A certain kind of kin

Yonder Mountain String Band’s festival appeals to the loyalists

Jay Blakesberg

Fourteen years ago, Yonder Mountain String Band formed over a Guinness in a bar in Nederland, according to a tale spun by guitarist Adam Aijala. The members were young, recently relocated to Colorado and looking for musical companions.

Now, almost a decade-and-a-half later, after the band established itself as behemoths in the progressive bluegrass world, the band is likely more apt to spend time in a tour bus together than in a pub, and when the band isn’t on the road, they aren’t as geographically close as they used to be, as bassist Ben Kaufman moved to Northern California last year.

So compared to the old days, things are very different for the guys in Yonder Mountain String Band, which includes banjo player Dave Johnston and mandolinist Jeff Austin in addition to Kaufman and Aijala, than when the band first started playing gigs in Nederland coffee shops and bars. The band now headlines festivals and sells out concerts nationwide. The world has been very good to Yonder Mountain, the drummer-less four-piece string band that could, and the band will bring its Kinfolk Celebration festival back to the state where it all started Aug. 24-25.

Along with the Harvest Music Festival, The Kinfolk Celebration is one of two festivals Yonder Mountain throws annually. It’s basically a big thank-you to the band’s loyal fans, Kaufman and Johnston say, and the band likes to throw the festival in a different location every year. So when Craig Ferguson, the founder and director of Lyons’ Planet Bluegrass, offered the outdoor venue to the band, the group jumped on the opportunity. Johnston and Kaufman got on the phone with Boulder Weekly recently to talk about the festival, the possibility that Yonder would never release another album, and that awful slide guitar solo during the outro of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.”

At what point in your career would you say that you realized you had the sort of dedicated following that could justify throwing your own festival?

Dave Johnston: I’d be hard-pressed to put a date on it or anything like that, but I can only answer for myself. I recognized that we had that sort of following when people who are special to me and people whose opinion matters to me a lot — maybe I had just come back from a gig and was feeling downtrodden or something, or frustrated, kind of going through the things a musician was going through like anyone else will, sometimes you don’t see what you’re doing quite the way that it’s going down. Anyways, over the course of a year people will just say, “Holy cow, I can’t believe how cool the scene is and how good the vibe is or how good the band sounds or how cool that song is.”

When you hear that, it’s a very powerful thing. … It helps me realize that in a present-day situation, and it helped me get through that sort of thing in the past as well.

How did you guys decide which other bands would play?

DJ: We have a Rolodex filled with our friends, and we spun the Rolodex and we were like, “Yeah, we haven’t heard from him in awhile, let’s give him a call.”

Ben Kaufman: To me, I identified a common spirit.

When we’re getting together to make a bill like Kinfolk, the thing that for me has to ring home the most is do these guys really, do I feel what it is that they’re doing, do I feel what they’re going for, and is it inspiring?

And if the answer is yes, then you can come play at the show.

And there are a bunch of bands that are like that, but there are a bunch of bands that are not, and we wouldn’t necessarily invite them to the party, because it won’t be the best party.

DJ: Absolutely. I think that if you want to be our friend, you have to have that energy. Otherwise we’ll just repel you. It’ll be like two magnets, you know? Each side is useful, but you won’t be able to make them [stick].

BK: The thing about Yonder is and always has been that experience of coming to the show. It’s so much more than the notes being played. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s very true in the sense of Yonder. … Everybody working together creates something that you couldn’t possibly create on your own.

Other times you go to see a band and you’re like, “That’s a good guitar player.” I really think Yngwie Malmsteen is a super-shredder from Sweden, and I’m watching fireworks and pyrotechnics and that’s awesome, but it speaks to my brain but not necessarily to my heart or my gut.

I recently read a list of the so-called “best guitar solos” of all time, and one thing they all had in common was that none of them was by any of those super-technical guitar players.

BK: Yeah, totally. You know what I heard the other day? This is off-topic, but I want to get your guys’ opinion. I listened to “Layla,” and the end of it has that weird piano part, that outro epic thing, but there’s a slide guitar. It sounds like they’re playing the slide way, way up by the neck by the pickups, and it is so out of tune and horrible it sounds like a cat’s throwing up. I couldn’t listen to it. But I went, “Wait a second, but this is one of the classic songs of all time. But the outro is so out of tune, and I’m talking like slide guitar out of tune and horrible.” I’m like, “This is one of the worst things ever. How did it release, because it’s sickening!” I forced myself to listen to it, but I couldn’t believe it!

If you isolate that slide guitar thing, it really sucks. But when I don’t focus on that and let it go, it’s “Layla.” But I was taken aback that I had never noticed it before, how out of tune and awful it is. I didn’t turn it off, but that inside voice was screaming. So if you guys get a chance to listen to that again, I just wanted confirmation that I’m hearing that thing. Is it in tune and my ears are out of tune?

Right, it almost sounds like a Theremin.

BK: Yeah maybe it is. But no, it can’t be a Theremin, could it?

BK DJ: Is that Duane Allman?

Yeah … I think that’s Duane Allman.

BK: Well if you run into Duane, don’t tell him I said so.

DJ: That would be running into the dead. I won’t tell him what you said.

BK: Yeah, if you get a chance to see him, hopefully you think of something better to talk about.

Around this time last year, Dave, I talked to you and Adam, and you guys were recording a new album. So what’s the status of that?

DJ: Well, still recording. Let’s see, a year ago. Well, we haven’t, we’ve gone in with some songs, we’ve recorded some songs, but we were like, eh, we weren’t really feeling the whole album vibe like we thought we could. We ended up just having some recorded songs instead, which is alright, too. Any more traditional album formats are highly suspect for effective way to make money.

BK: I think that if we can change our approach too, we’ll be releasing content more than every four years. Which you have to, you have to in this day and age. People want to know what you were doing three minutes ago, and they want to know what you’re going to be doing and sounding being the most cost like in a month. And you gotta just go in and make stuff, release stuff and put it out there. You’re going to sell more tracks at 99 cents if you released 12 a year but spaced out over every month or whatever. You probably do better business than making a record. Everything’s changing, I swear it.

Are you saying we might be looking at the end of an era of Yonder Mountain albums?

BK: No, no, because it’s always nice to put them together. It’s nostalgia, isn’t it? It will never die. We know someone that just started out a cassette tape label, which is awesome, but it is very niche, at the very least. Eventually CD players will disappear, so then what is an album? It’s just a bunch of ones and zeroes. It’s an image, a .jpg or a .pdf of an album cover for art. “Album cover.” These words don’t even make sense anymore.

With you, Ben, now living out of state, how often do you guys get together when you’re not in that mode of being on tour? How often do you guys just get together to just play songs and figure out new stuff?

BK: The four of us, we don’t. Individually, Dave and Adam get together. … We do all of our playing on the road together, whether that’s in hours before the show when you have an open sound check, but backstage Adam and Dave are always playing together. … They are really always picking.

So has the way you guys practiced and rehearsed changed since you guys first started out?

DJ: I think so.

BK: Sort of a facet of tons of gigs, no free time, and no gigs, tons of free time. Certainly living next door to each other helped.

DJ: Me and Adam do play a lot of things backstage. … It seems like the vibe is one that is, ‘Well, if you want to participate, please do so, but don’t think you have to.’ And if we all hit upon something that we all can’t stand to not share, then holy cow. You better come check it out.

BK: It’s often in the jamming or playing music together freely, not on stage, that some of the best ideas for jams or improvisational sections come from that place. For me anyway.

In that sense, by spending all your time touring, are you possibly missing out on some of that creative time?

DJ: Me and Ben have talked about this. We just kind of started the conversation a couple months ago. I was reading a book by a guy named Jonah Lehrer, and Ben was referencing a speech on creativity by John Cleese. And it’s really weird because I really believe that if you’re telling yourself, “I don’t have the time to be creative,” you’re kind of saying, “I don’t want to be creative.” Because if you just make the time, you can do it.

On the road, it’s really easy to get complacent and get into [a habit] where you’re just going to the show and going to the lounge and so forth, or you’re going to your hotel room, and those places it’s incredibly easy to be bored, but it’s a sort of boredom that you don’t want to bail out of. You’re OK with it. It’s the worst kind of boredom. You’re cool with it.

BK: It’s brain-dead, is how I always described it. Getting into brain-dead time.

DJ: It’s really crazy because if you can just kind of psych yourself into, “I’m going to spend 10 minutes and come up with the shittiest song lyric I can write. That’s my goal, to just hit a major clam.” You might be pretty satisfied with what you come up with.

BK: It’s really such a fascinating topic to me. Like Dave said, we only just broached the topic, coincidentally, I think, a couple months ago.

There’s some big huge answer within the topic for me. I can see it coming, sort of a realization. It’s lurking. I haven’t quite punched it in the stomach.

Correction: The original story incorrectly attributed the quote “Is that Duane Allman?” to Ben Kaufman. It should have been Dave Johnston.

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