One might say that Yonder Mountain String Band is going back to its roots. One might say that the band has retooled, reloaded or any number of unrealistically tidy words used to describe a process of fundamental change.
Of course, if you ask the players, they’ll probably tell you that they’re just making music and having fun.
“Unless there’s really something serious to do, we’re usually joking around, and even when there is something serious, we’re usually joking about that,” guitarist Adam Aijala told Tahoe Onstage.
Yonder Mountain String Band is appearing at Cargo at Reno’s Whitney Peak Hotel on Thursday, April 2.
In the world of musicians, things don’t get much more serious than mutually parting ways with a longtime band mate and frontman. That’s exactly what Yonder Mountain and mandolin player Jeff Austin did in 2014 after 17 years of massive success on the national bluegrass scene.
Shortly thereafter, Aijala, banjo player Dave Johnston and bassist Ben Kaufmann invited fiddler Allie Kral and mandolin virtuoso Jacob Joliff to join the storied string band, providing the lineup with more depth and traditional bluegrass instrumentation than ever before.
“It was very serendipitous the way it worked out, how we got Allie and Jake, and I’m thankful for that,” Aijala said. “They both have really good work ethics, and they’re both great hangs offstage, and obviously they’re fun as hell to play music with. But they’re just really good people. They both are sarcastic, they have dry senses of humor. They take stuff lightly, because you know, we’re a bunch of clowns.”
With the new lineup set, YMSB piled into the recording studio in late 2014, laying down the bands upcoming album, “Black Sheep.”
“It’s awesome man, I know Ben had a quote saying, ‘It sounds more like Yonder than anything we’ve done before,’” Aijala said.
“Black Sheep” represented a new step for Yonder Mountain String Band in a number of ways. It is the first album that the band has self-produced for one, and of course, it included two new members for the first time in YMSB’s existence.
“It’s kind of hard to know just how different it was, because the whole situation was different,” Aijala said. “Obviously you remove a dude, you know, there were four of us in the band; you remove any one of us and it’s going to sound a lot different, never mind the dude who was our front man.
“But I’m really happy with the results. I think everyone played really well and I think the songs are really good. You know, having Jake and Ally was really interesting. Jake hadn’t even played a show with us when we did the first one or two sessions with him, I think just the first session.”
One significant step the band took was to pull back on many of the rock music-oriented approaches that typified previous records. “Black Sheep” does not include drums or electric guitar, for example.
“We didn’t say we’re not going to have drums on it when we started, but there are no drums on it,” Aijala said. “There was no preconceived notion. We just had these songs and wanted to see how they sounded.”
Co-written by Johnston, Kaufmann and Aijala, the material on the upcoming record is almost as new as the lineup.
“There are three songs that we wrote over the end of 2013 and finished, some of them, finished just in 2014,” Aijala said. “We didn’t start playing them until our winter tour last year. There are three songs on the album that we’ve been playing for the last year, and then the other seven songs are all brand new, six originals and one cover. We haven’t played any of them; we’re going to wait ’till the record comes out.”
The album release is dated for June 6, timed to coincide with one of the highlights of the summer festival season.
“The record comes out during Telluride (Bluegrass Festival) weekend, Telluride bluegrass,” Aijala said. “You know, we always look forward to going there anyway, and now it has an extra punch with the record.”
While the band has experienced massive change in the last two years, it doesn’t view the album as any sort of redefining moment.
“This album isn’t a statement, it’s an album. For us it was such a fun experience, and I want to do another one,” Aijala said.
Ultimately, it’s about the music.
“For me, I’ll never take for granted what I get to do for a living, to be able to go into the studio and make a record is fun, it doesn’t feel like work,” Aijala said. “I think it’s good though, I think we did a really good job and I’m proud of it.”
For now, YMSB is off on a tour of the Western United States, with plenty of shows to play and plenty of time for the new lineup to settle in further.
“I think we’re still figuring out the whole deal,” Aijala said. “When you play with another guy for 16 years, there’s a glue there that took time to adhere and to solidify, and I think that we’re still working on that with everybody.
“If they’re still having fun and playing with us in another year it’s probably safe to assume that they are going to be with us for a while.”
Yonder Mountain String BandWhen: 8 p.m. Thursday, April 2
Where: Cargo @ Whitney Peak Hotel
ABOUT Josh Sweigert
Josh grew up on the California coast with a deep appreciation for bluegrass and string band music as well as the great outdoors. A guitarist and singer, he plays solo acoustic gigs in South Lake Tahoe.
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