. Some Motown. Primarily, 75% to 80% was Big BandCount Basie, Woody Herman, some Ellington, Kenton, Benny Goodman, and Buddy Rich. I started to get into the small group stuff which I still like a whole lot. We never quite made it into the real fusion stuff. My family was always listening to swingeven be bop wasn’t played quite as much.
My father was educated at a time when they actually taught jazz in 4th grade. I remember seeing these recordsjunior high school jazz band made a record and it’s really good. The kids are playing “Kid from Red Bank” by Count Basie, and doing a fantastic job of it, and this is stuff that I don’t know any junior high school in America, these days, that is giving kids that kind of quality music education. It is too bad.
That sort of rubbed off on me. I was never going to be anything other than a musician. I knew that since I was really young. I didn’t know what I would do, but I think that was what my dad always wanted to see happen. He certainly gave me every opportunity to succeed in the music world. Both my parents had a lot of faith in me and supported me through some definite soul-searching times. They gave me every opportunity to succeed, and then, a lot of work and some luck and it seems to have paid off.
RR: And your father sensed that with Yonder Mountain, you met the right collaborators who would help you succeed in a group format. As you stated, each musician in the band writes well. I am curious about your own songwriting process. If one were to pick up the latest live release Mountain Tracks: Volume 5, there are several songs that you wrote. I’d like to talk about a few of those Kaufmann tracks. Let’s start with “40 Miles From Denver.”
BK: That was the first bluegrass tune I ever wrote. That was the same period of time that I had ideas and none of them really developed like that one. I worked at a summer job at Celestial Seasonings Tea Company in Colorado. The job that I requested to do the whole summer was power washing these big vats that they store tea and herbs in, and it just got me outside. The power washerswhen you turned it on full blastwould resonate in the key of A, and it provided this really big bass note that I could sing on top of. All of a sudden, one day, I remember stopping what I was doing, grabbing a bunch of pieces of paper, and writing the lyrics to “40 Miles From Denver”singing and putting it to the melody, right away. By the time I went home that day, I had gotten paid minimum wage to write a song. It was a good day. I still have all of the old papers that I was scribbling on. It was a good day. It was a great summer. I wrote that even before I knew any of the guys in Yonder, but that was one of the first songs that we brought into the band.
RR: How about “Lord Only Knows?”
BK: I don’t remember when I wrote that but that song is all part of this story that we are
tellingthe whole “On the Run” thing, which has developed, by the time, we’re done, is
going to be two full discs of music. They are all sort of telling these stories with these characters. Initially, I wanted to write something that was a metaphor for all of these kids that I would run into on the road who were on tour for their career, seeing bands. At the time when I was growing up, it was the tail end of the Grateful Dead, and right in the heyday of Phish. I’d see these kids and they are on tour and that is what they do, and a lot of them seemed sort of lost to me. I called them the Lost Children, a Peter Pan thing. I was trying to figure out how could so many of these kids justthis is what they do. Where are they grounding? They seemed like they were constantly on the move, or constantly on the run. What are you on the run from? Why can’t you settle down? Why can’t you be in one place? What comes up, and what is difficult when you do that?
That was the idea, right“Lord Only Knows”I needed to write a song that would be, essentially, the first introduction of a character. I was trying to write the biography of this one kid that we’d see, way back in the day, and he’d be at a lot of shows in the Midwest. I tried to imagine my way into his mind, write a song about when he left home, and why he did. I incorporated, very generally, some elements that I had heard him talking about from his life. He did get busted for something. One time we met him there was still a warrant out and he just split, so it didn’t sound like it was a huge deal where they were going to come and try and find him, but he probably couldn’t go home again. Soyou know(laughs) a lot goes into such a short song.
RR: And another song you wrote that is on Volume 5, “Things You’re Selling.”
BK: Yeah, I like that one. That one is a personal song. When you get back to your hotel roomif you have a hotel roomon any given night after a show, a lot of times, on the nether channels of the television, there are televangelists. I’ve never quite been able to make my peace with these people because I find it to be very predatory and hypocritical. If there is one thing in this world that I can’t stand, it is a hypocrite. I do my best these days not to flirt with the idea of “Oh, I hate this kind of thing,” or hate anything at all. I don’t think that gets you very far, but, boy, it’s awfully close to a deep hatred for that hypocritical televangelist thing. It makes me sick to my stomach. That song is my rebuke.
Againit is part of this “On the Run” story. The idea being is that if you spend this young part of your life in your teens and twenties, and you’re becoming the adult that you’re going to be, there’s lots of difficult questions in the world. What are you supposed to do with your life? What are you going to do for a job? I don’t know how long you can go before somebody you really care about passes away, and then, you’re thrust into the ultimate human question: why are we here for real? Nothow far do you have to drive to get to work, but what the hell are we doing here? And where do we go? And there is a huge business that has sprung up around that. I am a very spiritual person, but I don’t like people selling or preying on people’s spiritual questions, or their weaknesses because it is scary questions that we are asking. People want toit would be so much easier if you could just send a thousand dollars into Crazy Joe’s Traveling Church and he’ll pray for you and everything will be O.K.
I don’t knowI(laughs) watch a little bit too much T.V., maybe, but seeing some of these televangelists just freaked me out, and I felt like I needed to respond. I felt like it was something that everybody runs into. At some point, everybody is going to find these questions for themselves, and pray or wish that there is somebody out there who will answer them when, in fact, it doesn’t work that way. I wish it did, but it doesn’t. Soyou can either take this guy’s word for it and be done with it, or it doesn’t sound right to you. It never sounded right to me. Some of this shit that I’ve seen is just so over the top that it’s reckless, and I needed to write a song about that.
That was also, in my own life, you knowI wrote that when my father passed away. I was unprepared for that whole experience. It happened so suddenly. It totally blew me out of the water, but thrust me into really searching for my own answers to these great, big, scary questions of why we’re here. Some of these people that would come out of the woodworkyou end up getting these sympathy cards from the most colossal fuckups that I knew in high school. They send you this card, and in some very contrite paragraph, they tell you that they’ve found Jesus and everything is O.K. for them now. I just thought: “You’ve got to be shittin’ me. You ran into a scary place and you just shut off. Your little contrite statements don’t do it for me.” Either that, or “You’ll take five hours of my time and preach at me.” I don’t want that, either, or, you’ll say, “If I don’t do it this way, then bad things are going to happen to me.” And I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s how it should work. It doesn’t feel like that’s the way it works. It doesn’t feel right.
So…againsome heavy-duty concepts for such a short song, but the best songs are short.
RR: When you’re out on the road, like you are now, how do you stay grounded? Is your time to get focused when you’re on stage so, you’re thinking that all you have to do is get back on stage and the rest of the day will take care of itself?
BK: Yeah, exactly. It’s impossible to stay grounded when you’re travelingjust the nature of it. You’re moving at 70 miles an hour down any highway, at any given time, and then, the very nature of what you’re doing is ungrounded. You only have 12 or 14 hours to stop, and stand still. I do most of my standing still on stagethat is when we ground and connect with people who are there at the giga lot are local peopleand to just have some sort of moment of “O.K. Everybody’s here. Shut the doors. Here we go.” You have this social moment and I think that’s howyou’ve got to have good gigs to survive it, for sure. The stage stuff and performing on stage and that kind of groundingthat gets you so far, and, eventually, you do got to get home. You got to go home. You got to sit in your house and not move from the couch for three days. However it is that you do itthat’s necessary.
Travel is a very interesting thing, and traveling for work is an interesting thing. It’s wonderful because you get to go to every place in the world and run into so many new people that are going to be your friends or old friends or whatever. You get to see a lot of
people and that’s a positive. Its got its attendant problems, as well. The most important one being is that it’s a complete mind-frazzling, mind-fraying thing by the end of it: “AhhhhI got to get off the bus!” You live with nine men and the first thing you see in the morning is your mandolin player in boxer shorts, by the end of the day, you don’t like the way he plays the mandolin, anymore. (laughter)
RR: Speaking of good gigs that make it easier to get over life on the road and the sight of boxer shorts, how was July 21, 2007 selected as the show to be released for disc 1 of Mountain Tracks: Volume 5?
BK: That was good. I did some thinking about it for an interview that I did. At the time, I didn’t have any idea, and I never find myself on stage thinking: “Geez, I think this is good enough to release,” or “I think this is going to be The One.” If I ever have that thought, I will make the world’s most catastrophic mistake shortly to follow. I just never go there in my brain. That’s why we have people out front, or people doing the listening where they are not involved in the direct note-making experience. Consequently, they have a clearer opinion, a better opinion, as to what is good enough versus what is not quite good enough, and, so, we just trust those people’s ideas more than our own.
The thing I remember about that show is just that we had a good time. When we’re having a good time, it comes out through the music somehow. That probably happens with every musician. It’s better when they’re enjoying themselves; unless, it’s the blues, and then it’s probably better if they’re really upset. (laughter) I don’t know. I know nothing about the blues. That’s sort of the idea. When we finished that showohthat’s one thinghave you ever heard of Xavier Rudd?
RR: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Australian cat.
BK: Yeah, Australian guy. He played the show with us, and his crew are brilliant people. Australians are crazy. They are crazy crazy and I love it. After the show and during and, even, before the show, the crews, Xavier and the rest of us, all got to hang out and get to know each other and have a great time and play some music. I remember I was trying out this acoustic bass guitar and still had the tags on it and everything. Xavier was sitting backstage on a drum riser and he was playing something. It was a song he was just starting to write, and I just sat down with the bass and we worked through the song together. His guitar tech is also a killer drummer and he came over and started playing a hand drum, and we had this whole, very fresh songwriting experience, working up one of Xavier’s tunes that he didn’t even have finished, yet. That was a great moment to share and that started my day. We played the whole show outsideit was just a beautiful dayand Xavier played a killer set. The other set that is not on Mountain Tracks is Xavier and some of his band and they sat in for a bunch of that stuff and it was great. Afterwards, we had ayou know(laughs)“rolling the table through the parking lot” after partyAustralian style.
It was just a brilliant time. The whole day was just tons of fun, and so, you had that whole experience, and yeah, we played that show, and we had all this other social experience, and then we had another show to play the next day. We wanted to release [another] Mountain Tracks, so we started to listen to the stuff that was being given to us by the people who keep the notebook (laughs), and we heard that and the whole set from start to finishwe didn’t need to do anything to it. It’s not perfectit never isbut it was perfect. It was just right. From start to finish, it needed zero edits to be mixed and mastered, and that was good. It also had a bunch of material that we wanted to release.
RR: I’m enjoying the compilation, too. How were the tracks on the second disc selectedthe live cuts from 2004-2007on Mountain Tracks: Volume 5?
BK: That was a project that I had asked the guys if I could do. I really wanted to do it. I needed to do that project before I could do the next project, which is a hybrid studio/live thing. I’m a big Zappa fan. I love Frank Zappa, and some of the best stuff he didhe’d even go from a jam that was in 1968, and then, seamlessly, it would be the jam from 1980 something. You don’t just get to do that. You have to work your way up the studio trenches, so I needed to do the basic one first, which was to take the songs from different years, put them together, sequence them, cut out the tuning time and banter, and just try to pack in as much music as you can. That was what that project was. I was really thrilled with how it came out. I was really happy with it. The next time, we can take some of these ideas that we have, or studio songs, or even just home recordingsthey are so easy to do now and there is no end to what you can dobut, maybe, the next project will be taking big jam songs and you can even do one song, right? The whole disc would be one song and it would go in between the improv sections from five different years and then, the song would end_that_ kind of stuff. That’s interesting to me where you can really have some creative time in the studio, to Frankenstein it up, and I’m into that.
RR: You are reminding me of Jon Fishman. He has, obviously, played with the band a few times over the last year, and will be with you in San Francisco tomorrow night during the Green Apple Music Festival at a gig at the Warfield Theatre. What does he bring to the table when he plays with Yonder Mountain?
BK: Wellhe’s a stud, isn’t he?
RR: He is.
BK: He’s my favorite rock drummer and he was from the first time I saw him play. I think he’s one of the great modern drummers. Manhe’s also a really cool guy. When he agreed to do the first show, which would have been, maybe, a year ago, we didn’t know him, but you know, it was something where we wanted togoshwhat does he bring to the table, specifically? His rhythm is impeccable. His ideas on the drums are very musical, and now that we’re starting to get comfortable playing with each other, he knows what we do and we know what he does and how we approach the beat, the experimentation and the jamming is going to increase and start to improve and improve and improve. This will be our fifth or sixth time playing with him and the music that gets createdthe more the band has time to play together, the more practice time togetherit just keeps getting better. I really like the music that we make when he’s sitting in.
Typically, I’m not a big fan of the bluegrass thing with drums. It’s just a train beat. I just find that it gets very old, so we were a little hesitant, which is silly, but we were hesitant like: “Maybe we shouldn’t ask him to do any of this bluegrass stuff. I don’t know. It might become redundant.” We just threw one song at him and, of course, there was nothing bad about it at all and it was so inventive because of how talented he is that it doesn’t come across anything like a train beat. (laughs) He’s got five arms doing five different things. It’s amazing to see. He’s brilliant. It’s fun to have what can seem like a really massive musical world start to get a little bit smaller. That has been a good feeling to have because he’s definitely achieved the ranks of the superheroes in the music world. It’s nice to meet the real person and realize there’s a great person there to meet, as well.
RR: He put in his two decades with his band. Are you looking forward to another decade with Yonder Mountain?
BK: I hope so. I love to do the solo stuff and the real acoustic small listening venues and I’ll always pursue that as a fun side project, but I would love to think we could do this until we’re 80, or however long we get.
- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com. He wishes to thank Dean Budnick, Mike Greenhaus, Ann Kingston, and Jim Walsh for their help on this feature. As always, the writer’s mistakes are his alone, but the kudos go to these fine people.