Yonder Mountain String Band's Jeff Austin and Dave Johnston on being inspired by Colorado

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If any band typifies the Colorado approach to contemporary bluegrass, it's Yonder Mountain String Band. The quartet built up its chops playing in venues in Boulder, Nederland and beyond in the late 1990s, and its fusion of traditional instrumentation and progressive musical structures resonated with local crowds. The quartet has spent the past year playing sold-out shows in venues across the country and appeared on The Late Show With Craig Ferguson. Despite the national exposure, the guys still consider the group a Colorado act playing Colorado bluegrass, even if they can't describe the exact characteristics of their sound. Backbeat caught up with banjo/vocalist Dave Johnston and mandolin player/vocalist Jeff Austin to talk about their next record and their upcoming four-night stint at the Boulder Theatre for New Year's Eve.

See also: - Slide show: Yonder Mountain String Band at Red Rocks - Todd Snider on how he thinks of acoustic guitars and mandolins when he thinks of Colorado - Photos: Yonder Mountain String Band at Red Rocks, 8/20/11

Westword: Can you give me a quick history of the band?

Jeff Austin: I met Dave in Illinois in the mid-'90s. We moved to Colorado in '98, met the other guys and formed the band. That's the long story, short. The other guys were living out here, and we all kind of joined forces with the same mindset of playing music and getting after it, not just making it a hobby. The rest is off to the races.

Dave was in school, I was a sideline observer. I was observing everyone go to school (laughs). That was my job. I was support; I was in the bullpen in case someone didn't make a class. They'd call me, and I'd just fill in.

Dave Johnston: He was writing papers on the side.

JA: A man's gotta make a living, you know.

I got to interview Todd Snider about a month ago, and he specifically mentioned you guys when he spoke of the music scene in Boulder and, more generally, Colorado. He talked a lot about how Nashville shaped his music, and I'm curious as to how geography has affected your approach to bluegrass.

DJ: As much as being geographically in Colorado has been important, I think also there are two bands that had come out of Boulder and that had started an aesthetic for music: the String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon -- they set the tone for the idea that you could rock, or space out, or jam with this kind of music. Also, Hot Rize, for me and for Jeff and everyone else in the band, was a big deal, too. They kind of showed you how you could be a traditional sounding band but still not sound like traditional stuff.

JA: Yeah, they're wearing suits and playing traditional songs, but then Pete Wernick has got a flange on his banjo. You know what I mean? It's like, 'Maybe if we wear a suit and a tie they won't notice that we're playing some trippy stuff up here.'

Dave's right. Between those three bands, it awakened the palette of people's taste in music and what they were willing to give their time to check out. It was an adventurous atmosphere, and because you had adventurous musicians, and you had an audience that was willing to listen to those bands. It was a perfect formula for us and for what we wanted to do.

Early on, I think we were more steered toward trying to be a Hot Rize kind of a band, and then there was just a natural metamorphosis of us playing together. You never really know who you are until you get on stage and you play together. That's where we really found out who we were as a band and what our identity was. We still do to this day. We still have discoveries.

Early on, when we were out here -- in 1998 the band started -- that was kind of a period of, 'Holy crap, these people are really willing to stick with you through a lot of experimentation.' Hot Rize and Salmon and String Cheese, they paved that way, and there was this audience sitting here waiting to check something else out. It's hugely beneficial to have a crowd of people to play for who were interested in hearing what you had going on.

Do you think that freedom and that space to experiment was unique to the scene in Boulder?

DJ: I think it was a big part of Boulder and the area. There are just tons of people out here who are really creative. There are so many independent businesses, so many different ways that people are going about doing things. I think it's characteristic of people around here.

JA: I think so. If you're a band starting out, there are coffeehouses you can go play on a Tuesday for free and do that week after week and build an audience. Then you can go play at the Mountain Sun on a Sunday for free and build an audience. Once you've got that, there are various levels of clubs you can play.

If you look at it as a ladder thing, you can go from a coffeehouse to 100 people packed into the Mountain Sun to 150 people in the Lazy Dog. Then you get the Fox, and the Boulder Theatre with 1,000 people. This area not only allows you to grow as a band, it allows you to be able to move up in venues gradually and work towards it. You've also got music promoters who are very aware of what's going on. They really pay attention to that.

Shit, if it wasn't for Sunday-night gigs that we played at the Mountain Sun over and over and over, we would never have been asked to play the Fox or the Boulder Theatre. I think that's another thing that's really encouraging for bands: They have a way they can grow.

Do those local performance milestones still stand out in your memory?

JA: The first time that we sold out the Fox, that was a monumental achievement, and not just for us. Bands that come through, when you sell out that theater for the first time, that's a big deal. That's a statement to make. It's amazing how something that happens here can really spread nationwide. If you sell out the Fox in Boulder, people in San Francisco will hear about it and then check you out.

On that note, you've hit the national stage. It's no longer a matter of the Fox or the Boulder Theatre -- you've sold out venues in Chicago and New York and played on national late night talk shows. Do you still feel like your sound is still rooted in Colorado?

DJ: I still think our sound is a Colorado sound, and I think that sound is something that people like a lot. We're not a North Carolina thing, we're not an East Coast thing, and we're not all the way far out there like San Francisco.

But having been to all of those places and traveled there and gotten to take in a little bit of what each of those different regions has to offer, I like them a lot. The Colorado thing is very unique, but I wouldn't be able to name characteristics of it. Still, I think our sound is mainly that. It hasn't been genericized to anything. People have tried to hyphenate our band to nonexistence, but it hasn't happened yet.

JA: We definitely sound like a Colorado band, and that's just a natural thing. Three of us still live here. I live in the mountains outside of Nederland. I'm in my office right now. I turn around and look out the window, and it's an immediate reference to what we do. If I'm ever locked up and can't think of a tune...I just stop for a second and I look out the window. It just starts coming.

You're both string players. Do you find the style resonates with fans of people like Bill Monroe and the older bluegrass players? Is it something that reaches across different spectrums?

DJ: I think that we are accessible to the traditionalists. Where we are on stage, we see the kids in the first few rows. But we've gotten to meet more and more older folks, and it's a nice thing to see that you didn't know as much about your demographic as you thought you did.

You're working on a new record. The last record, 2009's The Show, included drum work by longtime Elvis Costello collaborator Pete Thomas. What's the direction for the new release?

JA: We just laid down some basic rhythm stuff, just as bare bones as you can get, in Chicago, where we were on our October tour. We kind of set up camp at a studio there for a few days. It's a little bit more complex now; we don't all live in the same area. We were trying to figure out the best way to get us all recording. The main thing now is trying to reinvent the wheel. We're our own record label, and for us to turn and throw $200,000 at a project that probably won't sell 10,000 copies, it makes no sense.

The biggest brainstorm sessions that we've had is, 'What's something new that we can try?' Is it recording and releasing little EPs? Is it releasing songs? Is it going in the studio and spending six figures to put a record out, where the majority of the people who hear it download it illegally? The music is in their hands, but at that point, what have you thrown a bunch of cash behind it? It's a tricky thing right now, trying to figure out a way to come up with something new. God knows we have enough material. We've got so much material sitting around; we've got enough for many records . DJ: It's aging in oak barrels, like cured meats.

Continue reading for details on the band's upcoming New Year's sets. Are you hewing to the same model of music, or are there challenges tied to trying to evolve your sound?

DJ: I can only speak for my own perception, but, stylistically, we've come up with some good stuff. I think we still come up with good stuff. I feel confident in saying that there will be a lot of the Yonder Mountain sound, but I can't say that we won't have some stylistic changes. On our last record, we had more drums than people were accustomed to. Maybe we'll just totally deconstruct each atom of our song and make it a super rave party. I don't know.

JA: I like to think of the studio as a separate entity. It's a different thing. The tricky thing is bringing our sound into the studio, and for a long time we tried to do that. We had successes, and we had failures. It's like someone saying, 'Relax! Be natural! Be yourself! Go into the studio and be you!' But the studio is its own beast. And yes, we should be able to transfer the stuff we do in the studio to the stage, but you should also give yourself license to be creative and expand it. If we want to put a children's choir on a song and it works, why not? If we want to have drums on a track, why not?

DJ: Or Mick Jagger.

JA: Whatever it takes. Whoever or whatever. I think to deny the studio can be a playground...you cut yourself short, and you box yourself into a frustrating situation. The last thing I want to do is look back and say, 'Shit, we should have put pedal steel on that tune.' There will always be somebody who doesn't like something. There's somebody out there who thinks Sgt. Pepper's is the worst record ever made. There are people out there who think Dark Side of the Moon is a piece of shit. But I also believe that if you allow yourself to fall into that trap, you can miss out on trying some cool things.

When we put drums on the record, we thought, 'People are going to give us shit. People are going to give us no end of hell.' It's exactly what happened -- but for me, it's encouraging. We tried something, and we pushed the edge. We don't play the same setlist every night and play the same jokes. I like the fact that we're not satisfied to be stagnant. We're almost 15 years old. It makes it exciting to do what we do.

How do you plan on applying that spirit of experimentation to the four New Year's shows at the Boulder Theatre?

DJ: Really long banjo solos are really good for that. The band might be playing in G and I'll just play in E. (Laughs).

JA: Last year, when we did it, I liked the concept that we had a different guest every night. That worked out so well, and it was exciting for the four of us. Last year we had Andy Hall, who plays with the Infamous Stringdusters on dobro, then we had Future Man from the Flecktones on drums, we had Rushad Eggleston on cello, we had Darol Anger on fiddle. Darol's pretty much in the band; he's been playing with us for a long, long time, and he plays like he's a member of the group.

This year, we're doing one night on our own, and then we've got Jason Carter from Del McCoury's band coming in to play. Then we're doing the local hero worship and having Nick Forster and Christian Teele. Christian's going to play drums, and I have a feeling that Nick is going to pull up the van of toys and have ten different instruments in there that will add so much attitude and vibe to everything. Then Darol Anger is coming in again.

For us, it keeps it exciting because one night with the drums we can do different things, and then one night with Jason Carter we can do different things. We got a night to ourselves. That keeps it exciting. We're lucky. We've got a lot of material in rotation. A four-night run without a repeat and with a different feel is very achievable.

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