Yonder Mountain String Band: "The Audience Is the Fifth Member of the Band"
Call it the mountain muse, the happiness of the heights, or maybe it's simply the mix of altitude with attitude. Whatever the case, Yonder Mountain Band consistently captures that spirit, a connection that has more to do than with their name alone.
Notoriously independent, they blend the frenzy of bluegrass with jam band instincts and acquired populist sentiments, a combination that's helped them become both festival favorites and indie entrepreneurs. For more than a decade, this Colorado-based quartet -- mandolin player Jeff Austin, guitarist Adam Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufman, and banjo player Dave Johnston -- has been entertaining audiences with their savvy and synchronicity, earning them legions of devotees both in their home state and throughout the nation. After initially developing their frenetic stage shows in clubs and other intimate environs, they quickly graduated to bigger venues, with a featured performance at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver helping to elevate their profile and affirm their intents.
A few months back, we had the chance to speak with the foursome backstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, an annual gig of which they're justifiably proud, and we took the opportunity to ask them about their affinity for the festival and the audience interaction that helps spur them on.
New Times: Your recorded output seems fairly evenly divided between your live recordings and your studio efforts. In fact, your live albums seem more predominant than your studio endeavors. There's a reason for that obviously...
Ben: You're right. We're not on Columbia. We don't have anyone looking over our shoulder...
I suspect that it's an attempt to capture the energy and essence of your live performances, which is, after all, what you're all about. So the question is, do you find it difficult to make the transition from the concert stage to the recording studio without sacrificing that spontaneity in the process?
Jeff: It is a challenge. But the most recent experience we had, where we recorded four songs for our new EP, EP-13, was so easy and fun. And wouldn't you know it, the minute we stopped obsessing over it so much was the minute we get the recordings where I said, yup, it sounds like us. We finally did it. This is absolutely what we sound like. I'm so happy.
But it can be a challenge, no?
Adam: One of the things we found out is that you can record as long as you want and go over it and over it, and get it to where you want it to go, but when you don't have a stage and you don't have a crowd, you know it's going to be different. Still, we generally record all our tracks live. We may overdub our solos and vocals, but we record those live too. At least that's the way we've done it in the past. So we do try to capture that live energy so it approximates what we do onstage. And we can't ask for more than that. We can't raise our expectations higher than our ability to make it happen. We can't expect it to sound live when it's not. But when we record it live, it's still approximating the same sound.