With a banjo, a guitar, an upright bass and a mandolin — and four talented musicians to play them — Yonder Mountain String Band’s songs make you feel more like you’re spending a day in the Alabama woods rather than the Arizona desert.
However, with a new album being produced by Tom Rothrock, who has worked with the Foo Fighters and Beck, and featuring performances by Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s former drummer, Yonder gives the old-fashioned bluegrass sound a rock twist.
The Colorado-based band has been together for 14 years, performing shows throughout the country at big venues such as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Austin City Limits Festival and the Rothbury festival in Michigan.
We caught up with two members of Yonder Mountain String Band, Jeff Austin, 38, and Ben Kaufmann, 37, to learn more about their music roots and what fans can expect at their March 24 show at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival in Phoenix.
Q: How would you describe your sound?
Ben: It’s progressive bluegrass. The heart of the thing is in the bluegrass beat, the bluegrass feel, the bluegrass style … And then sort of from there, we started experimenting, (saying) ‘Well, we like rock songs, we like punk songs, we like blues songs. What would it sound like if we tried to play music like that with the instruments that we have?’ And you end up with what we do.
Q: Who do you take influences from as artists?
Ben: None of us grew up playing banjo with our grandpas. We grew up listening to ’80s pop and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead. The thing I like most is that all four of us pull our influences from different places. I think this lends to that chemistry thing, because we all come from real diverse (backgrounds), where we might have listed to Flock of Seagulls and listened to heavier music … It allows us to have this real wide palate.
Q: What are your live shows like?
Ben: We have, and I enjoy very much, the improvisational moments, (where) the only thing that is written in stone is that you’re starting at the same time, and it can go anywhere from there. To me, that’s living on the edge. It’s thrilling.
And then there’s the aspect to what we do (when) playing. We write the set list before the show, but there’s never a limitation or caps where we can’t do anything else…. It’s a very relaxed thing. I really appreciate the live aspect of what we do. What it means to have stood next to people for so long and played music with people for so long that I know what they’re going to do on their instrument ever so slightly after they (know it). It’s not mind-reading. It’s energy-reading. It’s an amazing occurrence that I think only happens with a group of people traveling together for any duration of time or involves listening to each other in music — a whole other language.
Q: What’s been the biggest moment for the band so far?
Jeff: There’s things like the first time we sold out Red Rocks or the first time we played Bonnaroo. In truth, for me, it’s trying to find those moments on a nightly basis, regardless of where you are or how many people are there or what number of show it is in the tour. Every night is a big night … If you approach every night like that, it pushes and encourages you to make that night the best experience. For people in the crowd, it may be the only time they’re seeing you, or it may be the 100th time they’re seeing you. And we try to make (every show) a night open for discovery and possibility.
Q: What can people expect from YMSB at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival?
Ben: There’s kind of an art to creating a good set list for a festival, given that we’re a band that doesn’t have one set list. If we played (a song) the night before, then we’re not going to play it…. It’s sort of like, we’ll see what song we’re feeling as it gets closer to the gig. There is an art of moving people with 90 minutes of microphone time. It’s a wonderful challenge.
Jeff: Also, it’s going be the last night of the tour for us … The last night of the trip is always fun. You’re as warmed up as you’re going to be. It’s a juxtaposition of being tired, but you’re also invigorated.
If you go
What: Yonder Mountain String Band performs a 90-minute concert as part of the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. Edward Sharpe, The Roots and The Shins are among other artists scheduled to perform.
When: Yonder Mountain String Band performs at 6 p.m., Sunday, March 24. The festival runs March 22-24.
Where: Margaret T. Hance Park, 200 E. Moreland St, Phoenix.
Cost: $40-$55 for access to all six of Sunday’s shows; $120-$150 for a three-day pass to all of the festival’s performances. One-hundred percent of the proceeds raised from the festival are donated to local charities Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Ear Candy and UMOM.
• Ellen, a junior studying journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.