For the past decade and a half, the Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) have been taking their unique adaptation of bluegrass music where traditionalists dare not venture. Their original blend of bluegrass instrumentation with a classic rock edge have captivated audiences worldwide.
Playing internationally respectable venues and events well outside the bluegrass mainstream, YMSB has attracted legions of loyal fans who might never have heard grassy music had it not been for their more progressive sounds. They have headlined at Red Rocks Amphitheater, The House of Blues, Bonarroo, Austin City Limits, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Rothbury, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and even for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention
I got the opportunity to talk to banjo man, Dave Johnston, and guitarist, Adam Aijala, about the band, their music, and their upcoming Kinfolk Celebration, which takes place this weekend (August 24-25) at Planet Bluegrass in Colorado.
DM: Now, your music definitely has a bluegrass influence. How were you guys first introduced to bluegrass?
AA: I was first introduced to bluegrass through the band Old And In The Way via The Grateful Dead. In 1993, when I was in college, a buddy told me that Jerry [Garcia] used to play banjo in this other band and you should check it out. Over the next 5 years or so, I was introduced to Doc Watson and Norman Blake, but that was it. It wasn’t until I met the guys in Yonder in 1998 that I really heard Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and folks like Tony Rice and Béla Fleck.
DJ: I came to bluegrass when I was in college. There was a show on Tuesdays that I stumbled into, and they played all kinds of bluegrass/newgrass related material: Norman Blake, [John] Hartford, Old And In The Way, The [David Grisman] Quintet, [Tony] Rice, but then there would be these fantastic trad-type songs coming on as well. Stuff like the Skaggs/Whitley/Stanley album, Jimmy Martin, the Osbornes, and of course, the golden imprint of Earl and Lester. Also, there were bridge bands between the two extremes, like Alison Krauss, that seemed like they maintained a foot in the past and were very confidently putting one into the future.
DM: There is also some influences that are clearly not bluegrass. Where else do you guys draw inspiration?
AA: Throughout my life, I seemed to move all around the musical spectrum as far as what kind of music I was drawn to, but I’d have to say I was most influenced by classic rock from the 60’s and 70’s. For guitar, my influences early on were Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, but later on it was Jerry Garcia and David Grier. For lyrics, I’m a huge fan of Bob Dylan. I really enjoy writing with Dave as I’m a big fan of his style and approach which tends to be less literal than you’re average song.
DJ: I really enjoy lyrics. Any lyric that can kill two birds with one word really piques my interest in any kind of song, be it popular or as far out indie weird as you can get. I’ve always thought the directness of punk rock lyrics and the directness of great bluegrass lyrics have something in common.
DM: Your music has transcended genre barriers. How would you best describe the music of YMSB to a first-time listener?
AA: Well, it depends who I’m talking to. If you’re a fan of traditional bluegrass, I might say that we have a bluegrass instrumentation, but we’re plugged in and heavily influenced by rock. That, and at times we play really fast. I might add that it’s not as polished as other bluegrass acts largely because we write a different set list every night, and we play two sets of music which equals quite a few songs. For folks who aren’t familiar with bluegrass, I’d say we’re a rock-influenced bluegrass band that plays loud and fast. The main difference being that I hesitate to call us a bluegrass band to traditionalists, though we’re definitely an offshoot.
DJ: I would say that YMSB is informed by a bluegrass energy, that the foundations of bluegrass are prominent in our musical structure, but we also feel it is important to let us be ourselves, and for us to express what we have in a way fitting for what the material requires. For instance, if a song we are working on is about East Nashville, we might want to explore putting something in the song that has a little more grit.
DM: You guys have been immensely popular all over the globe for the past decade and a half. What are some highlights of your career?
AA: Last week we played two shows with Phil Lesh, bass player for The Grateful Dead. It was an amazing time and most definitely a highlight for me. Not only was he a great person, he complimented the band very well even with 2 basses on stage. Ben’s approach is solid and simplified and Phil had a 6-string bass guitar and was all over the place (in a good way!). I hope to do it again. The fact that we regularly get to play with musicians like Darol Anger, Danny Barnes, Larry Keel, The McCoury’s, The Stringdusters, and on and on is certainly a great thing. We are extremely lucky to do what we do and I will never take it for granted.
DJ: It feels like there are always more highlights than I could really do justice. I guess a general answer is that at the forefront of what is inspiring to me is the relationships that have happened because of the band. It is a little overwhelming to feel like you are sharing the stage with your heroes and that you get to see them pushing themselves, even when what they are doing is already mind blowing. I also really enjoy seeing the country, and places like Europe and Japan.