Yonder Mountain’s New Pathway: A Conversation with Ben Kaufmann and Dave Johnston
In late April Yonder Mountain String Band stunned fans with the announcement that Jeff Austin would be leaving the group. Yonder had kept its original lineup intact for 15 years and the departure of the quartet’s founding mandolin player caused consternation for the band’s many supporters. As Ben Kaufmann and Dave Johnston reveal in the candid discussion that follows, the decision to move forward and begin a new era (along with guitarist Adam Aijala) was not taken lightly and followed many years of consideration and some measure of angst. However they now appear sanguine about the future of Yonder and what the coming months will offer.
Kaufmann begins the dialogue, while Johnson jumps in a bit later, caught up in practicing his banjo.
BK: To start things out, let me say that for Yonder 2014 is now a time of rediscovery and reconnection almost like I’m going back to my early teens when I would come home from school and I would retreat to my music room because music was the only place in my life that I found safety. I grew up without any religion, I never had a conversation about spirituality and what that means versus religion. But as I’ve gotten older music is the only connection I’ve ever had that I’ve internalized that could even be close to being described as divine. Music is the only thing I’ve ever had that has brought me a sense of connection to something bigger. The most powerful, pure and for lack of a better word divine experiences in my life have all been music-related.
My father was a musician and he gave me the gift of music from an early age. I’m raising my boy like that too—music is the second language that I have to teach him. Four years of Latin in high school doesn’t really cut it. I teach him music and sharing that is something very sacred to me.
That is something that I can share and that is something that was shared with me and with these changes in Yonder, that’s the thing I’ve realized: over the course of the last 16 years while it was extremely exciting and we achieved no end of firsts for a bluegrass band, as it went along the sacredness of the experience became less and less and less. The success became greater and greater but by the end the sacredness was lost.
What do you attribute to that?
BK: On the one hand the very normal stresses of being on the road and all of the normal things that any band would talk about. But for me it also seemed like the heart of the whole thing had become compromised.
When Yonder first came out of the gates, it just connected and went big really quickly. We hit it at the right time and it seemed like everything just started to grow and grow and grow right away. So while the first couple of years were lean years, every time we went back to a place there were more people, every time we went back to a place people were more excited about us and that’s great. But within the band there were clearly different motivations. What gets you off? And for me the thing got me off was not that the crowds were bigger or that people cheered louder, it was always about sharing.
While there is tremendous joy and magic in it, life is hard and I write music and play music because I’m trying so desperately to make sense of all of this craziness that I see and the joys and the sorrows and the whole experience. Music is the way that in three and half minutes with some rhyming words, I can share my experience—these are the things that I’m thinking about and this is what I’m trying to make sense of. A song is a great question that you put out—this is how I’m feeling, is anybody else feeling this too?
What I need out of it is to have that purity and when I felt that going away, it was compromising my connection to something divine and began to sort of darken my soul. I’m still learning about my place in the universe and what I’m even doing here but I felt the darkening and the contraction and as I watched it continue I realized that it would be the worst failure for me because music is going to be how I figure this thing out—that’s what I have and it has to be bigger and it has to mean more than simply are there more people here in Atlanta than there were the last time we played Atlanta. It has to be more than the business and that was a very powerful realization to come to all of a sudden and recently. I finally made peace with myself that it is about more than success—it’s more than how many people are in the audience, it’s more than if somebody cares to write something nice about you in a magazine. It’s way more personal than that and to watch it sort of become corrupted for me was something that I couldn’t live with anymore.
If I were reading what you just said without any additional information, I likely would assume, “Well this must be a quote from the guy who is leaving the band.”
BK: I don’t think the way things were ending up was good for anyone. I mean you can boil it down to the cookie cutter promotional thing that you’ve got to point out, saying “After a long discussion we all decided to move along for creative differences” and yeah that’s true. But it’s so much deeper than that. I mean you get two paragraphs to put up online to say that what’s happening and kind of why but we just started talking about deep, personal, spiritual stuff and you can’t put that into two paragraphs and have it be anywhere close to really expressing what my heart is trying to say.
We got to a place where we were not achieving our highest good—not even close. It’s like sex without love, it can be enjoyable but at the end of the day it’s not going to be the true satisfaction that you need. I’m a sensitive artist. I’ve always been overly sensitive, I feel like I walk around with my heart exposed and I don’t want to change that at all, that’s my power. And so when we get to this place and ask the hard question—there are so many reasons why I could tough it out, there are so many reasons why I could say, “You know what, let’s just give it another tour, another year or whatever.” But then we’re old and tired—the heart of the thing isn’t in it and as a sensitive artistic person that just sounds like the death of art and I can’t have it die.
It became a situation that simply couldn’t continue. The four of us had this great conversation and we actually put all the cards on the table—we’ve reached this point and now it’s time to get down to brass tacks, how do we all feel about this, is anybody happy? And nobody was happy. There’s an element of tragedy in this thing and I’ve been thinking, “What do I want to share here? What’s okay to share and what’s too personal to share?” Because I want to be respectful but as I thought about it I did want to share this because I think it explains where I’ve been coming from for the last 10 years with this band.
Was there a precipitating incident that you can talk about?
BK: No, not in the short term. The heart and the balls of this band are coming from some place pure—experimental, improvisational, in the moment creation. That requires an extraordinary amount of faith and trust in each other. You all have to be on the same page and over time it just became clear that we weren’t. We were in it for different reasons, wanting different things out of it and I felt like there was a terrible compromise. I thought I could continue to sacrifice certain elements of my own peace and of my own joy so that we could continue because I can make you the list of pros and cons and number one thing at the end of the day on the list for why we should keep it together was the paycheck and what a stupid career decision it could possibly be to blow this thing up. And that’s okay, it’s legitimate but like I said I am a sensitive artist and it was way too sacred and way too important to me to let a paycheck or fame or some grasping at a weird thing like that overrule something that is just so much more important and vital to my world. I can die poor but if I’ve been true to my heart and music and how just intertwined those two things are, it became more and more and more clear.
Maybe when we’re all 65 or 70 and nobody gives a shit about us anymore we can all write four versions of our tell-all-book about the bullshit that went on but when you boil it all down you get to a point where you just sit there and you go, “Oh my god it’s not working.” How do two parents know that, “Yeah we’ve got these kids and we’ve been sticking it out for the kids but it’s time.” It’s not good for anybody, everybody’s suffering. You know at some point you’ve got to make a hard decision and you make those lists—why should I stick it out? And you go down the list and you tally it all up and all of the things on the sticking it out side of the list at the end of the day they were bunk. It didn’t work for me anymore, something had to change. I felt myself suffocating and suffering in a way that as a sensitive artistic person was killing me and I can’t have that.
It just affected every aspect of my life—my relationship with my wife, my relationship with my kid. My kid is two years and a couple months old and I realized if I was answering honestly, my son had never known his daddy to be doing what he loved to do, which is odd because music is what I love to do. Music is so much a part of me—I would say I’m almost half music and the other half I’m fat and bones. But I’d come home from tour like I’d just been to the fucking front line and it would take me two weeks to become even remotely okay and then I’d have a week at home where I sort of felt okay and I could connect with my wife and be cool around my son and then I’d have another week that was the week before I’d have to go back out on tour and that was spent in a state of terrible anxiety and just darkness because the environment was so toxic. So and talk about failing as a father and a husband…