Jeff Austin Embraces The Here and Now
Photo by Stuart Levine
Although Yonder Mountain String Band has been off the road in late August, Jeff Austin has kept himself busy. He is in the midst of a tour with The Here and Now. The band, which references a classic Ram Dass book in its name, also features Danny Barnes, Larry Keel and Jenny Keel. In addition, he performed a couple dates as Jeff Austin and Friends with Barnes, Eric Thorin (Matt Flinner Trio, Brother Mule) and Allie Kral (Cornmeal). Here Austin talks about both of these quartets, while also discussing Yonder, 30db, the Grateful Dead, Phish, the creative process, sobriety and just what his plans may be on December 30.
The following conversation took place just prior to one of his performances with Barnes, Thorin and Kral.
So what inspired this project?
Really just to play with my friends that I don’t get to see often. I only see Allie Kral at festivals in passing and Eric Thorin has been super busy with a lot of stuff with Molly O’Brien. He produced a record for her, and Danny I get to see more often than not which is fortunate, but I’ve never gotten this conglomeration of people together before. Eric thinks he and Allie met years ago, but Danny had never met her and it’s so fun to watch people I love dearly connect, and we laughed from the minute we met to just to seconds ago. It’s like laughter tour. We were driving in today, just cracking up.
What made you think this would be the perfect combination of musicians?
We’re on the same kind of page as far as energy goes and where we like to put the rhythm, and I’d been wanting to do something with Allie for awhile and then with her transition going out of Cornmeal, and this and that, it was the perfect time to bring her in. And then with Danny, he and I play mandolin and banjo so much that I looked at this project and thought, ‘Man, there’s no guitar, but Danny Barnes is an amazing guitar player.” I asked him and he was said he would because he doesn’t get to play guitar that often.
Did you have any specific desires for this project or is it more just for fun?
It’s more just for fun. I mean this is total gluttony. I would travel to any of their houses just to sit in their kitchen and play, but we get to drive up to a beautiful spot like this with a bunch of people. This doesn’t really seem like a job, but sometimes it can become work, and sometimes it’s just sheer pleasure. And the whole point of this is that there’s no drama. Nobody is pissed off at somebody for something they did three weeks ago. It’s all fun-based. There’s no tension, no stress, no worrying about it. None of that. It’s only based in having fun and trading licks with each other.
You’re also playing some shows with different musician friends of yours. How does this change the feel of the music or the sound when you change who is playing with you?
This is something I was so curious about…how it was going to feel and sound. The project with Larry and Jenny and Danny, well, we’ve done that together and we wanted to do it again just because of how we felt with it happening. We had such a genuine connection that we said, ‘we’ve got to do this again’. We played that one gig at String Summit-that Garcia set-and we walked off stage and Jenny Keel was jumping physically up and down saying, “That was so much fuckin’ fun”! So we said, “Let’s make it happen again,” and then all of a sudden this spring when we did those few dates together, at the end of the third date, we recorded that second show and it ended up on my website as a free EP. There was such an energetic approach and that was just the second night. So, at the end of that run we thought, “What would happen if we got on road for two weeks?” So we said, “Screw it, we’re gonna make this happen,” and it happened. Then the opportunity to do these Mumford festivals came up. It’s good for me, it’s a different identity.
How is the creative process different on this project from when you are playing with Yonder?
(Laughs) Well, in truth, what a narcissistic thing to say but I get to truly lead the project. Yonder is a democratic world where everybody gets a voice, and that’s what makes that band unique. There are four people who can write, play lead, sing lead, at any moment. People call me the front man of that band but there are nights where I’ll sing and then I won’t sing for the next nine songs. And, then I might sing the last forty-five minutes of the show. Most of my material is in circulation with that group, but it is democratic, and sometimes maybe democratic to a fault. I’m just riffing here.
But with this project I go, “Here is this material, and I wanna play these songs that I wrote for this project.” As far as with Danny and Larry, they are such prolific song writers and have such a unique catalog. Of course this includes some of their stuff, but I get to kind of steer the ship. I was a bit hesitant, but Jenny grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “we want you to lead us.” She said “Don’t be hesitant, don’t be worried, if you want something tell us because that’s why we are here.” They have so much success on their own, and so much respect, that the fact that they came in on their own and are willing to give that to me is an amazing thing. There are points in Yonder where you demur to the larger scene. In this I get to conduct the energy a little bit differently.
So Yonder is more like the band, the family, and this is more of the time that you get to create.
Yes! That’s exactly it! (Laughs) Now does that mean you’re happy in one and not happy in another? Well that’s a whole different interview usually done on a couch for $120 an hour.
How is this different from other solo projects that you’ve done?
People are always like, “Why are you all of a sudden doing solo stuff?” And I’ve always been doing solo stuff. I’ve gone to a festival and been a guest, or I flew out with moe. I’ve always wanted to do that because I have more material than not. I think I’ve become really focused. At first I used to do the Jeff and Friends thing and there would be like thirty people on stage, and that was kind of chaotic. And then I started to really want to hear Larry, Jenny, and Danny on this song. I want to hear Cody Dickinson and Eric Thorin on this song.
...specific musicians that you wanted to play with.
Very specific things. There is a record that we’re editing down the songs because I’m going to be putting out a record next year, which is a very big endeavor for myself as a solo artist. But, I think what has happened is that I’ve become very focused on what I am looking for.