Yonder Mountain String Band bassist Ben Kaufmann has as many spinning plates in the air as he can handle right now. With their new album, Love. Ain’t Love, just released and Yonder’s packed touring schedule, including their own Northwest String Summit festival happening July 13 – 16th, there is barely enough time to breathe. With all those responsibilities and a growing family at home, we were amazed and grateful that Kaufmann had the energy to talk with Live For Live Music’s own Rex Thomson about the state of Yonder at this moment in time. Luckily, Yonder’s master of the low end had a few minutes to spare. Check out their conversation about life on the road, creating island vibes, and the joy of touring with a piano below.

Rex Thompson: First things first. You’re in a string band, so you travel light. That said, the new album, Love. Ain’t Love, features a beautiful piano ballad on it. Are you adding a piano to your onstage gear so you can play it from time to time?

BK: Well, I asked the road crew if we could have a piano onstage every night just so I could play one song if I felt like it . . . and they said no. Pretty much instantly — just no. Which surprised me because they are usually such a positive, enthusiastic bunch of people. But they seemed pretty serious about their answer. I wanted to ask why and then I noticed something in their eyes that told me not to. In the interest of self-preservation, I just turned and slowly backed away. It was like if you’re walking in the woods and you come across a bear or a mountain lion. I can’t remember if you’re supposed to maintain eye contact or avoid eye contact, but I do know I was definitely in danger, so I just got the heck out of there!

RT: There is a much greater focus on band harmonies on the new record and onstage. Has that been an area Yonder is consciously working on?

BK: Allie and Jake are showing up more strongly because they have such musical voices. Especially, adding a female element to the harmonies — obviously, in the past, it was just male voices, but a woman’s voice — it just sweetens the pot. You know what I mean?

RT: Totally.

BK: Allie has a wonderful voice. It’s nice to have that in our bag of tricks now. We’ve always loved having multi-voice harmonies, and they’ve always been a huge part of bluegrass music in general. The real trick now is finding the right people to sing the right part. Everyone in this band likes singing and wants to sing more, which is a good problem to have. When we were in the studio, it was just a matter of seeing who sounded best singing what great part. We ended up with some great harmonies on this new record.

“Gilpin>Pass This Way>EMD>Pass This Way”

RT: The harmonies seem to have evolved to the point where you could easily get away with doing some songs based on just them a la Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

BK: It’s funny you should mention that actually. We’ve been kicking around covering a CSN album. That would take a lot of work on our part. They are definitely masters of intricate vocal work. I think taking on a project of that size and scale would pay some serious dividends for us, for sure. We would be learning by studying the masters.

RT: You have the Northwest String Summit coming up in a couple of weeks, so I have to ask — anything special you have up your sleeves?

BK: Well, I don’t think we are ready to spoil the surprise, but Yonder will be tackling covering a specific album again on Saturday night — a classic record. That’s happening for sure. We had such a blast doing that last year that we decided to do it again.

RT: You’ve been hosting the Northwest String Summit at Horning’s Hideout for quite awhile now. What makes that place so special to Yonder?

BK: Well, for people who have never been, it is sort of hard to describe it. It’s a small festival. In my mind, I think of it as a “Boutique” festival. With the nature of the property, if you try and have more than, say, 4,000 people onsite, it becomes unworkable.

I love the way they cap it at 3,500 or so. I’ve been at the larger festivals where you are just part of a sea of people. It can become overwhelming and impersonal as a face in the crowd. That’s sorta the opposite of the vibe at the Northwest String Summit. It’s just this beautiful, tranquil, family-friendly gathering of people who love this music thing that we are a part of of. Call it “jamgrass,” or alternative folk, or indie-bluegrass . . . whatever you want to call it. It’s like throwing a party, and all of our friends, all our peers are there for the most part. It is one of my favorite weekends of the year. There is no place on Earth like it. It’s hard to describe.

But again, if you haven’t been there, it’s impossible to understand. Once someone comes for the first time and experiences the vibe, they’ll have a framework and we can have an interaction or a shared connection, but you need to have the experience. Even then, it’s just a head nod of recognition and a big smile when you see someone, and they’re like, “Horning’s is coming up.” You just smile back and say “Yeah.” It’s a place that is a feeling as well. There are a lot of people that just won’t miss it.

RT: Those hardest of hardcore Yonder fans are known as the Kinfolk. How is it planning a festival or dropping a new album knowing there are people ready to absorb and dissect everything you do creatively out of sheer love? Is it fun or nerve wracking?

BK: Definitely both — or at least a little bit nerve wracking and a whole lot of fun. The motivation to make a record anymore is an internal creative desire. It’s not like we are threatening to sell a million records or anything. We’re making it to get new songs out. We made it because we’re three years into this new line-up, and we want to see and share where we are as a band. It’s a a great way to let people see where we are as a group.

The great and scariest thing about the Kinfolk is how honest they are. Most of the response that Yonder has gotten from the media, on advance reviews and such, has mirrored how I feel — that this is a really good album. Which is nice, obviously. Now I’m just ready for the people to get their hands on it, listen, and see what they think. I hope they like it!

Once it gets out, people can dive into it. I lurk on the “WWW”s for peoples’ reactions. It always interesting to see the difference between people who form their opinions from that and the folks who listen several times, looking for the meaning and the nuances. It’s definitely my favorite record we’ve done. But, for me at least, whatever’s the newest thing I’ve done is my favorite.

“Far From You”

RT: The history of folks with the creative mentality is full of artists who love their newest thing most until a point, then they seem to come to hate it. Does that seem accurate?

BK: Maybe to a small point. Yonder is a touring band. The way it seems to work for us is you’re always looking for something new. When you are playing the same material, it is hard to find a way to make it new. You feel like you are always covering the same artistic ground in the soloing or whatever.

When Adam (Aijala) is making the setlists, he always asks us “Is there anything anyone is feeling?” He has a song of mine that he keeps trying to work back into the setlists. It’s a good song, and we haven’t played it for like six months. It is usually a good vehicle for a jam for us, but I just don’t see where I could go that I haven’t done a thousand times already. He asked me if I wanted to play it again the other night, and I had to say, “You know what?  No, I don’t. I’m just not up for that one right now. Let it rest.”

As far as the record goes, the situation is different. We finished mastering it maybe six months ago? And in the process of mixing it and mastering it, I must have listened to it, what . . . seventy times? Maybe more. Just trying to, you know, tweak it and try and make it the best it can be. Between us, the guys and the girl in the band, we must have listened to it seventy times, and we are ready to not listen to it again for awhile. These last two records, this and Black Sheep, I think I could listen to them again.

RT: With a clear focus on creating and releasing new material to establish the new line-up, plus the positive response to the first album and this great new disc, are you looking to keep stoking these creative fires and get back to the studio?

BK: Back in the day with the original line up, we had kinda stopped putting out records. Or we were just really slow at it, for a lot of reasons. When we made Black Sheep, we had such a blast making the record. We came out of it with something we were really proud of and that served a lot of purposes. We had this new line up and that gave people a chance to hear it. Plus, we got to show off how we sounded in a studio, which is different from how we play live.

And it shook up the routine we were in and was just reinvigorating. We ended up with an album we really liked — new songs and fresh energy. For years, it had been just one live show to the next. And yes, each show is unique and unto itself, it’s still just playing live on a stage and not composing and recording in a studio. Basically, we were only using one part of our creativity.

Then, we we started Love. Ain’t Love and we fell into a groove. It opened a phase for us where we were able to be creative but not have to produce a finished product there in the moment. There’s this experimentation that you can enjoy when it doesn’t have to happen in real time. And if you have other committed, enthusiastic, and creative people to bounce ideas around with and an engineer who can facilitate your crazy ideas and make it happen, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a great opportunity to do something the world always needs — we can create new music.

So, the plan is to go back into the studio in the fall. I heard Dave (Johnston) and Adam talking, and they are already compiling lists of songs that are written and ideas we want to flesh out. If we can, I think we are gonna record and release one every two years. It’s just the way our schedule works out.

“She Smiles Like She’s Always Been A Friend”

RT: There’s a fun and surprisingly heartfelt cover of King Harvest’s “Dancin’ In The Moonlight” on Love. Ain’t Love. and Yonder has always been jokingly called the best cover band in the land. That could be a way to crank out a fast album.

BK: That tune was Jake (Joliff)’s idea. He brought that to us, and he does such a fabulous job on it — we kinda had to do it. But I think we’re at a point now where we’re about original music. The more original music Yonder can make, the happier we are.

At the same time, Allie and Jake aren’t writing new songs with vocal parts for themselves. I mean, Jake still has a thousand mandolin instrumentals he has written, and each one of them is harder to play than the last. I have to say though that finding and developing original music for those two to sing is still a work in progress for us. They’re both great singers.

Writing material for them to sing is important but difficult. I wouldn’t consider myself to be a prolific songwriter, but I do manage to get a couple songs written per year. When I do manage to get a song done, it is usually about something I want to express, and it becomes something pretty personal. I am weirdly adverse to handing the song off after I have invested myself in it.

We are definitely going to make it a top priority that the next album have at least one song each from Jake and Allie handling lead vocals. I mean, Black Sheep had one song with Allie up front, and this new one has one from Jake. On the next one, we need to have one from both.

RT: The closing song on Love. Ain’t Love has a very strong reggae vibe to it. Any part of that come from your annual String & Sol Mexican excursion festival?

BK: Sure, but back in the day we had a few reggae songs we used to cover. Adam, who was the primary writer, just really wanted a reggae vibe. At least one song we could play if we were feeling that vibe. For the longest time, we were gonna have a special guest on that song — someone really authentic to the island music vibe to handle the vocals. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out.

That probably ended up being a blessing in disguise. Had we had a guest vocalist, it would have been the only example of someone not in the band playing on the record. I really feel like the new album has a beginning, middle, and an end. This other voice might have really been a factor in pulling people out of the listening experience. I do love that it ends the album.

RT: So by this logic, if we booked you at a few winter Norwegian shows, we might get some sort of death metal tune out of you guys?

BK: Maybe. Some of the standard Scandinavian music is just super dark and metal. It’s wild, man. I mean, the music, the time signatures, and what they are singing about come off as some of the most progressive metal music every made. It’s hardcore man.

RT: Well, thanks so much for your time in what is surely a busy stretch for you! Looking forward to seeing these new tunes evolve out there on the road!

BK: Thanks Rex! See ya out there!