Weather Updates

Speaking With .... Yonder Mountain String Band 10.19.12

Yonder MountaString Band

Yonder Mountain String Band

storyidforme: 38578330
tmspicid: 14193843
fileheaderid: 6464904

Mountain String Band


♦ 8:30 p.m. Oct. 19-20

♦ House of Blues,
329 N. Dearborn

♦ Tickets, $26-$30; two-day pass, $49 (17+over)

♦ (312) 923-2000;

Updated: November 20, 2012 10:35AM

It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but bluegrass music is quite the special brew when it’s served up by Yonder Mountain String Band.

Not since the Stanley Brothers, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and in more recent years Alison Krauss and even the hit film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” has the genre enjoyed a greater champion than the rockin’ boys of YMSB.

Comprised of Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals), Jeff Austin (mandolin, vocals), Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals) and Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals), the Colorado-based quartet of pickers winds its way to Chicago with a 2-night run at House of Blues.

We caught up with Johnston and Austin recently while the group was hosting its annual Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival in the heart of the Ozarks.

Question:Why did you guys decide to throw an annual music festival in the fall?

Dave Johnston: Lots of festivals take place in the summer. I can only think of two in the fall, ours and Austin City Limits. We decided it was a good time of year to throw a party for all the folks going back to school.

Q.You guys are originally from the Chicago are, so why not bring it home and host it in Chicago?

DJ:Hmmm. We can’t take that option off the table for sure.

Jeff Austin: That’s a great idea. I went to high school in Rolling Meadows. I spent the majority of my growing up years in the northwest suburbs. We need to think about this.

Q.When you come back to Chicago, how much has it changed from when you lived here?

JA: When I was living in Humboldt Park in the ’80s, my mom would look out the window and say, “Hey are those guys going to play baseball with that man with the bats they’re carrying? We played the Congress Theater a few years back, and now the neighborhood is more like, “Do you want the steamed mussels? Whipped with your latte?” [Laughs] It’s changed a LOT.

Q.Your last album came out in 2009. I hear you guys are finally heading back to the studio.

JA: We’ll be in Chicago for one day to just get the process started at a studio there, and it will be our first day in a recording studio since 2008. A lot of factors led to this. One is that we all used to live in the same area, but now one of us lives in California, the rest are in Colorado. Life moves along. We’ve all got different things going and families, but the time just presented itself as being right. We have stockpile of material we’ve been playing live for three years in festival after festival and we figured the time was right to put it onto an album. So we now have to go from a touring mindset to a studio mindset.

DJ:I think the handful of stuff that’s in the bag will be on there, but you can’t rule out new stuff that’s provoked by something that happens once you’re in the studio.

Q. What was it about bluegrass that sounded so cool to you way back in the day?

JA: I don’t really know how to answer that. The only thing I can think of is that even though none of us grew up with this style of music, none of us were farm boys from a little cabin in the woods, we just somehow found this style of music we loved and it became a direct outlet for each of us emotionally.

We’d just sit down and pick and play traditional bluegrass. Then I remember we kinda went, hey let’s not cut the song short, let’s stretch it out for 12 minutes. Let’s just go with it and see what happens. So Dave and I went out to Colorado with some of the first songs and we showed the other guys that the music had this great depth and breadth. And I was like, “If you’re cookin’ at 32 bars, why stop? So you had four people with one thing in common: We love playing three-minute-long traditional bluegrass, but why don’t we try in the middle to see if this tune bends? Why don’t we take one of Dave’s instrumentals and put it at the end of a song?

We created this new sound out of all of that. We could play this tune for 12 minutes and have it go places and mean something.

DJ:When I first heard bluegrass I thought it was cool. I thought it was really direct and great ensemble-kind of music. I liked the lyrics and the emotion, like the stuff coming out of the Stanley Brothers and Jimmy Martin. Real music. We presented it in the late 1990s and I don’t think good music was on anyone’s radar. Then [the movie] “O Brother Where Art Thou” came out and this music became cooler. Now everyone’s using strings. Suddenly the banjo was everywhere. The music is all about the beautiful simplicity of bass and mandolin providing this driving beat so the banjo can push everything forward.

Q.Interestingly, your band doesn’t include a fiddler.

JA: Fiddlers are expensive. But we get to play with great guest fiddlers all the time.

Q.What do you think of Steve Martin and his Steep Canyon Rangers?

DJ:I’m psyched that Steve is doing that stuff. He’s this comedic icon and an actor and painter and writer; it’s so cool to see him doing this music.

JA: My mom and dad were truck drivers, so I grew up with hardcore country music. The first banjo I ever heard was Steve Martin because I was babysat by a Steve Martin addict. And how did he start every one of his concerts? With a banjo!

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.