Interview | Yonder Mountain String Band

Words & Images By: Lizzy Justesen
Yonder Mountain String Band

This isn’t Adam and Ben of the Yonder Mountain String Bands’ first time at the rodeo. Yonder Mountain String Band has been dominating the bluegrass scene since their formation in the late 1990’s, and 2013 marks the 12th year of their very own festival – The Northwest String Summit in North Plains, Oregon.

Last week, Yonder released the monster line up for their other annual event – Harvest Festival in Ozark, Arkansas. The weekend long extravaganza will include performances by the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang , and Railroad Earth. In this interview, the boys of YMSB discuss why they love putting on their own festivals so much, who their favorite newbies in the music scene are, and plans for their long awaited new studio album.

Northwest String Summit is held just thirty minutes outside of Portland, what is the connection between Yonder and Oregon? I know you guys are a Colorado band, but it seems like something special comes out when you guys are playing in Oregon.

Ben: I think we’ve played so much music in Oregon, and because we have something like the String Summit that just – I don’t even know how to describe it – the way that it feels when we all gather there every year. You know, that’s a place where I think everybody sort of comes, and they travel, and we show up once a year but it also feels very much like home in a way. There’s a special energy to that place, every year at String Summit., I don’t know if you want to call it a home away from home.

Ben Kaufman

Adam: Even pre-feeding String Summit, we always felt a kinship with Oregon, very similar to crowds in Colorado – they were very open to the kind of music we were doing, and continue to do. I think because of String Summit, it has become that much more. Ben hit the nail on the head that it’s kind of like a home away from home.

You guys have been doing String Summit for going on 12 years, is there any comparison you guys can make between now and back 2002? What’s the biggest difference for you guys? How has the festival changed?

Adam: Nothing stands out specifically for me at least. For how I experience it. I’m just more seasoned I guess. I look forward to it in the same way that I have since 2002. It’s a very similar M.O. every year.

Ben: If you look at it too, the stage is the same every year. Physically, the stage is the same structure. It’s the stage that Bob {Horning} built, and that’s the stage that you got every year – you can dress it up all different kinds of ways. But it’s the same place. So we’re standing in the same spot. It’s not like they are building something new every year. That makes a difference, I think, too in terms of the experience. I was just thinking and talking about this, how familiar it is to go stand in that stage at the String Summit. I know that spot that I’ve been standing in for so many years. I know it really, really well.

So it’s things staying the same that makes it kind of magical in a way. Over 12 years it hasn’t become this redone crazy festival – still just you guys playing music.

Ben: Well you want to make it look as nice as you can, and I like lasers as much as the next guy. Unless the next guy is Adam. Adam, do you like lasers?

Adam: I like laser pointers. I think they are kind of funny to fuck with my dog and stuff.

One of the things that I love about String Summit is the guest stars you guys get to come up and play with you, which leads to these crazy super jams. Are there any musicians you haven’t gotten a chance to play with and hope to?

Adam Aijala

Adam: Maybe other guys in the band would be quick to name someone, but I feel like we have already had so many great musicians, like way more than I ever would’ve thought would play with us. Here’s a cool thing, way back in maybe 2000, I don’t think it would be later than that. Anywhere between when we started – probably either ‘99 or 2000. We did a little show in Nederland, Colorado and Stanley Jordan was in town, and he came and sat in with us – and we just did this festival in Phoenix, “The End of March Tour”, and Stanley was there – he reintroduced himself and was like “man, I’m starting to get out more, I’d love to play some more shows with you” And this is, we’re talking, like 13, 14 years ago and he came in and made the effort and came in and gave us his number and his e-mail, that was really cool. And he’s ridiculously good. Super nice guy. I think we should definitely take advantage of that. But in general, I just feel like – we’re psyched. We get to play with Danny Barnesregularly; we get to play with Darol Anger. Jason Carter, Carter more recently, has been awesome; he’s such great energy.

I have some friends who’d like to sign a petition to get Darol Anger to become a full-time member.

Adam: Ha-ha. I haven’t seen Darol in a while; I’d love to play with him.

What’s the deal with Pastor Tim? He’s kind of the MC of sorts at NWSS, where does this guy come from?

Ben: We met him in, I suppose, because of a band called The Big Wu. They were, shoot, I don’t know when they broke up. This would’ve been probably 1999 or 2000. They were from Minnesota. Really great sounding band, and he was really into them. He is a pastor. That is what he does. He loves music. He met us when we were a year and a half, or two years old – and took an interest in us. And helped us archive our live recordings and sort of, if not a father figure – certainly an older brother figure in our camp. A lot of people know who he is, a lot of people like him. He is one of the good human beings. In a nutshell, that is his deal. He is somebody I go to if I need an honest opinion about something, for sure. He’s a local legend around our parts, around our neck of the woods.

Yonder Mountain String Band

Out of all the years you guys have been playing there, and all the people you have played with– is there one particular moment or year that really stands out?

Adam: It still blows me away when I think about, come this July, we decided to become a band 15 years ago. If you think about kindergarten through high school, is less than that. You know, we’ve been a band longer than, if I don’t count college, my entire childhood education. Everything kind of just melts together, I mean, I remember the first time we had David Grisman sit in as the guitar player, I remember that being memorable. Just being like “Holy crap, this guy is one of my favorite guitar players” and here he is. I remember seeing, a couple years ago, they are doing it again this year, Danny Barnes and Drew Emmitt and Larry Keel and Darol Anger played a set, and that’s like such a cool combination of musicians, and it was pretty awesome.

It’s amazing how much the lineup has grown since 2002. It has more than doubled at least, and there’s a bunch of new bluegrass talent like Fruition, Sugarcane, The Brothers Comatose – do either of you guys have a favorite? Any up and comers that are catching your attention?

Ben: The Deadly Gentlemen we just did a handful of shows with, I really like those guys. They’re all remarkably good. It’s almost like, you see what they do, I watch their show and they got a great sound, and you see the show – and its’ obvious that they are good. And then we got to hang with them backstage, and got to know ‘em a little more personally, and I got to observe and listen to a lot of music being made backstage and they’re all extraordinary musicians in a way that doesn’t even come across on stage – they’re that good. And they are so young too – they impressed me for sure.

Adam: They are fun to pick with too. One of the guys is a Coloradoan, we met him when he was a kid, ya know? They are still kids I guess technically, not technically, they are technically adults but they are still young. Dominic, the mandolin player, I remember when he was a little kid, where the mandolin actually looked big on him. Now, they just amaze me – they just keep getting better and better.

As a band, you are all festival mongrels, having three of your own festivals, including Harvest Fest, String Summit, and now Strings and Sol. Is there something about putting on your own festivals that you just really enjoy?

Jeff Austin, Ben Kaufman & Dave Johnston

Ben: It gets you the opportunity to be in one place for a long time. You have a three-day festival; you can be there for maybe four or five days. Settle in, and obviously you are shooting for outside and a climate and an environment that is awesome. Like imagine the best that String Summit has ever been – that beautiful Oregon climate. You know, where you’re just like “Yeah this is perfect.” With Strings and Sol, you put it in the ocean.

Adam: That’s pretty special, I gotta admit.

Ben: That’s something else. Like Harvest fest, you get that wonderful fall, the beginnings of fall experience. So, it is a very nice thing to be able to do. To get to have some festivals, and experiences during our year – it’s really great.

Adam: Strings and Sol is so cool. Just being in the tropics in December was really one of the coolest things we’ve done. I love harvest and I’m not saying I don’t love those as much, but something about having butt ass cold weather, getting off the plane, walking to the beach to do your gig, ya know?

I hate to drop the classic album question, but “The Show” came out over three years ago, and there’s word of a new album. Is that really happening?

Ben: We are gonna be back in studio next month. We are gonna go back to Chicago on our day off, go work with the engineer we were working with however many months ago when we started this process and hopefully finish enough tracks to have four songs done. Then the discussion is of course, album versus EP. Kind of more leaning towards releasing a series of EP’s. If you think about it, how we’re likely able to be able to complete stuff, it seems like a song from each of us – so four total songs. Given a couple months time, being on the road and working that into the touring schedule that seems to be about how much we would be able to produce. So, why not just go with it?

For more info on all three of Yonders’ upcoming festival, check out the JamBase Festival Guide and Yonder Mountain String Bands’ official site

JamBase | KJ
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