Most bands would be kicking at the studio door after a long stretch between albums, but Yonder Mountain String Band has never subscribed to any set of rules beyond their own. While the Nederland, Col.-based Jamgrass quartet has new songs that have been dropped into recent sets, the musicians are in no particular hurry to unleash them to the wider world.
“We realize we’ve been neglecting the recording,” guitarist/vocalist Adam Aijala says from YMSB’s Knoxville, Tenn., tour stop. “Material is not an issue at all. We have a lot of new stuff in the works and a few new songs that we actually just started playing. In October, we took the initiative to remove a date that would have been gigs and turned it into two studio days, and we recorded four tracks in those two days. They’re not done yet. I’ve got the tracks on a hard drive so I can work on them out here (on the road).”
It’s been nearly four years since YMSB (Aijala, mandolinist/vocalist Jeff Austin, bassist/vocalist Ben Kaufmann, banjoist/vocalist Dave Johnston) released The Show, its 10th official album overall and third consecutive No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Bluegrass chart. Over the past three and a half years, YMSB has been almost perpetually on tour, a schedule the band has maintained since its formation in 1998. The problem is that, now, the lives of Yonder’s members are impacting the band’s life.
“Dave’s just had another baby in December and Ben’s got the 1-year-old, and the time in the past that would have been time off and turned into studio time is now, like, ‘I want to be home with my kids,’ which is totally understandable,” Aijala says. “It’s not about material, it’s about finding time to get it done.
“Jeff made the joke years ago, and I still use it, that we’re going to be the reverse Beatles — we’re just going to tour and not have any records. That’s kind of what it feels like. At least we’re out playing and you can download all our shows. It’s not like there’s a shortage of new material, it’s just all digital.” (The Internet Archive at archive.org hosts an astonishing 1,386 Yonder shows available for free download.)
With a handful of tracks ready to be mixed and mastered, Yonder is contemplating a quick EP rather than waiting to crank out enough additional songs to result in a full album.
“That might be a good plan of action to use in general for years to come,” he says. “With the availability of music, people just want new stuff. I don’t think people are necessarily hell-bent on a full album; they just want something. It’s not difficult to make an album; it’s the time, especially with the technology today. I can do it in my house. Maybe not the best quality, but it’s possible.”
So while the standard operating procedure of touring ahead of a new album doesn’t particularly apply to Yonder, the band does have a fair supply of new songs to present to their fan base on this first tour of 2013.
“We have one that I started at Telluride (Bluegrass Festival) last year and just finished with Dave’s help and we played it for the first time New Year’s Eve,” Aijala says. “And we’re doing two songs of Ben’s that Yonder has never done before; Ben and I do a duo thing and we’ve played them together for years, but I was like, ‘We should play them, Yonder would do a good job.’ And I’ve got a new instrumental that we just started playing.”
No matter how Yonder structures its set lists as far as new material versus older songs, one thing is certain — if you saw the show the last time the band came through, you won’t see that show again. By the time of our late-in-the-day interview, Aijala noted that they hadn’t yet come up with the set for that evening’s performance, but their formula is pretty simple.
“We look at what we played the last time we were in (a particular city) and we just don’t do any repeats, that’s the gist of it,” Aijala says. “It just keeps it more interesting for us. If there’s stuff that people are psyched for, we’ll play that and that’s the format.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that Yonder’s combination of Bluegrass tradition and Rock energy should attract an audience that would remain loyal for a decade and a half. At the same time, it’s a rare accomplishment to find a group of guys who will hang together for the long haul.
“My expectations about the success of the band have been far exceeded,” Aijala says. “I never would have thought that, one, we’d be together this long and, two, that we’d have the success that we’ve had, even though we’re still in my mind an underground band.
“Fifteen years with the same lineup, that’s saying something.”
In the end, the key to Yonder Mountain String Band’s success in attracting and holding its audience is the sense of freedom the members bring to writing, recording and performing. That may well be Yonder’s most defining characteristic, even more than the style of music played.
“The only limitations that we have are our musical abilities; I’m not a great Be Bop player, even though I love that style of music,” Aijala says with a laugh. “When we first started, we said, ‘We’re going to be this Bluegrass band. That’s why it says String Band on the end of our name.’ We’ve come to find that there’s nothing we can’t try, even if it doesn’t work. You would think that (the name) ‘Yonder Mountain String Band’ would pigeonhole us, but the longer we’ve been around, people know who we are and we get to do what we want.
“We give them a different show every night,” he continues. “I’ve talked to people who are in more structured bands that play similar sets and I’ve heard the comment, ‘It’s really hard to do what you guys do.’ I think it would be hard to do what they do, to play the same thing every night. Maybe that’s why we’ve been able to last for 15 years. Granted, there are songs we’ve been playing for the entirety of the band, but they evolve just from playing them live.”
YONDER MOUNTAIN STRING BAND performs Thursday at Covington’s Madison Theater with Lake Street Dive.