By Brian F. Johnson
There it was. Right in the middle of a couple paragraph Facebook post by Yonder Mountain String Band in late April. The post started out almost like the band was getting ready to release news of a big summer tour, but then, just a few sentences in, they cut to the chase and made their announcement. “As of today, all future YMSB shows will be performed with Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals), Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals), and David Johnston (banjo, vocals).”
After 15 years together, the four-piece was now a three-piece and their charismatic mandolin-playing frontman Jeff Austin was out of the band.
While the announcement seemed abrupt to many, in hindsight, the “creative differences” that the band sighted as cause had not only been previously written on the wall, but the decision, by the time the public heard about it, wasn’t a surprise to anyone within the inner Yonder circle.
“I think it was something that everyone had been considering on both sides of the fence,” said Dave Johnston in a recent interview with The Marquee. “The time had just come, you know? I don’t have any other better way to put it. It just seemed like Jeff really wanted to do his own thing — and more power to him — he should be allowed to do it. He’s a natural-born leader and he is qualified to do his own thing, for sure, and that’s what he wanted to do and that felt like the right thing to have happen.”
But even if it was the right decision, Johnston said that it obviously wasn’t something that anyone took lightly, or for that matter something that happened to just one person. It was a change for the entirety of the Yonder Mountain family — the Kinfolk.
“I can’t deny that there is an emotional impact. I mean Jeff and I began playing music a long time ago and we’ve logged probably thousands of hours on stage. And it’s the same with the other guys. It’s interesting because you look over there [across the stage]and you see that for all your faults and things that you can’t necessarily do on your instrument or with your voice or with your writing, you can still look over there and see that there is something durable that you’ve been a part of and it’s something that the four of us started and gave legs to and it’s something that the four of us made and it ended up being larger than any one person. We’re all kind of grateful to look over there and think, ‘Wow, this still happens.’ You know, this would happen without me. It would happen without anyone. If it can happen without Jeff it could happen without anyone really, by now. So it’s not really something that you get too bent out of shape with if it changes. You just feel grateful that you’re allowed to be there.”
Bass player Ben Kaufman, in a separate interview with The Marquee, agreed that the change was a shock to the system, but he said that he and his bandmates feel that it’s setting the stage for positive things to come.
“My musical relationship with Jeff was the single most important musical relationship I’ve ever had in my life. There was an intuitiveness, right from the get go; this unspoken intuitive connection that was a blessing and I’ll always look to it as a blessing, to be able to be inside of another human being’s musical mind and to anticipate so quickly the twists and the turns — you knew where they were going. It was magic. And at the same time or the other side of that coin is that we grow and get into our own things. It just got to a point where it was clear that we all just needed to do something else. It is a new thing in so many ways. Playing with Yonder now fills my heart with something very powerful and positive that I haven’t felt in a long time.”
The band has said that it won’t make an official announcement about a replacement for Austin until 2015, but for the remainer of the year, Austin’s absence is being filled by two musicians. Fiddler Allie Kral who played with the band Cornmeal for the last decade, and Jake Jolliff of the band Joy Kills Sorrow, have both signed on through the end of 2014.
Jolliff started playing mandolin at seven years old, won the National Mandolin Championship in Winfield, Kansas in 2012 and is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He’s guested with everyone from David Grisman Quintet, Ronnie McCoury, Chris Thile and Tim O’Brien and played multiple recording sessions for national projects. “The guy is making things happen on his instrument that all future mandolin players will study and learn,” said Kaufman. “One of the biggest selling points for me, apart from his God-given abilities is that he could be the only mandolin player on the planet that had never heard Yonder Mountain. If you think about it, any other mandolin player coming into that gig knows what Jeff did, knew how Jeff did his thing even if they couldn’t do it like Jeff, they would sort of have it in the back of their minds ‘This is sort of, kind of, maybe, what they are looking for, so I should maybe tailor my own thing to fit this,’ or whatever sort of heady game that they would get into, and Jake couldn’t do that if he tried because he’d never heard it before.”
In addition to playing on the road throughout 2014 with the band, Kral and Jolliff also just spent time with Yonder at Coupe Studios in Boulder, laying down the material which will become Yonder’s first studio album since 2009’s The Show. The new album is due in early 2015. “We’ve finished all of our basic tracks,” Kaufman said. “A lot of the lead vocals are done and some of the harmony vocals are finished too. It runs the gamut of styles, and it still captures the same energy and it still reaches those peak moments.”
Johnston said that even with some different influences being put forth, the band’s sound hasn’t changed all that much. “Man, it sounds like Yonder Mountain string music,” Johnston said. “For me, it has all the energetic trademarks and musicality of anything that we did before. It’s like a new project, but one with very clear parameters and rules.”
Johnston went on to explain that the changes have made it clear to him and his bandmates that YMSB is a fluid entity, and that their truest focus is to be in each moment without thinking about what the next step is.
“We haven’t really been thinking about Yonder Mountain in the terms of permanence, if that makes any sense,” Johnston said. “The idea that if we made some edificial thing, that it won’t change forever once we make an announcement is something that I’m not willing to commit to. I will tell you that Jake and Allie both are fantastic people to collaborate with and write music with. I don’t think of it in terms of permanence and nailing it down because that puts a lot of pressure on people, both us and them and I think it is an unnecessary pressure. I think it’s a pressure born out of anxiety or fear or whatever it is where people need to know what a permanent thing is, and we’re not in that game. We’re in the game of playing a good show and making music.”
When tumultuous times surround individuals, it’s family, most often, that is turned to for support and encouragement. And in that spirit, Yonder will surround themselves with friends and family this month with the return of their Kinfolk Celebration at Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons. The homecoming of sorts will feature guests John Bell of Widespread Panic on Friday, and Jason Carter & Ronnie McCoury on Saturday. Additionally, the weekend extravaganza will host sets by Drew Emmitt & Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, The Travelin’ McCourys, Head for the Hills, The Haunted Windchimes, and Gipsy Moon.
“We are presenting a new thing to people who have been with us for a long time,” Kaufman said. “The Yonder Mountain that people will see at this Kinfolk is a little bit different than the Yonder they saw at the last Kinfolk. If you examine the nature of attachments this is something special too and it may hit people in either the same places, or it may tickle some new funny bones that people may not even be aware they had.”
Following Kinfolk, Yonder will head once again to Ozark, AR for their annual Harvest Music Festival. This year’s line up, which includes Jerry Douglas as a special guest during the Yonder sets, will include Trampled By Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Jayhawks, Lettuce, The Devil Make Three, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jerry Douglas, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Tea Leaf Green, and many more. Visit Yonderharvestfestival.com for more information.
Overall, Yonder 2.0 is simply that, a reboot of sorts, and one that the engineers took their time to make sure that even if it didn’t immediately work for everybody out of the box, that it would at least honor the people who so adamantly supported its original incarnation. “I overthink things all the time and in this particular instance, I’m glad that we took as much time as we did to make the decisions we made,” Johnston said. “We care about the people who love our band. We love the people who don’t like us anymore and we love the people who do and we love the people who have all been part of this ride together, and it makes kind of a fantastic story.”
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