Jeff Austin: Steady Friends and A Step Beyond The Show
Photo by Vernon Webb
Yonder Mountain String Band have their work cut out for them. They just wrapped up their annual Northwest String Summit at Oregon’s Horning’s Hideout, and they’ll be hosting other festivals in the Ozark Mountains and Mexico’s Mayan Riviera before the year is up. Plus there still plenty of stops left on their summer tour, and their fall dates have started to trickle in as well.
Yet all of these commitments haven’t stopped Yonder frontman Jeff Austin from pursuing a side project. The mandolin player just announced a number of Jeff Austin & Friends gigs for later this summer, and he recently played one such show at this year’s Electric Forest. There he was joined by a stellar lineup that featured Soulive’s Eric Krasno, The North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson, Greensky Bluegrass’ Anders Beck and renowned bassist Eric Thorin. We caught up with Austin right after his Electric Forest set to talk about the Jeff Austin & Friends project, upcoming Yonder releases, the influence of the String Cheese Incident and more.
So you just had an interesting group of talented musicians with you on stage. What inspired you to get these guys together for the show?
Well, the main impetus came when they offered me the show. I tend to do these “and Friends” shows as a loose kind of bluegrass situation with a banjo and bass, and when they offered the gig, they actually said, “Would he be interested in doing a departure from the stuff that he does normally?” And I’ve played plenty of bluegrass music, so I love doing this kind of stuff. And Cody [Dickinson] and Eric [Krasno] were immediate because those guys, I’d march into the gates of hell with them. We speak the same language on a rhythmic basis and just where we’re at together, so they both said, “Yes.” And then Anders [Beck], you know he’s playing with Greensky tomorrow, they’re actually all here. So the band, for the longest time, was me, Cody, Eric and Anders.
And then I started kind of thinking. Krasno and I have known each other for a long time and it’s always been the backstage conversation: “Man we should play music together. We should do a set. We should something. We should do that,” and it was 2 or 3 weeks after the band had been set and I reached out to Yonder’s manager and said, “Is Eric, Krasno gonna be there?”
And he said, “Oh yeah, well Lettuce is playing right after you guys.” And I said, “Well, would he be interested?” And the response was “Yeah.” So, Eric just turned the whole thing into—because the main thing was for guitar, there was a hole. And I thought, “_Well fuck_, if we’re gonna have fun, might as well get one of the best guitar players there is,” And it was so nice. It was fun for me, having admired him as a musician and also knowing him as a friend, to have him sit in this room and rehearse and he’s got my songs charted out. He’s playing, and I thought, “Man that’s wild, man.”
So, that’s how it came together.
So how often do you do this “Jeff Austin and Friends” thing and how is it different from Yonder?
I think what it is, I do it more often now than I have. Yonder’s got kind of a lighter year as far as travelling and stuff, there’s a lot of kids and stuff going on now so it’s a little priority shift. But I like to do it for a number of reasons. One: I have a lot of material and I have a lot of material that’s played in Yonder, but I also have a ton of material that I don’t play outside of these kinds of groups. And it’s just because I hear it within this context. And it’s just different because Yonder’s a democratic situation, there’s four of us. And when I do this kind of thing, I get to make the list and I get to play songs I don’t usually play in Yonder. I can take different approaches, especially with a lineup like this. I write a lot of songs in the wrong context. The last song we played, “What the Night Brings,” I never wrote it with the intention of it being played bluegrass. I wrote it being like a four-minute pop song, like a rock song, you know? And out of necessity, it sped up and turned into a bluegrass tune, and it works both ways. Playing it like this is so fun for me because I don’t get to do it that often. I try to do this as much as I can because I like to stay busy. It’s good to keep me busy and focused on things. You don’t get in trouble that way. (Laughs.)
So in the next six months, Yonder has the Northwest String Summit, Harvest Festival, Strings & Sol—what’s it like taking the lead on so many festivals?
It’s wild. It’s something we kind of always wanted to do. When I go see shows, I love going to see a multi-night run of a band, especially one that varies their setlist. Like Phish, or something, I’ve seen them for 20+ years. So my favorite nights were two-or three-night runs where you get to settle in and there’s something that happens amongst the crowd, amongst the band, amongst everything. There’s a spiraling of energy that happens, that really develops over a few days.
And it’s the same thing with The String Summit, and Harvest and Strings & Sol and stuff. You really get to build the story. You don’t have to tell it all at once. You play a festival and you get an hour-and-a-half. You got tell the whole story at once. You get four days on a beach in Mexico, you get to really kind of develop it, you get to pace it a little differently and take your time. And another fun thing about that is we have songs that can be split up, start and sandwich, this and that goes into this kind of thing. With a multi-night run, it’s fun to do, like, the beginning of “Snow on the Pines” night one, and then night three, at the end of the second set, end it. Because I’m a—I’m a fucking nerd. When I was touring with the Dead in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when they’d start a Dark Star and finish it three days later, I’d get off on that shit. I dig it. And it’s fun to be that kind of musical weirdo and do that with fans that are coming to see you play.
It’s also something we’d always wanted to do. We’d always wanted to establish ourselves in places, you know? In a concert hall you can go from 500 people to 1,000 people to 2,000 people to whatever, or more in certain places. That’s a different kind of work when you can get 3,000 people at a festival and then 4,000 and then 7,000. It’s something Yonder’s always wanted to do. And we’ve partnered up with great people who’ve helped make that happen. It doesn’t happen without the partners: Cloud Nine and Pipeline Productions and stuff.