Checking in with Yonder Mountain String Band
Photo by Jeffrey Dupuis
It’s been fifteen years since Yonder Mountain String Band first formed in Nederland, Colorado, and with a full year of touring and a summer of festivals already booked, the quartet is showing no signs of slowing down. Known for their intermingling of genres, the Yonder boys have a fan base that is still willing to follow them on the road, and an attitude that ensures their sound remains full of foot-stomping energy as they continue playing by their own rules.
Yonder Mountain String Band have always been adamant that they are a live experience first and foremost, and though there is a new EP (maybe even a possible album) in the works, their priorities have shifted towards achieving the ultimate “you’ve made it” musical goal: fewer gigs but more high-profile ones, meaning more time at home with their ever growing families. Nevertheless, growing up does not mean selling out—it mostly means reading backstage instead of partying—and it’s the fans that keep the band going and who also are at the heart of the end of the band’s decisions.
Guitarist Adam Aijala and banjo player Dave Johnston took some time while on the road in Dallas, Texas to talk summer festivals, books, and the musicians they get excited about seeing and playing with live.
Adam: Over the years—with the exception of my wife—I think I’ve spent more time with Dave than with anyone else. He’s always a pleasure to be around—insightful and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. Obviously, from a musical standpoint, he’s one of my favorite songwriters. I always tell the story that there was a point when Dave lived with us—with my then girlfriend, now wife— and we were on tour, so there was a period of a year or so where I was hanging out with him more than anyone else.
Dave: We write at home a lot—we’re trying to figure out ways to be more effective at writing on the road. In my opinion, I have three really great musical minds to bounce music off of. There are three really great musicians I can take an idea to, and they’re going to help refine it and make it better. I try to find ways to implement stuff that’s been started at home, or stuff that we have going on, and bounce it around those three guys because you can get a lot of effective work done when you have three brains working on one project. There’s also my brain, which is not really working.
Adam: Yeah, whatever. [Laughs] Sometimes it’s literally, “Hey, I have this melody with no words,” and sometimes there’s just words, or sometimes someone comes to us with a complete song already or almost a complete song. How the song starts for me personally is totally random too. Generally, it’s the melody first, but sometimes you get the words first. Dave has this idea that I like to implement, where you make an assignment to write a song, and it makes it a lot easier. It’s opposed to the typical song assignment, which is to rhyme every other line. You can make any assignment: “I want the third line in every verse to start with ‘a’,” whatever. You can make up anything to make it easier to write a song. You just come up with little ideas like that and it helps you, as opposed to just rhyming. Basically, there’s no template, it’s all across the board.
Dave: When I was really impressionable about music, I mean I still am, but back when I was really young, one band that really made a lot of sense to me was Uncle Tupelo. I liked the instrumentation and I liked how their lyrics were kind of brainy, but not all brain; I just liked how that band sounded. It was this big “Aha” moment for me when I first heard them, thinking you can make country music with really intelligent things to say, as opposed to all the other prevalent country music of that era. Then you start to realize that there are some old country guys who are making some great country music. Like right now there’s this guy I’m really hot for, his name is Webb Pierce, and—not to put too fine a point on it—but the more I listen to him, the more I’m like, “This guy is fucking awesome.” Hopefully you can live your whole life and always feel impressionable and receptive to music that’s either being made or was made a hundred years ago.
Adam: As a whole band, what we try to emulate or bring into our own—I always like to cite the Seldom Scene and the Kentucky Colonels, kind of as an amalgamation of those two. But we all listen to heavier music, like rock and roll. For my own personal influence, I listen to a ton of Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Obviously there are more bands as well, but as far as musicianship, Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing and the rest of the band, and also Bob Dylan for his songwriting and what not.