It’s hard to imagine bluegrass being embraced and even thriving outside its original Appalachian upbringing. Yet, Yonder Mountain String Band, founded more than a decade ago by a few of our Yankee brothers, help expand the genre with progressive and inventive mixtures of rock.
The latest testament to their craft comes with the release of “YMSB EP ’13,” the first installment of an EP series that the band is recording while on the road. Out on CD and vinyl on October 8th (digitally on October 15th), “YMSB EP ’13” is self-produced under the band’s own Frog Pad Records. It features four tracks written and sung by each member: “Straight Line” by Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals), “Don’t Worry, Happy Birthday” by Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals), “Rag Doll” by Jeff Austin (mandolin, vocals) with special guest songwriter Danny Barnes, and “All the Time” by Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals).
Before their fall tour kicks off here in Wilmington at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Wednesday, October 9th, Adam Aijala took a phone call with encore to tell us how the band is readying themselves to get back out on the road after a well-deserved rest.
“We’ve had a nice little break, actually, and I’ve had a chance to deflate a little, which really makes us survive,” Aijala notes. “We’ve been a band for 15 years now, so being able to get those breaks are pretty necessary We’ve kind of been doing that since day one. I’m not sure that if we hadn’t that we’d still be a band or not.”
encore: Does it ever become exhausting?
Adam Aijala: I’ve definitely been at the end of tours in the last week and just feel devoid of any imagination from playing the same licks. I try to keep it fresh all the time, but there have definitely been times where I’ve said, “man, I’ve gotta put this thing in its case and leave it,” [and] I’ll go pick up the banjo or electric guitar, or something and noodle around for a half hour or so.
e: How did you all find the time to record “YMSB EP ’13”?
AA: The thing is that we’ve realized that there are a lot of little kids in the picture all of the sudden, and people want to be home, understandably. Generally, we would take our down time to record, so everyone wants to be home now and what we’re doing is finding time on tours to record.
And it worked really well with the last one we did, because with being on the road we have our “gig legs”–where you’ve been playing a lot and you feel more warmed up and more creative even. But you know, conversely, when I don’t play for a while I can be more creative too, so it works both ways.
e: Do you know how many you’re going to release in the series?
AA: I think, for continuity, the EP has four songs so maybe we’ll do four EPs. I’m not sure, but that’s kind of the mentality of it right now.
e: Have you already started working on the next four tracks?
AA: We’re going to probably start in the next few months. We generally do a 4-week tour, or 30 days and that’s our max now. Basically, we’re doing five shows a week with two days off, so we can kind of unwind and rest our arms and stuff, unless I go play golf or fish…different muscles though. laughs
But we’ll take a day off, with a day in the studio and day off, instead of two days in a row. I think it took us two and a half days to do this last EP, and we could probably do it a lot faster, but it’s not really a rush for us. We’d rather take our time and make it sound like we want it to.
And we have lots of material, the four songs on this EP we’ve been playing for over a year, one of them has been around for six or seven years. So, there’s no shortage of material, but a lot of times we’ll get into the studio the whole idea is to come up with something fresh
With four guys who write songs and sing, there’s no lead singer in the band and everybody does it, and we’re very democratic like that. I suppose for us to do a concept record would be tough with one writer.
It’s funny; with the record we put together you can find continuity within the songs, even though they’re written by four different people–sometimes five–and they’re like poems, people interpret them how they want.
e: You’re originally from Massachusetts, was there a lot of bluegrass being played up there?
AA: The [bluegrass] scene wasn’t that big when I was there, or at least I didn’t know about it. Like a lot of people I heard about bluegrass through Old and in the Way and The Grateful Dead, when someone said “hey did you know Jerry Garcia used play banjo in a bluegrass band?”
And I remember I was maybe a sophomore or junior in college and when I heard it, I really liked it. When I was growing up, it was all hard core, metal and the punk scene, with British punk rock and stuff like that.
Lyrics are very poignant in bluegrass, with a lot of feeling and they’re short with a lot of energy. Probably what drew me to it was achieving that energy with just acoustic instruments, I thought that was real intriguing.
e: While on tour do you enjoy festivals versus regular shows, is there a difference?
AA: I like both and both are very different. What I like about the venue is that you get a full show…we get to open up a little more. At a festival we might build a set that’s a little more high-energy and quick, whereas a full show we have time to maybe play a little more spacey stuff and spread out. It’s a flow of energy that’s just stretched out over more time with a gig like in Wilmington versus a set at a festival.
But I like both, anything to break up monotony, that’s why we don’t repeat sets in shows … for us it’s more about keeping it interesting.
e: Can you tell me more about the Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival you host and the songwriting and pickin’ contests involved?
AA: It’s not a bluegrass festival per say, it’s definitely more on the Americana side of things, with a lot variety. This year we have Tedeschi Trucks and Les Claypool, which are as about as far from bluegrass as we can get.
I don’t remember exactly where [the contests] came from, this is the second year we’re doing them. I think it’s just another way to keep people interested during the day and they have something to gain from it if they want to compete. For the pickin’ [the winners] get to play a song with Railroad Earth on that Saturday night.
It seems like whenever we host events, we attract all different types of people, but everyone seems like-minded in that everyone kind of looks out for each other. It seems like a fun atmosphere as opposed to a super-charged, crazy kind of scene.
e: You don’t get a lot of juggalos at these festivals?
AA: [laughs] Not yet!
But what I like about it is people come to have a good time and seem to be more laid back and friendly with each other, that’s the vibe that I get. I see a lot of smiling faces in the crowd at festivals, especially Harvest, and it’s a smaller space with a homey-feel.
Yonder Mountain Spring Bands’s fall tour kicks off at Wilmington’s Greenfield Lake Amphitheater this Wednesday, October 9 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $26-$31. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.