When he's not touring with Yonder Mountain String Band, mandolin player Jacob Jolliff is on the road with his own hard-picking bluegrass-inspired outfit, The Jacob Jolliff Band. Thirty-year-old Jolliff, who was also a member of the indie-pop-influenced new acoustic group Joy Kills Sorrow, doesn't miss a beat, putting his vocal and instrumental skills to use in a variety of settings. It's all part of his ongoing musical growth, which began in his father's gospel and bluegrass group while he was growing up in Oregon. Since he first hoisted his instrument at the age of seven, Jolliff's dedication to his craft has paid off, and in 2012 he won the National Mandolin Championship in Winfield, Kansas.
Westword caught up with him to get the latest on his ongoing musical journey.
Westword: So are you out on a tour right now?
Jacob Jolliff: Yeah, I'm out with Yonder. We've been touring for a little over a week, and we still have another week to go, so we're on the bus. It's been really good. We've played a lot of festivals, and it's been a great time so far.
Where has the band been playing?
Two weekends ago, we did Del Fest and Summer Camp in Illinois, and we did a festival in Arkansas a couple days ago and a festival in North Carolina last weekend. This weekend, I think we're playing some club dates and then Yonder is off until Telluride [Bluegrass Festival].
How's the weather been thus far?
Summer Camp was a little muddy. It had rained the day before we got there, but it was nice when we played. It's super-nice in Annapolis, Maryland, where I am right now. Overall, the weather has been great.
Have you ever lived in Colorado?
No, I have not. I grew up in Oregon, and I went to college, the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and I moved to New York City after that. The members of Yonder are pretty spread out these days. I live in Brooklyn, and Allie [Kral], our fiddle player, lives in St. Louis. Ben Kaufmann, our bassist, lives in Nevada City. And Dave [Johnston, banjo] and Adam [Aijala, guitar] both still live in Boulder.
But you're coming to Denver with your own band, right?
Yeah, we're coming to Daniels Hall at Swallow Hill.
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So perhaps more of an intimate setting than where you might play with Yonder?
Yeah, I enjoy smaller places, especially when playing acoustic. I'm not sure if we'll plug in or not, but playing a smaller venue gives us the option of using a single mic in the old-time bluegrass tradition. Whether or not we unplug depends on how loud the room is. That's usually a game-time decision.
Do you ever use an amp?
Typically I'll run a pre-amp into the PA. There's not a lot of point to an amp with acoustic instruments unless you have a really nice acoustic amp. It sometimes makes sense to use one, but not generally.
Do you sing?
Yeah, I sing in both bands. With Yonder I sing less because the singing is shared among the five of us. But in my group, I'm the main singer. Some of the other guys are good singers, too, but we do a lot of instrumental stuff as well, though I'm not a huge fan of doing all-instrumental sets, so we definitely have some vocal music. We usually split it about half and half.
Will you be playing tunes that you've written, or do you cover a lot of traditional fare?
Our instrumental stuff is primarily all stuff that I write. The vocal tunes I don't write, so it's a combination of trad stuff and some pop covers. Kind of a variety of songs. I like to choose tunes that also allow us to stretch out instrumentally, too.
Who's in your band?
It's been a bit of a rotating cast, but for the show in Denver it will be Stash Wyslouch, who's an amazing guitarist and singer. The bass player is Myles Sloniker, who is from Fort Collins, although I met him in New York City. He does the majority of the bass work in my group. And we'll have an incredible fiddle player named John Mailander, who also plays for Bruce Hornsby. So that's the crew.
How long have you been playing with Yonder Mountain? And were you a fan of their music when you joined the group?
My first tour with them was in 2014, so it's been about about five years now. I actually wasn't super-familiar with their music when I joined. I had heard their name, but the sort of jam-bluegrass thing was pretty separate from the straight-ahead bluegrass scene or the more arranged acoustic music that Joy Kills Sorrow was doing. It wasn't the Grateful Dead, Phish type of scene that Yonder is in. I'd never seen them live, and the most listening I did was when I was first learning all the tunes.
How'd you connect with them?
Well my band Joy Kills Sorrow was breaking up at the time, and a former manager of mine who worked with JKS and had also worked with YMSB knew I was looking for a gig. So he and a couple other people put in a good word, and I got a call from Yonder, from Adam, asking if I wanted to do a three-week tour, which I did and which went well. The band had just parted ways with [former mandolin player and vocalist] Jeff Austin, so their timing kind of lined up with mine. Then I had a several-months-long audition period that also went well, and they eventually asked me to join in the fall of 2014. The process took a little while.
How was it making the transition from the more indie-pop-rooted vibe of JKS to Yonder?
My most crucial skill sets were being able to sing and being able to take extended improvised solos. JKS didn't do much of that, but I had the bulk of the solos in that band, and I'm also someone who practices a lot and improvises a lot, so that came pretty naturally. Playing for a long time at a high tempo is something that Yonder does, and that's something that I had worked on a lot, so I felt pretty well trained for that. It was an adjustment, but my skill set lined up pretty well with what they needed.
So Joy Kills Sorrow was your first major band?
Yeah, I was with them from my sophomore year of college until May of 2014. So I didn't have too long in between bands, which is nice. I've been touring with bands for about twelve years. I'd been in bands earlier in my life, but my first serious touring started in college.
Did you do a regular four-year degree at Berklee?
Yeah, I did a four-year bachelor's degree that included some studies outside of music, like any liberal arts school, but not a huge amount. My degree was in musical performance, and about 75 percent of my courses were music-related.
Does your band sound similar to Yonder?
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I'd say we do more traditional stuff. The guys who play with me grew up playing in the traditional bluegrass vein. On the more progressive end of stuff, we probably go a little more out than what you might hear with Yonder. The folks I call on also have a high level of jazz training, too. We'll go from something cerebral but still high-energy right into a trad bluegrass thing. We try to mix it up to keep people interested.
Does the JJB have an album out?
Yeah, we released an album last year. It's all original and all instrumental. It's called Instrumentals Vol. 1. The title is a bit of a throwaway, but it's descriptive enough. We'll be playing four gigs in Colorado, starting in Breckenridge, then down to Telluride at the Opera House there, then Denver before finishing up in Colorado Springs.