Yonder Mountain String Band looks ahead to new record

Yonder Mountain String Band plays in Charlottesville for the first time since founding member Jeff Austin left the band in April. Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg Yonder Mountain String Band plays in Charlottesville for the first time since founding member Jeff Austin left the band in April. Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg

Yonder Mountain String Band hasn’t produced a full-length record since 2009. It’s the longest stretch that the band’s gone without an LP since it formed in 1998.

If that news isn’t bad enough for fans, now this: Founding member, mandolin player and vocalist Jeff Austin split with YMSB in April.

When Yonder plays the Jefferson Theater on August 31, the lack of Austin likely won’t be that jarring. He was on personal leave for the birth of his daughter when YMSB played Charlottesville on February 11. Likely to be more jarring will be the lack of his voice and songwriting chops on the album that’s due out in early 2015.

Originally slated for a fall release, the record was in the works at the time of YMSB’s last C’ville show. Bass player and vocalist Ben Kaufmann said with four songwriters firing on all cylinders, material was piling up, and the nitty-gritty studio work was the only thing left.

Then came Austin’s surprise announcement on the band’s Facebook page: “Collectively, after long, heartfelt discussions, we’ve all decided to move forth with a newly formed lineup due to varying career goals and creative pursuits.”

The creative differences may not have been that surprising to the most astute YMSB listeners. On the band’s 2009 record, The Show, the foursome is tight and catchy, but the tracks lack cohesion. In most ways, it sounds like a group of writers doing their own thing without much regard for the others, despite Kaufmann’s objections.

“We all write individually for the most part,” he said. “But I would be remiss if I didn’t give [the band] the opportunity to make any idea I bring better. In a way, every song is co-written.”

The lack of album production over the past five years may have been a tip off to still others that YMSB was having problems. According to Kaufmann, YMSB’s relationship with C’ville-based Red Light Management, was eventually severed because of its focus on the road rather than the studio.

“We parted ways [with Red Light] on the best of terms,” Kaufmann said. “I think honestly, we were negligent about making records, and that is their strong suit. What are they going to do with a band like Yonder? What kind of radio are we really going to get on?”

Radio has never been the point for the progressive bluegrass outfit, and that isn’t going to change in Austin’s absence. Kauf-
said when you’re “completely underground” like YMSB, you can build slow, steady growth and have a career without popping and fizzling out. Indeed, Yonder would probably never be at home on pop radio; at its heart it is a live band, thriving on the festival vibe pioneered by jam bands.

“It is bluegrass at its heart, and then the twist is that you add your other influences,” Kaufmann said. “The primary influence, if we had to point to it, would be the Grateful Dead.”

The Dead influence seems to end with vibe and scene, though. YMSB has simply been “lumped in” with improvisational acts like Phish and Widespread Panic, Kaufmann said, despite the fact that their music is far less free form, with jams rarely going on for extended periods. In terms of music, YMSB actually draws more cues from Jerry Garcia’s progressive bluegrass project Old and In the Way.

“That Old and In the Way album was the introduction for a couple of guys in the band into bluegrass,” Kaufmann said. “That was the first time they really sat down and said, ‘Oh, that is what this is about.’ But that music is removed so very much from traditional bluegrass. They are playing traditional bluegrass, but it is a different vibe…They’re getting stoned.”

At the Jefferson, Kaufmann and the band’s other remaining founding members, Adam Aijala (guitar and vocals) and Dave Johnston (banjo and vocals), will be joined by Jake Jolliff, an award-winning mandolin player, and Allie Kral, who’s played fiddle and sung with the likes of moe. and Warren Haynes.

“Sometimes we really open up, but it still has to sound coherent and intelligent and give the people something they want to listen to,” Kaufmann said. “When I think of jam bands, I think of a band that plays a slow blues song for 20 minutes and the solo goes on for 10 minutes. I don’t find that super compelling.”

YMSB tries to keep from getting bogged down by playing fast and loud, Kaufmann said. It’s a formula that’s worked for more than 15 years with Austin commanding an important part of the stage. Can it continue in his absence? The band certainly seems to think so.

And when they swing through C’ville, it won’t be for lack of a good time that the formula would fail.

“It’s one of those towns that is very familiar. The first time I went there, I recognized the vibe,” Kaufmann said. “We really do have a fondness for it, and we’ve had some wonderful shows there.”