Yonder Mountain String Band comes down from the mountain on their new eponymous album
The opening minute of Yonder Mountain String Band’s (YMSB) eponymous album is a greater part indie rock than bluegrass. For the first few seconds, there is only feedback. Then a string tone sounds, maybe from a mandolin but altered into something alien. The bass begins a steady, echoing progression to which elongated vowel vocals add themselves, all swelling until the first verse of “Sidewalk Stars” opens into the clean notes of a banjo and four-part harmony. There’s no hint of twang.
Moments like these are why Adam Aijala says YMSB’s latest album, less traditional than their previous efforts, is “more about us than anything we’ve done before…not that we were pigeonholed before, but because…we can play any style of music we want, and we really were doing that from the beginning in the live show anyway.”
Aijala plays acoustic guitar in YMSB, a Colorado-based quartet that’s accumulated a fair amount of touring caché; later this year, they headline their first show at Red Rocks Amphitheater. That success translated to their most recent album being released on Vanguard rather than on Frog Pad Records, the band’s own label. During their rise, YMSB has embraced the bluegrass tag, all the while pushing against the boundaries of the genre during the live shows on which their reputation was built.
“All of us grew up with a rock background,” says Aijala. “We basically said in 1998 let’s be a bluegrass band because we all like the music and we all had the instrumentation and so we started playing together. What was coming out definitely wasn’t traditional bluegrass and from the start we never really had any expectations as far as what comes out…The records that we did, we were trying to play more like bluegrass, even making an effort—not forcing anything but making an effort to try to write songs in a bluegrass feel.”
Despite some of the new album’s sounds, YMSB still comes across more like a bluegrass band than anything else. It starts with the instrumentation—double bass, acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin—and some formative moments for members of the band.
“I remember seeing Scott Nygaard flatpicking with Tim O’Brien and O’Boys and thinking I want to learn that,” says Aijala. “I had been playing guitar for a long time at that point but I had never been introduced to that kind of music.”
Even though the move to bluegrass was intentional, serendipity played a part in the band’s twangy name. As Aijala recalls, “We had a gig booked and the promoter’s like, ‘Dude, we need a name.’” It happened just as mandolin player Jeff Austin was paging through an old magazine and came across a song called “At the Foot of Yonder Mountain.”
“We had just finished rehearsing,” says Aijala. “We were probably baked, I’m sure...[and] we’re like ‘You like it?’ Yup. Yup. Yup. Yup. Okay. See you guys later. And that was it.”
At peace with their choice to play bluegrass but feeling hemmed in by their own expectations of what should be on an album, YMSB sought out producer Tom Rothrock. The producer is noted for his work with Beck and James Blunt and not a bluegrass maven at all. Working with Rothrock, says Aijala, “really brought out old influences in the making of the record…He really brought out a side of us that was always there but wasn’t in our music. It was in the music I listen to and even in the music that I play, but not so much the music I play with Yonder Mountain because I started on electric guitar.”
Freed from any preconceptions about what the album should sound like, YMSB composed more than half of their new album as a group in the studio, yielding tangible differences in the songs’ musical ambitions. Sometimes, that’s pretty far from bluegrass, as on “How ‘Bout You?”—a track that includes the line “There’s less and less for me to prove / Just more folks to prove it to” as well as a drum track by Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas. Other songs, like the blazing banjo ditty “Fastball,” roar like something straight from a moonlit moonshine jam session.
The group compositions mark a new writing style for the band, which is part of the logic Aijala says Rothrock used to explain his suggestion that YMSB eponymously title this, their fourth album. “You could go as far as saying, in the same way as I said before, this record is more like us than anything we’ve done before, therefore its like a new beginning kind of thing,” offers Aijala.
“But that’s kind of cheesy. That’s not really how it feels...It’s just us. But it’s not, so it’s a little different. But, still, it’s us. But it is a little different.”
Yonder Mountain String Band performs Wednesday, April 11, at the Wilma Theatre. 9 PM. $23/$20 advance. Call 728-2521.