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Published: 2010/12/22
by Sam Davis

Yonder Mountain String Band: Digital Cardboard and Beyond

Yonder Mountain String Band will close 2010 with performances at St. Louis, MO’s The Pageant on December 30 and 31. The group’s New Year’s Eve celebration will feature three sets of music, including a set of fan requests. The four members of Yonder— Jeff Austin (mandolin), Ben Kaufmann (bass), Dave Johnston (banjo) and Adam Aijala (guitar) recently spoke with about their decision to play New Year’s Eve outside Colorado, their future recording plans and how a drum head signed by Jon Fishman brought Phish to the Four Mile Canyon Benefit.

Can you talk about the setlist idea you guys are going to be using on New Years?

Jeff: We’re always paying attention to online forums, be they our forum on our website or Facebook or Phantasy Tour or any of those fan public forums. We went out in October and did the longest tour we’ve done in years, and by the time you’ve done 28 or 30 days on the road you’re ready to get some ideas. It’s always cool to kind of turn to those forums and see people’s suggestions, “Oh hey, in Columbia, MO why don’t you guys play this,” and you look and you go “Holy, man we haven’t played that song in like four years.” We played a song we hadn’t played in 900 shows or some ridiculous amount of time. So it’s something that we’ve always paid attention to. We thought we’d make it a little more formal.

Years ago, there was a place in Colorado called State Ridge and we used to do a weekend there. And the Sunday show was always an afternoon and one year we put up a piece of cardboard by the bar and told people to write their song suggestions on it. We brought the cardboard up on stage and just picked the show off the cardboard. So we thought we’d put up a piece of digital cardboard and people are suggesting some cool-ass shit. And not just tunes of ours that we either don’t play often or haven’t played in a while, but people are putting segues together, people are putting crazy cover suggestions up there, and stuff like that. We opened it up and said each and everything. The weirder and more far out the better. That’s the way we like it.

What are some of the weirder suggestions you’ve received thus far?

Ben: “Bust a Move” by Young MC.

That’s awesome.

Ben: It is awesome. I don’t want to say we’re going to do it, because it’s going to be a surprise, but we’re gonna do it. I think we would just slay that tune. We’d put our own spin on it, you know? But we wouldn’t do it as a joke. I promise, if we do it it’s going to be for real. With Jeff rappin’ it and singin’ it, I would pay money to see that show. If we do it we’re going to nail it.

Why did you guys choose St. Louis for New Year’s Eve? Why leave Colorado?

Ben: Colorado has gotten a little bit inundated with bands in the scene. You know, the bands we read about in your magazine, the bands we see on tour and at festivals, a lot of those bands are coming to Colorado. I mean, it makes sense, it’s central, a lot of people come and spend time out here. But I would say between Widespread Panic, STS9 and a bunch of other bands that maybe draw less but are drawing from the same scene. It was time to take a year off and go back—the only other place we’d ever played New Years was St. Louis and the last time we did it was 9 years ago. And St. Louis is central to the Midwest and all those cities out there. It made sense to give Colorado a year off. Because, to be honest with you, the idea of competing within the music business is the same reason I hate music competition, because competition and music just don’t go together. And it sort of felt like that to me, that’s what it was like in Denver, we have to compete with every band. Widespread Panic and down the line. I think we all just said the idea of competition in music just didn’t feel right.

Can you guys talk about what you have planned for 2011?

Ben: A new record. And we are starting to lay the groundwork for international performances. Probably we’ll ramp up with this new record—we’ll put together an EP of stuff that we want. [We’re planning to go] everywhere from Australia to New Zealand to Japan, we’re really thinking big with this. And so, we’ll produce something new for them to hear and also bring them up to speed on what we’ve done in the past and also start playing festivals over there and then following it back up with our own performances. I think that having toured the states for 12 years, it’s probably time to do something a little different, if for no other reason than our own sake to get outside the box and do something new.

Jeff: I was just thinking that we’re undergoing a lot of changes behind the scenes with the Yonder organization, and that’s going to be exciting to go about business in a new way with a new outlook. We’re going to work really hard next year at a lot of different things. I’m looking forward to doing that Harvest Festival again in upstate Arkansas.

So you’re planning another Harvest Festival?

Jeff: Yeah, we’re planning it already. We’ve already got a lot of ideas and the groundwork has been laid. It’s off and running. We’re excited to see that grow. It’s the 10th year of the Northwest String Summit and that’s just crazy that 10 years has gone by. It’s why we all look terrible, because the decade has eaten us alive. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Horning’s Hideout, that’s where that is. And so, between that and getting to return to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for another year and Red Rocks again and all those things, it’s really stacking up to be a really cool year. You know, you get to a decade as a band, which we did two years ago, and you kind of go “Oh wow, look where we’re at!” And now [we’ve been playing for] 12 years so now it’s like the energy is revving up again and [while] we never gave up, it’s a reinvestment in what this band means to us and to our fans.

You mentioned that you’re working on a new studio album…

Jeff: We just spent the early part of this week working on it. Actually yesterday and the day before.

Are you planning to bring in drums on this album as you guys have done with the past two albums?

Jeff: I think what we’re going to do is listen to the song and have it tell us what it needs. If it feels like it needs drums we’re not going to hesitate. We’re not going to force anything. I never felt like we forced anything with the last couple records, when drums were added it felt pretty natural to me. If the song calls for it then, yeah, we’ll add it. And the cool thing is, we were talking about working with our buddy Jon Fishman, we know this great group of drummers between him and Pete Thomas who worked on the last couple studio records with us. You know we have Rob Koritz who plays with Dark Star Orchestra—we have this great group of friends who are all incredible drummers. And the thought with this record is that we get to work with different people and different ideas and different producers and different drummers to try and get the best out of everybody, which will in turn bring the best out of us.

Ben: In the studio the last two days the songs we recorded didn’t have any drums. And, in my opinion, I don’t think that those songs need drums at all. That’s four in the can that just feature the traditional Yonder Mountain lineup.

So it’s an organic process where the songs kind of grow into themselves?

Adam: Absolutely. That’s the thing about taking your time when doing a record is that you let stuff sit and then you listen to it and you might have an idea that you weren’t even thinking of when you were recording it the last time. We would like to have it released in the next six months, but all the same we already have four potential songs.

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