By Brian Heisler
When Boulder-based quartet Yonder Mountain String Band debuted #1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts with their forth album (self titled), it confirmed the notion that they are truly the reigning kings of bluegrass in the jam community. Some more traditional folks have trouble with YMSB being labeled "bluegrass." Perhaps they'd rather see them carry the tag: jamgrass, or freakgrass, or newgrass; regardless of what you call it, folks are buying it, by the bundle.
Yonder Mountain String Band
Clearly the Yonder boys are not traditional bluegrass pickers. They use amplification when playing live and there are even drums involved, but it's this willingness to push boundaries and experiment that has made them the sensation they are. Case and point: #1 on Billboard with a "bluegrass" record produced by indie-stud Tom Rothrock (Beck, James Blunt, Foo Fighters, Elliott Smith) with Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) on drums for a couple tracks.
JamBase caught up with banjo player Dave Johnston while the band was on the road for some insight into the new album and the band's new horizons.
JamBase: This is your first release on Vanguard Records. Why the new label?
Johnston: We just thought that we wanted to get to a little bit broader of an audience and that we didn't wanna be running our own label anymore, due to the fact that it was just something we barely had a chance to even oversee. We love Frog Pad Records, and we still plan to release live records on it and stuff like that. It's just one of those things where it got to be almost a little too much for us to handle entirely and tour all the time and write music. We kinda wanted a more typical relationship with a label than the one we had with Frog Pad where we were kind of owners and making a lot of important decisions that maybe we weren't the best with. (laughs)
JamBase: This is your first recording with Tom Rothrock. Why did you decide to work with him?
Johnston: Well, we met Tom during the Acoustic Planet tour that we did with Béla [Fleck] and Keller [Williams], and we knew we kind of wanted to go color outside the lines, so to speak, and to try to do something a little different. At this point we also had no idea we were gonna be on Vanguard or anything like that; that's an influence in any decision. It's just one of those things where we met him, and he really liked the band. He had said that after seeing a couple shows that he could hear the record that he could make out of this whole thing, and he was very on chord right from the get go. He's just a really great guy and easy to work with. He just kind of heard about us and decided to check us out.
JamBase: The folk/rock & roll sound you have been promoting with the new album and Tom Rothrock, is that a sound that you had projected? When you started YMSB, was there any idea of an outline for a specific sound?
Johnston: No, we never have really had an outline for specifics about our sound. I always think of us as a subliminal band or a subconscious band, where we just kind of let the feeling of the moment and the vibe that's going on just kind of dictate what's going to happen to the kind of music we're going to make. We try to really capture that, and it ends up having a lot of banjo and bluegrass-type stuff happening with it, but also folk and of course rock & roll.
Dave Johnston :: YMSB
Is the whole rock & roll theme something you are continuing to explore?
We actually feel like the rock & roll scene is exploring us more than we're exploring it. We're just kind of doing our thing and making the music we want to make. It's kind of cool because the more we get into the rock & roll sort of things, it's almost like the more you can kinda hear the basic building blocks of bluegrass and stuff kinda being in there as well. I happen to think they're not mutually exclusive types of music.
This is the first time you guys have added drums to the mix. How did you decide that you wanted drums as part of the Yonder sound for this album?
We were just kind of toolin' around with one tune in particular, and we were trying to think, "Well, it sounds good, but maybe drums would be cool to fill up the space." It was more of an experiment that ended up going really well.
Pete Thomas has a fabulous history with Elvis Costello, but there are many drummers out there that surely would have been onboard with you guys. How did you decide to go with Pete Thomas?
He was a friend of Tom's, and of course he's just very tasteful. It was just like a decision where we were like, "We could call this guy or we could call this guy," but we decided with Pete.
Yonder Mountain String Band by Joel Johnston
So it was just one phone call? You didn't call any other guys and say, "Hey, come in and play a track?"
I mean we put out all these calls simultaneously to different people. One was Hal Blaine. We called him, we called Pete. I think Hal was retired and Pete was really into doing it, so I'm like, "Man, Pete Thomas is as good as anyone. So if he wants to do it, then yeah man, bring him in and we'll see what happens."
Is there more room for exploration with drums and percussion and do you ever plan to tour with a drummer at this point?
There's always gonna be a different kind of space musically with drums, so you can explore different musical textures and stuff like that for sure. We're not planning on touring with a drummer though. That's kinda one of our deals is that we don't have a drummer, so we're not really looking to radically alter anything that's going on like that.
Jeff Austin :: YMSB
So it's definitely just a studio thing for the moment?
With the touring, what are you specifically looking forward to for the rest of the summer?
We're looking forward to the rest of the summer! (laughs) Summer's really fun; we're looking forward to Telluride; and pretty much everything that we're doing this summer seems pretty kick-ass to me, so I'm excited about all of it.
Lastly, I was at Summer Camp last weekend, and you guys mentioned some sort of incident with the law and it's been popping up all over the message boards. Can you dispel any rumors or start some new ones?
What were the rumors?
YMSB at Summer Camp 2006 by Brett Saul
I heard something about your bus getting stopped in Ohio.
Yeah, we got, uh, searched in Ohio. Ya know, if you wanna start a rumor, tell 'em that we were smuggling rare parakeets in Ohio and that we got caught with a bunch of exotic birds. (laughs) Better yet, say that we were smuggling tropical fish.
And you got stopped by The Man on the highway?
We got stopped with organic contraband - tropical fish, rare Burmese angelfish or something like that.
The comedy never ceases with YMSB, and that is a part of who they are. Their music is very easy-going and so is the way they approach the stage. Some nights, a Yonder show can seem like a comedy bar with a string band playing between sets. While their new album brings new ideas to the table, they still have the same old feel that makes us dance and smile. Nothing says summer quite like the raw sounds of pure acoustic strings and harmonies, so look for the new and old sounds alike of Yonder Mountain String Band at a show near you this summer; and be sure to pick up a copy of their new album for those long drives between gigs.
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