Rare is the bluegrass band with punk rock roots and a mandolin player that uses Lady Gaga as workout motivation. Yonder Mountain String Band is that band.
Known for their high-energy live shows, the IN was fortunate enough to catch up with acoustic guitarist Adam Aijala and mandolinist Jeff Austin to chat about the band’s journey from low-key Colorado picking sessions to national bluegrass favorite.
IN: What initially drew you to the decision to make music your career?
AUSTIN: I’ve wanted to do music my whole life, ever since I was in choir and theater as a kid. Unless I was going to Europe to learn the finer art of cooking and becoming a chef, this was it.
AIJALA: I always knew that music would be in my life in some way, but in no way did I see it growing like it has. I was listening and playing music all before puberty. Meeting these guys at the time I did was extremely fortuitous and made me think about how seriously I should be taking it.
IN: Were your families supportive of the idea?
AIJALA: My family was never unsupportive per se, but coming from a blue-collar background, they were hesitant about how I was going to pay my bills. I guess you could say they were realists, but I had a good feeling about the whole thing and was right to assume that.
AUSTIN: My mom has always been as encouraging as a parent could ever be. She was the mom who was at every single play and choir thing I ever did. She also saw that this was something I really liked doing and was able to make my best step forward in. Even to this day, when we go near home, she never misses a show.
IN: Who were some of the artists that really attracted you early on when first discovering music?
AIJALA: None of us were from a bluegrass background. For me growing up, it was the teachers of mine that got me excited about music. It was interesting to me to watch my grade school choir teacher, Mr. Schneider, count off a song and manage to make everybody laugh. He was a teacher and an entertainer. My high school choir director looked like Lemmy from Motorhead, so he was unforgettable. Up until junior high and high school, I was all about the more musical, operatic type people. Then I found the Grateful Dead and Phish, and all the players in both those bands taught me how much was possible with music. In the bluegrass world, players like Sam Bush and Del and Ronnie McCoury are inspiring
to this day.
IN: Adam, you’ve stated before that at a young age, punk rock was your weapon of choice. What’s the common thread between punk rock and bluegrass?
AIJALA: In a word, it’s the energy. I came into bluegrass via the Grateful Dead and Old and In the Way. Some of their faster songs, even though they sounded nothing like the stuff I was into as a kid, had the same brunt force that Black Flag and the Minutemen left me with. They all had quick, short songs with very pointed lyrics. If I had known about bluegrass back then, I would have been all about it. Players like Norman Blake and Tony Rice would have floored me. It’s a good thing I’ve become much more open-minded as I’ve gotten older.
IN: Talk about the beginning of the band and how you came together.
AUSTIN: I helped an ex-girlfriend move to the Boulder, Colorado area from Ohio in the mid-1990’s. I went to the RockyGrass Festival and fell in love with every aspect of the entire thing, especially staying after the grounds had closed and playing until the sun came up. That was it for me. It blew my mind how many people were and still are involved in the Colorado music scene. Eventually, the guys and I came across each other and hit it off. My entire reason for that initial move was just to play music, whether it became profitable or not.
AIJALA: Even before I met the other guys, I was going blindly to these open jams throughout Colorado and diving in head-first without knowing any of the songs. Most of the guys at these things were older and they took me under their wing. They’d be open and as encouraging as can be. The encouragement and open-mindedness I found at those things made me the player I am today.
IN: What’s the most difficult part of being an improv-based band?
AUSTIN: I don’t think there is anything difficult about it. The beauty of improv is that you can do no wrong. You can speed up or slow down dramatically, you can mess with scales. It’s all wide open.
AIJALA: I like to think of the other side of the coin. I’m not sure there’s any way I could play in a band that plays the same show over and over again with a strict set of rules. Having to play the same solo every night? That sounds difficult.
AUSTIN: There’s a reason I decided to switch from theater to live improvisational music. You get locked into a regiment in theater that can be brutal. When I was 16, I thought I could sing every word of Les Miserables every single night. Then I turned 20 and realized there’s no way I could ever do that.
IN: You’ve been able to build an incredibly loyal, yet demanding fan base. How do you deal with fan expectations?
AUSTIN: I just go out there and play every night. I listen a lot to fan feedback—ideas and criticism. Do I let it dictate my world? No, but if you don’t listen to the people that are coming out to support you, you’re being ignorant. These are the people who are putting food on your table, keeping the power on, gas in the car. Seeing the ripple effect that playing a fan request can have is a special thing.
AIJALA: When we’re putting together set lists, we always think about how it’s going to affect the audience. We’re not going to play a bunch of slow songs in a row—that’s just not who we are.
IN: What are you guys currently listening to?
AUSTIN: I couldn’t tell you the last time I listened to bluegrass. I’m in a pop music phase. I’m interested in seeing the twists and turns of what makes songs popular; Jay-Z and Bon Iver are getting a lot of play. And yes, I listen to Lady Gaga sometimes when I’m working. There’s a direct, guttural sense about some of her stuff that’s enjoyable. I wish I could explain that one more, but I refuse.
AIJALA: We have satellite radio on the bus, so I’ve noticed myself coming back to the Grateful Dead channel a lot recently.
AUSTIN: I can’t believe I almost forgot My Morning Jacket. It took me a while, but their stuff is finally resonating with me. There’s something so anthem-based about them that makes me want to stand in a field with 100,000 fans and scream.
IN: Anything else you’d like to add?
AUSTIN: I think it might be our first time playing Pensacola, so it should be a blast. It’s always fun when we have new stops come along.
Photo: Yonder Mountain String Band Official