Yonder Mountain String Band: This Is (Almost) 40
Photo by Dave Vann
“Our ears are more open,” says Johnston, who, at age 39, reflects on the fact that he’s become less self-conscious as a songwriter and more confident with age and success. “Maybe the band is a little less self-conscious about [songwriting] in that regard, as well. Everyone is a little more self-assured in what they’re doing and readily acknowledging the true potential of what we have.”
When Yonder went in the studio to record what would become The Show, back in 2009, producer Tom Rothrock (Foo Fighters, Beck) proposed that the band stomp on a kick-drum. Which is exactly what Mumford & Sons did later that same year.
“We thought, ‘Nah, that would never go over,’” laughs Austin. “And now, that’s the fucking thing and it makes arenas full of people go nuts. We sit there and go, ‘Fucking Rothrock can see the future!’ The guy helped write fucking [Beck’s] ‘Loser,’ for God’s sake. That changed everything. Everything. You can argue it, but look at the facts—it did. We all kind of went, ‘Shit. OK.’” Austin takes a breath, shakes his head and glances down at the table. “It comes up a lot, but it’s not like, ‘Let’s write a song with that feel.’”
“I’ve written in Nashville and sat in circles and said that sort of thing,” Austin continues, talking about a song he wrote with country songwriters Shawn Camp and John Scott Sherrill. “And you know what happened when I did that? The song got picked up, it charted and it got Grammy-nominated.”
The song, “Fiddlin’ Around,” appeared on Dierks Bentley’s 2010 hit album, Up on the Ridge. “That’s what happened when I did that,” says Austin. “It works. It fucking works. In every genre, there can be a formula that works. It’s just, do you want to do that?” Austin’s own feeling, of course, is no. He doesn’t. Nor do his bandmates.
“I don’t want to sacrifice the music or what we do with the hope that we’ll be famous and rich,” says Aijala. If a Yonder song somehow became a runaway smash, then they would ride that as far as it went, naturally. But, he says, “I don’t want to write a half-assed song that appeals to bovine America, as Bill Hicks would say. I’m just not interested.”
Yonder Mountain String Band haven’t released a new studio album since 2009. That’s four years ago. In music industry terms, four years equals a lifetime. Entire bands are born and die within that frame. Careers are made and lost. Whole genres come and go. And yet, for Yonder, those four years have been part of a steady continuum. They’ve grown their audience, organically—steady as she goes. If bluegrass is a style of music that reveres the past and which makes a virtue out of looking back, then Yonder place a higher premium on the present tense.
Various band members tell me that there isn’t a five year plan, other than perhaps being able to play fewer shows and have it work out financially so that they can spend more time at home with their families. But they’re looking at ways to do this without changing anything about their music. On this point, they stand united and steadfast. So, they aren’t using a kick-drum—unless, of course, one of them feels compelled to use it for a certain effect in a song, but certainly not because that’s what worked for another band. Maybe they never got to experience the catapult effect of the music industry’s flights of fancy, but they’re all the happier because of it.
“When we were trying to push the songs off of the first record, they were like, ‘You have to bury the banjo more,’” says Austin, from a semi-secluded spot on the beach, near the resort’s dive shop. Austin’s an avid diver and he enjoys the solitude of being 60 or more feet underwater. In the distance, Yonder fans swim, snorkel and sunbath. It’s a surreal scene and we get distracted for a moment before focusing back on the topic at hand. “We were like, ‘We’re not going to bury the banjo any more—the banjo is in the fucking band. We’ve already got drums on the track and keyboards.’ We’re not going to bury the banjo. That’s ridiculous. Then, it’s not Yonder Mountain String Band anymore.”
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