I recently had the pleasure of taking a conference call with Ben and Dave from Yonder Mountain String Band leading up to their July 10th show at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. The performance will be the band’s first time playing Kalamazoo since 2006. Despite it being an early morning engagement for the duo, they were none the less talkative, upbeat (relatively) and happy to chat.
The conversation touched on many topics including; rare songs recorded, the creation of “Rock n’ Roll volume” and being fans of Twilight. Enjoy.
Randomville: So besides the obvious reason of free booze at Bell’s, why did you decide to come back to Kalamazoo to play in the beer garden?
Ben Kaufman: I’m going to watch everybody drink all that they can and make fun of them. I have a video camera.
Rv: Bell’s is a booze free venue so you’re going to have to bring your own whisky
Dave Johnston: We’ve never been challenged by that
Rv: I’m curious, it’s been five or six years since you guys were last in Kalamazoo and I’m kind of wondering what has changed in the band’s mindset; you guys have gotten more or less mind bogglingly large since then. I can’t think of too many primarily acoustic artists that play to crowds the size that you guys do. I think Yonder has officially reached U2 status, correct?
Ben: Well, aside from the staggeringly massive amount of money we spend on production, or wait a minute, that’s the real U2. One of the cool things that has happened, in all seriousness the band has kind of turned a corner into this idea where we’re all sort of becoming part of one very creative and forward thinking brain. We’re all working to make the same kind of music we were making but also to kind of find out some of the things that we like and try to exploit our strengths so that we can come up with something that feels new to everyone, including the band.
Rv: Would you say that any changes or directions the band is taking are a consciously made decision, are they made on purpose or do you think they’re happening as some sort of group mind and it’s all just naturally occurring?
Ben: Well I think as everybody in the band has sort of grown up and gotten older and our tastes are, you know, they change all the time, so obviously we as individuals, we’re all into whatever it is that we’re listening to at the time and so on the one hand the songs that we write are influenced by all of that so we definitely are writing differently. Some ideas just happen spontaneously on stage. A lot of that stuff is just sort of experimenting with sound. One of the changes I think is, well, the first big step was to achieve a certain level of volume. As an acoustic band we have to be able to compete with any band whether that’s Widespread Panic or….and I mean compete decibely, volume wise, to play with Widespread Panic. We have to produce a sound that can be able to fill any venue. So that was a big thing as we were starting, we realized we needed to achieve what I call “Rock n Roll volume.” I’d say about six years ago we were getting that dialed in pretty good and you know I think maybe right now the balance in the band is trying to find a modern idea of our sound and songwriting, that’s on the one hand. On the other hand we’re still trying to hold on as much as we can to the bluegrass music and where we started. We know as well as anybody the reason why people liked us in the first place was because we were a bluegrass band, then we sort of became a bluegrass band that didn’t do it like anybody else and you know that sort of served us well. Also we certainly are just sort of continuing with the idea that if we keep writing good music, then the fans will be happy and they’ll keep coming. Really all you can do is write what you write. Not like we have some sort of pop formula that we have to stick to in order to maintain our career. At this point I think we’ve worked hard enough to, you know, achieve what I’ve always wanted, and that’s to have a career in music.
Rv: “Steep Grade, Sharp Curves” finally made it on to your most recent album, The Show, and it’s been in the live repertoire for like ten years now.
Ben: Yeah probably at least.
Rv: Do you know why it took so long to get recorded?
Ben: Actually putting that song on the record was a very challenging decision for us. Among that band it’s split or perhaps even there’s a consensus that….if I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have put that song on the record.
Rv: Do you think it’s just not as cohesive with the rest of the material?
Ben: I think it was tacked on, I can hear it. For my money I thought we didn’t need that song on the record. I have very unique and weird opinions about like how long a record should be and how many tracks it should have on it; you know we’re not trying to make it too long. You can always release a single on I-tunes; it’s not a big deal. But yeah it was just something our manager said we should really record and he thought it had a lot of legs. We took his advice and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, our record’s out and whatever. But pressure can come from all manner of places and I think that kind of the lesson I learned is to stand up for myself a little bit more, and stand up for others. Like I could tell Jeff (Austin) didn’t want that song on the record, but we were sort of pressured into it. In retrospect that song would have been maybe better released live or as a single, but that’s just me. In retrospect you can fine tune everything to perfection.
Rv: A lot of people have told me that the records that they make are just more or less snapshots of where the artist or the band is at the very moment and don’t necessarily reflect the longstanding career of the band. Do you think adding that song gives a false impression of where the band was at?
Dave: That’s a really good question, and the reason that I think it doesn’t give a false impression is because in a lot of regards that’s kind of a Jeff tune, and even though he had written the song a long time ago I feel that it is still a true snapshot of what the band sounds like on that sort of tune. The record thing, it was funky; it was a funky deal. It’s cool that we got the chance to record it, and there were some lyrical tweaks in there that I want to say kind of made the song tighter for someone like me. I thought of this actually and by the time we got to record it….it was like a small victory for the editorial process. I hate to use the word better but…but it was nice to have an actual conversation, saying “ok let’s tweak this, let’s tweak that” so on and so forth. I thought at the very least it was very helpful to have a dialogue on stuff like that. In that regard it’s kind of not only a snapshot of where we were but kind of almost for-runs where we are now, it’s cool like that.
Rv: Ben you also mentioned earlier on the varying influences and outside sources that the band takes in to make their music with, but I’m curious about your guys’ influence. Do you see a new generation of musicians coming up sighting Yonder as an influence to their music? How does that make you feel?
Ben: I think that there are a lot of bands coming up that have been influenced by us. You know ten years ago, twelve years ago you know these guys or girls were ten and so those are valuable music listening years. If you were into this kind of thing and turned on by i,t then people have had a decade to grow up with it. We’ve been around a while man, and it definitely is kind of cool to see what people are doing with us as a primary influence. We had New Grass Revival and I don’t know, who were our influences Dave?
Dave: Seldom Scene and New Grass Revival, both the Courtney (Johnson) and the Bela (Fleck) New Grass Revival. Then we had Hot Rize….
Ben: But those were different sounding, to me that’s a whole different thing to be influenced by then if you’re influenced by a band like Yonder.
Dave: Oh Yeah
Ben: We have deviated from, you know, what traditional bluegrass is by I think many, many branches.
Rv: It’s sort of interesting, you’re looking at the general core of what bluegrass is and that music, it came from Ireland and England and older folk traditions. It’s all really shifting; I don’t know if you can actually say there is traditional bluegrass being played anymore. It’s just different kinds of bluegrass.
Dave: Yeah, there are still cats checking it out and playing all the notes right but traditional bluegrass comes from a long time ago.
Rv: I don’t even know if the Ralph Stanley’s or the Bill Monroe’s of the world necessarily even want people to just completely replicate what they were doing. I don’t think that’s in their spirit at all.
Dave: You know in a way I think that sound has to be kept alive and it is; obviously the documentation for music is great but I kind of look at it like when I see bands like that with more of a historical perspective like this is a snapshot back in time kind of thing. But it’s like playing in a cover band vs. playing original music. Do you want to be always moving forward, is that important to you or are you really that into some other thing, some style and you just want to reproduce that instead of trying something new, and both are fine.
Rv: Switching gears. Before you come to Bell’s you guys will be doing three days at Telluride and you got a couple more festivals and an amphitheater show. Then you’ll be playing to 300 people here in Kalamazoo; is that going to be weird for you guys? It’s been a while since you’ve played to smaller more intimate audiences.
Ben: It’s not really that weird. It’s a different sort of challenge you know? At a bigger show it’s hard to tell what kind of individual impact you’re having on someone but at a smaller show where you can pretty much see everyone you get a different perspective that makes you appreciative of both sides of the coin. If people want to come out and see ya, and they’re going to have a great time at your show that’s a flattering and wonderful thing to be a part of.
Rv: Since the last time you guys were here you’ve been perfecting the “Rock n’ Roll volume” sound as far as decibels and amplification. Do you find with smaller venues that you have to work on scaling back? Or do you keep the same bombasity?
Dave: Well a good example is we played at this place in Sacramento in April and I think maybe you could put about 300 people in this club and we didn’t scale back.
Ben: I think that 300 people can be just as loud as 700 people. We don’t really care, we like volume, but we want good volume, we want to sound killer. I just don’t feel that we really scale back too much for smaller shows, I can’t think of any smaller show where we decided to do that.
Rv: You opened up for President Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Colorado; did you try to get him on stage, maybe play a little bit of mandolin?
Dave: He was a little busy so we got his body double, and I chickened out when we met Al Gore.
Rv: How did you guys enjoy working with Pete Thomas? I know if I was working with somebody who was that close to Elvis Costello, I don’t know what I’d do, probably freak out. How did his sound add to the sessions and why him? Why not another drummer?
Dave: I think one of the cool things about Pete Thomas is that you get to experience the humor of the English, which is a very dry and wonderful thing. And two; in all seriousness, the guy is just pretty God damned pro. The guy shows up with his sticks and drums and he’s got a little brief case with a note pad in it. I think he was writing down the rhythms that he was going to do. That took him about half an hour or so to figure out; I don’t know how many songs he recorded. He just goes in there, hears the track, writes down what he’s going to do and then he might look at that and records the track, then it’s done. He did something like eight tracks in like five hours. Which is really, really very fast and efficient.
Rv: Is that a form of efficiency that you guys hadn’t seen done in the studio before?
Dave: I can’t recall being in that kind of situation before. Ben do you remember anyone like that, that would just kind of show up?
Ben: Well a lot of guys can do it but it was just something special to see. That’s the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and I guess it still counts for something you know? You see someone like him and it wasn’t only the stories that he had to tell but the toning on the drums or that special way he…you know the simplicity, the “less is more” attitude and seeing it happen in a professional setting it was…I’m a big, big fan of what he does now way more than I was before. I had never listened to Elvis Costello growing up but it’s pretty cool.
Rv: When you guys decided to introduce drums into your music did you think that there would be any sort of negative reaction from fans?
Ben: No because the live show doesn’t have drums and that’s really where we live. And you know it’s the same band, it’s not like we added a flugelhorn or there’s some guy sitting on the side of the stage eating tamales. I definitely had people that as soon as they got the record they listened to it once and they sent me their first listen comments.
Rv: Is that frustrating at all? With people not giving it time?
Ben: No I like it, because it is a snapshot in time and then two hours later or three hours later when you get the second listen…I don’t have everybody do that to me, I just have people I trust that I ask. If 80,000 Facebook people just sent me messages that would be a lot to read. And I can’t vowge for their education musically or even their last name or what they look like, you know what I mean? It would be a lot to read, I’m not a big reader, Dave’s a big reader.
Dave: Yeah, but I read stuff that no one likes. But you know, I say just do your own thing, even if it’s something as weird as reading textbooks all day long.
Rv: What are you reading right now?
Dave: I’m not embarrassed to say it but…
Ben: I like Billy Joel! That’s embarrassing, now you go.
Dave: I’m reading Serial Composition by Reginald Smith Brindle
Rv: I thought you we’re going to say Twilight.
Dave: Yeah, it’s the third book in the series of Twilight. [Editor’s Note: This is bullshit]