Yonder Mountain String Band: Q&A


Yonder Mountain String Band fans are Hula hooping free spirits. They are straight-edge AARP members. They are the guy who up-sold you on your cell phone plan. They are the kind of people who cut loose to jam bands at festivals.
“I have it divided into two things,” said banjo player Dave Johnston in a phone interview. “The fans I can see from the stage and the fans I can’t see from the stage. The fans that I can see from the stage all seem to be about 18-24 years old. Of the hippie persuasion, I’ll say. And they’re just raging and having a good time.
“Then I’ll run into people who don’t recognize me and I don’t recognize them. It turns out they’re fans of the band I’m fans of them being fans. We have a mutual thing happening.”
YMSB, who have become regulars at Big Top Chautauqua, play at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the outdoor entertainment venue near Bayfield. It is the band’s fifth concert at the big blue tent. They have been playing together since the late 1990s and developed a fan base the old fashioned way — by word of mouth. A sort of blue-grass-roots operation.
Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with Johnston and guitar player and vocalist Aijala.

DNT: WHAT IS LIFE LIKE ON THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT?
DJ: The summer season is very distinct from other parts of the year. It’s outdoors, it’s shorter sets. You run into people you don’t get to see in the normal touring year. You hook up with old friends. It’s just kind of more … a social atmosphere and more of a camaraderie thing that happens. You’re running into your colleagues and peers and making music. It’s really an enjoyable experience. You’re busier, you crisscross the country more, you aren’t more regionally located.

DNT: I’D IMAGINE A LOT OF SITTING AROUND CAMPFIRES, JAMMING WITH MUMFORD & SONS?
DJ: It doesn’t happen as much as you think it would. You run into each other back stage and catch up in that sort of environment. Everyone is in a really good mood because you’re outdoors and it’s fun.

DNT: DESCRIBE THE EVOLUTION OF THIS BAND, FROM 1998 TO NOW
AA: When we first started playing, I didn’t know the guys that well. I had a pretty good bond with Dave from the beginning. He’d come over and show me fiddle tunes on banjo. I didn’t have a lot of experience with bluegrass music. I had just started listening to it. I didn’t know what to buy or which bands were worth looking into.
We started living together eight months of the year. It really turns into a … I never had a brother. I have one sister. It had a sibling feel to it. You really care about each other, but you can’t stand the way that Dave chews his cereal. I’m using Dave because he’s on the phone (for this interview) and cereal because it’s something my sister used to do that annoyed me.
Ten years ago Dave lived with us, my wife now, but then girlfriend. He lived with us and we were on tour together. I saw him more than I saw her.

DNT: WHAT ABOUT MUSIC-WISE?
AA: The songwriting as evolved a lot. Everyone’s playing is getting better. We started out really trying to be a bluegrass band. For people who don’t listen to bluegrass, we’re bluegrass to them.
When someone says “I listen to bluegrass on Sirius radio …” that’s not us even though we have the same instruments. That (stuff) is so polished. We couldn’t do that if we tried.

DNT: YOU GUYS REGULARLY SELL OUT VENUES. HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN OUTSIDE OF MAINSTREAM MUSIC?
AA: I think when we first started is when the Internet first started taking off. There were a couple people in particular who used to record our shows, there was tape trading, then people recording them and putting them on CDs. I think that’s how it started. I would say the festival circuit keeps it steady and growing, more than playing clubs.
Your hardcore fans are going to come to those shows. … It’s definitely not selling albums or radio play.

DNT: YOUR AUDIENCE SEEMS TO BE A BAREFOOT, HULA HOOPING TYPE
AA: It’s definitely not a bluegrass crowd, as far as a sit down crowd.
There is a younger demographic in general. A lot are partying pretty hard. There are a lot of people dancing just as hard who are sober.
There are a lot of people I meet who I’m surprised are fans. People who are our age or up to 30 years older. We’ve met lawyers, doctors, hippies … our fans cover the map. I see kids with their parents, who are small. We’ve seen kids grow up. Now they’re 15. Then there are old folks who come to see us. It’s the whole spectrum.
Generally if you want to get up front, you’re going to have to fight your way up front.
My mom will come right up front. All she has to say is “I’m Adam’s mom” and they’ll move for her.

DNT: WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
AA: We’re in pre-production for stuff. We have a lot of material. We’ve recorded some stuff that could be used, but I’m not sure that we’re going to. We’ve tried something new: Wherever we are, there are certain rooms that seem to work while we’re on tour. After our checks for the show that night we rig up some recording equipment and record a song.
We’ve been laying down some existing songs that we’ve been playing that aren’t on records. A month ago we recorded a bunch of new material, most of which we just started playing, if at all.

DNT: WHEN WOULD YOU RELEASE SOMETHING LIKE THIS?
Dave: Ah. Is ‘The Future’ an acceptable answer?

DNT: WHAT KIND OF GOALS DO YOU GUYS HAVE FOR THE BAND?
AA: I don’t have specifics. I would love to keep new material coming and I would take it as far as we go. If we grow bigger, I’d be fine with that. If we stay where we are, I’m fine with that. I’d prefer to grow, but I wouldn’t hang it up if we didn’t.
DJ: I don’t really have a lot of specific goals or dreams. I really like the opportunity to play music and write music with these guys. It’s a really cool thing professionally speaking. My only thing I look forward to is making sure it keeps happening like it does. Keep writing songs that are better and more memorable and that people like.

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