Yonder Mountain’s New Pathway: A Conversation with Ben Kaufmann and Dave Johnston
That’s obviously a profound and personal experience…Given all that, headed into those January dates when Jeff couldn’t appear, did the three of you anticipate that this might be where the band was ultimately headed or did that happen after the fact?
BK: I didn’t think that at all. That thought wasn’t anywhere in my experience.
DJ: I can say too that I had not anticipated our current state based on what we were going into in January.
BK: If anything I thought that that experience would maybe bring us back in a way that produced a reconnection. I guess that’s probably what I thought—that it would be a very, very good thing and would probably lead us to connect again in a way that was better, that we would all realize, “My goodness look at this special awesome thing and maybe we can all really buckle down and start doing the work necessary to keep putting new, fresh energy into this thing and ride the ride for another 15 years.” But that didn’t happen and I think for me because of the magic of that January tour, to have the next tour happen and have everything sort of just be back exactly like it was prior to it by comparison, it just hit that much harder and that was when it started to become very clear that something had to change.
Moving forward, in looking at the guests you’ve announced, it seems to me that you don’t necessarily feel that Yonder Mountain String Band needs to be a four piece. Is that assumption correct and if so, to what extent do you feel that a mandolin has to be part of the equation?
DJ: We haven’t like set anything in stone, we haven’t taken any options off the table. We could be a five piece band, we could be an orchestra [laughs]. I think the real important thing at the heart of it is the way that Adam, Ben and I relate to the world and the way we relate to our lives making music together. So it’s definitely going to be the three of us and, you know, I love playing in a five piece, I love playing in a four piece, I love playing in a three piece except I only think a few people have seen the Yonder Mountain Trio. So I don’t know, we have nothing set in stone about it.
But I think that when you go into the next phase, when you go into it with an open mind and an open heart, it kind of clears your listening up a little bit and you can really listen for the thing that’s going to maintain the engine fired. We’re going to find the right octane to our gasoline that’s going to keep burning us down the road. It’s super exciting, it’s kind of like I just got this really great book and I’ve heard all about it and I can’t wait to start reading it.
BK: If I might interject here, speaking as the bass player, unless we’re talking about having a new member being a drummer, then in my opinion having a mandolin in the band is absolutely essential. In a bluegrass band the bass and the mandolin are two halves of a whole. The bass and the mandolin are the drummer—you’ve got the bass doing the bass drum and the mandolin is the snare drum and they both work together in a complementary way to produce a drive or a bedrock of music that’s crucial. So I anticipate that a mandolinist is a very needed element to the sound.
I have been kicking around the idea of “Wouldn’t it be cool to turn it into a five piece?” There’s also been part of me that’s been kicking around the idea of “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a female in the band?” in terms of bringing some sort of new energy, maybe even something that feels more complete or more whole, to strike a balance in that way. I’m pretty confident that I would like to have a mandolin player in anything that we put together but in terms of a 5th member or who the mandolin player is or maybe they play mandolin and dobro and kazoo, I can’t be too focused in a fine way right now. I have to have a wide sort of view because otherwise we may miss the person walking right next to us who is the perfect answer, the perfect complement to what we are doing. I think that sums up 2014 for me—a wide open experience playing with as many people as we can, playing with friends, making new friends, playing with people whose own ability calls to us, people we’re excited about, people we want to get to know more—seeing what feels right because that’s the thing, music especially for us doesn’t have to look a certain way but it does have to feel a certain way and that’s something you only know when you experience it.
So that’s 2014 and speaking personally by 2015 I like the idea of having a permanent lineup whether that’s four people or five people or whatever because then you can really start to tighten it up. As an improvisational outfit, a lot of the jamming is instinct but a lot of it is by logging miles together, playing gig after gig with each other, you learn how to anticipate, you learn how to get inside each other’s heads, you learn how to complement or set something up and you need to log those miles together in order to really have that thing dialed in.
Was your decision to enter the studio in May a product of these changes?
DJ: We were kind of hoping to get into the studio anyway this year. It seems like there’s a lot of music that’s coming out, it seems like there’s a little family of tunes that has popped up either that have been finished and played a little bit or are about to be finished. I guess that was our intention—to have time on the books in the studio and just get in there and be in that framework and in that moment. It’s hard for me to have any specific expectations other than we have some really good, kind-of-interrelated songs that I’m willing to explore with these two guys and I’m really pumped to just get in there and make a record.
We’ve spent so much time traveling and we’ve spent so much time in the energetic exchange of the live performance that I think it’s really fun to get together with these guys and write, edit and participate in that way. I believe that on stage the interactions that we’ve had in the past and in the future are all basically writing in the moment. That’s what we do and we have our particular framework for how we are going to do that on stage but in the studio the frameworks are different. I think it will be really good for our musical discipline and our performance discipline to be in the studio again and I think that was mainly what we were driving at before these changes came about is we just need to get in the studio and turn on the dial, fire up the machines and see what we come up with. In that spirit we’re just going to try to maintain that schedule.
I feel like it had been our intention either way. It’s been a while since we put out a full-length record but that’s just me.
BK: I think you’re right Dave, it is absolutely time to get back into the studio We’d been talking about being in the studio since the beginning of the year. It wasn’t on the books in January but we were holding the space and put down the deposit. The thing about Yonder, at least one of the things that’s happened, is we regularly have new songs but we are rarely in the studio. So what that means is you get something new and you play it and then you play it live and then you play it again live and by the time you actually get into the studio again all the new songs you’ve had become old veteran tunes, live tunes and there is a certain excitement about having new material in the studio that nobody knows.
When we parted ways with Jeff we had some new questions: “How are we going to use this time? Are we just going to go in as a three piece? Are we going to bring in other musicians? Are we just going to lay down basic tracks? Are we going to go in and do something maybe more experimental?”
Well we are going to have a fourth musician come in and record with us in the studio—Jake Jolliff, who was the mandolin player in Joy Kills Sorrow, I guess they’ve taken a hiatus. We got turned on to Jake through some mutual friends. As soon as the news came out that we were parting ways with Jeff, my phone started to blow up and half of those messages were from fans going, “Call me please, what the hell is going on?” And the other half were from musician friends, who were just throwing out suggestions as to who might be cool to get to know and play some music with and Jake’s name came up a lot. For me, I like to pay attention to these coincidences and we happen to know Jake’s manager really well, so we were able to make a connection and speak on the phone a little bit.
So we are going to bring in this new player who is really an extraordinary musician. It’s sort of a jaw-dropping thing for me to see some of his stuff online. There’s a brilliance to what he does and that’s really exciting in and of itself. But the thing I’m really excited about is that while he’s been on site at the same festivals as Yonder, he’s never really heard Yonder. So we’re going to have this experience with this guy coming in with no preconceived idea of what he thinks that we think we need him to do. There’s going to be a pure, creative experience happening and that was something I didn’t anticipate. I thought we would be going in with people we either jammed with before or who were either passingly familiar or intimately familiar with Yonder Mountain and what they think it is. I’m so happy that that’s not the case because it means that we may actually be gearing up to make something really cool and that’s what I need right now—I need that new stuff, I need this new input.
We’re at a new beginning and now I really feel the need to start taking steps like this is the beginning of a new journey. I have a hard time expressing how excited I am that the situation is unfolding where we are going to be playing with somebody who is so extraordinary talented and yet has no preconception as to what he’s supposed to do. So we can all stand there next to each other and see how we play, see what it feels like and it will be something new and pure—that’s awesome.