“Life is Better Up Here!”
Or at least that’s the motto for the town of Nederland, Colorado, which is perched some 8,000 feet within the southwest foothills of Boulder County, and home to modern-day torchbearers of progressive bluegrass music, Yonder Mountain String Band.
There’s a feeling so deep-rooted and inherent in our culture about live, high-energy bluegrass music among those that love it, and YMSB delivers that feeling in spades to audiences far and wide. Whether it’s at the many sprawling festivals from spring to fall, or headlining their own shows on massive tours, no peak is too high for this jamgrass favorite.
Formed in 1998, YMSB has seen some alterations to its lineup as most bands will, but the core four consists of banjoist Dave Johnston, bassist Ben Kaufmann, guitarist Adam Aijala, and Allie Kral on fiddle, the first three who have been with the band since the maiden voyage. The band has very recently added a fifth member, Nick Piccinni.
The now quintet are soon to embark on a 22-show spring tour from March 4th to April 5th, covering ground from the Southeast, Mid-West, and West Coast.
But before they geared up and shipped out, the members of YMSB collectively took time to answer some questions and talk about their extensive touring, band milestones, broken pipes at celebrity parties, and much more.
Music Mecca: How does the songwriting process work within the band, and is it more regimented and structured as far as setting times and places to get together to write?
Yonder Mountain String Band: It’s a process that keeps evolving. Typically there be will something, a lyric, a melody fragment, a bass line, that will get our attention, and from there we try to decide if it’s an idea that we want to explore. At other times, the chords and basic structure of a song might be hiding in the voice memos with scratch lyrics holding down a melody. As far as regiments go, that remains kind of informal. We’ll dig in until we’ve uncovered enough to get back to at a later date, or have enough of a draft to keep things moving. Sometimes what seemed so great in the moment doesn’t actually hold up, and you only realize it after you’ve left the song alone for a minute. I don’t think scheduled times or places are a bad idea though. You can get lucky though if you make a habit out of doing a little bit everyday and asking the universe for one terrible lyric. It’s important to not take yourself too seriously, and get the ego out of the way.
MM: I see y’all have a big fat spring tour approaching. Do you have any special rituals, routines, or things you feel you need to have in preparation for these shows?
YM: I don’t know if I’d call it a ritual, but we usually start out each day with a long walk. If there’s good coffee within a few miles, we’ll walk and catch up on stuff; but even bad coffee is necessary on gig days. On any day, really. With Nick being a new addition to the band, there’s a lot more rehearsal before shows. We’ve thrown over 160 songs at him, and he’s an absolute ace.
MM: Do you pre-determine specific set lists for specific cities, or kind of whip up something more on the spot shortly before or during the shows?
YM: We try to do both. We reference past performances so that we’re not being redundant, and our goal is to not repeat anything for a week’s worth of shows. It’s nice to have the element of surprise. There’s often a last minute idea to play something unique or a song we’ve never performed, and we like that the element of surprise can be really inspiring. We never know when we might want to whip something up.
MM: What do you think makes Colorado such a hot bed for bluegrass and jamgrass type music? Do you think the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is a primary reason for it?
YM: There’s a really wide-open mentality about music in Colorado, and it’s what I’d call a natural location, you know? Mountains, trails, fishing, a lot of outdoor activity to be had, which sort of coincides with the acoustic, natural feel of string band and acoustic music. There’s no question Telluride has a huge function in all of that. It’s the ground zero of new acoustic/Americana music.
MM: You guys have been making/playing music for over 20 years now. Are there any pinnacle milestones that come to mind when reflecting back on the band’s tenure?
YM: Playing The Fox in 1999 was a moment where it struck all of us that like, “hey wait a minute, people are here and they like it.” That’s a night filled with all sorts of goofiness. But there’s plenty more moments that sort of echo the impact of that night: first Telluride, starting the Northwest String Summit, first headlining sold-out show at Red Rocks, first tour bus, first time you got your own hotel room for two days. Recording “Elevation,” our first record. Playing the Dear Jerry tribute show at Merriweather with Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, (other members of the Dead) Widespread Panic, Grace Potter, Eric Church and many others who have been musical influences on us over the years. Speaking of musical hero’s, Jon Fishman joined us on the road for a number of shows a number of years back, that was super cool. There’s probably a bunch I’m missing, but all of the above were sort of instances where you could catch your breath and take it all in.
MM: Is there anything you feel YMSB has yet to accomplish? Maybe particular album goals, venues, countries, etc.?
YM: There’s always more to get to, right? Getting back to Europe would be great. Getting back to Japan, but as far as goals I don’t know that I have anything especially lofty except to keep working everyday making music and learning about different ways to do it.
MM: Other than making music, what are some hobbies or pastimes the band likes to get into during downtime (if there is any)?
YM: Hitting a few golf balls is always nice. Does it sound lame to say exercise? Snowboarding and fly fishing when we get the chance, hiking with our dogs, kids, and spending time with our families.
MM: Given we’re in an election year, does the band get involved in any support or opposition efforts towards political matters?
YM: I don’t think we’re overtly political, but we’ll have voter registration drives and things like that. We all have our political opinions and feel strongly about them, but don’t like the idea of using the band or music as some sort of platform. A lot of people go to shows to forget about work, politics and just enjoy. We once opened up for Barack Obama and saw his body double, but even then it didn’t seem like a political statement. See, from the earlier question? Told you I’d forget something!
MM: What about any activist/philanthropic work whether it be locally, nationally, or globally?
YM: Conscious Alliance here in Boulder is a great organization, and we’ll help out with food drives and volunteer work. We’re on the advisory board of the Future Arts Foundation. Their primary objective is to put art supplies and musical instruments into the hands of kids at Colorado public schools. It’s a great organization that raises most of it’s money from putting on live shows along the front range.
MM: Could you share one of the more bizarre/fun/wild experiences the band has endured maybe at a festival or otherwise?
YM: We had an epic wrap party in LA once. People were scaling the outside of the Beverly Garland. I, for one, threw up my dinner into a newspaper. Earlier that evening, we crashed a Late Night Talk Show host’s party and broke his glass pipe. We were very contrite and wrote him an apology card, and of course we replaced the pipe.
MM: Aside from the spring tour, what does the rest of 2020 look like for YMSB? Perhaps a new album in the works?
YM: 2020 is going to be a great year. There will be touring and great shows with great energy. I have this personal, half-kidding superstition that mentioning any prospective album projects dooms them to the pit of Sarlacc, to be digested for a thousand years.
Thanks again and look forward to seeing ya.
Photo by Jordan August Photography