INTERVIEW: 20 Minutes with 1/2 of the Yonder Mountain String Band
Interview & Photos By: Bradley Darby (http://about.me/darbystl)
As you may have seen previously here on Concert Confessions, the Yonder Mountain String Band will be heading out on a cross country trek beginning this week in Lawrence, KS at Liberty Hall and inevitably going all the way through their Harvest Music Festival in October. The tour hits my hometown of St. Louis this Friday and Saturday night and you can still pick up tickets to join in on the festivities as the Nederland, Colorado based jam band/new grass quartet hits The Pageant stage following Brown Bird at 7:30PM each night. Make sure to check back here next week for a full recap of both shows!
We recently caught up with mando master Jeff Austin as he voyaged around the greater Colorado area on a man cave shopping spree, as well as banjo picker Dave Johnston on his way home from the doctor to ask the guys a few questions about music, baseball, piracy, and their favorite things to do while in St. Louis.
Jeff: THIS IS JEFF AUSTIN!
Me: Hello Jeff Austin, how are you?
Jeff: I’m good man! I’m highly caffeinated and I am buying fun things for my man cave. I just bought a big flat screen, I am going to buy a home computer, amp cables, mic stands, I’m buying a bass… today is a fun fucking day!
Me: It sounds like it!
(Joined by Dave Johnston)
Dave: Hello, Dave here!
Me: I appreciate you guys taking the time to talk with me today. The first thing I wanted to ask you about is what it’s like having the opportunity at this point in your career to share a stage with your friends, and influences, like Sam Bush, and even Bela Fleck for instance at last year’s Harvest Festival.
Jeff: The cool thing, especially within this genre of music, is to get the opportunity to play with people that are like your hero’s and you kinda idolize, or look up to in a big, big way. In this area of music, the acoustic-new grass-bluegrass-Americana kinda thing, there’s a bigger sense of being open and sharing experiences with each other. So to get to be on stage with Bela Fleck, and to consider him someone that’s not just an influence to me, but he’s a friend to me… And Sam Bush, calling him and talking shit about baseball, it’s just another phase of those guys being someone who inspires you, you know. When they go from being someone you may idolize to being a friend, its a cool transition and knowing people in the rock world, it doesn’t seem to really happen that much in that world, but in this world it really seems to be something that doesn’t just happen, it’s kind of a pride thing you know? I take great pride in the fact that Sam is a buddy of ours.
Me: How heavily involved are you in bringing in bands you love and buddies at the Harvest Festival, such as the McCourys and Keller, guys like that?
Jeff: It’s definitely not coincidental I mean, its something that if we are going to put our name on something and partner with someone we definitely want to make sure we have input in every aspect. Who’s playing the festival, and even better if they’re buddies of ours that we already have a relationship with them, or if it’s someone we’ve always wanted to meet and interact with we bring them in and strike up a friendship with them. Like last year at Harvest Festival, I’d never met Howard Levy before then. But about a week and a half ago I was in Los Angeles and the Flecktones happened to be in town and the next thing I know I find myself with Howard after the show laughing and joking and talking baseball and talking music and stuff. There’s no coincidence in that sort of thing man, we love to have our buddies invited to the party.
Me: I can tell you first hand from the fans side that the last two Harvest Festivals were two of the best weekends of recent memory, and I really appreciate what you do to you putting those festivals on.
Jeff: I appreciate hearing that man. We got some great stuff planned for this year and I think its just going to continue like a big family picnic feel
Me: You certainly picked a great spot to host them, Mulberry Mountain is a beautiful place.
Jeff: What an awesome site, such a great spot
Me: So Jeff you mentioned talking baseball with Sam Bush, and I know you are a big Cubs fan, that’s been documented in the past… I’m in STL and as you know there’s a friendly rivalry between the two cities… I know Sam Bush is a big Cardinals fan… does that ever create a problem with you two?
Jeff: No no, you know the thing is as hardcore and until my dying day am I a Cubs fan, I’m also just a huge fan of baseball. Just to watch what happened last year, that was amazing. I have a bunch of friends that are big Cardinals fans, including Sam, and just to see that happen and go ‘man what an amazing thing for the sport of baseball in general’. It’s never presented a problem because the one bet Sam and I ever made, I won. And the thing was with Sam especially, he grew up, who was one of your broadcasters back in the day? Harry Carey, and then Harry came to the Cubs, so theres this connection between just loving the sport of baseball. Yeah they’re rivals and you’ll never find me wearing red, but it’s a fun thing for Sam and I to have a jab at each other about and I’ve never had any ill intent behind it, it’s just talking good baseball.
(Dave re-joins the conversation after dropping call)
Me: As I had told you earlier Concert Confessions is all about the by the fans for the fans point of view, and I was curious to know what’s one of the best shows you’ve had the chance to see lately as a fan when you aren’t on your hectic touring schedule?
Dave: I just saw Ryan Adams in Denver and I was very impressed with it, it was very inspiring.
Jeff: I’m the resident dirty hippy of the band.. Last year first night of Phish at the Gorge… I’ve been seeing that band for 20 years and that was just one of the best. To see a group of guys who at one point probably were never going to speak to each other again go out there and do what they did, I was so impressed. August 5, 2011, it just blew my mind. Just such great interplay, they were laughing, having a blast, everyone is healthy and happy, that for me was a pretty mind blowing experience. In recent memory that was one of the great times I have had recently. It’s just nice to see them getting along and making good music in a different frame of mind.
Me: What was the first bluegrass album or show that made you say “this is what I want to do”?
Dave: I went to go see this band called Traditional Grass in Urbana at a park festival kind of thing. There was this fantastic banjo picker there named Joe Mullen. After I saw that I couldn’t believe you could do that with an instrument and that set me on the path.
Jeff: The first bluegrass I had heard that I kind of really recognized, as I learned my mom was a semi truck driver, an 18 wheeler driver, and when I was really little we would drive around and listen to a lot of old country western radio and there was a lot of bluegrass. So I found out recently I was exposed to a lot of it when I was younger, and it was funny because one of my mom’s favorite groups was Del McCoury and now Del’s a close friend and that’s pretty crazy. When I was a senior in hs we did a production of Huck Finn and I was the lighting, sound director and stage manager and this music that they used was John McEuen’s record The String Wizards. It was 1991/92 and I didn’t really put together that it’s Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and Earl Scruggs and John McEuen and you know, but I remember the impact it had on me, it had drums and stuff like that but I still remember it and I actually just found my original tape of it. As far as the first thing I ever heard that really stuck with me as far as really seeing bluegrass I think it was the first year that me and Dave and a couple of the other guys that were in a band that Dave got together called the Bluegrassholes in Illinois and we went to Merlefest, I don’t remember the year, 96 maybe, and just sitting in mud watching all these amazing musicians play we never slept, we just watched music all day and go back to camp, drink some beers and cheap whiskey and play music until the sun came up.. fall asleep for a few hours, wake up when the tent got too hot, and go back after it for four days straight and that for me was when the hook got set and I thought this is what I really want to do.
Me: I was up in your hometown of Nederland last fall and had the opportunity to go to Red Rocks for the first time to see you guys, how often do you make it back home to Nederland?
Dave: I was just up there a little while ago, my sister and her husband live in the area and I live in Boulder now. But I was up there doing my taxes and paying a little visit. About once every 6 mos or so me and the family get up there
JA: i live 10 mins from Ned so I am in Ned pretty often, I was there yesterday at the playground with my gf and her daughter, I am there a lot. I got buddies in Ned, I go to the deli and eat soup, I go have a beer at the PI and stuff like that. I’m about 10 mins south of there so I’m there pretty often.
Me: You tend to often do multiple day runs in St. Louis (3 nights NYE 2010, 2 nights Feb 2010)… what do you like to do for fun when you’re here?:
Dave: Right down the street from the Pageant is that killer record store right?
Me: Vintage Vinyl
Dave: YEAH! The Thai food down the street is pretty badass
Jeff: I’m with Dave I pretty much go from the gym at the Moonrise or whatever the heck it is to the record store, and I gotta give major credit to the Thai Country Cafe which is my favorite Thai spot right there, for bringing back the duck noodle soup. finally, it was off the menu for like 2 years and it was a heartbreak because every time we pulled into STL Adam and I, our guitar player, would wake up and roll down and get the roast duck noodle soup and a couple years ago they took it off the menu and I was doing a show there with the Traveling McCoury’s and Bill Nershi at Old Rock House and we went with a good friend of mine Dave Shulman, who works at the Mimi Fishman Foundation in honor of Jon Fishman from Phish’s mom, and I said ‘lets go to the Thai Country Cafe’ and I sat down and opened the menu and it was back on the menu! I hugged the guy and told him it was awesome. The shows in STL are pretty pumped up crowds, so the shows are pretty heavy duty. I sleep in a little bit and wake up, go for a run, lift some weights, record store and Thai food, sound check and off to the races again.
Me: What are your thoughts on SOPA and piracy in general in terms of like YouTube?
Dave: I think that John Barlow had a really good way of looking at this whole thing. you cant manufacture scarcity right, what YouTube does is it exposes everyone and you can get yourself out there for free and while its true you might not make a lot of money selling records because of YouTube or piracy and things like that, the fact is you will make more money doing your music. Ask the Grateful Dead, they are proponents and proof that just because something is scarce doesn’t make it more valuable. They made their stuff very available and did a great job with that and I love the fact that Barlow called attention to that one time. I still blow that horn quite a bit
Jeff: We’re a live band. Would I love to sell a million records and have songs on the radio, fuck yes… any musician who tells you different is a liar. I believe that strongly, any musician that doesn’t want success is selling themselves short. But we’ve always been a word of mouth band, we played a show in 1999 that was recorded on microphones and circulated and turned California into one of our biggest markets. If we have a great experience with each other on stage and it gets out there on YouTube or somebody streams it on their phone and a thousand people watch it… that spreads so quickly in this day and age where I can go to a Flecktones show and take a five minute video and send it to 10 friends they send it to 10 friends and within 24 hours a thousand people see it, or ten thousand people or a hundred thousand people. That’s our bag, we’re a live band, we’ve always been a touring band and we made our nut off of going and hitting the bricks and making music in front of people and showing them that kind of direct honesty as opposed to the filter the studio can give you. I think it’s an important thing and nothing about that really scares me. If you got a song you haven’t recorded on a record yet and you want people to be hip to it and someone shoots a video of it a night the bands really hot, that can spark a lot of things when that video pops up, and then the record comes out and people pay attention to it more… I think it’s a really beneficial thing, especially in this day of age where, shit what was the top selling record last yr?? 2 million copies, 3 millions copies?? When I was a kid they were selling 3 million copies in a week. The importance of if can’t be understated that even for bands like us that even though we’ve been together 14 years and touring that entire existence, the word is still getting out about us. People are still finding out about us. Who are these guys, when did they get together? Great awesome, welcome in, eat it up! That’s kind of how I feel
Me: Thanks for the time today, we certainly do appreciate it. Is there anything you want to add?
Dave: Looking forward to getting to St. Louis….
Jeff: The start of this tour for us is pretty damn fun for us… Lawrence, Kansas then 2 nights in St. Louis and then Tulsa I think. It’s a nice little beginning for a trip, it couldn’t be set up better… we’re psyched! Get there early and check out Brown Bird, they’re pretty hip they are getting some really good buzz and have a real cool thing going on so check them out!
CATCH THE YONDER MOUNTAIN STRING BAND THIS SPRING AND SUMMER AT A VENUE NEAR YOU!