Yonder Mountain String Band's Jeff Austin and Dave Johnston on being inspired by Colorado
If any band typifies the Colorado approach to contemporary bluegrass, it's Yonder Mountain String Band. The quartet built up its chops playing in venues in Boulder, Nederland and beyond in the late 1990s, and its fusion of traditional instrumentation and progressive musical structures resonated with local crowds. The quartet has spent the past year playing sold-out shows in venues across the country and appeared on The Late Show With Craig Ferguson. Despite the national exposure, the guys still consider the group a Colorado act playing Colorado bluegrass, even if they can't describe the exact characteristics of their sound. Backbeat caught up with banjo/vocalist Dave Johnston and mandolin player/vocalist Jeff Austin to talk about their next record and their upcoming four-night stint at the Boulder Theatre for New Year's Eve.
Brandon Marshall Yonder Mountain String Band at Red Rocks last year. Slide show: Yonder Mountain String Band at Red Rocks
- Slide show: Yonder Mountain String Band at Red Rocks
- Todd Snider on how he thinks of acoustic guitars and mandolins when he thinks of Colorado
- Photos: Yonder Mountain String Band at Red Rocks, 8/20/11
Westword: Can you give me a quick history of the band?
Jeff Austin: I met Dave in Illinois in the mid-'90s. We moved to Colorado in '98, met the other guys and formed the band. That's the long story, short. The other guys were living out here, and we all kind of joined forces with the same mindset of playing music and getting after it, not just making it a hobby. The rest is off to the races.
Dave was in school, I was a sideline observer. I was observing everyone go to school (laughs). That was my job. I was support; I was in the bullpen in case someone didn't make a class. They'd call me, and I'd just fill in.
Dave Johnston: He was writing papers on the side.
JA: A man's gotta make a living, you know.
I got to interview Todd Snider about a month ago, and he specifically mentioned you guys when he spoke of the music scene in Boulder and, more generally, Colorado. He talked a lot about how Nashville shaped his music, and I'm curious as to how geography has affected your approach to bluegrass.
DJ: As much as being geographically in Colorado has been important, I think also there are two bands that had come out of Boulder and that had started an aesthetic for music: the String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon -- they set the tone for the idea that you could rock, or space out, or jam with this kind of music. Also, Hot Rize, for me and for Jeff and everyone else in the band, was a big deal, too. They kind of showed you how you could be a traditional sounding band but still not sound like traditional stuff.
JA: Yeah, they're wearing suits and playing traditional songs, but then Pete Wernick has got a flange on his banjo. You know what I mean? It's like, 'Maybe if we wear a suit and a tie they won't notice that we're playing some trippy stuff up here.'
Dave's right. Between those three bands, it awakened the palette of people's taste in music and what they were willing to give their time to check out. It was an adventurous atmosphere, and because you had adventurous musicians, and you had an audience that was willing to listen to those bands. It was a perfect formula for us and for what we wanted to do.
Early on, I think we were more steered toward trying to be a Hot Rize kind of a band, and then there was just a natural metamorphosis of us playing together. You never really know who you are until you get on stage and you play together. That's where we really found out who we were as a band and what our identity was. We still do to this day. We still have discoveries.
Early on, when we were out here -- in 1998 the band started -- that was kind of a period of, 'Holy crap, these people are really willing to stick with you through a lot of experimentation.' Hot Rize and Salmon and String Cheese, they paved that way, and there was this audience sitting here waiting to check something else out. It's hugely beneficial to have a crowd of people to play for who were interested in hearing what you had going on.
Do you think that freedom and that space to experiment was unique to the scene in Boulder?
DJ: I think it was a big part of Boulder and the area. There are just tons of people out here who are really creative. There are so many independent businesses, so many different ways that people are going about doing things. I think it's characteristic of people around here.
JA: I think so. If you're a band starting out, there are coffeehouses you can go play on a Tuesday for free and do that week after week and build an audience. Then you can go play at the Mountain Sun on a Sunday for free and build an audience. Once you've got that, there are various levels of clubs you can play.
If you look at it as a ladder thing, you can go from a coffeehouse to 100 people packed into the Mountain Sun to 150 people in the Lazy Dog. Then you get the Fox, and the Boulder Theatre with 1,000 people. This area not only allows you to grow as a band, it allows you to be able to move up in venues gradually and work towards it. You've also got music promoters who are very aware of what's going on. They really pay attention to that.
Shit, if it wasn't for Sunday-night gigs that we played at the Mountain Sun over and over and over, we would never have been asked to play the Fox or the Boulder Theatre. I think that's another thing that's really encouraging for bands: They have a way they can grow.