Pickin’ over yonder

Yonder Mountain String Band on bad music, the creative process and Christmas albums

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

Yonder Mountain String Band is one of the Boulder area’s most recent, and resounding, success stories. During the band’s 13-or-so-year history, YMSB — guitarist Adam Aijala, bassist Ben Kauffman, mando player Jeff Austin and banjo player Dave Johnston, who all came together in Nederland — has gone from opening for touring acts at the Fox Theatre to headlining massive festivals and selling out Red Rocks Amphitheatre. A bluegrass-based, rock- and pop-influenced string band, all four members sing and write songs, and the result is a busy, energetic form of bluegrass that is as technically impressive as it is a blast to dance to. Boulder Weekly caught up with Aijala and Johnston before they left for a short tour that stops at Red Rocks and ends at the band’s three-day Harvest Music Festival in Ozark, Ark.

Boulder Weekly: So you guys are working on a new album?

Adam Aijala: Well, sort of. Pre-production stuff. We’ve laid down some tracks, we’ve also done demo versions of songs that we might want to do. I don’t foresee something coming out by the end of this year. We’re gonna have a lot to pick from, which is a nice feeling.

BW: Are you working with the same producer?

Dave Johnston: We don’t have a producer lined up yet. It’s highly unlikely that we would work with Tom [Rothrock] again, but you know, it might be fun to crash his house.

BW: Do you have any plans to use drums this time around?

AA: Ideally, every song that we’ve written that has a drummer, we’ve been able to play it without one. So, it wouldn’t be in our best interest to write a song that requires a drummer, the main reason being that we don’t have a drummer. By us saying that we don’t have plans for one doesn’t mean that there won’t be one, but it also doesn’t mean that there definitely will be one either.

BW: Do you do anything different to prepare for a Red Rocks show?

AA: Pilates. No, just kidding.

DJ: I feel like I have a lot of pregames. I like to have some coffee …

AA: … Lots of coffee.

DJ: I mean, if I have the time and the space, I like to play really slow and play really boring, fundamental things. I like to just take a long time warming up. Then usually me and Adam will get together and play some fiddle tunes or something like that. I feel like that’s a typical pre-game for me.

AA: It’s kind of boring, man. I wish I could tell you that we were injecting heroin into our eyes, but nope. That’s not what’s happening (laughs). No one wants to hear that, though. “I went skydiving! I went skydiving before the gig!”

DJ: I like to light myself on fire with a coat hanger (laughs).

BW: You guys are known for not having a traditional bluegrass sound, drawing from rock and pop despite being a traditional, four-piece string band. Where do you think your musical direction is heading?

DJ: It’s really pretty hard to tell what we’ll do, even if there will be any massive changes. The traditional aspect of bluegrass will always have a big influence on what we do.

AA: I can speak for myself. I’ve never consciously written something for any express purpose. For me, it’s just a novelty idea or a lyric and you just go from there. We’re always going to have new, high-energy bluegrassy-type songs, because we know those work, and we know we have fun playing them and that the crowd responds in a positive way to those kind of songs.

BW: Could you describe your songwriting process?

DJ: The minute that you start subscribing to a formula or theory about how to write your songs, you’re really hurting yourself. I feel like I will write a lyric, and I’m like, oh, I really enjoy that lyric. Then a couple months later I’ll probably be like, you know, “I really don’t think I know what the hell I was talking about right there.”

AA: I like to run ideas, at the very least, by Dave. Dave always has a good idea. If I go to him with one line, he’ll have a counter-line within, like, a minute, and that’s the start of the song. [Lyrically] we have this returning theme of a drifting man [that] every song is about. (Johnston laughs) I mean, we gotta kill him off at some point. He keeps showing up.

DJ: Funny you say that, Adam. I have a death metal song I need to show you.

AA: Lately, I don’t really write story songs, generally. I like to use There Will Be Blood as an example. You all of a sudden just come into this story or situation, there’s no real entrance or exit. Those are my favorite kind of songs, where it’s just kind of out there, as opposed to, like, ‘Hey, I got up today, and you know, the sun came up and the sun went down,” and that’s how the song starts.

DJ: To follow up on what Adam’s saying, if I can be so vulgar, I agree with him. I fucking hate anecdotal songs. God, they suck. It’s the fucking worst! You know, this happened and this happened and then this happened, so this. It drives me crazy.

I like the ones that make just enough sense for you to grab on, and you’re like, what the hell’s going on here?

AA: At the same time, I still like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles, so, there you go (laughs). I like all kinds of music. I still like really cheesy stuff, too. I’m just saying for myself and what I’m specifically writing, that’s kind of where I’m at right now. But who knows. I might wake up tomorrow and write a song about the eggs I made. I doubt it, though.

DJ: Well, I got a song about eggs and it goes like this. I woke up and went to the refrigerator. And then I cracked open an egg into a bowl. And then I added some milk.

AA: (singing) And then I put on the hot water and I watched the sun set.

DJ: And so the day began. I don’t know anyone who really writes too many anecdotal songs, but when I hear them, I’m like, “Oh god, turn that off.”

BW: Which is more important, the lyrics or the vocal melody?

DJ: Everyone feels differently about it. Some people think a melody is more memorable than a lyric, and some people think lyrics are more important than tuning. I think what you’re saying and how you’re saying it and how you’re expressing yourself has, for me, a lot of individuality; it has a lot of power that’s truly felt. [Sometimes I’ll hear a song and] the way he said that was so balanced sonically, rhythmically, and was so perfectly in line with the rest of that thought, that it just thrills the crap out of me. And it goes so well with this very strange and underlying melodic thing that’s happening. That shit is so rare, but when it happens, it’s just wonderful.

AA: When I was small, and I was first getting into music, it was always about the melodies; that’s why I liked the songs. As I got older though, it’s become equally important. … There’s still probably a handful of songs that I have no idea what they’re singing about, but I still really like it. I don’t mind that I don’t know what it means. “I am the Eggman,” you know, fuck yeah. I love that song, I don’t know what the hell it means. “Googoo-ga choo,” you know. No one ever says that about a pop-country singer, like, will someone stop fucking writing about his cowboy boots and the American flag? You know, you ever read an article that says that? You don’t.

BW: Anything else you’d like to add?

AA: No more Christmas songs.

BW: When’s your Christmas album coming out?

AA: Never.

DJ: Totally the end of the career.

That’s when we’ll know.

AA: Christmas album, that’s so un-P.C., man. What about the Jews?

DJ: Actually, I got a Ramadan album coming out today.

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[ On the Bill: Yonder Mountain String Band plays Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Saturday, Aug. 20. Doors at 5 p.m. Railroad Earth and The Infamous Stringdusters open. Tickets start at $48.45. 18300 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison, 720-865-2494.  ]