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Published: 2011/05/27
by Randy Ray

A State of Illusion with Yonder Mountain’s Jeff Austin & Ben Kaufmann

Yonder Mountain String Band heads into the summer with yet another spirited romp through numerous festivals and select smaller venues leading up to a much-anticipated Red Rocks stand in August and their own festival in Ozark, Arkansas in October. The Boulder, Colorado-based band, in its fourteenth year of existence, appears to have gone through a rather inspired period where the well not only has not run dry, but seems to be overflowing with vitality, creativity, and, most importantly, new material.

Indeed, as sits down with YMSB’s Jeff Austin and Ben Kaufmann—nearly a year to the day after we spoke with Austin about his side project band, 30db, co-fronted with Umphrey’s McGee’s Brendan Bayliss—one gets the sense that all of the outside and internal activity from all directions has impacted the four members of the seminal bluegrass jamband in a very positive way. Our conversation finds the two band members in both a humorous and serious mood. They are very aware that the coming year brings great promise with a strong tour card, a new studio album, and a film on the horizon. What is also quite apparent is how much passion both members bring to their music, but in quite varying ways, for audiences who are often critical of just about anything when, in fact, the band may be playing its best music in quite some time.

RR: I was revisiting your last studio album, The Show and was struck, again, by the instrumental, “In the Seam.” A musician is used to the phrase “in the pocket,” but I was wondering what you felt about that particular turn of the phrase—in the seam.

BK: It’s definitely a fishing term. That’s Adam [Aijala, YMSB guitarist]. Adam fishes all the time. He’s kind of a dick about fishing. (Austin laughs) I golf with him. I swear—I’m in a golf cart, and Adam is walking and he’s a half a mile ahead of me.

RR: How is the new studio record going? You are shooting for a fall release?

JA: Well, that’s the hopes and the dreams. We all have our hopes and dreams. We did some demo stuff last year for it that just didn’t have the feel that we were looking for, and we’ve spent this year trying to seek out exactly what the attitude of the record I think is going to be, and exactly the best way to go about capturing who we are best. We’ve been experimenting with a couple of different recording techniques and recording ideas and stuff like that. What we’re actually going to do is that we’re going to start fresh next week because we have this big back log of stuff and guerrilla record everything that we have so we can lay it out on a table and see. “Well, these couple songs go great together; that would be a cool little sequence of music.” And then another song, maybe we record it, but it doesn’t end up on the record, or maybe, it does. It’s always nice to see what you’ve got and what you need when you’re working on a record. “We’ve got this, we’ve got this, we’ve got this. We need maybe something mid-tempo in a different kind of key, like an E flat, or an F, or C,” or something like that. That’s what I’m envisioning is what is going to end up happening when we get together—just a standard recording of what
we’ve got and what do we need.

RR: Are you going to self-produce, or work with Tom Rothrock again?

JA: We don’t know. We’re kicking around the idea of a couple of different people, but as of right now, we’re taking everything that we’ve learned from every producer that we’ve worked with, and seeing what we can do with each other, and sharing ideas.

RR: On the last album, you had Pete Thomas on drums for almost half the album. Are you going to have some different collaborations on this new studio album?

BK: We’re not looking, but I think, basically, right now, we have a decision to make coming up soon, and that is whether we want to do a self-produced thing, or whether we want to make a self-produced demo of all the stuff we have and find a real cool producer and take our time with it. One fork in the path is to quickly produce something. It’ll still be good, but a self-produced vibe. The other [path] would be a little more producer-intensive. We’re not sure yet.

RR: Jeff, you, obviously, had some high profile collaborations last year, and Ben, you’ve had your share over the years, too. What do those types of collaborations bring to the table when Yonder goes into the studio and you write new songs? Is it constantly a growth and development process, or is everyone in the room bringing their own depth to the scene?

JA: For me, yeah, what I try to do is if I am writing with somebody else who is not in Yonder like Todd Snider or [Brendan] Bayliss, or any of these people who I write with, it all comes full circle back into what happens with Yonder Mountain. It’s always my intention that whatever I’m doing outside of the group is going to just reinforce ideas and thoughts involved with Yonder Mountain. Out on the road collaborating with those guys in 30db brings me back to “oh, hey—there’s this tune that I was playing with that group; I think that would work really really good playing with Yonder. Let’s play it,” and all of a sudden, it hits, and it works. I’m sure Ben can say the same thing—not every song that I write is something that has the original intention of having it be from the minute you sit down and write it to the minute it’s 100% finished for Yonder. I think if you lock yourself into that mind frame, you can potentially shut yourself off from some really cool ideas. So, when I sit down to write music, I write it just to write the song, and when I listen to it, I go, “Oh, this would be a really cool Yonder tune; this would be really great with some harmonies and Dave [Johnston, YMSB banjo player] taking it off,” or I write a song and say, “Oh, this would be really cool to play with Brendan,” or show it to Todd Snider or Ronnie McCoury or anybody. For me, it all comes back to the song. Also, too, it’s really a lot of fuel. It’s nice to step away and get some different inspiration and a different way to look at a song, a melody, or a hook. I think that stuff is really important to stay healthy as a songwriter, to keep your mind moving.

RR: You have different ways of approaching your studio recordings, which we just discussed. Does the band have conversations about what will happen with these songs once you put them out since the dynamics of the music industry have changed so drastically over the last several years? Perhaps, the thought that you are not sure what will happen once the songs take off?

BK: I guess you never know what’s going to happen. Obviously, you just sort of go in and you want to make the best record that you can. You may go in with the idea of what you want the overall thing to sound, or you might not—you might discover it along the way. Although, I would love that, I think, for a song to become popular, like huge popular. I’m not sure I’d like it. Maybe, I would. There is nothing you can do to control that in a band like ours. We can’t grease the wheels like all that Disney money can. I think we just make the record, and the rest of it is out of your hands. It doesn’t really pay to get all obsessed about it.

JA: Yeah, I would agree. You just have to go in and make the record, and not concern yourself with what kind of life it will have afterwards. It’s not like we’re sitting here and we’re the next band that Sony is going to push: “I’ll be damned if this sucker’s going to be on the radio.” For us, the beauty of it is is that we get to go make music, and that’s all that we can do. As long as we make the truest music that we can, hopefully, that will reflect in the listening audience and the payoff will come.

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