A foremost proponent of the so-called "Nu-Grass" phenomenon -- a genre that merges the best of bluegrass with jam band sensibilities -- Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band has attracted a fervent following that spans both sides of the Great Divide. Extolling the populist philosophy first championed by bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic, they incorporate banjos, bouzouki, and mandolins into a traditional rock regimen in an effort to spur their fan's evergreen enthusiasm. Merely investigate their last album, Mountain Tracks, Vol. 5, the latest in a series of live recordings released on their own Frog Pad record label to understand what YMSB is.
Now in their fourteenth year as an active ensemble, they have become regulars at the nation's major bluegrass gatherings, particularly in their native Colorado, where they command headline status. Here in South Florida there's nary a mountain in sight -- excepting, of course, Mount Trashmore -- but regardless, the band's managed to make significant inroads in the Sunshine State, as well. On the eve of their upcoming sojourn to South Florida, we spoke to guitarist Adam Aijala and bassist Ben Kaufmann about their role in today's so-called Nu-grass phenomenon.
New Times: You've been at this for more than a dozen years... Can you describe your trajectory up until now? Specifically, what changes have there been with the band's music and how has your following grown?
Ben Kaufman: It feels like periods of upward growth and plateaus. Really, a very natural thing. And that gives us a chance to introduce new ideas, styles, and what have you, giving them a chance to develop in front of an audience. As a whole, Yonder started as a bluegrass-Nu-grass only thing, and has grown to be a vehicle for expressing our wider musical interests.
Adam Aijala: We grew the fastest in our first three years and from then until now, it's continuing to grow, though at a slower rate. The music has changed and evolved because our perception of the band keeps changing. What we may have thought was impossible years ago is very doable now because we really don't have any constraints, short of the limits to our musical abilities. A lot of our fans are aging with us, although, I also still see a lot of young folks in the crowd. I'd say our average fan is a bit older now versus 10 years ago.
Ben: I'm continually impressed by our audience. We've been at this for 14 years, yet we're still growing, and more people are coming to the shows. And, I sense an increasing passion from the audience for what we're doing.
What do you think has contributed to your band's growing popularity? When did you know you could quit your day jobs and make music your livelihood?
Ben: Ah, the million dollar question. How did we accomplish this great musical coup? The most honest answer is that Yonder is simply greater than the sum of its parts. There's a way that the band, playing together, connects with the audience that exists in the "unexplainable."
There's an art to the live show, how you hope to build the energy from the beginning to the ending of the performance. And Yonder has been performing different set lists every night for 14 years. Appreciating that model, as we and our fans do, each night becomes a surprise, in a sense. I like surprises. But not in the sense of a snarling German Shepherd leaping at you from the backseat of a parked car at the supermarket. I don't like that business at all.
Approaching the question from a different angle, I do feel that our songwriting is strong. If I admit to being proud, it's in our songwriting.
Adam: I think the main reason people still come to see us is because they have a lot of fun. Since we do a different set list every night, folks don't know what we're going to play, and we keep our sets interesting by having good ebb and flow. I also believe we have four very competent songwriters in the band. By the time we left Colorado on our first official tour in March of 1999, we were all committed to Yonder full time. I could be wrong though.
Ben: As far as a job, I lived on a credit card for the early and lean years. I don't recommend that necessarily, but it worked out okay for me in the end. You're known mainly as a live band and a good percentage of your album releases have been live.
How does that affect what you do in the studio? Do you write and record with an awareness of how those songs will translate on stage? And do you think you achieve the same effect in the studio as you do on stage?
Adam: It's a fact that stage and studio are two very different animals. When we're in the studio, our goal on our last few recording sessions has been to try to capture some of the energy we cycle to and from the fans in the live setting. It's really hard and virtually impossible to replicate, but I do enjoy being in the studio. I think one of the reasons I like the studio is that you can do things that aren't possible onstage, like layering with different instruments, using new effects, doing multiple takes of a solo section, etcetera.
Speaking personally, I write what I'm feeling in that given moment, and whether it translates to Yonder and the stage is sometimes immediately obvious, while other times it's more apparent once it's being performed.
Ben: There's no way to compare the studio recordings to the live show. The energy behind what you're trying to accomplish is so different. Speaking personally about songwriting, I don't write specifically for stage or studio. Some songs will live and breathe more fully in the studio. Others come alive on stage.
Why do you think that bluegrass and the jam band mentality seem to meld so well?
Adam: Good question. I don't think it always did, but when both scenes are bringing a bit of Grateful Dead mentality into their music, there's bound to be crossover. By that, I mean more exploratory, less structured sections of songs.
Ben: What we're talking about here is improvisational music. In bluegrass you improvise over a few measures. The jam band improvises over longer stretches of time. So there's that common theme. A good jam band makes those longer stretches of time interesting and compelling. That said, I can take you to some bluegrass festivals where a jam band would go over only slightly better than a football in the groin.
Can you give us some hints about your forthcoming album?
Ben: Recording started in Chicago in October. So far, it's a song from each band member. There's a part of me that wants to release it as an EP.
Adam: It's looking like it will be an EP at this point. We've had a bit of time to evaluate and examine the current state of the record industry and our conclusion is that people just want content. I feel like for a band like us, it doesn't matter if we have an entire album, one song, some videos or whatever. Fans just want new stuff. This is coming from a guy in a band that hasn't had a record since Fall of 2009. Sorry, folks, but new stuff is on the way.
Your base is in Nederland Colorado. How do you think your sound will translate to South Florida? Given the geographical differences, do you need to alter your approach for an audience like you'll find down here?
Adam: In the past, we may have altered our sets slightly for more traditional bluegrass festivals, but not anymore. We sometimes tailor a set if we're playing a rocking festival at midnight -- meaning we're not going to break out many slow songs. I think we do fairly well in South Florida considering there's probably not a huge bluegrass contingency down there. Folks love us in St. Pete, so I see no reason why Fort Lauderdale can't share the same feelings.
Ben: I've never found a need to adjust how we perform based on the part of the world we're in. Of course, if you're playing the Opry you clean yourself up first.
onder Mountain String Band performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 18, at the Culture Room, 3045 North Federal Highway. Tickets cost $22.50. Call 954-564-1074, or visit cultureroom.net.
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