Bluegrass is a music steeped in tradition, but over the past decade and a half — much of it spent on the road — Yonder Mountain String Band has spearheaded a renegade movement to rewrite the definition of the genre. Alongside other neo-bluegrass friends such as Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush,Bela Fleck, The Travelin’ McCourys, and Railroad Earth, YMSB has thoroughly revitalized and contemporized bluegrass and introduced it to many thousands of new fans. Rolling Stone said that YMSB “liberates bluegrass’ hot-shit riffing and blue-sky harmonies from its hidebound formalism,” while Paste Magazine wrote, “The Yonder Mountain boys have found a formula that works: take rootsy bluegrass influences, add in some rock ‘n’ roll, and seek out an adventurous audience.”
That adventurous audience will eagerly embrace YMSB EP ’13, which was just released on CD and vinyl Oct. 8, 2013 on the band’s own Frog Pad Records, and October 15 digitally. Self-produced by YMSB, the four-track EP features one song written and sung by each member: “Straight Line” by Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals), “Don’t Worry Happy Birthday” by Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals), “Rag Doll” by Jeff Austin (mandolin, vocals) and special guest songwriter Danny Barnes, and “All the Time” by Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals). The recording was cut at Electrical Audio in Chicago during a momentary break from the road, a method that seems to suit Yonder Mountain String Band’s hectic pace.
“The EP is something we recorded while on the road,” says Kaufmann. “We seek out studios to work in while touring, and while the juices are flowing and chops are at maximum potential, we take a couple of days to record. There are four singers and four songwriters in the band; what a perfect way for us to release studio material.”
Touring is in this band’s DNA, and YMSB has evolved into something of a phenomenon on the concert and festival circuit — they are, in fact, one of the top touring bluegrass bands in the country today. Yonder Mountain has sold out Colorado’s famed Red Rocks several times, and played sold-out shows with ex-Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh at his Terrapin Crossroads in August 2012. They also host three singular music festivals every year —Northwest String Summit (now in its 12th year and hosted by YMSB every year), Harvest Music Festival (where they will host for the fourth time in October 2013), and Strings & Sol (Yonder hosts for the second year-in-a-row in Mexico in December 2013) — and have consecutively sold out runs of shows at Telluride Bluegrass Festival year after year. In all, Yonder Mountain logs over 100 live dates per year, allowing them to polish their material — and after hunkering down in a recording studio for a couple of days at a time, to release studio tracks at their highest level of ability.
“YMSB EP ’13 is the first in a series of EPs we’ll release,” says Aijala. “We dropped one show per tour to head into the recording studio. Touring is such a big part of Yonder’s life that recording while out on the road is an excellent new paradigm for us.” Kaufmann adds, “The music world is so different these days, it’s all about bite-sized chunks, so we felt a series of EPs was the best way to capture magic in the studio, and something that our fans could truly relate to. We asked ourselves, what’s really feasible when you have a band with so many songwriters? When you have an EP, you can have all these connections and interrelations in four songs, it just works for YMSB.”
“Yes, we will make a full-length album again,” Aijala assures, “but for now our focus while out on the road is to find special recording studios, and lay down a handful of tracks at a time.”
The result this first time out is a testament to the hit-and-run concept. That inter-connectedness Johnston talks about becomes apparent when the four songs are absorbed as a whole. “There’s a discussion going on with all the tunes,” he says. “At the core of the whole thing, there are four different voices, talking about different ways of being apart from things. The characters are examining how to relate to the circumstances unfolding around them in their lives. In ‘Don’t Worry,’ at the heart of the song there’s a guy guilty for being gone. It goes deeper than a man who has forgotten the birthday of someone he loves; it is an apology for all the things he has forgotten, missed or neglected.”
“Straight Line” examines the failure of good intentions, about realizing that while it seemed easier at times to take the straight line, the narrator of the song missed a lot of growth, adventure and experiences. By being too focused on the future, one loses sight on what is happening now.
Aijala, who wrote “All the Time,” says, “You can find connections if you really pay attention.” But, about his own contribution, he adds, “‘All the Time’ didn’t come from a personal place. I’m totally happy in the relationship I’m in. I felt in the mood to write a song, and it came out in a single day. Other songs are different, I mean, Ben and I have a song we started in 2002 and it’s still not done.”
“Rag Doll,” co-written by Jeff Austin and Danny Barnes, taps back into a 25 year-old daydream. Austin notes, “This song started as a daydream I would have as a kid. I would walk around and make up songs, singing them to myself all the time. I’m capturing a kid dreaming about what can be possible in the future. I had written the first part of the chorus, and took it to Danny, who I’ve known for many years. The connectivity of his voice, I just love what he came up with, ‘I’m a rag doll peepin’ in your window shade.'”
At the core of each song, there’s distance, adds Johnston. “The speakers are not in the middle of the action, they are away from the action. But every one of the speakers is trying to examine his life. I think all artists unconsciously wonder, ‘How effective is what I’m doing? What difference does it make if I act good or bad?'”
For YMSB EP ’13, the band dispensed with outside producers and took the studio reins themselves. “I thought that self-producing the record would provide us with an opportunity to understand our music as we saw it, not that we are averse to working with a producer,” says Johnston. “Also, scheduling time to get away after a busy tour left us limited options. But it’s exactly these sorts of constraints that make for creative solutions and hopefully creative music.”
“These days it’s about flow, for me,” adds Kaufmann, who wrote his contribution, “Straight Line,” about a decade ago, started playing it live with Adam in 2010, and finally brought it into the studio for the EP. “What are the things I can do to keep creativity flowing?” he asks. “And how can Yonder continue to create and produce material with ease? Yonder spends so much time on tour, performing live music, and we’re at our best when we’re playing live. What better time, then, to record? By integrating studio recording with touring I feel we give ourselves every opportunity to capture Yonder Mountain at our best. The new EP captures the true sound of Yonder better than any of our previous releases, in my opinion.”
Adds Jeff Austin, succinctly, “It’s always inspiring to try new things, so, why not?! To take some songs that people have only known live and to give them a different take, it’s always interesting to hear their reactions.”
In addition to the music itself, fans will surely take notice of the striking artwork that graces the cover of YMSB EP ’13. It was created by Johnny Sampson, who has produced 27 different poster designs for YMSB since 2009. Describing his intent with the cover, Sampson says, “The design represents four different elements (spine, veins, tree branch, various instrument strings) intertwining to form a unified whole. Implied is the bond of the four members of the band. Separately, they each have their own distinct contrasting attributes, but together they exist as a tight-knit group of organized chaos. I like that it’s an enigmatic image and tells an open-ended story, with no real right or wrong interpretation.”
Says Johnston, summing up, “I’m really excited about putting out the EP because it is a step in the right direction: working under our own creative control and intuition, being motivated to record on tour, and keeping an open dialogue about what we want out of our releases. The next EP could be songs we’ve never performed before,” he adds. “We could work with a producer. Fans can expect the unexpected!”
And that, in the end, has always been what YMSB has been about: expecting the unexpected!
For more information on Yonder Mountain String Band, please visit www.yondermountain.com.
YMSB WINTER TOUR DATES
12/11 – 12/14 – Puerto Morelos, Mexico – Strings & Sol
12/27 – 12/31 – Boulder, CO – Boulder Theater
12/30 – Boulder, CO – Boulder Theater – Colorado Floods Benefit Concert
1/22 – Lexington, KY – Buster’s*
1/23 – Covington, KY – Madison Theater*
1/24 – Nashville, TN – Marathon Music Works*
1/25 – Atlanta, GA – The Tabernacle*
1/29 – Pensacola, FL – Vinyl Music Hall*
1/30 – Jacksonville, FL – Freebird Live*
1/31 – Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Revolution*
2/1 – St. Petersburg, FL – Jannus Live*
2/5 – Charleston, SC – Music Farm*
2/6 – Asheville, NC – The Orange Peel*
2/7 – Asheville, NC – The Orange Peel*
2/8 – Knoxville, TN – Tennessee Theatre
2/11 – Charlottesville, VA – Jefferson Theater*
2/13 – Indianapolis, IN – The Vogue
2/14 – Columbus, OH – LC Pavilion
2/15 – Madison, WI – Orpheum Theater
2/16 – Urbana, IL – Canopy Club*
* w/ The Travelin’ McCourys