Nine years. More than 1,000 shows. The Yonder Mountain String Band have been there and back again and still have something new to say to each other and their devoted fans.
The Temple News recently talked with Jeff Austin, mandolin player and a founding member of the band.
The Yonder Mountain String Band plays traditional bluegrass music, but, as Austin himself puts it, “we’re playing it differently, with an edge, a whole different idea.”
The Temple News: On your last album, what created the shift in your songwriting process? I had read that, before, everybody would bring in their own songs and you would work them out but this time you all went in the studio together and came up with the songs as a cohesive unit. What inspired that?
Jeff Austin: It was the one thing in our music that maybe we didn’t speak it out loud but it was one thing that we kind of recognized maybe was missing.
We thought, well, you know, we play together, we tour together, we did this and that, but one thing we hadn’t done until that point was write together, kind of in a large capacity.
It was also like a “hit the refresh button” kind of thing, you know? You can’t, you find yourself falling into patterns or you find yourself . . . being in a band, you gotta keep coming up with new stuff to keep yourself intrigued. And the songwriting thing seemed something that was just . . . it was a good idea.
And when we did it we kind of went, “Why did we wait this long, what the hell’s wrong with us?” [laughs] ‘Cause it went well. On that record, there was stuff brought in, there was stuff that existed beforehand, but the majority of it was created on site, which we’re gonna do with our next record as well.
TTN: When do you think your next record is going to come out?
JA: We’re gonna start working on it next year. Hopefully it will be out late next year. We’re just taking our time. The last record that came out [2006’s Yonder Mountain String Band], it’ll be two years old next year in May, which is crazy that it’s been out that long.
We’re trying something new. It’s gonna be next year. [We’re going to] follow the pattern from the most recent record which was: go out and work on it when we can, when we’re home, when we’re off.
TTN: This next record, do you still plan on having a drummer? I’ve read some fans maybe felt alienated by your bringing a drummer into this string band and going against everything you guys had done in the past eight years or so.
JA: I love the alienated. [laughs] We’ve been a band for nine years now and every year that we’ve been playing we’ve played with a drummer. We’re not doing it to make anybody feel alienated. We’re doing it because the music calls for it. And also because it’s like that whole “keeping things fresh” thing. It’s an experimentation and it’s also . . . none of us grew up on bluegrass music.
We all grew up with music with drums and crazy a– effects and loud guitars and stuff. It’s going to come in naturally and the last thing we ever want to do is alienate people but, before that, the last thing we want to give people is something contrived or kind of half-a–ed.
I like going to see bands that take risks and try different things and that sort of stuff. And hopefully that’s the kind of thing our fans are into.
Plain and simple, more like us than anything we’ve ever done. We’re trying everything to figure out what this sound is, what does Yonder Mountain String Band sound like.
It’s done to hopefully get a reaction and the fact that people didn’t like it – it’s almost good. At least you reacted, at least it made you feel something.
How much music today makes you feel absolutely nothing? ‘Wow, man, that singer’s great, but I feel nothing. Wow, that guitar player’s great, but I feel nothing.’ It’s like the majority of bluegrass getting made nowadays. There are very few bands that are touching any part of your soul.
TTN: Once you guys all got together, was there a moment when you looked at each other and realized you could make a living, this could be your life – putting out a few albums, touring and making a living off of that?
JA: I’d have to say, with Yonder Mountain, it really was the early days because we sat and shared ideas and we would run over some traditional music, you know, traditional bluegrass, whatever falls in that category. And then we would play some of our stuff.
That was in the early days when we really went, “Hmm . . . there’s something to this.” It didn’t seem like it for the three years we were driving around in minivans and living in RVs and doing that sort of thing – it was the farthest thing, it was so out of reach.
“Where is this thing taking me? I wanna find out where,” Jeff said when questioned why he is still on the road nine years down the line. You can find out where they are going when the Yonder Mountain String Band plays the Fillmore at the TLA Oct. 12.
Andrew Franklin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.