Q&A: Yonder Mountain String Band goes on record

Yonder Mountain String Band took the crowd at Crystal Bay's Crown Room on a far-reaching sonic journey on Friday, March 25.
Yonder Mountain String Band took the crowd at Crystal Bay’s Crown Room on a far-reaching sonic journey in 2016.
Larry Sabo / Tahoe Onstage

Like the name says, the Yonder Mountain String Band plays bluegrass and looks forward.

The Colorado quintet’s first album in two years, “Love. Ain’t Love,” includes the songs “Chasing My Tail” and “Alison,” which, its website describes as rooted in tradition but as current as tomorrow.

As part of an eight-show West Coast tour, Yonder Mountain String Band made its first Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room appearance in two years on Thursday, March 22.

Guitarist Adam Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjo player Dave Johnston are the original members. Fiddler Allie Kral and mandolin player Jacob Jolliff joined in 2014.

This summer, Yonder Mountain String Band will perform at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado, and at Northwest String Summit in North Plains, Oregon, Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado and the Great Alaska Music Festival in Palmer, Alaska.

Before hitting the road, banjo player Dave Johnston took time to answer some questions by Tahoe Onstage writer Garrett Bethmann:

Tahoe Onstage: Yonder Mountain String Band follows a business plan just about all bands follow in order to be financially viable these days: hit festival season hard in the summer, launch tours in each of the subsequent seasons, find time to record new material in between tours to release CDs and fuel the touring cycle. Over the span of the band’s career, has this always been the model you’ve followed? Is there anything about this model or system that you would change in an ideal scenario?

Dave Johnston: That’s pretty much been the model all along. As far as changing it, it would be nice to not have to travel as much, you know, and spend more time at home in an ideal scenario. Sometimes, one of the bigger challenges about being a musician or in a band that we face is that to a lot of people you are their weekend, their getaway, and as such, what you do doesn’t really look like work.

Kurt Johnson / Tahoe OnstageSimilarly, music is both an artistic and business endeavor. How do you balance those two aspects of being a musician? Have the practical applications of the business changed how you approach or appreciate the creative side of it?

Striking a balance between the two is essential if you want to get the whole perspective. But on the business side, there is only so much you, the band or musician, can fully control. You try to find people you trust and if it works it works. It’s changed my approach to the creative side because that’s as important a part of the job as business is, so working every day at it. Even if I only get one thing accomplished, one piece moved forward, then that’s a win.

What are some of the pivotal, conscious sacrifices you’ve made in your life and career that influenced the position you are in now? Are there any examples you can think of where, in retrospect, a sacrifice didn’t reap the return you were hoping? In what ways has your work ethic influenced the success you’ve had?

Most of the risks and sacrifices we’ve taken have turned out well. Deciding to travel the country and play in clubs was one thing we sacrificed. Sometimes you’d be in a place that was loud or dingy or that could have sounded better, but we decided that those places were just as good a place to play as anything else, and it turned out to be a nice stroke of luck. I think that one aspect of our work ethic has had a big influence on our success because it’s made us flexible and able to go where other bluegrass type bands may not have gone.

As live musicians, it is your job to literally put yourself onstage and grab the attention of an audience and entertain them. Furthermore, as a member of a nationally touring band, especially in the jam world, you have a spotlight on you from the press and critics. Just on a basic psychological level, what is it like for so many people in the world to know who you are and recognize you and to want a piece of your time? Has it had a significant impact on your life? How have you developed your own sense of personal space and anonymity?

I haven’t really noticed too much of a change and most people don’t recognize me until they ask what I do for work. Sometimes people ask what it’s like, and that can take some time but most of them are genuinely curious and respectful.

What aspects of being in Yonder Mountain String Band have you come to appreciate in your time with the band that wasn’t there from the beginning?

I’ve come to appreciate that it takes a lot people to keep things good. There are so many people involved and they really want to take care of you.

What is your relationship like with openers Old Salt Union?

Just met these guys this winter and really like them. They can play great, but they are also playful and have a good connection with music and the people that are there. Definitely get there early!

  • Yonder Mountain String Band
    March 23 – The Independent, San Francisco
    March 24 – The Independent, San Francisco
    March 25 – Terrapin Crossroads, San Rafael
    March 28 – Saint Rocke, Hermosa Beach
    March 29 – The Coach House, San Juan Capistrano
    March 30 – Belly Up, Solana Beach

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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