Yonder Mountain String Band has given fans over two decades of rip-roaring bluegrass that has helped reshape the way the genre fits into the music scene. Bassist Ben Kauffman has seen a lot of changes over those twenty-some odd years, the latest being the arrival of their newest member, multi-instrumentalist Nick Piccinnini, formerly of moe. side project Floodwood. Now, after a get-acquainted period, Yonder is drawing glowing reviews from fans of all eras.

Our own Rex Thomson and Ben discussed the initiation of their new band member, the role performers have in political discussions, and the annual gathering of bluegrass superstars at the Northwest String Summit. Highlights of their conversation are transcribed below, edited for clarity, and you can listen to their chat in it’s entirety on the latest episode of the Rex-A-Vision podcast below. Enjoy!

Rex-A-Vision: Thanks for the chat Ben. I counted my files and this is the tenth time you and I have had one of these chats.

Ben Kaufmann: So what the heck are we gonna talk about this time? It’s not like anything interesting is happening.

Rex-A-Vision: Well, obviously the lineup change is on a lot of minds.

Ben Kaufmann: Yeah. It’s been amazing, this year so far. We made a change in the mandolin position. We’re now working with a cat named Nick Piccinnini. I’m not gonna even try and spell that for you. I like to say it with a little bit of Italian flair.

I can look back on the totality of my experience with Yonder Mountain String Band and have different opinions on it now than I did along the way. So many changes and so much shit has happened there are so many chances to re-evaluate…even personally. There all all these opportunities for reassessment. Thoughts about what music is…and what life is and what are we trying to accomplish here anyway?

The band is 22 years old now. We’re an old band now. But you gotta keep creating new stuff…compelling stuff. But we have examples of how to do it.

So anyway we’re working with a new mandolin player and his name is Nick and we like him a lot. He’s got tons of energy and enthusiasm about music and on stage which is different from Jacob (Jolliff). Jake brought a level of musicianship that was far beyond anything the rest of us could hope to achieve in ten lifetimes but his stage presence was very stoic. I think some audience members would misinterpret that stoicism.

There’s just different kinds of people. I go and watch Béla Fleck and he is a VERY stoic performer.

Rex-A-Vision: I’ve seen entire Béla shows where I’m not sure he blinked.

Ben Kaufmann: I believe it! I’ll have to watch for that next time we play together. Anyway, we made this change and after having gone out for a bit I’ve just had so many thoughts about it. I have come to the conclusion that whoever we had play mandolin after we parted ways with Jeff [Austin]…they were doomed to maximum internet abuse.

There was no one in the world who wouldn’t have gotten that reaction. We could have had the perfect hybrid of Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury (The Travellin’ McCourys), and Chris Thile and have him look like Brad Pitt…if we could have had an ideal mix of all these things…even then it was going to be an impossible thing. We were performing in the second iteration of Yonder with someone I feel is going to go down as one of the greatest players to ever pick up the instrument. His musicality is beyond anything I have ever seen…especially as he gets farther and farther down the Jazz  realm.

The musician brain thinks that what we all put into it…that should be enough. What I have come to re-realize is that…especially in our line of work…It doesn’t matter as much. It’s actually far more important to have an energetic connection or a heart connection with the people coming to see you. That’s something that’s not practiceable or definable even. It’s just something that is…or it isn’t.

It’s something I have been thinking about a lot lately. What exactly is it that people connect with? Why are some things wildly connectable and other things that you would think are really good just aren’t? Not with any judgement or criticism or anything…it almost exists as a curiosity to think about, to meditate on, or to feel.

For the last month-and-a-half or whatever Yonder has played a bunch of shows and there’s just a different feeling. Something is happening now where there’s a more organic energetic connection. It’s been really wonderful to feel that again.

Rex-A-Vision: I guarantee sewer workers get better benefits than traveling bluegrass bands. Those unions are strong.

Ben Kaufmann: Right? I’ve definitely been thinking about this for a while now. And just recently I’ve been able to observe some of the differences from before and after. And then thinking back more long term. And of course, when Jeff [Austin] passed away that was ground zero for reconsidering so many things in my musical life, my career, and people I’ve been lucky to work with. I’m having a new perspective to look at things.

We can kinda get lost on our own particular trip and lose perspective. I hate that it takes something so horrible to provide an opportunity to have that reconsideration but I guess sometimes it does.

Rex-A-Vision: You see it with sports teams. There are times when the perfect lineup of top players on paper doesn’t mesh in reality for whatever reason.

Ben Kaufmann: We’re working really hard right now. We basically threw 200 songs at Nick, like…”Here ya go, learn all these!” But we’re handling this transition differently than we did when Jacob joined. When he came onboard we said “Here’s 250 songs and we’re going to continue with business as usual and keep the same paradigm we had followed in the past. No repeats night-to-night, no playing songs if we did it the last time.” This time we decided it was far more important to have some degree of repetition. Maybe not night-to-night but certainly within the week.

Playing songs more regularly, especially songs we feel are important to play…it’s important that we get the repetition. A band needs to log a lot of miles together to get inside each others’ heads…especially in the jam spaces. You need to have what I call “wide listening” where you’re not focused on any one thing. You need to be able to hear all the different musical moments so you can decide what to pick up on, change, or whatever to further the improvisation.

Rather than just going all out we’re scaling it way, way back and focusing on these important elements. I think that has been a really good decision. We’re learning so much more about people’s tendencies. When you add a new piece everything else changes. It’s not like the new piece slots perfectly into where the old piece was.

Rex-A-Vision: Do you think that this different method is a result of lessons learned from your previous personnel change?

Ben Kaufmann: It wasn’t nearly as conscious as decision as that…but subconsciously there were these little tells along the way. Looking at Nick’s pedigree. We know him because of moe. and the side project Floodwood. So Nick is coming in with a familiarity of jam band music for want of a better term. He is coming in with a lot more exposure to that scene. That informed the things we were interested in doing right out of the gate. We were looking forward to re-exploring these improvisational spaces in a different way than we did with Jacob.

Rex-A-Vision: Beyond your getting to reexamine the music with someone new, you also to get to take them to see some of your favorite places to play. Are you looking forward to introducing Nick to Horning’s Hideout and the Northwest String Summit? Anything you specifically want to show him at that gorgeous music retreat?

Ben Kaufmann: Well we’ll definitely have to kidnap him for a late night golf cart ride and travel at our own place showing it to him.  It’s mostly the vibe for me there. It’s one of the best backstage hangs at any festival. You have these sectioned off areas where you can go and just be with your band but otherwise it’s very communal, which is wonderful. You get to have this shared experience with all your musical peers. They’re your friends or you get to meet these people in a relaxed way.

It’s a special festival for a lot of reasons. Just driving around seeing peacocks. The Sunday night pig roast. That’s good eating.

Rex-A-Vision: The lineup is deep, with Yonder getting joined by Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters and so many more. Any ideas on sit-ins and theme sets you can share?

Ben Kaufmann: I mean…none that you could hear and be left alive.

Rex-A-Vision: Fair enough. There’s a wonderfully heart-warming thing that goes on Sundays at the Northwest String Summit besides the pig roast. It’s a fun charity that I and even your mom participated in…the Lilli Trippe Memorial Shave. Any chance of dragging the new guy out to join the tradition

Ben Kaufmann: I mean…technically we COULD drag him out. I don’t know that we would do that. I don’t know that that would be “good”…but technically we could.

The reason why it’s happening at all is because of a little girl named Lilli. Lilli Trippe, who we had the pleasure of knowing. She was sick from cancer and ended up passing from it at a terribly young age. From there her parents and some other friends and fans dedicated themselves to honoring her with this charity. It’s one of those beautiful tragic things. I hate that we have to do it but we do. It’s so amazing to see the audience response, to share this sweet and somber moment on Sunday.

Rex-A-Vision: When it was my turn in the chair all I could see between clumps of hair falling off my face was smiles and tears. Okay, we’re just about out of time but before we go I want to ask one last serious question. This year the political discussions are as frequent and pitched as ever. What are your thoughts on the role a band has in political discourse? Not so much in general but this particular, extremely charged election cycle?

Ben Kaufmann: We [the band] have this conversation quite a bit. Historically we’ve always been non-political into a microphone…and I say that acknowledging that we have sung plenty of songs about pot and we opened for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Rex-A-Vision: I like that you call it “opened for!”

Ben Kaufmann: Well…technically…

Rex-A-Vision: It just makes me wonder what his set list looked like.

Ben Kaufmann: We ran into his body double and that was cool. Oprah Winfrey was there and she shut the whole backstage area down. Secret service and everything. When Oprah was on-site no one could go anywhere.

Rex-A-Vision: It’s probably easier to get with Barack than Oprah.

Ben Kaufmann: Seriously. At the time we just wanted to get out of there. But seriously…we try not to be overly political through the microphone. Typically at our shows people seem to be of the same mind.

We’ve come to the conclusion…I know this is the case for me…is that I’m going to [these events] to escape reality. I know all the problems that I have and all the shit I’m facing and when I go to a show I like that there’s a period of time where I don’t have to worry about anything.

Typically at our shows and the places where we go everybody is of the same mind anyway or so it seems. This is usually the case for me that I’m going [to shows] to escape my own reality a little bit. I know all the problems I have and everything I am facing. I know all the shit I gotta do tomorrow and stuff I’ve been putting off.

So when I’m going to see something…just for that period of time I’d like to not have to worry about anything. I’d like to have…y’know…a little relief from reality. That’s sort of where we ended up. Also…who gives a shit who I am gonna vote for?

Also I have found in political discussions it’s basically impossible to change anyone’s mind. I can give you my spiel on who I’m gonna vote for but at the end of the day people are gonna say “I’m gonna vote for my guy!” I don’t think I’m gonna change their minds…certainly not when someone is tuning a banjo.

You can catch Yonder Mountain String Band and their latest addition out on the road across the country and at the beloved bluegrass family gathering, the Northwest String Summit at the fabled Horning’s Hideout outside Portland, Oregon July 16th–19th. Yonder tour information can be found here and you can get tickets to the NWSS here. If you’re feeling generous the you can help make this year’s Lillian Trippe Memorial Head Shave even better by donating to their cause here.