Adam Aijala says Yonder Mountain String Band has never been a group to plot out its career — or just about anything the group does. To hear him tell it, these guys couldn’t be calculated if they were math majors.
“That’s kind of the way we do it,” guitarist/singer Aijala says. “It seems like from the very beginning, even our shows are like that. We don’t play the same set every night. We’re always kind of winging it in general. I’d like, in the business sense, to maybe not wing it as much, but as far as the artistic side, I like that element of it.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that when Yonder Mountain String Band’s future was thrown into question in April of 2014 — after mandolin player Jeff Austin left the group — there was no clear plan for how to move forward.
Now, some 18 months later, Yonder Mountain has come out of that time of uncertainty smelling like a rose. Two new members have joined — mandolin player/singer Jacob Jolliff and violinist/ singer Allie Kral — and the group is moving full speed ahead, having released a new album, Black Sheep, in June.
“The way it all played out was not planned at all. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Aijala says, when asked about confronting the Austin-less future. “We had some people in mind other than the people we’re playing with. And the way it worked out, I think, I really hope they (Jolliff and Kral) stick around. I love playing with them.”
The remaining original band members, Aijala, banjo player/singer Dave Johnston and bassist/singer Ben Kaufmann, met Kral when she sat in with the band during a trio of shows on Austin’s last tour with Yonder Mountain.
Jolliff, meanwhile, was recommended for the mandolin slot by Yonder Mountain’s former manager, DJ McLauhglin.
The two new recruits stepped right into the lineup, allowing Yonder Mountain to resume its touring schedule without missing any gigs. Then the group turned its attention to the studio and making Black Sheep.
Fans will still recognize Black Sheep as the work of Yonder Mountain, even without Austin, who along with Johnston, Aijala and Kaufmann, formed the group in 1998 in Nederland. In fact, because Black Sheep is a largely acoustic album without drums, in some ways it is more similar to Yonder Mountain’s first couple of albums — which introduced the group’s tuneful and energetic blend of bluegrass-rooted music and rock improvisation — than the group’s 2006 self-titled album and 2009’s The Show.
The latter two albums were produced by Tom Rothrock (who is known for his work with rock acts such as Beck, the Foo Fighters and Elliott Smith) and added a notable instrument to Yonder Mountain’s music — drums.
“I think that this album (Black Sheep) is more akin to Elevation and Town By Town,” Aijala says, referring to the band’s first two albums. “But it’s also the band that’s been around for 17 years, too, so it’s evolved as well.
“And that’s not to diminish the records we did with Tom [Rothrock],” the guitarist continues. “I think those records were great, and they were really fun to do, and he really helped us get to a point where our only limitations in music are our musical abilities. It’s not the style or what we do with it, or what instruments we play or any of that.”
Aijala doesn’t hesitate to say Yonder Mountain is also a different band live without Austin, who was a charismatic performer and a focal point on stage. But he likes what Jolliff and Kral bring to the live show.
“I think it’s a huge difference,” Aijala says. “You know, it’s one of those things where it’s different, but it’s still good. It’s different, and for me, I’m loving it. I feel like the Yonder energy is still there, and this is not a dig on Jeff at all, but he tended to take us to a darker place sometimes. We don’t really do that as much [now].”
Aijala says bassist Kaufmann interacts more with the crowd now that Austin has left, and the newcomers also add certain stage presence.
“People just love her. There are women and men screaming, ‘Allie, Allie,’ like every show. It’s awesome,” Aijala says. “And Jake’s just a demon. People just look at him while he’s soloing, and [they’re] putting their arms up the air like, ‘What the hell? This dude’s out of control. He’s so good.’ So it’s a different dynamic completely. It feels more, I don’t know what the [word is] — there’s more camaraderie. Even though we were super tight with Jeff, maybe it’s because these dudes are stepping into something new, and so therefore they’re paying a lot of attention. But I feel, on and off stage, I feel really synced.”