Exclusive | Adam Aijala On What’s Ahead for Yonder

Written By: Chad Berndtson

Interview :: Adam Aijala of Yonder Mountain String Band

Bands grow up together, hit creative peaks and gain renown, develop a passionate, opinionated fanbase, and maybe some time down the line, reach a point where for the health and happiness of all involved, they need to change course. Such is the case with Yonder Mountain String Band, which, following the recent departure of mandolinist, singer and co-founder Jeff Austin, has seen the biggest change since its 1998 founding.

[Photo by Sterling Munksgard]

The split, say all involved, was amicable, with Austin ready to focus on his burgeoning solo career and an acknowledgment among the four members – Austin, guitarist/vocalist Adam Aijala, banjoist/vocalist Dave Johnston, bassist/vocalist Ben Kaufmann – that creatively they’re no longer in sync.

Yonder’s official statement on the matter came April 23, and about a week later, Kaufmann posted a heartfelt letter to the band’s Facebook page explaining feelings of renewal in the wake of the decision.

Aijala, Johnston and Kaufmann will continue as Yonder, and spend much of 2014 playing with guest musicians, with the hope of a settled new lineup by 2015. Aijala agreed to an interview by JamBase to expound a bit on what’s ahead for the new Yonder Mountain String Band.

JAMBASE: So in Ben’s statement he described his feeling like that of a “motor being revved.” Is that the feeling for you as well?

ADAM AIJALA: Absolutely. And you know he didn’t just write that to put it out there, it was something he sent to us to get a look at and something he made sure was personal. Ben doesn’t have a fake persona. The guy you get onstage is who you get offstage. I agree with everything he said, and you know, it feels really good – we’re psyched. It’s brand new. It’s uncharted territory.

None of us would ever discredit the value Jeff Austin brought to Yonder Mountain. But we all came to this conclusion, and when we head into the studio in a week or two we’re going to get a lot of ideas out there and get some songs [recorded] that we just started playing live recently. We’re going to try focus on brand-new stuff and go from there.

JAMBASE: You’ve all alluded to long, heartfelt discussions ahead of this big decision. When was it clear to the four of you that it would make more sense to part ways than try to make it work?

AA: Personally, I was feeling it on the last tour. It all boiled down to personal happiness, and that was something we talked about for a long time as the four of us. We all wanted to work on that underlying happiness and we trust each other to say when someone isn’t in that place anymore. We need to be happy in what we’re doing, and if we’re not, we should talk about it.

I think with Jeff focusing more on his solo career, that’s what made him happy and seemed to be the right thing to do. It was a cool conversation. It was not an easy conversation but it was one of the most satisfying and important conversations we’ve ever had together. I’m glad we did it.

JAMBASE: It seems that way from the outside. And these things have a history of going bad if not handled the right way, so it sounds like you guys had really made up your mind and were honest with each other.

AA: Yeah. We couldn’t have really dictated how it would go, but we talked about everything. We’re all in the same music circles, we’re all going to still be playing music, and we all still care about each other, of course.

JAMBASE: Was there ever any doubt among the three of you that you’d keep the Yonder Mountain String Band name?

AA: No. Back when we did our first inter-band agreement – and I have to say we were pretty on the ball for being a bunch of kids when we started this – we agreed that whatever the situation is, if someone leaves, the other guys would be able to keep the name. It had to be three-fourths of us – if it were two guys leaving then maybe that wouldn’t work.

But I know what you’re asking, and I have looked a little bit online at some of the comments people made and heard from people that this is a big point of discussion. You know, ‘Are they going to keep the name?’ It is what it is. We are still three-quarters of that band and it would be weird to call a majority of the band something else.

[Photo by Sterling Munksgard]

JAMBASE: How will you handle songs that Jeff sang on?

AA: Well there’s nothing concrete decided but I think we’ll treat it the same way we did during our January shows. It’s not likely we will play his original songs. A handful of covers he sang on I think will translate, but there are other covers that have so much of his stamp on them that it’s probably better just to come up with new or different songs.

“Death Trip,” for example, that’s a Danny Barnes song, and Jeff had this cool section in the middle of it and none of us would really want to try to do that instead. Jeff will be playing a lot of those songs, and his originals, on his own, I would imagine.

JAMBASE: But you won’t continue to play those songs?

AA: I guess a good example would be…well, to me, when I first heard Bobby or Phil singing Jerry songs it just didn’t feel right. I’m pretty open-minded – I’m not as opinionated as I think some of our fans are – but I think people would be like, ‘Why the hell is Adam singing Half Moon Rising?’ It just sounds weird. You never know; nothing’s concrete. We never said we definitely will never play any of his songs.

But I’m really psyched to get into the studio. It’s been a long time since we’ve been in the studio to do a full album together, and we have this backlog of maybe 20 or more songs, maybe 30, that have never been on a studio record and probably never will because they’re just so old now. I’d rather just move forward than go back.

JAMBASE: So as you head to the studio in Boulder you’ll be focusing on new songs?

AA: Well like I said there are three songs we just started playing on the January tour. They’re new and they’re fresh. Other songs we have music and we don’t know lyrics. Ben is actually going to go into Boulder a day and a half early to hash through some of what we have. We’ll only have four days this time around but we’re already trying to schedule some more time.

The realistic hope is a [record] by the end of the year. We don’t want to rush anything, but then you can have the opposite of rushing something and spend way too much time. We did that, I want to say in 2010 or 2011, when we’d record six or eight songs in the span of a tour, on the road, when we had time, and then too much time would go by and it felt like we missed a window of opportunity. If you go a year past when songs were new and you were ready to record them, you’ve kind of missed that window, a bit of that magic is gone.

JAMBASE: How are you choosing guest musicians for the coming months?

AA: There are people we’ve played with before, and a lot of it is also, well, who would we like? Obviously for us, if you’re a dobro player or a fiddle player it’s not quite as hard to fit in – and I don’t mean that in the sense of skill; I can’t play much on either of those instruments – but those are melodic instruments, less chordal.

I think the real challenge for a band like us is not the technicality of what we do but the repertoire size. Even without Jeff’s songs we have hundreds of songs. With Ronnie and Jason [McCoury] and then with Sam Bush, and with John Frazier on mandolin for a few shows, we don’t repeat a song over the course of a week, so if we’re doing two sets a night and five shows in a row, that’s 100 songs right there you have to learn. But most of the guys we play with are very, very good at what they do. It was tough switching from Ronnie to John, but John Frazier was very well prepared when we saw him and I was very impressed.

We hope to have a mandolin player full time by 2015. We’ve had a lot of inquiries, so many in fact that we need to start getting back to people and I don’t want them to get the impression we’re ignoring them. And it’s a lot of people I’ve never heard of. That’s kind of the beauty of it; who the hell knows? Age? Who cares? Gender? Who cares? There’s really not a template for who we want except someone with a good amount of energy who can contribute, but not be a really slick player.

It would be nice to have someone who both sings and plays, and beyond that, someone who writes would be amazing. But someone who sings and brings some energy is what we need. I don’t know, someone with personality – I’m kind of a stone on stage and my wife makes fun of me for that all the time! [laughs] But if it’s someone we’ve known, or someone out there we didn’t even know existed, we’re excited.

[Photo by Jeremy Williams]

JAMBASE: Will you hold a formal audition process?

AA: That’s been a point of discussion. There’s nothing etched in stone, we might play some shows this summer with more folks we’ve been interested in. But I do think it’s in our best interest, even if we’ve found someone we really like, to give a listen to someone seriously inquiring. Maybe we’ll ask people to send us some videos of themselves playing or with their band and we’ll weed out from there. Maybe formal auditions will come from there. I don’t know but I would think that is something we will do.

JAMBASE: You’re anticipating a solidified new lineup by 2015, but I have to ask, will you look to add additional people or instrumentation besides replacing the mandolin slot?

AA: Yes, that has come up. Many people have told me that a fiddle just brings something extra out – it raises the bar in what we do. There was even talk of that before the change. We’ll continue with how we’ve experimented before. Maybe we have a drummer out with us again. Rushad Eggleston played cello with us, that kind of thing. I don’t think we should rule out anything because you never know. But if I can throw something out there, fiddle is more likely.

JAMBASE: Adam, it seems like you guys are in a good place with this. If there’s a spectrum of how these things can go, from “best it could go” to “total shitstorm,” it’s in that “best it could go” camp, no?

AA: Yeah. And I understand the reaction out there, you know? People come up and they’re saying, it’s different. Well, yeah, I agree. It’s not the same. Jeff was one-quarter of the band. I get it. It’s not going to be the same, but we’re still going to come forward with energy and a mixed setlist. And if we’re on stage and everyone with us on stage is in the same headspace, meaning we all want to be here in this moment, it’s going to be great.

We had a great time with the McCourys, a great time with Sam and John, and yeah it was different, but I got comments from people who have seen us for years and years and said, it was different, but I still really liked it and it was great. That’s cool. If people don’t want to come see us anymore, there’s nothing I can do about that. But I ask you to come see us once and see what you think.

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