Someone once said that managing your brand isn’t always easy, but it’s always easier than managing your customer.
Banjoist Dave Johnston knows a little about this, as Yonder Mountain String Band found themselves in the position this year of morphing the structure of their much beloved four piece with the departure of mando player and co-founder Jeff Austin in April. While the split may not have come as a shock to some Yonder observers, it still left the band with a seat to fill and some nuts and bolts decisions about how to mature and re-fit the band’s lengthy and welltraveled repertoire.
Austin’s seat was actually filled by two players — mando player Jacob Jolliff and fiddler Allie Kral — and Johnston says that the process of arranging the band’s material, which happened more or less in real time as the band played out during the summer festival season, was both a matter of sitting down and working through parts, as well as just kind of letting the new thing grow its own legs.
“Well, yeah, you’re right about that,” noted Johnston, when Boulder Weekly caught up to him before the band’s departure to Mexico for Strings & Sol a few weeks back. “There were a few things, particularly with vocal harmonies, where we were like, here are the parts we’d like you to sing. But, counter to that, we kind of decided we’d just tackle it day by day, and setlist by setlist even, tour by tour, and we’ll continue building it in that fashion. Kind of eating the elephant one bite at a time, if you will.”
Yonder’s 16-year run as one of the progressive bluegrass scene’s most vital franchises has engendered a deep sense of ownership amongst their fanbase, the kind of loyalty and support that most bands would envy. And of course, a lineup change will predictably prompt any number of skeptics in the pitiless, free-fire zone of Internet chat rooms. A little ironic, in a sense, that a band long heralded for liberating bluegrass from the limitations of its historical conventions should find itself, even marginally, faced with skepticism during its own transformation.
“I lurk here and there, and check it out,” Johnston says of the Internet buzz surrounding the band’s lineup change.
“I think there’s a few out there that are saying that it’s not Yonder Mountain String Band, but mostly the response has been really positive and very open-minded. …What Jake and Alli bring to the table is being accepted really well, almost across the board, and crowds and promoters and everyone is very happy with it.”
So do the New Year’s Eve gigs in Boulder feel like… what? Reaffirmation, if that’s not too precious a term for it?
“It feels sort of like it used to feel when we were just starting out,” Johnston says. “It’s kind of this nervy and anticipatory feeling, mixed with… I don’t know if gratitude is the right word, but it’s that kind of feeling mixed with the familiarity of Boulder and what the scene is like in Boulder, and how awesome it is. It’s kind of two things that on the surface seem apparently contradictory but are actually very complementary of each other. … It’s reassuring, but also brand new at the same time.”
We couldn’t help but remind Johnston that, when we talked with him and his ex-mando player back in 2011, they both insisted that Yonder was close to recording and releasing a follow-up album to 2009’s The Show, the band’s last proper LP. You kinda stop waiting after a while, and let’s be honest here, Yonder hardly needs to prove anything to anyone by making a new album. But still, we had to ask: will there be a new album in 2015?
“For real,” Johnston says, “it’s done. Like, seriously, everything’s pretty much done. We’re just mixing. We’re really excited by the way it sounds, and there’s a lot of new material on it, and a couple we’ve been playing out this year that people will recognize.”
Back in 2011, Boulder Weekly also asked Austin and Johnston that year what their New Year’s resolutions were. Austin embarked on a lengthy dissertation about redefining self, maintaining physical strength and mental patience — almost a metaphysical statement of purpose — and Johnston merely committed to riding his bike more.
Johnston laughed when we brought that up, and asked what his New Year’s resolutions were for 2015.
“I guess my goal for next year is to be more organized about my work… I read this fantastic quote by Kurt Vonnegut: ‘It’s not hard for evil to triumph over good; all it takes for anything to beat another thing is for it to be more organized.” [The actual quote is “There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of orga nization.”]
“For me, it’s like encountering a problem with a lyric you’re writing, encountering a problem with a lick you’re playing or a musical passage you’re trying to understand. … You’re directing your focus toward your weak points. I want to be organized about my faults and the things I need to work on.”