YMSB: A Decade of Blind Faith

By Team JamBase Apr 24, 2008 5:00 pm PDT

By: Sarah Hagerman

Yonder Mountain String Band
In the warm, dusty light of the Stubb’s BBQ dressing room, Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals) is perched cross-legged on a rickety-looking chair, recounting the tale of the one and only time Yonder Mountain String Band played the International Bluegrass Music Awards. It was about five years into their career and Kaufmann says, “Pete Wernick [Hot Rize] was the president of the IBMA’s at that time. He announced us to the crowd, and I can’t remember exactly what he said. It wasn’t even like a statement of pride or even, ‘Look at this young Colorado band I know.’ He just referenced the ticket sales and the audiences we were playing to, how we went from playing small bars to The Fillmore Auditorium in Denver. He said, ‘Maybe you guys don’t want to admit it,’ speaking to all the conservatives and straights out there, ‘but this the fastest growing bluegrass band that’s ever been.'”

“We’re standing on stage like, ‘Huh?’ And then the exodus began. We started playing and that fucking audience stood up and walked out. We played to maybe 50 to 100 people at the end in a 3000 seat ballroom,” chimes in Jeff Austin (mandolin, vocals) from behind his massive prescription sunglasses.

“One of the great banjo players of all time, in one of the most revolutionary bluegrass bands of all time, dropping something like that right before we got to play and that [happens],” Kaufmann continues. “I remember there was a moment that changed my understanding of what it was that we were doing without knowing it, what we could do. I realized at that point that there’s not really a limit.”

Yonder Mountain String Band has been writing their story for ten years now, transcending the limits of how a bluegrass band should sound. Like any art worth investigating, they inspire strong, divisive opinions. From a fiercely devoted fan base to the snubs and grunts of what Austin refers to as the “Nashville slick scene,” the peaks and valleys of their trajectory over the past decade have drawn a unique musical geography. Indeed, there is a rawness, and at times a fearless messiness, to the band’s music that may be slightly off-putting to the bluegrass police and sheriffs of genre purity that like their songs nice ‘n’ traditional.

Jeff Austin in 2004 by A. George
“When we were first starting out, we had a year or two courting that traditional scene. We were the young band that everyone was looking at,” Kaufmann explains. “We never really connected. We were never really embraced by them. It didn’t quite mesh and it left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I wonder if I ever had a period of time when I said, ‘Those guys don’t seem to care about us too much. I think we’re good but they don’t. Maybe we should succeed just to…'”

“Spite them,” Austin cuts in, laughing.

Kaufmann continues, “Let’s see if we can be bigger than anything they give us credit for. Just to make them eat crow. But that’s not like me. That can’t be all of the reason why we do this.”

Austin goes on, “There’s that point now where people come up to us and speak through gritted teeth. ‘You sold out Red Rocks what the hell?'”

“‘We pegged you guys for failures’,” Kaufmann finishes the thought, not completely able to hide the satisfied grin on his face.

But, they done pegged wrong. There is an undeniably contagious energy at a Yonder show. It’s a zeal that buries itself deep inside you, a sly anarchy that steals you to the dance floor, runs you around in circles and stubbornly refuses to let go. An inviting warmth emanates from that stage as the foursome tears it up each night with fast picking and sonic trail blazing. Sincerity is inherent in the experimentation, in the skillfully executed traditionals that sidle up between “Girlfriend Is Better” (Talking Heads) and “Ooo La La” (the Faces), and in the sometimes hilarious, always uncensored stage banter – banjoist Dave Johnston‘s dryly-delivered asides, guitarist Adam Aijala‘s oasis of calm (I challenge anyone to watch Aijala’s zen-like fingers for the duration of a show and not become crossed-eyed), Austin’s disarmingly manic magnetism and Kaufmann’s thoughtful yarns. There isn’t a fourth wall. When you are in the thick of the crowd it’s easy to forget that their uncanny gusto comes from four guys who have scaled the cliff and still balance on an uncertain precipice.

“What did Hunter Thompson say about the music industry?” Johnston ponders at one point in our interview, coffee mug in hand. “‘The music business is a long dark hallway, where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. The trench is always there. You can always go back to the trenches.”

YMSB circa 2003
Different roads led the respective members of YMSB to Colorado by way of Illinois college towns, Massachusetts’s forests and the dense concrete of New York City. Austin and Johnston left Urbana, Illinois after the Bluegrassholes disbanded, Kaufmann quit NYU’s film program and Aijala sustained a knee injury that ended his career in forestry. All were driven by the same call – the gut-wrenching desire to pursue a musical dream and hone their bluegrass picking skills. Although raised on a steady diet of rock, their newfound love for bluegrass would intersect in perfect time. Nestled up close to the Rocky Mountains, the Boulder area in 1998 pulsated with musical energy, a smorgasbord of bluegrass, newgrass and (dare we say it) jam band influences intermingling among the flatirons and resounding off the peaks. Leftover Salmon was casting a mighty long shadow but The String Cheese Incident was racing to catch up. Meanwhile, bars across the Front Range were hosting nightly laidback acoustic picking sessions filled with musicians looking towards bands like Hot Rize for inspiration.

“Up in the mountains there were so many amateur musicians,” Kaufmann recalls. “You could go to any bar and there would be twenty people playing.”

“Seven nights a week,” Austin adds.

“A big part of those jams too was that there was free food and beer,” Johnston continues. “Which was good because we didn’t have any money for food or beer.”

It was a scene that was receptive to young musicians looking to gain some level of exposure. Austin says, “It was good timing for us to get together and play music. There were a lot of places you could go and cut your teeth, and a lot of places you could go and actually get a gig.”

In the midst of this harmonic terrain, the four found in each other like-minded co-conspirators, collectively picking together for the first time at the Verve in Nederland. “We had Ben and Adam show up on the same night that Dave and I were throwing this open pick, and I remember we sang ‘Ruby’ and ‘Pig in a Pen.’ I thought that this is kind of what I was thinking it might sound like, really aggressive. It was pretty quick for myself to realize there might be something to this,” Austin recalls.

Continue reading for more on YMSB…

Cheesy or not we’re like The Grateful Dead. I remember being in sixth grade, standing in a parking lot watching one guy give another guy his socks because that guy didn’t have socks. Look at this whole giving culture that has sprung up around this band. It starts with the band and the music and turns into this whole other thing that hopefully moves people’s lives in a positive way.

Jeff Austin

“I might be misremembering,” Kaufmann looks towards the ceiling as he thinks back, “but [at the club] we were all closest in age by a long shot, and we had no jobs to speak of.”

Ben Kaufmann :: night of interview
At Stubb’s by D. Jackson
“We didn’t own houses,” Austin continues, “we didn’t have kids. We didn’t have serious girlfriends, or if we did, that shit didn’t last very long.”

In the last months of 1998 and well into 1999, the band worked the bar and club circuit in Colorado. By the late summer of that year, the hungry (at times literally) musicians were piling into an RV and hauling ass for hundreds of miles to shows that often didn’t even cover the gas money. “For Berkfest,” Austin recalls, “we drove across the country and back for a t-shirt.” But, fueling their gamble was a support network of friends and fellow musicians in Colorado. An invaluable source of guidance and encouragement during the early years was Vince Herman.

“When we first got together I was booking the band, and I went over to Vince’s house and he was like, ‘Sit down! Alright, Portland, Oregon. You got to call Steve. Here’s his number, drop my name. Chico, California, call this guy.’ And we just went down this list,” says Austin. “It was at those brainstorming sessions when he said, ‘Just do it!’ We already had that kind of fire going on inside of us that we were willing to drop everything and put a ten year hold on life to make this happen.”

“Vince made some important calls, High Sierra for one. He helped us get our foot in the door,” Kaufmann adds. “He must have seen something, and you can see it differently if you stand outside looking in, I know you can, because I remember people like my dad going, ‘You guys, you know, this is something.’ You’re only a year into it and you’re like, ‘Really?’ You sort of feel like it’s something but you don’t have the same critical distance. If you can survive it and keep doing it, you may be surprised at how far you can get.”

“For instance, Mark Vann [Leftover Salmon] brought over an ostrich egg,” Johnston quips. “That was pretty cool.”

Besides rare food stuffs being procured for the band by his late great bandmate, Herman also advised them to employ what Johnston called “guerilla warfare” – setting up wherever crowds were sure to walk by at a festival and playing until the ship went down. “This year we are playing Telluride Bluegrass Festival and it’s our ninth year playing the actual festival, but we were there ten years ago,” says Austin. “We had a friend that had a house near Elk’s Park, which is this stage that happens in the middle of town. We would sit on the porch and play, and before you knew it there would be 50 to 100 people standing around watching us.”

By fall of 1999, Yonder had recorded its Sally Van Meter produced debut, Elevation, and toured extensively throughout the autumn and winter of that year, ringing in the new millennium at Wolf Tongue Brewery in Nederland. The well-documented years since, marked by heavy touring, musical progressions and the growth of events like the Northwest String Summit and New Year’s runs at the Denver Fillmore, have certainly seen more sun than rain, but the climb hasn’t always been steady. Much of the writing that happens around Yonder, as with any band, tends to oversimplify the picture, making it seem as if overnight they blew up into “The World’s Most Successful Bluegrass/Newgrass/Insert-Descriptor-Here Band,” casting an often uncertain ebb and flow into a straight, simple success story.

“It really is a rollercoaster ride,” Kaufmann says. “Some days you are like, ‘YEEES!'” as he jumps off his chair into a triumphant stance. “And some days you are like, ‘ARGH'” He sits back down, Austin adding “a son of a bitch” to emphasize the point.

“We still had 550 people in Little Rock last night,” Austin says. “I wouldn’t call that a gigantic-monumental-enormo growth. There were some jumps though. Like the first time we played in Chicago we played to our collective families. That was it. The Abbey Pub, we would kind of fill it one time and then the next time we played it was packed – unsafe fire regulations packed. There were certain cities where you could see that jump.”

Johnston adds, “Over the last ten years you just have these little surges and you don’t know why they happen.”

“Those little surges are the ones that keep you going,” Austin continues. “You go to Idaho and play for 50 people after playing for 500 in Montana and you look around and go, ‘Okay, Montana got better, Idaho will get better.'”

YMSB :: 12.31.07 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: Denver, CO
By Tobin Voggesser
“Ten years ago we made the leap of faith,” Kaufmann says, treading with cautious optimism. “Overall, if you average it out, it’s certainly working. Every year we are playing to more people, playing nicer venues.”

With a dedicated fan base, Yonder is definitely working for a whole load of kinfolk. “Cheesy or not we’re like The Grateful Dead,” Austin exclaims with pride. “I remember being in sixth grade, standing in a parking lot watching one guy give another guy his socks because that guy didn’t have socks. Look at this whole giving culture that has sprung up around this band. It starts with the band and the music and turns into this whole other thing that hopefully moves people’s lives in a positive way. So hell yeah, I was like, ‘Can you imagine being in a band where you have people following you? People making lot shirts?’ It can help or hinder depending on how much you pay attention to what people have to say. But, I’m grateful to the scene we’ve got. These people are dedicated. I figure if someone’s willing to go out of their way to write a little bitchy diatribe online they must give enough of a shit about the band to want to put that up. And I guarantee they will be at ten, twelve shows. It’s fueling for us in a musical sense because it encourages that ‘no repetition’ kind of thing, the attempt to always keep it moving into something new.”

“I’m amazed we have the scene we do. A bluegrass band’s never done that. The Grateful Dead did it, Phish did it. You don’t really know where the bar is,” says a wide-eyed Kaufmann. “You think about the classic bluegrass band, a band with this lineup, what’s the most you can achieve? You sort of think Flatt and Scruggs, New Grass Revival, Hot Rize. You know, we may be playing bluegrass instruments but we aren’t playing for bluegrass fans.”

Continue reading for more on YMSB…

We started out to be a bluegrass band. We wanted to play fast bluegrass with high singing. The day that we stopped that and became Yonder Mountain, just became ourselves, it was a real freeing thing.

Jeff Austin

The inevitable “Well is you a bluegrass band or ain’t cha?” question is well worn territory for YMSB, to the point of being irrelevant. That being said, what always strikes me about this band is their ability to stay true to their bluegrass roots in a way that is more authentic in spirit than many bands that rigidly stick to traditional instrumentation and song structures, and is certainly more comprehensive than bands that simply dip their toes in the moonshine tub with the odd “Hold What You Got” cover. There was a conscious artistic process born from those moments where the group began to see a sound evolving beyond the tried and true blueprint.

Dave Johnston
“We started out to be a bluegrass band. We wanted to play fast bluegrass with high singing. The day that we stopped that and became Yonder Mountain, just became ourselves, it was a real freeing thing,” says Austin. “You give yourself a lot of power, instead of ‘Oh, you sound like this guy or you sound like that guy.’ That slipped away. Well, we stopped and were like, ‘When we play we sound like us.’ That’s a rare identity that not a lot of bands give themselves.”

Kaufmann is candid regarding the hesitation he felt when he realized the strange waters the current was taking them down: “There was a period of time where I felt an anxiety about that transition, like the conscious decision to say, ‘We are not a traditional bluegrass band, and I’m less and less feeling like we are even a bluegrass band [at all], and is that okay?’ Especially because the bluegrass world is very accessible. I could walk up to Sam Bush or Bela Fleck, these monsters of the genre, or even Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury. These guys are accessible. They are genuine, humble down-home people, and I had a feeling like, ‘Whoa, what are they going to think about what we are doing?’ I remember just having this moment and going, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter. As much as I love these other guys and what they do, and as big an influence as they have been on me, it doesn’t matter if they don’t like what we do.’ And I remember just letting all of that go. That is the freedom.”

“When we came to that realization, that this looks like it’s something that’s not ever happened before, then in my head I got to a beautiful spot because that means we can make it whatever we want it to be,” says Austin. “When we hit that spot we were like, ‘Oh my god. We can play a three-minute melodic song or we can go on a 20 minute experimental idea or chord expression.’ That was an AHA! moment. Now we have license to open it up.”

As much as their music deliberately strays from the traditional path, and Austin has said, “One of the best comments we get is, ‘I hate bluegrass but I love you guys,'” they owe a debt of gratitude to those that walked that rocky road before them. And anyone that’s been to a Yonder show certainly knows that a sincere effort is made by the band to give credit where credit is due, introducing each cover or traditional by name-dropping the songwriter, as in “Our buddy Benny Galloway wrote this tune,” or “This is a John Hartford number.” The puritans may conveniently ignore this, but attending one of their shows is a crash course in bluegrass history.

Jeff Austin :: night of interview at Stubb’s by D. Jackson
“We make a conscious effort on a nightly basis to spread the word of these people we have learned from,” Austin says. “If you are ungrateful, you’re short changing a lot of people. We’re not trying to destroy the music or demolish it. We’re trying to pass on the influences that gave us the ideas that have led to what we do.”

There’s a hope that audience members will research back into these artists, trace the branches to the roots. Personally, I know I can blame my tendency to head straight for the bluegrass vinyl section at whatever record store I may be in, and explain to the bored record store clerk why it shouldn’t be filed under country, god damn it, squarely on this band.

When the conversation turns to bluegrass music today, Kaufmann’s take on the scene is wrought with visible agony. “There’s so much worth knowing about in bluegrass. There’s so much adventurous music people have made. It’s such revolutionary music. It was the most popular music in the country until Elvis came along. It truly was, and you’ll just have to take my word for it. I’m a genuine fan of bluegrass music and I want to see this music live for a long time, but what’s happening today is a slippery slope.”

“It’s a crying shame,” Austin adds, shaking his head.

Kaufmann continues, “They aren’t doing it right. They’ve slicked it up and put it in perfect tuning and have structured it and boxed it. It’s got no soul, it’s got no balls and bluegrass was all about balls.”

“And not the slick, Nashville balls they’re trying to show you,” Austin interjects.

Ben Kaufmann
Kaufmann goes on, making a throttling motion with his hands, “Because it’s strangling something that should be alive – just giving it enough breath to finish your lick and then choking it again. Fortunately, I don’t spend a lot of time listening to what the satellite radio say is bluegrass,” suddenly dropping the subject because he’s “been known to rant about it.”

Austin picks it up: “Then we have to play festivals with these bands and friends of ours will be like, ‘Did you see that band? They were so great.’ And we’ll be like, ‘‘NOOOOO!‘” He groans, clutching his Cubs hat to his head. “Get in the car, smoke the joint and listen to the Country Gentlemen. Shut up and listen to that! Did you hear that thud at the beginning of the record?” He slams his hand down on the plastic tub we’ve rigged to prop up my tape recorder. “That’s their balls being put on the table! Did you hear the whispery butterfly noise that was brought to the table by that band? They are sucking the life out of this thing. When I first met Dave, we would sit together in this house that was falling apart, blasting The Kentucky Colonels and it was like we were at the show. We would be like, ‘Oh my god, go back! ‘Play that lick again!’ Not just, ‘Oh wow. Great crescendo.’ Don’t talk about your crescendo, show me something real. Show me a little bit of yourself.”

Although Yonder don’t need to justify anything to the smooth operators in Nashville, a new challenge was presented to them while promoting their 2006 self-titled album produced by Tom Rothrock (Elliott Smith, Beck), with whom they will retreat back into the studio later this year. As Kaufmann explains, “We spent the last two years promoting this studio album, which in my opinion was the best studio record we’ve made. Now it’s not bluegrass fans you have to convince, it’s radio program directors, and these people have already made up their mind. It could be anything string band and they’re like, ‘No, we don’t program that kind of music.'”

Continue reading for more on YMSB…

We’re not trying to destroy the music or demolish it. We’re trying to pass on the influences that gave us the ideas that have led to what we do.

Jeff Austin

Image of YMSB at Red Rocks by Tobin Voggesser

Austin’s tone sharpens as he says, “We had stations who’d been around for 30 years and had never played a track with a banjo. ‘We don’t play that.’ Why? ‘We’re not a country station.’ Fucking ignorant bastard, go back to your Motorhead cover band concert. You don’t have to be a goddamn country station, [just] put the song on. All of sudden they’re playing one song and then another song, and now they’re waiting for the next record to come out.”

Jeff Austin
“That’s the new challenge,” Kaufmann adds. “The touring thing, it does what it wants now. We know about that but we don’t know about these other avenues that are available to musicians to get the word out. We like the songs that we write. We think we are good songwriters [and] we would like to think it would be a positive addition to someone’s playlist to add the music we write to it. People could like it, even if they don’t own anything with a banjo or mandolin on it. Why not?”

After spending ten years behind the wheel of the machine, the inevitable question is where does that highway lead from here?

“I’d like to believe we can keep doing what we’re doing, have it keep growing, get into the venues we would like to play, beautiful venues that hold the energy of what we are trying to do, are comfortable for the audience, that sound good to us,” Kaufmann says. “I’d like to continue to see audiences grow and see if more and more people can like it. I guess I learned to stop trying to predict it because I’ve been proven wrong in every case. It’s as unpredictable as it gets for me. I’m amazed that we are where we are. I always thought we could do it but it’s just that blind faith that I seem to have possession of in spades. Good lord, I don’t think anyone can predict where it’s going to go. A couple Grammys, maybe a Volkswagen commercial. ’40 Miles from Sizzler’ was always one of our ideas.”

Austin throws out “Hamsteak Rising.”

“Something I would love to do that we’ve never done is to be asked to do a movie soundtrack,” Kaufmann mentions. “I really like film and scoring music for film. I can see the next two years of our lives are going to be wicked busy, but I would love to find the time to do that. It focuses you in. You’re scripting something down to the second with the visual image. I would like the chance to do that.”

Aijala & Fishman by Tobin Voggesser
“I like the Grammy awards idea,” Austin says, a mischievous grin spreading across his face. “That would be neat. I would wear it on a chain at all times. That would be the ultimate coup.”

As he looks back at some of the high points of the past year, such as playing Red Rocks with Phish’s Jon Fishman behind the kit, his excitement segues into self-reflection. “You know, I have gotten away with semi-medium level mandolin playing. I have suckered so many people for so long. Someone was saying the other day, people are talking about your technique or whatever, and it doesn’t bother me anymore. Fuck it. I don’t want to sound like anyone else.”

It takes balls to be yourself in the face of criticism but to achieve a level of sustainable success with it is something only a lucky few experience. “Whatever success is, real success is only achievable through an authentic attempt to discover who you are,” Kaufmann sums it up thoughtfully. “Trying to discover who you are as a person is hard enough, but then add three other guys and five, six, seven guys in the crew and you are all living together and trying to discover who you collectively are, that’s even harder. But, unless you do that, any success you might have from gig to gig or money you might make is really marginal. That’s not why we’re alive in the first place.”

“You get over a lot of bullshit in ten years and we had to climb the heap presented to us in the barnyard,” Austin says. After a decade of wiping their boots, they are a band comfortable with charting their own course, be it musical or personal. “There’s no greater satisfaction in life than making something that is truly your own,” observes Austin. “I think I could fucking die tomorrow and be a genuinely satisfied guy that I hopefully had a role in something that was at least genuine, that didn’t come out of contrived places.”

Yonder Mountain String Band
A few hours later I am standing outside Stubbs. The first time Yonder Mountain String Band played this city it was inside the restaurant for a celebration of the local varsity cheerleaders – four half-jokingly self-described “RV-ridden lecherous men” tumbling on stage to play for Texas’s best jailbait. “Their fathers were not happy to see us,” Johnston notes with a chortle. Austin laughs, “We were much younger men at the time.”

The scene is slightly different on this warm April night. Stubb’s is packed, the crowd stretching back past the bars and merch stand, kicking dust clouds towards the city’s buildings and the rumble of traffic on I-35 as the band draws them in with their unique inertia. But, time doesn’t change everything.

“When I first met Dave there was a look in the eyes of hunger and of ‘Come on, bring it on. Let’s try.’ Then when we met Adam and Ben, we were four guys who all had the same look in our eyes, and we still have that now,” says Austin. “There’s more gray in the hair surrounding the eyes and more lines on the eyes themselves, but it’s the same look.”

After this memorable conversation, a wide-eyed kid and I make small talk in the port-a-potty line. He turns to me with a toothy grin and says, “Yonder are like the international language of fun.” Yes, fun but it’s something more than that. Fun can only run so deep. This music is alive. There’s something in its heart that speaks to a profound ache for home and the search for elusive back porches or mountain cabins of the mind. We all cannonball into that leap of faith. If Bill Hicks is indeed correct and “it’s all a ride,” then this is the joyous, cathartic soundtrack as we barrel down the highway, slapping the steering wheel in time, speeding past our share of jealous sheriffs towards the open range.

JamBase | Colorado
Go See Live Music!

JamBase Collections