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Published: 2015/12/30
by Rob Slater

Yonder Mountain String Band: Bluegrass Punks

In April of 2014, Jeff Austin announced he would be leaving Yonder Mountain String Band effective immediately. With that, the speculation began. “They’re done” was the only conclusion some thought was necessary. Without Austin, how could Yonder still be Yonder?

Since that time, the remaining members enlisted the services of Allie Kral and Jake Jolliff, released a new record Black Sheep and continued the Yonder traditions established over the years, including their destination Strings & Sol event. One could argue that Yonder feels as free as they’ve ever been, as guitarist Adam Aijala checks in following the band’s unique punk rock-themed show in Columbus, OH, where they transformed some of the genre’s finest into their own particular brand of punky bluegrass. Aijala also discusses the new additions, the exciting New Year’s Eve shows with special guests and the unrelenting future of the band.

I’m excited for this because I get to talk about punk rock. Let’s not waste any time. Tell me how the idea came about initially.

To be honest with you, it was our sound guy Ben Hines’ idea. When it comes to any kind of dressing up or theatrical things, I’m kind of a Grinch when it comes to stuff like that, for lack of a better word. I’m kind of a grump, as my mom would call me. But his idea being, “Well, I think we could make for a cool stage, it would be pretty easy to dress up, and you guys already know some of the music.” And I tended to agree with him.

Dave and I, I believe we’re the only ones out of the five of us that really listened to it when we were younger. I wanted to play guitar before I ever heard punk music, but it wasn’t until I got a guitar that I was listening to it. I basically begged my folks every year like, “Hey, I want to play guitar.” They thought I was a kid with a short attention span, which I kind of was. They weren’t rolling in money, either, so it was basically like, “You want to learn guitar, you’ve going to take lessons.”

So here’s this twelve year old kid going to take lessons, and the guy is this rich jazz and blues guitar player, and I’m like, “Can you show me how to play ‘Nervous Breakdown’ by Black Flag?” The guy was like, “What?” He charted out the intro to “My War.” It’s like a really weird guitar thing, it doesn’t make any sense. Even now it still doesn’t make any sense to me, but he wrote it out for me and I still have it. He was probably like, “God, what’s this guy’s deal?”

I have an older sister who got into the music when she was in high school. Freshman year she went to a regional high school and I was still in the small town high school in the seventh grade and she was ninth. She was like, “Dude, you’ve got to check this music out!” And I was starting to get into skateboarding and that went hand in glove back then, I don’t know if it still does. So I got into Black Flag and the Minutemen and the Dead Kennedys and Descendents, the Circle Jerks, the Misfits, that kind of stuff. And then obviously The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, on the other side of the ocean. And Dave was a skater as well in Aurora. I was in Massachusetts, he was Aurora, Illinois. I always say if we had known each other, we probably would have hung out—similar interests.

A lot of that stuff, I always felt a kinship between the two styles. Well I guess I didn’t always, it was something I realized later on, that kinship between bluegrass and rock and hardcore and stuff like that—Minor Threat even. Really, really heavy, like fast-pointed lyrics—literal lyrics, and a lot of lyrics in both genres that say exactly how it feels. There’s maybe a little more angst in the punk rock stuff. When I first heard bluegrass—a ripping bluegrass band playing something all into the microphone—I couldn’t believe how much energy it had, and that was something with punk rock that I really liked, granted they had amps and drums and dudes screaming and all of that. There is a correlation between it. Maybe you can see it, some people probably could. It makes sense to me why I ended up liking bluegrass.

I’m sure if I had known what bluegrass was—I knew what it was, but I didn’t know what to listen to when I was small or when I first started playing guitar, but I know I would have liked it. If someone said, “Hey, check this out, this is Tony Rice, listen to him play guitar,” I would have probably been like, “Oh, man, this is sick!” Or with David Grier or Norman Blake. As far as acoustic stuff, I heard like Andrés Segovia, which is a classical guitar player, and that stuff blew me away. And I had heard some of that stuff— and Al Di Meola—that was actually probably later though, that was in high school.

With the idea in place, how did the initial rehearsals go and how did you guys land on the tunes you ended up playing on stage?

I basically just went through my head and also my music notes of what songs could work and I sent out a big list. Ben had a couple of ideas and Dave had a couple of ideas and Allie had a couple of ideas and then we kind of whittled it down. We had enough songs on the list to do a whole show of all punk tunes. We wanted to pepper the show with it so it didn’t seem—especially for people who don’t know the music, we didn’t want them to come in and hear a whole show of stuff and have no idea what was going on. Some things went over people’s heads, for sure.

Allie was the one who said, “How about the Joan Jett song?” and Ben brought in “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel—which is later, it’s not technically from that genre, but it definitely had that vibe to it. For me, the ones that translated to bluegrass well—even if the guitar wasn’t doing the boom-chuck, the mandolin was still doing the chop, so it kind of had that bluegrass-y vibe. Like the Descendents tunes worked really well, I thought, as far as the way it flowed. I don’t know how they ended up coming out in the show itself, but like “Hope” and “Clean Sheets.”

“I Don’t Want to Hear It,” the Minor Threat tune—I wanted to do a Minor Threat song, and when I was talking to Ben on the phone before the tour I was like, “ Hey, did you listen to any other songs?” because I was like “Man, I can’t sing every song. We’ve got to split stuff up,” and he was really drunk and he was like, “I really like that song.” And I said, “Well, you sing that, because that’s a great one.”

Jake was like, “I don’t like this music.” He was hilarious. He’s kind of a grump like me, too, as far as dressing up and all that stuff. We’re definitely on the same page as far as that goes. I don’t know if it’s even cool to do that stuff, I don’t have a gauge on it. It was fun, but when we have a lot of new stuff to work on, and have to rehearse for like the four days leading up to it every day working on those songs for hours, it felt like kind of a bummer to be spending all this time for one show when we have these new songs that aren’t fully formed yet that I would like to work on so we could have new Yonder material. That’s kind of where the grump attitude comes into play for me.

But it was easier for me because I already knew all the songs. I had to brush up on a handful of them, but as far as lyrics, I think “Kill the Poor,” was probably the only one—I could never remember the third verse so I had to have some lyrics in front of me for that. But all the other stuff I remember from way back, it’s kind of burned into my head. I didn’t have to rehearse that much. I mean, we all had to rehearse together, obviously, but I knew the stuff.

We definitely busted ass. We were doing like two hours a night, I would say, and then the day of the show—during the sound checks we were working on songs as well that week. It was the fourth show of the week, so we only had three days to rehearse—not counting at home before the tour started.

I thought everyone just played really well. Even Jake, who was not psyched about the music, did really well. That guy shreds though, I mean forget it. He can do anything. His favorite song was “Spanish Bombs.” He was like, “I didn’t really like any of them, but if I had to pick my favorite out of the ones I didn’t like, I think I would pick that song.”

Funny you mention wanting to focus more on originals. I spoke with Joel Cummins recently and he said the same thing. He called the originals the “lifeblood of the band” at the end of the day.

I think everyone kind of feels that way. I think a lot of bands feel that way, I think it’s one of those things where you kind of have to do something special, and the same way that you want to do something special for New Year’s, and if you can think of something funny or clever to do for April Fool’s Day, or things like that—like, you don’t have to do it, but it’s kind of cool to do it. A lot of bands are doing it now. I don’t know if Phish were the first ones to do it, but they’ll do a concept album—like play a whole album. Like, “Oh, we’re going to play this album tonight,” or “We’re going to do that,” and that stuff takes a lot of work! Especially some of the albums they did—they were doing like The White Album, I mean, geez.

We’re still a new band. Even though we’re an old band, we’re a new band. We’re an old band, as far as I’ve known Ben and Dave for so long now, it’s insane, and I know them better than anybody on the planet. We’ve spent so much time together, but yet Allie and Jake—and actually some of the crew, like Ben Hines, our front of house guy, he’s been with us since 2000. So, there’s this real old vibe with the band but then we have these new people—and not only new, but young, too—so it feels new. And we want to have new music and new material that people associate with this Yonder. Granted, we didn’t do any of those punk tunes in the old band, so in that regard it was new, but it’s like what Joel said—it’s a lot of work for one show. It was a lot of work, and even though we crammed, it was definitely like procrastination, last minute cram. We definitely busted our ass.

*You guys have played a couple of cover songs—not just with the punk songs, but you’ve also played a couple of Stones tunes and you’ve obviously thrown in a couple of Grateful Dead songs. Did those just sort of come about naturally or is that something you guys will pick and say, “Let’s work on this one for the next couple of weeks?” *

Usually someone individually brings a song and says, “Hey, I’d like to do this.” Like Jake doesn’t have any originals that he sings, so everything he sings is a cover. Obviously we’re going to write some songs for him to sing and I actually gave him a song of mine and I think Ben gave him one of his songs that we have played but we’ve probably only done it half a dozen times. Then Ben has one that I play with him when we do our duet thing but we’ve probably never done with Yonder so he’s probably going to have those two songs to sing. So every song he’s brought in has been covers. He’s a bluegrasser, but his dad was into folk rock and stuff like that, so usually when he brings a song to the table it’s something from that era or a bluegrass tune.

Allie is all over the map as far as what she brings to the table, she’ll bring some bluegrass, she’ll bring some rock songs. She actually has a lot of cool ideas for writing. She wants our help in writing songs. We’re happy to do that. We just need to make more time on the road. It seems like we worked on a lot of stuff on the last tour. I don’t think we did anything brand new on the tour besides—I mean Jake has a new instrumental that we haven’t done yet, Dave has two new ones that I’ve been working on with him that are almost ready to go. I’ve got a new one that we worked on a bunch. Ben’s got a couple of ideas. There’s a lot of stuff on the table. We’re actually going into the studio in January for a couple of days before the tour starts and then we’ll make some time in March and some time in May to do another record.

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