Yonder Mountain String Band had a very busy 2016, packing concert halls and festival stages across the nation with their brand of jam flavored bluegrass. Since the very beginning, guitarist Adam Aijala has been there helping call the tune and picking up a storm on his six string. A study in dichotomy his usual on-stage demeanor is tranquil no matter how furiously his fingers are moving.
That calm presence has helped guide Yonder to the top of festival lineups and a relentless national touring schedule. Our own Rex Thomson managed to catch him after just returning from their annual Mexican holiday, Strings & Sol, with their beloved fans, AKA the Kinfolk. With New Year’s on the horizon (more info here), and both tours and new music planned for 2017, there’s no shortage of excitement in the Yonder universe!
Live For Live Music: You’re back from Strings & Sol, just in time for a super cold stretch across America. A beach vacation music festival featuring friends like Railroad Earth and Greensky Bluegrass had to be a welcome change.
Adam Aijala: Oh man, it sure was. Really though, 2016 has just been the most fun festival year I can remember. I mean, they’re always fun, but this year was special. This year’s Telluride, String Summit, Strings & Sol… our shows at Red Rocks were the most fun of those I’ve had as well.
L4LM: A lot of the people who go to Strings & Sol, as well as the bands who play it, say it is one of the best pickin’ parties of the year.
AA: You talk to the fans and a lot of them are like “This is my favorite festival, period.” Obviously the music is a big part of it, but when you take the other factors, like the stage is right there on the beach. There’s the water, like, right there. There are pools and stars and friends everywhere. All that combined is what makes it so great.
L4LM: You even debuted a new song or two for the fans down in Mexico.
AA: We actually showcased a song we’d never played, besides playing the couple from the new album we have played. It was fun.
L4LM: For previous albums you have held the new material a bit closer to the vest. What was the reasoning behind sharing the material early this time around?
AA: We’ve gone both ways with that. We did that for one of our old records and we tried that again with Black Sheep, holding songs back until the record came out. Part of me feels like, if we have the material we should be playing it. New material, especially if they are originals… it is always nice to have new material to play onstage.
We have a jam band type mentality. I really have to give it to bands that play a similar show every night. That would just drive me nuts. Just playing the same songs over and over again. The songs would probably be tighter and sound more like the originals. For us, there are a lot of songs we play once a week or even once over an entire tour. Especially since we have so many people coming to multiple shows.
It sounds incredibly boring to me. But at the same time, like I said, I also give props to those that can do it and do it well. Coming from the mindset we do, and most of our friends…it just seems honest to the crowd. We have to mix it up to keep ourselves engaged and to give the fans something new every night.
L4LM: Is the album still on track for early 2017?
AA: We are really trying to have it mixed and mastered by the first week of January. We’re trying to get word from all the various parties involved. You always hear things like “Oh, we need four months.” I’d really like to have it out before the end of spring tour, like while the tour is still happening though. That is my goal.
I’m waiting to hear back on that. We’ll start mixing…I am going to start working on it around Christmas. We finished recording and I have sent stuff to everybody and they are compiling notes on stuff they would like to hear differently. It is mostly timing and tuning stuff.
L4LM: Allie Kral and Jake Jolliff are working their way into the Yonder songwriting side of things now. How would you describe their assimilation into the group creative dynamic?
AA: Allie has some great ideas for new songs, and we are definitely encouraging her. She is in a weird position. I try and put myself in her place. I mean, if you have been playing your whole life, but you never really wrote songs and then be asked to all of a sudden start…that is hard.
First, you have to find a voice, even if it is not necessarily “your” voice yet, because you’re only just starting. It takes a while. I know when I first started everything I wrote was absolute crap. She has come up with some really cool melodies and some great scratch lyrics. I’m like “Send me all that stuff!” Dave and I can listen and go through it all and come up with some lyrics. If there are any feeling these melodies are invoking in you let us know. and then we can work on stuff together.
I’ve said this to both Allie and Jake. They are both very competent, musically. They both can sing really well, and I would prefer to have them singing originals as opposed to covers. I would always prefer playing originals. Those two seem very open to that. There are a couple of instrumentals that they wrote on the new album. I think getting into the process, songwriting, is hard.
Getting into any new creative process, like drawing or painting, is hard. Unless you had some kind of crazy, natural talent you never knew you had it is going to take time. You have to put in the time. Hell, when I am working, if I come up with ten ideas for songs, only one of those has a chance of becoming something. Like say scratch lyrics. They’re good for when you are working on a song to have actual words instead of going “Blah blah blah” but sometimes they spark something else. A lot of times you can get a pretty good line out of it.
No real expectations, just writing. It seems like Bob Dylan had that kinda vibe, way back in the day. I think you can tell by his playing that is how he got a lot of his songs. Obviously he was and is a one-of-a-kind player. In the band it is just getting more and more comfortable. It’s been comfortable on a personal level for a long time and it is getting more comfortable musically every day. The trust that I have in everybody onstage is strong and it is good.
L4LM: How collaborative is the new album? Is it more of a “Work things up together” or a “Teach each other the song you wrote” kind of process?
AA: It is all over the place. The last song I completely wrote without any help from anyone was a song on EP-13. We each had one song. That is the last time that we have done something where I said “Here. This is pretty much done.” There might be one song on Black Sheep like that, but I think on this new album there is collaboration on every single song.
For an easy way to explain it, I’ll say, for every song that John Lennon or Paul McCartney wrote together for The Beatles, you can assume that whichever one of them sang it is the one who came up with the idea. That is pretty much the same for us.
Dave (Johnston) and I write together a lot, and we have been working more with Jake. Jake is also really good at arranging, so he has been helping a lot with that. Ben (Kaufmann) comes to the table with ideas, but he lives in California. It is easier for Dave and I to write together. He’ll call and say he has a couple hours and he will come by and we’ll screw around with some lyrics or work on a melody and try and get something going.
L4LM: Fans are always talking about songs they are chasing. Would you say the entire catalog is wide open now?
AA: Our catalog of songs is so spread out over a lot of years but yeah, with the exception of Jeff’s originals, everything is wide open. It is just so hard to find space for them all. Some of them really feature one member, and there’s really only room for that once a set at most.
There are still songs we haven’t played with this new line-up. In my opinion, and this is only my opinion, don’t get me wrong, but I care a lot about the ebb and flow. I don’t ever want to bring it down, and some of the slower darker tunes can bring down the energy. I feel like, if they’re going to happen they need to happen early on, when the show is still building. You can start with something big, then mellow out a little bit and then build it again. Basically, we are from the school of jam bands, the school of the Grateful Dead.
I, mostly, am the guy doing the set list, though Ben does some as well. I try and think about how to make it flow the best. I want to make sure it never enters a lull.
L4LM: Yonder has been employing some fun, themed sets for your special events. You’re run the gamut from punk rock to Ween all the way to Pink Floyd. With so many shows under your belt, the fresh challenge must be something the band enjoys, judging from the results. How do you guys decide what you’ll tackle?
AA: Usually a brainstorm session. We wonder “What would be a cool thing for Yonder to do?” Actually, the Ween set was Ben Hines, our front of house engineer… it was his idea. And it was a good one, because that album is hilarious. I don’t really remember how the Pink Floyd one came about. I know at least half of us consider it our favorite album, it is definitely my favorite. Although, I do have some others that enjoy almost the same level of love. The punk stuff a year earlier, that was mostly me. Dave and I grew up listening to that music. Seventh through tenth grade, that music was pretty important to me. To us.
In band conversations it always comes to the same point though. If we are going to spend any amount of time on something, it seems like it would be so much more in our advantage to be working on new material, like original stuff. Every band, across the board, that I see at festivals or wherever, they all play covers. The fans like it and I totally get why. They might not be familiar with all of whoever they’re seeing’s music, but all of a sudden you hear something you recognize and love it is great.
I even enjoy hearing a band play covers. It is a conundrum. You want to play originals but you also want to connect a bit. I feel like most bands would agree with that. Except cover bands I guess. So it becomes a thing where you try and choose songs that won’t be super time consuming. That is the mentality we have had. We want to do that but still have time to work on original stuff too.
L4LM: There is a seemingly universal segment among the more dedicated fan bases that deride festival sets for their tendency to be more uptempo and packed with popular songs. It would seem that special sets, like the ones we are speaking of, are so universally enjoyed thanks to their unique use of the time. Seems like a good way for Yonder to catch some new fans unaware as well.
AA: I agree. That makes sense. You want to showcase yourself, and like you said, one of the ways you do that is show how your band plays a cover. I would say almost every band, with few exceptions, plays a cover at least once-in-a-while. We kinda mix up our festival sets. Even though it is a festival we still just want to do what we do like our regular shows. We might choose to do something more on the upbeat side of our usual show.
That might be my only difference, if I was putting together the set list, to keep it rocking more. Not to say that there wouldn’t be some slower or more moody tunes in there but mostly a set of the more upbeat stuff. Which is mostly what Yonder does anyway, honestly. Maybe we will come out of the gate a little stronger, or just have a long jam to start the thing.
L4LM: Yonder Mountain is getting ready for the big NYE run in Boulder. Do you have any special themed sets up your sleeve or are you going to focus on pulling out all the stops from your own catalog?
AA: Nothing crazy. We have some ideas floating around. We’re probably going to showcase some of the new stuff. We will probably pull out some of the cover stuff from the year, like we’ll put out some Ween and some Floyd and feature that. We have enough time on the 31st for either two real long sets or possibly a third set, like just start right off the bat. Nothing concrete yet. But I know it is going to be fun, like always.
L4LM: That’s it for my questions, but I thought I would ask the Kinfolk for a couple of theirs. Got time for a few more?
L4LM: Ben Degani asks “I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that Adam’s eyes are doing all the work in guiding the other members, telling guests when it’s their turn to solo, etc. Has he always been Yonder’s silent jam leader? Does he really enjoy that part of his job?”
AA: Yeah, generally, and we’ve used this since basically day one. We have had some issues with it, but having one person be in charge and orchestrating what is going on is so much easier than other people do it. Granted, you can have the mentality that says whoever is singing can control the solos and where they go. Some people like that, and I am fine with that as well. But in general, like if we have guests coming up, it is nice to have one person, not two or three, to keep from having overlap. So generally when Jake sings he calls out the solos, and the rest of the time I do.
L4LM: The other one is from Kara Sterling who wonders “What did you ask from Santa for Christmas?”
AA: Nothing! I feel like, I’m at the point where I am just grateful to be happy and healthy and alive. My wife and I, we try to plan trips and things like that, and don’t get material things for each other. My only gift obligations are for the children in my life, family and friends. But honestly, I couldn’t ask for anything more.
L4LM: That’s a fine sentiment to end this chat on. Thanks for taking the time to look back at your impressive 2016. Can’t wait to hear what you do in 2017!
AA: Thanks! We’re looking forward to playing new music in the new year! Happy holidays!