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The Road to String Summit: A Conversation with Yonder Mountain String Band’s Ben Kaufmann

Photo by Melissa Steinberg

While at DelFest, I had a chance to converse with Yonder Mountain String Band’s Ben Kaufmann. Our discussion covered song selection, some of their interesting new approaches to music, how song writing works in a band with multiple contributors, and what makes the Northwest String Summit special.

Most bands come out and cover bluegrass classics. The person who told me that I needed to see Yonder told me that you covered “Crazy Train.” No one else was doing that. What was the inspiration for that?

Ben: We didn’t really want to play trad bluegrass covers. You pick them in jams or picking sessions or what not, but for someone like me singing about “My Little Girl in Tennessee” or picking a bluegrass thing or a standard song, it didn’t feel as authentic as singing a rock and roll cover that was actually something that I grew up listening to when I was younger. With the exception of Jacob [Jolliff], none of us grew up listening to bluegrass. We all grew up listening to rock and roll, or other forms of music, but not bluegrass. None of us are southern. Two of us grew up in the suburbs outside of a bit city in Massachusetts. Dave [Johnston] grew up in a suburb of Chicago. Allie [Kral] grew up in a suburb of Chicago. When we were thinking about what to do – we’re going to pick a cover tunes, what do you want to sing? – we would pick songs like that.

And also in the example of “Crazy Train,” you have to imagine that back then it was 1998 or something – 98, 99 – and where we were, what we were trying to do, we were literally the only example of a bluegrass band with no drums, that lineup, anywhere for any of the festivals, or places where we were playing. It was literally the only example. You had Leftover Salmon and String Cheese but they had drums and they had moved beyond their beginnings with “traditional” bluegrass and developed into larger rock and roll things. For us we wanted to say, “Yeah, we look like this bluegrass band but we also rock. Let’s prove it to you.” “Crazy Train” was a pretty obvious choice; it’s one of the more obvious covers that Yonder has ever done in terms of straight up, here’s a popular song that you might semi regularly hear us play. Usually the rule was if we’re going to pick a cover tune, it needs to be fairly obscure. But there’s nothing obscure about “Crazy Train.”

Back in the day, it’s sort of a way to get your foot in the door. Predating the Internet or immediate mass communication, when people would hear about us, it’s amazing how people in those early years – even five, six years down the road – “Oh, you guys are the bluegrass band that play ‘Crazy Train.’” You aspire to be known for something else, but if it gets you to come to a show, yeah, we’re the bluegrass band that plays ‘Crazy Train.’ Not anymore, there’s a lot of examples of acoustic bands – same lineup – no drums is the prerequisite.

Greensky [Bluegrass]

Ben: Greensky has taken it the farthest, but I would need more than two hands to count the bands that are able to have successful music careers, without a drummer, who are playing sort of hybrid bluegrass music. But flashing back to 16, 17 years ago, we were young kids, we couldn’t really get that loud. We needed to make a name for ourselves. We wanted people to come see us. So pick something clever to do like “Crazy Train” and it gets the word out. In that situation it did. I still hear people say, “I heard about you because you’re the people who play ‘Crazy Train.’”

One thing I was noticing was with Wicked Messenger [an electric spin off band that played NWSS in 2014], Yonder Mountain Punk Band, and electric Yonder announced at this year’s String Summit, is there a movement a little away from that traditional sound?

Ben: Not really. In fact, with the new lineup, when we were just starting to play out with the new group, everything comes back. Everything took a step… backwards isn’t the right word… but bringing everything closer to home. We were becoming quite a bit more bluegrass than we ever had been. Simply because, you’re needing to begin a new musical dialogue and you want to start with a common language. That’s bluegrass. Now the branching out and the experimentation can happen again, but in order to really tighten up as quickly as possible, you go back to your roots. The other things are ways that we can let our other influences out or do with that are different or weird.

With Yonder Mountain Punk Band, that was for a Halloween thing but Dave [Johnson] and Adam [Aijala] – it rubs off on us – but they grew up skateboarding and listening to punk rock and being little bastards. We wanted to find something cool to do, so we did that. That was more consolidated work that we did to get ready for that show than anything we’ve ever had to do. It was more rehearsals, more practice time, all for songs that are a minute and a half to three minutes long. It was a ton of work, but by doing that kind of work together you get better and can see big improvements in short periods of time. It had multiple benefits.

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