Take Five: The Yonder Mountain String Band Expands to a Quintet

Originally formed in Colorado during the late ’90s, the Yonder Mountain String Band recently self-released its sixth full-length studio album, Black Sheep [Frog Pad Records].
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Originally formed in Colorado during the late ’90s, the Yonder Mountain String Band recently self-released its sixth full-length studio album, Black Sheep [Frog Pad Records]. For this album, the band’s lineup expanded to a five-piece, including founding members Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals), Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals), and Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals), along with the additions of Allie Kral (violin) and Jacob Jolliff (mandolin).

Black Sheep is the first time the Yonder Mountain String Band has used a five-piece lineup throughout an entire record.

Johnston: It’s what you would call a traditional bluegrass lineup. And it’s the first time that we’ve really worked in that format at length. It’s fun, because with five instruments, we can explore different kinds of space and musical real estate.

Jolliff: It’s the first album I’ve been on, and it’s the first one with a fiddle player officially in the group—though I know Darol Anger played a bit on some of their other records.

Is it difficult getting all five instruments to fit into a song without one instrument clashing with another?

Aijala: Sometimes. A traditional bluegrass lineup puts the instruments into distinct roles going back historically, so playing bluegrass shouldn’t cause any clashes. However, we play a lot of rock-influenced stuff, and we also try to throw in reggae, funk, and even slow, drone-y stuff, so there are certain rhythms that can be an issue. Try playing reggae when you don’t have a drummer! In that situation, everyone has to fill in a little bit more. So you think, “Well, what can I do?” And that’s when you have to be very careful, because if you’re playing reggae with no drums, and you’re not right on the money, it sounds really off.

Jolliff: You have to figure out who is going to play which part and where. Sometimes, there will be two people clashing or conflicting with the arrangement, and you have to figure out something else for one of them to do. But you can usually figure that out, or have somebody drop out for a chorus. It just takes a little bit more finagling to figure out parts for everyone that add to the song.

Johnston: But I have to say that with this particular group of people, everyone is usually right where they need to be. I don’t know if we’re consciously aware of which parts work together, but the flow always seems to happen to create a great ensemble sound.

What are some of the highlights of Black Sheep for you?

Johnston: The album covers a huge range of what we’re capable of—lyric-wise and ensemble-wise. And it also showcases a forward-thinking potential that we’re all very happy about. I’m really impressed with the overall band effort. I like that we mixed and produced most of it ourselves, and we all had a lot of creative input.

Aijala: I wanted to do a cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love.” I’m a Buzzcocks fan, and we had been playing that song backstage for a while, but we never performed it live. I never thought we’d put it on the album, but then Ben, our bass player, suggested it. That was one of the highlights for me.

Jolliff: I like “Insult and an Elbow.” It’s super fun to play, and it has a lot of solo sections. It seems like it’s going to be a good jammer that we can extend when performing live. I also like “Love Before You Can’t.” That’s more of a soul vibe with a ’70s R&B feel. We don’t really have any other songs in that style, so I enjoy playing it. And, on stage, I’ve been playing mandolin through some distortion for it—which is always fun.

How much did the music’s speed—that bluegrass shredding—attract you to the style?

Aijala: When I first started listening to music outside of pop radio, I was influenced by my sister, who was two grades ahead of me in school. While I was still in junior high, she would come home and hang out with skaters, so they all introduced me to the punk scenes in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York, and Boston. I was drawn to the lyrics, the intensity, and speed, but I didn’t formulate this connection to what I do now until many years later, after being in Yonder Mountain for a while. People would ask me, “What drew you to bluegrass?” And, really, it was the fast stuff that first got me into bluegrass. I think any metal guitarist that rips—Kerry King or Kirk Hammett or whoever—would appreciate players such as David Grier, Tony Rice, and Bryan Sutton. And I think those guys probably appreciate metal stuff, too. It’s the same instrument, essentially. I don’t want to say that it’s easier to shred on the electric, because some of the sh*t that people pull off on electric guitars—like what Buckethead does, for example—is unbelievable. But it takes more physical force to do stuff when you play acoustic instruments.

Johnston: I believe that virtuosity can take many different forms. Someone like Robert Fripp is in a league of his own, and Yngwie Malmsteen is great and really inspiring. Bluegrass music may not be as harmonically complex as metal, but it requires the same kind of speed and fleet-fingered-ness.

Jolliff: And, a lot of times, the mandolin has the lead role because it’s loud and cutting. Traditionally, the guitar didn’t play solos very much in bluegrass. It was mostly a rhythm instrument.

Who are your main influences on your respective instruments?

Jolliff: Ronnie McCoury from the Del McCoury Band was sort of my mandolin hero when I was growing up. And then there are Sam Bush, David Grisman. and, of course, Chris Thile. You can’t play the mandolin in this day and age and not have Chris be a big influence. He’s one of the best, and he has really taken the instrument to new places.

Johnston: When I think of influences, I think of more of an inspiration sort of thing, rather than imitation. So, in that regard, I really like Earl Scruggs, John Hartford, Danny Barnes, and Bela Fleck.

Aijala: For rhythm—even though he wasn’t that great at it—I was drawn to Bob Dylan. It was more his early stuff—like the fingerpicking on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” I found that his playing had sort of a bluegrass rhythm, and that got me on my way. David Grier, in my opinion, is the most versatile acoustic guitar player out there. I love Bryan Sutton and Cody Kilby, and Larry Keel is also one of my favorite guitar players.

What are your main instruments?

Aijala: I love Collings guitars. I bought one in Arvada, Colorado back in ’99, and I’ve been using them pretty much since the beginning of the band. At the time, it was a CJ, which was their version of a jumbo. I went through a phase where I used the D2H, and now I have two D1s. I use D’Addario EXP Coated Phosphor Bronze strings. The top three strings are a light gauge, and the E, A, and D strings are a medium gauge.

Jolliff: I have a Gibson Sam Bush model mandolin, and it’s strung with D’Addario EXP75 Coated Phosphor Bronze strings. It’s the heaviest gauge of coated mandolin strings they have, and D’Addario developed them with Ronnie McCoury.

Johnston: I play a Stealth banjo that’s built by Scott Vestal, and I use GHS strings.

Bluegrass is almost veering close to the mainstream these days. What do you feel has helped the music win fans outside of its traditional audience?

Jolliff: There are a lot of factors. Guys like Chris Thile certainly played a big role, because he was in Nickel Creek—which was almost a pop band—and in the Punch Brothers, he has done a lot of projects with classical musicians. So I think he keeps pushing bluegrass to wider audiences. And, to some degree, I think popular bands like Mumford & Sons helped, too. They don’t play bluegrass, but they play acoustic instruments. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and there are all kinds of restaurants and bars that have bluegrass bands playing these days.

Johnston: I think people are demonstrating that bluegrass is not as self-consciously bound by its own traditions as it used to be. Banjo, in particular, has become a really palatable instrument for a lot of people. It has suddenly become kind of hip to play the banjo.

Aijala: It’s probably an organic cycle, in the same way that clothes come back around. It could be that everything got so electronic that people want to get back to more rootsy sounding stuff.