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August 20 - 26, 2009
Not just bluegrass
Yonder Mountain gives “string band” a
whole new meaning
by Ben Corbett
With its innovative spirit, Boulder has always maintained its status as a Western music epicenter, pulling raw talent from all corners of the country, then spitting out popular bands. The latest success is Yonder Mountain String Band, consisting of Adam Aijala on guitar, Dave Johnston on banjo, Jeff Austin on mandolin and Ben Kaufmann on bass. Known simply as “Yonder” in jamgrass circles, they met in Boulder in 1998. After four albums and 11 years of playing clubs and festivals — and finally performing at Obama’s nomination last summer at the Democratic National Convention — they’re now cresting a wave into mainstream popularity, bigger audiences and increasingly enthusiastic receptions. Celebrating the release of their forthcoming (Sept. 1) album, The Show, Yonder is headlining the Fox Theatre on Aug. 27 and Red Rocks on Aug 28. Like their fourth and self-titled album, the new disc features the drums of Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello’s band. And like the last disc, The Show is produced by Tom Rothrock of the Foo Fighters.
Coming off the road from a summer tour, Kaufmann just arrived home in Rollinsville and took the time to rap about Yonder, its new direction, and its new record.
Boulder Weekly: Tell us about the new album.
Ben Kaufmann: That record’s sort of an extension from our previous one, which was also recorded with Tom Rothrock. He’s usually doing stuff like Beck or James Blunt, and our project seems more fun and adventurous for him. Working with him in the studio is pretty rewarding, because we get to step outside of the box, which in our case is the stage. It’s a departure from what people might expect to come out of this band, and that’s good for us, because we’re always trying to redefine the boundaries of what we can do.
BW: What’s it like for a primarily live band to do a studio record?
BK: The studio gives us a chance to experiment with different things and have time to evaluate what we’re doing. When you’re playing live, you’re playing in the moment. Then the moment’s gone, you’re on to the next thing. So it’s a completely different animal.
Since we’re our own record company, it’s really liberating because all the energy we’re putting into it, it’s really entirely our own. In that respect, the studio feels like something that’s more for the band, for our growth and our learning. You gotta have freedom as artists, otherwise you feel this stagnation.
BW: Has coming from a traditional bluegrass background limited Yonder Mountain’s reach?
BK: We’ve heard so much in the past about people saying, “You’re not going to be able to do this or that. You’ll play the Fox Theatre in Boulder, but don’t expect to achieve much more than that.” This has always served to motivate us. With this record, we wanted to see if we could cross over and have some success, initially on radio. But also we have every intention of wanting to play Conan O’Brien and David Letterman — primarily because we’ve heard people say so many times, “That kind of music doesn’t work in those formats.” When you get to think about it, what they really mean is, “You have ‘string band’ in your name.” This is something that we were thinking about [while recording] because it’s important for us to take this as far as we can, to accomplish as much as we can.
BW: Is the idea now to redefine bluegrass, or to stretch the limits outside of bluegrass?
BK: It’s not even really bluegrass anymore. When we started, we wanted to be the very best bluegrass band we could be. That was absolutely the intention. And then we found as we tried to explore the places that bluegrass bands play, people didn’t really want us.
They didn’t seem to appreciate our style. We were trying to get into those festivals because that’s what we thought we had to do. And because there was resistance from those camps, we found ourselves in real dirty rock ’n’ roll barrooms. The music began to be formed by that.
BW: Yonder Mountain really defies category.
BK: They call it the “jam scene,” which I hate, but it really reflects an audience that likes all different kinds of music. And we found ourselves the only representatives of bluegrass in this entire scene. As we’ve gotten older and come to understand the bluegrass movement, it’s not really what we’re about. There’s two of us from Boston and two of us from Chicago. If we’re singing “My Rose of Old Kentucky,” where is the authenticity? They’re great songs. But eventually you come to the realization that the point is to sing something from your soul. As much as I love the song, there’s not a lot of “Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee” in my soul.
BW: Does The Show reflect the band’s continuing evolution?
BK: You’re gonna hear some rock ’n’ roll in it. Your gonna hear bluegrass in it, certainly. You’re gonna hear some Bob Wills Texas swing-type stuff. You’re gonna hear some Elliott Smith-influenced stuff. All of these things are in the kettle. It’s just been boiling away.
This whole experience has been our attempt to look inside of ourselves and find out who we are as people, as musicians, as a band, what our influences are. Right now in my car I’ve got …And Justice for All by Metallica, a Steely Dan record, I’ve got a Billy Joel record in there. It runs the whole gamut, and if that’s where my brain is coming from, then it’s strayed quite a bit from these traditional bluegrass tunes.
BW: You’ve been together 11 years now. Few bands last that long these days.
BK: Sometimes people ask us, “Well how in the world did this happen?” I don’t know. We were four young kids driving around in some RV that was held together with duct tape. Things have changed now. This is our third time headlining Red Rocks. We’ve opened up for Willie Nelson and the Dave Matthews Band. We got to play with one of our heroes, Jon Fishman, the drummer from Phish. Now what we’re realizing is... what did Snoop say? “You gotta dream big because you might never wake up.” It’s brilliant. You have to dream big. We’ve billed ourselves as a live band. That’s our deal. Once you grow it like that from the ground up, that’s something that can last. We can see ourselves doing this till we can’t play anymore.
For More Info:
Yonder Mountain String Band performs at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 27, at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399, and with Xavier Rudd at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 28, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison,
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