Yonder Mountain String Band: "The Audience Is the Fifth Member of the Band"

Call it the mountain muse, the happiness of the heights, or maybe it's simply the mix of altitude with attitude. Whatever the case, Yonder Mountain Band consistently captures that spirit, a connection that has more to do than with their name alone.

Notoriously independent, they blend the frenzy of bluegrass with jam band instincts and acquired populist sentiments, a combination that's helped them become both festival favorites and indie entrepreneurs. For more than a decade, this Colorado-based quartet -- mandolin player Jeff Austin, guitarist Adam Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufman, and banjo player Dave Johnston -- has been entertaining audiences with their savvy and synchronicity, earning them legions of devotees both in their home state and throughout the nation. After initially developing their frenetic stage shows in clubs and other intimate environs, they quickly graduated to bigger venues, with a featured performance at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver helping to elevate their profile and affirm their intents.

A few months back, we had the chance to speak with the foursome backstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, an annual gig of which they're justifiably proud, and we took the opportunity to ask them about their affinity for the festival and the audience interaction that helps spur them on.

New Times: 
Your recorded output seems fairly evenly divided between your live recordings and your studio efforts. In fact, your live albums seem more predominant than your studio endeavors. There's a reason for that obviously...

Ben: You're right. We're not on Columbia. We don't have anyone looking over our shoulder...

I suspect that it's an attempt to capture the energy and essence of your live performances, which is, after all, what you're all about. So the question is, do you find it difficult to make the transition from the concert stage to the recording studio without sacrificing that spontaneity in the process?

Jeff: It is a challenge. But the most recent experience we had, where we recorded four songs for our new EP, EP-13, was so easy and fun. And wouldn't you know it, the minute we stopped obsessing over it so much was the minute we get the recordings where I said, yup, it sounds like us. We finally did it. This is absolutely what we sound like. I'm so happy.

But it can be a challenge, no?

Adam: One of the things we found out is that you can record as long as you want and go over it and over it, and get it to where you want it to go, but when you don't have a stage and you don't have a crowd, you know it's going to be different. Still, we generally record all our tracks live. We may overdub our solos and vocals, but we record those live too. At least that's the way we've done it in the past. So we do try to capture that live energy so it approximates what we do onstage. And we can't ask for more than that. We can't raise our expectations higher than our ability to make it happen. We can't expect it to sound live when it's not. But when we record it live, it's still approximating the same sound.

How do your songs evolve? Does someone come in with the basics of a song and then the rest of you improvise or add your individual contributions to refine it into a finished product? Does it then further evolve through the live performance?

Dave: Everyone writes and each of us develops certain sounds and ideas on our own, so it's not like we say, here's a song, and here's the solo part, and all that. But oftentimes it will be something like one of us will present a song and someone will say, "What if we do this instead?" And then someone else will say, "Oh, that sounds great." So it's pretty cool thing in that regard. And then sometimes we write together. Or sometimes it takes a Phil Lesh to say, "Oh you guys totally jammed that outro! It's such a great part, why would you cut it short?" And sometimes we'll take an old tune, and somebody will say, "Why don't we do this with it?"

Ben: We can take an old song that we've been doing for 15 years and make it a jam vehicle or an improvisational vehicle. We'll try to have some space in there so that maybe the guys -- or myself if I'm lucky -- can always come up with something new. Plus, there's always this sort of new generation of material that always keeps you thinking. Dave's got a new one that almost sounds like Motown, which means I get to come up with the best James Jamerson-sounding bass line that I can possibly do. I've never had that opportunity!

Jeff: It's also the undeniable, energetic impact of a live crowd. I may write a song where I'll imagine these reaction points, like "Here is where the crowd will react," and then you bring it to the stage, and the crowd reacts in a totally different place. Therefore, what it does is become an instinct composition. All of a sudden, you're instantly composing it anew.

The reaction happens in a totally different spot and it sends you in this totally different direction where instantaneously you're recomposing your own thought process of what you thought you had. Which just shows you that you can really screw it up because in truth, you can go with your best intentions and the audience will give you something totally different. Which is great, because then it becomes that communal thing where they're helping you write that stuff. It's like, if they're reacting to this thing, why don't we hold it for another eight bars or another eight count, or maybe stop it here.

There are times when we'll do something almost unintentional, and the crowd reacts in a very positive way and you go, "Oh!" What do we know?

Adam: It's a case where the audience is the fifth member of the band. Their contribution is essential to what we do. You feel it. The importance of the audience in terms of their energy is hard to talk about in words, but it's essential. And when you feel it, it makes you go bigger and bigger and bigger, and you want to be better and better and better.

I think the audience senses that...

Jeff: I gotta believe the audiences we play to are so savvy, they would smell bullshit a mile away.

Dave: We always do different shows anyway, so we can't have a polished set. That's not the way we work. On any given night, we might do a song we've been playing for ten years, and it might be ten more beats, or a faster pace or a slower pace, or a different jam section. Even our onstage patter is different. We never say the same thing between songs from one night to another.

Jeff: That wall between the band and the crowd goes down. We may have a set list, but their input to us is so important. We're not depending on it, but it's really great when it happens. This festival is a prime example. Songs have changed here that have stayed that way. You pick up on that vibe that's been given to you and often times it's wholly unexpected.

That must be very gratifying.

Adam: I remember once when we were playing this song, and all of a sudden the crowd went "Yaaaaayyyyy." They all went nuts and we thought, hey, we're really nailing it! And all of a sudden, the security guys are dying laughing. Because there's some dude that's climbed a tree behind the stage and he's tripping his balls off, and that's what they're reacting to! So we hired that guy, and he's been with us ever since!

Yonder Mountain String Band perform with the Del McCoury Band at 7 p.m., on Saturday February 1, at Revolution Live,100 SW 3rd Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $28.99. Visit jointherevolution.net.

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