There’s hardly a doubt in anyone’s mind that Yonder Mountain String Band will go down as one of the most talented bluegrass bands of this generation, and very likely of all time. Though many other acts were involved in the process, Yonder was in many ways responsible for the recent surge in popularity of the genre. But have you ever wondered what exactly prompted the band to embrace their jam-bluegrass status, or wondered at the meaning behind some of the most cryptic songs on Yonder’s new EP? We certainly did, which is why we called up Yonder’s banjo player, Dave Johnston, for the enlightening interview recorded below.
NO COUNTRY: In all the times we’ve seen Yonder play live or talked to fans about the band, it seems like a lot of your audience gravitates towards your live show. Did you guys intentionally make an effort to be more of a live band or is this something that arose naturally?
DAVE JOHNSTON: When we started up on the idea of Yonder, we knew we wanted to be a touring band, and that we wanted to travel. So the short answer to your question is yeah, we wanted to be a live band. However, we also really appreciate and enjoy making studio records. It’s just a different kind of energy. It’s less of a personal experience for our fans for us to make a record; it’s more a presentation whereas our live shows are more of an improvisation. So we like doing both, even though everyone seems to like the live show [laughs]. It’s definitely our bread and butter these days, and I think that has also become a working model for some other bands in a way. This is even more true as recording mediums become more available and easier to produce.
NO COUNTRY: The upcoming Yonder Mountain String Band EP, EP ’13, was reportedly written while you guys were on the road. Do you think that this experience maybe helped to infuse some of the ‘road energy’ with the studio experience?
DJ: Yeah, definitely. Throughout the EP there’s this sort of residual energy from the live performances on all the tracks, and that’s directly because we did the EP while we were out traveling. It was certainly an interesting way to make recorded music for Yonder Mountain String Band. I’m not sure if I would call it a hybrid between our live and recorded shows, but there’s definitely a hybridized energy present.
NO COUNTRY: For fans that are craving even more of that live experience after hearing your new EP, there appears to be a Yonder Mountain tour on the horizon (though Yonder does play all the time). Are you guys doing anything special for that tour?
DJ: The tour will be in January, and we actually have some very special circumstances concerning that tour. Jeff Austin, our mandolin player, is going to be having a baby girl. We’re all really excited for him, but he won’t actually be going on this upcoming tour with us. However, we have some very dear friends and accomplished musicians sitting in with us. So we’re really looking forward to bringing together a show that will be like minded and possess the same energy as a typical Yonder show but inherently will be different because our brother in arms will be out of commission helping with the new baby. I firmly believe the Yonder Mountain experience is made by the fans, but also by all the staff and personnel. This tour will still be energetic and entertaining, but without Jeff, we’ll be bringing a different experience for fans.
NO COUNTRY: Speaking of different experiences, each of the songs on your new EP were written by different members of the band. I know guys like Kiss and Outkast have done this, but how did you guys come to decide Yonder Mountain should write an EP in this fashion?
DJ: That’s actually kind of the way we’ve always worked. We’ve always tried to hold to this democratic idea of the band. We believe everyone has a say and everyone has skin in the game. No one really comes with fully fleshed out ideas [when we’re writing], or at least not too often. We all contribute to the writing and the refining and coming up with our part, so we all try to finish things off as a group. On the EP, we’re all listed as different songwriters and have different credits because the bulk of an idea or the majority of the work was done by that person.
NO COUNTRY: The song you’re credited with, “Don’t Worry Happy Birthday”, is really an incredible track. Do you want to tell readers about how you came up with such a song?
DJ: I always try to stay away from getting too conscious about what prompted me to write something, but as I was working on it, I thought it would be a good idea to examine one of the iconic parts of growing up where I grew up, which was the suburbs of Chicago. Anyways, you would go to these convenience stores, and you could go over to the postcard rack to get a card for somebody. The song is written from the point of view of the convenience store clerk, who is looking around at an empty store. So I guess that’s the idea that prompted me to write “Don’t Worry Happy Birthday”.
NO COUNTRY: This idea of equality within the band seems to be very influential for you guys. We’ve noticed even when you play live that everyone stands in a line, rather than highlighting one member as the frontman. Have you noticed this behavior as more beneficial than maybe a traditional ‘singer as the spokesperson’ act?
DJ: Well we all try to sing, which is one of the reasons for that. I also think you can’t undervalue the idea of a frontman because people like focal points. Within Yonder, Ben and Jeff both are very cordial and make everyone feel welcome. They’re good in front of a crowd. So with us it’s probably a bit more tacit. We’ve never really had one defined frontman, but we do have a couple of guys that have that frontman vibe and spirit. However, we do realize as a band that we’re all part of one bigger personality than each of the four of us.
NO COUNTRY: Do you think playing bluegrass as opposed to a different genre might contribute to this idea of equality?
DJ: I actually read this fantastic interview with Jerry Garcia, and they were asking him about who his favorite bluegrass players were, like which individuals. Anyways, he says that he doesn’t really favorites, and that the average bluegrass player is so virtuosic and good that it almost is impossible to pick a favorite player. He told them instead he has favorite bands. Bluegrass is such an ensemble based music; it’s dependent on everyone in the band to get the correct vibe. That is one of the advantages of the form, is that it needs strong players across the board. You can really create something memorable when everyone is competent and doesn’t stand out too far outside of the music. I think even outside of bluegrass, the bands I like and think are the most successful are the ones that share these ideal. I mean look at Coldplay; they all share the writing and the vision of their music. Chris Martin is definitely the voice of the band, but I don’t think he’s so far out ahead of what everyone else is doing that he sticks out.
NO COUNTRY: Obviously playing together as group can help foster that sense of connectedness and equality, but, other than that, is there any methods you would recommend to start developing that in a band?
DJ: Obviously it’s hard to give a step by step method, but I can say that it does take a great deal of trust. You can’t lose sight of what’s important to you as a band and you have to be friends with each other.
NO COUNTRY: That’s great advice for any group of people, really. Do you have anything else, such as announcements or shout outs, that you would like to broadcast to our readers?
DJ: Yeah actually, there’s a couple of really great opportunities to come see the band. We’ll be playing with the Travelin McCoury’s and Keller Williams and a bunch of other great artists down in Cancun for the Strings and Sol festival in about a month. We did it last year and it’s an awesome gig, but I can only see it getting better from here. We’re pretty excited to go down there and do a ‘Mexican’ getaway.
We’ll also be playing an extended run in Boulder, Colorado at the Boulder Theater. That’s a really vibey place; it feels sort of how the Hog Farm must have felt for the Grateful Dead [laughs]. Of course, we’re not on a farm or anything like that, but it definitely has a communal sort of feel to it.
NO COUNTRY: This isn’t the first time you guys have played multiple shows at a location, do you guys enjoy coming back and playing a festival or show year after year?
DJ: It’s a two way street. We have had some really good times and some really fun partnerships, like the String Summer and the Harvest Festival in Arkansas. We’re not really trying to elicit partnerships or anything like that, but sometimes when you work with someone, it’s simply a really good fit and there’s a lot of potential. So we try to stay with the people who are like that.
NO COUNTRY: What makes a particular venue or agency a good partner?
DJ: I mean I am a musician, so for me it’s if I have a nice, clean place to stay and some hot running water [laughs]. But we also focus on does the venue sound good and if the band is effective playing here. We also look at how much the crowd is into it. The main things are definitely: does it sound good? is the crowd having fun? and is the band performing as well as they can?
NO COUNTRY: Thanks a bunch for your time. We look forward to catching up with you again before your Nashville date in January.
Yonder Mountain String Band will be playing a show on January 24th at Marathon Music Works. You can check out the lineup, and go ahead and get tickets by following this link.