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Published: 2014/05/29
by Dean Budnick

Yonder Mountain’s New Pathway: A Conversation with Ben Kaufmann and Dave Johnston

But all of this still sort of begs the question to my mind, which is in terms of the direction that you now see the band headed, does this address all of those concerns? Do you feel that wherever the band is headed creatively will remedy everything that you’ve just expressed?

BK: I don’t know. All of the things I’ve been talking about are really personal work, these are the personal sort of things that were exposed and this just happened. I mean we’re really close to ground zero but what it did do was put the magnifying glass over what’s really important to me. And beyond important, what’s vital to me is being able to live a life of feeling full and rewarded in the ways that are truly important. I know that we’ve got a way better chance now of having that come into alignment than we did. Will I be able to achieve this super high place that I’m talking about? Yeah I hope so, that’s my intention but now it’s sort of like reconnecting with the energy that will make that manifest and that energy had been lost, my connection to it had been being lost over a period of years.

And so this dovetails back into what 2014 is for Yonder and in my opinion it’s a time when we gather together friends. We’ve got myself, Dave and Adam in the band and now we get to bring in all these other different musicians to make music together—to play, to have fun, to jam, to write, to sing, to record and the whole purpose of it for me is rediscovering how I can connect to music when music is joyful and that’s what it has to be. I think that if I didn’t believe that it was possible and if I didn’t believe that all the building blocks were there then Yonder would have simply just broken up. I think we’re in a better position to achieve that than we were two months ago without a doubt.

Dave Johnston had joined in during Kaufmann’s previous response

DJ: I think what Ben is expressing and kind of what I feel like too is that collaboration and camaraderie between people is why we are traveling, that is why we go where we go. One of Yonder Mountain’s strong suits is that we evoke a very real sense of camaraderie and it’s entirely genuine and between the four of us I think it began as genuine but I think that sense of camaraderie and collaboration can breed a sort of power or self-importance and people get swept up in that. I wouldn’t point fingers necessarily, I mean who wouldn’t get swept up in that thing where we can create this stuff pretty much by the seat of our pants. It is a very powerful thing.

I don’t know if you’ve read Jules Verne and I haven’t read Jules Verne in a long time but being on a tour bus is sort of like being in the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. I believe he described it as the “traveling eye”—you see all these different things outside of where you live but you always return to the same room [Laughs]. So it takes on a sort of no exit quality—you can leave but you can’t really ever leave. I think the psychology of those locations and junctions starts to wear down on the camaraderie and it starts to wear down on the collaborative effort and suddenly the four of you, who used to be each other’s most important audience members are less important. So you want to make sure that the band loves playing with each other and that’s an important part of it and maybe that got lost in the shuffle.

Jeff was always such a physical, demonstrative presence on stage. Have you considered whether you might present yourselves differently in his absence? I know you did some dates without him earlier in the year [while Austin welcomed the birth of a child].

BK: When we went out in January it was the first time that Yonder had performed without Jeff. We’d had experiences where Dave had missed some shows, Adam missed some shows when his wife was ill, I missed some shows when my father passed away and when my son was born, so we’ve all had experiences of what it felt like to be in the band and playing as Yonder when one of us wasn’t there. But January was the first time we had the experience of what is it going to be like when Jeff is not there. Over the course of the decade and a half that Yonder has been around, Jeff increasingly became a focal point. That’s a very natural part of who he is, how he expresses himself and what he needs out of the experience of performing. I think he very much enjoys being a center of attention and he is the way he is because that’s how he gets out of the experience what he needs.

It was a point of anxiety for me because I felt that in Jeff’s absence it fell to me to be not the front man but certainly the guy who steps up to the microphone and greets the audience and has the banter in between the songs and that was going to be a new responsibility for me. And then I realized in thinking about how to approach it that Jeff is so unique I couldn’t just go apples for apples—I couldn’t affect some jumping around flamboyant persona, that’s not who I am. I realized I had to approach it in my own way and then I realized that for the last decade it felt like there had been less and less space for any of the other three of us to really discover who we were if given the chance to step up to the mic and mc the show or lead the show. I had no idea and then I realized that the reason I had no idea was because there was no room or space given for that to happen.

So it was a learning process and I had a fair amount of anxiety going into that January tour simply because as is the case for me, if there is something new that I’m about to do and I have no prior experience, I get anxious about it. I’m a worrier and that lasted until we took the stage for the first time and I was able to be myself—I was able to be heart-centered and gracious and appreciative. Not jumping around, though—on the one hand I’m tethered around a large instrument that’s got its own foot on the ground but that’s also not my style. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to play the thing slow. I like to believe I’ve got a good sense of humor but it’s not flamboyant and you would be able to sniff out as false if I started to behave that way, you would know that’s a bunch of bullshit. On the one hand you have to do the Michael Franti thing: “Hey, how you feeling?” that gets everybody to cheer. But there’s more for me and I intend to express something about this deeper connection with music that I have, share a little bit about that because it is just so powerful but it continues to be a learning experience.

I do not think I’m ever going to be a guy jumping around gesticulating and making crazy rock n’ roll faces—that’s not me and I’m not going to do something that isn’t authentic. On the other hand that January tour was the most fun I’ve had playing music in my life and I’m obviously discounting the high school party where I got to play in some band and got laid for the first time. But it was the most enjoyable, connected pure musical experience I’ve ever had and that was the information that I needed.

It’s sort of like this feeling that the universe presents these opportunities you need to have. You might be scared of them and you may not want them, you may not think you want them, they may make you nervous but I needed that experience to realize there is another way. I’ve been thinking about some of the things I wanted to share and how personal I wanted to get but maybe it is a good time to share this…

The inner dynamics of Yonder have never been easy. It’s always been slightly combative and I’ve always found it to be very challenging. The interpersonal dynamic element of it has been the hardest part for me.

A little bit more about 10 years ago my father passed away and he gave me the gift of music from a very early age. He gave me the language of music, an ear for music and a love for music. My mom might argue but I think my father was my biggest fan—he certainly loved Yonder Mountain and he told me pretty much from the very beginning how special he thought it was. And when he would speak to me about that stuff I really listened. He was in no small way a guide for me. I looked to him to answer questions.

When we found out he was sick, the doctors were spot on, they said he had a month. For the last week he became paralyzed and he couldn’t talk but for a lot of terminally ill people, their body shuts down and it looks like they’re on their way out but they come back in the last couple of days. They come back really strong. We hadn’t been able to speak for a week but the last couple of days before he died he was able to speak and basically the second to last thing he ever said to me was, “You got to keep the band together. You don’t know how special it is and you have to keep the band together,” and then he died. And that’s heavy.

Well that was 10 years ago and every day certainly any time things got so bad where I went, “This can’t continue,” the words of a ghost echoed through my head and I just heard him say, “You got to keep it together, you have to.” Well as time passed I would hear his voice in my head and answer it, “Dad, this can’t be what you meant.” Things got so painful where I thought if I could only speak to him again I would ask, “Are you sure this is what you meant? Is this really what I have to do?”

It was the tour in January where I finally made peace and knowing the joy I felt that month playing music—I know he would not have meant to keep sticking it out, keep going, keep fighting for something that I finally concluded was an illusion. Whatever that thing was that he identified, keeping that thing going came at too great a cost. I think if he had been alive the last year and I could have shared with him the full truth of what was going on, I think he would have told me, “My god Ben, please do what you have to do for the sake of your soul and your happiness.” I think that maybe he was trying to express something when he didn’t really have the words or the strength. He had a couple sentences worth of strength but really that’s a much, much bigger conversation. And so for 10 years I did everything that I could and fought with myself to just keep the thing together, sometimes through tough love—“Suck it up and look at all this good stuff you got going. Look at this success, tough it out, shut up and just keep going.”

But it was killing me. It was killing everything good about me. And I just realized after that January tour it couldn’t have been what he meant. He was speaking 10 years in the past. It was a different time then and if I could have spoken to him a month ago I’m sure he would have said something different. But for 10 years I’ve been haunted by that and I only just sort of got over it or reached a different conclusion. It was a very powerful moment in my life.

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