On Friday night at All Good Festival in Ohio, Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage for a raging set of blue grass. Several hours before they hit the stage, guitarist Adam Aijala and mandolin player Jeff Austin sat down with Bobby Martin of Grateful Web in the backstage artist area.
GW: Alright guys, great to meet you. Grateful Web is very happy to be talking to you guys. You guys are great and we love your music. I’ve got some fan questions and some of my own, so maybe let’s start with fan ones first.
Jeff A: Cool.
GW: My buddy Bill was wondering what was your favorite cover that is not from the Bluegrass scene?
Jeff A: Um, I’m trying to think, but I really like playing Girlfriend is better. We’ve been playing that one a lot. I like playing Pretty Daughter, this tune by Danny Barnes… It’s kind of in the bluegrass world but a little more of a Bad Livers vibe because that’s who he wrote it for.
Adam: Lately I’m digging They Love Each Other- it’s always fun to play. Only a Northern Song is always fun because there’s a big jam section at the end and we get to take long solos. If you ask me in a month, it’ll change.
GW: That’s cool. I saw you guys play Girlfriend is Better something like five years ago at Lupos in Rhode Island…
Jeff: Yea, well you’re going to today! (laughing)
GW: Oh wow, well the funny thing is that my buddy Austin wanted to see if you could play Girlfriend is Better.
Jeff: Done. It’s gonna be a good one.
GW: Do you guys prefer smaller venues or larger venues? The energy is probably different in a lot of ways.
Jeff: I’ve got to say that for myself I like bigger venues. I really do. It’s just there’s just something undeniable. There are great things that happen in smaller venues where the energy can be just through the roof, because people are so compacted, but playing today with the crowd hopefully feeling what’s it going to be like…it’s just going to be sick. There’s nothing like it. It’s just crazy.
Adam: I like both. I think for economic reasons it makes more sense to play bigger ones because more money. The machine doesn’t move on its own. But as a performer I like playing both. As a concert goer I prefer smaller for sure because it is more intimate. It works that way being on stage too. Slowdown in Nebraska, everyone is right there. The energy was bang!
Jeff: It was nuts.
Adam: Then you play a place like Red Rocks and they’re all right there, ya know. So it’s pretty comparable actually. You might say they’re different but high energy is high energy and if it’s 1,000 people or 10,000 it is still pretty awesome.
GW: So how do you guys prepare for a festival rather than a club show or something on a smaller scale?
Adam: There’s less time to really stretch out so we tend to cater a more high energy set. Not that our regular shows aren’t a lot of energy but there kind of has to be like: come out strong, have a strong middle and a strong end and throw some songs in the middle.
Jeff: It’s a different story. It’s a different race. And also, too, we’re playing a show sold out with 1,500 people there, those people the majority of them have seen us or are all coming for one thing. When like at a festival like this where you might be playing to 15 to 20,000 people, you get one shot to maybe hit 5,000 plus who might not have heard of you or seen you yet. It’s just a different telling of the story. Whereas you get 3 hours to do 2 sets in a venue, and you get 90 minutes here, it’s just a different kind of a thing.
Adam: It’s a condensed version I’d guess you say.
GW: Currently what is your favorite musical influence? What are you listening to right now?
Jeff: Man I tell you, and this is strange, I really have not been listening to a lot of music lately because we’ve been so damn busy. It just kind of passed me. All of a sudden I looked at my Ipod this tour and I I haven’t listened to one thing. But I’m a huge fan of Phish. I love that band. My connection with them goes way back, seeing them back in the day. You know, it’s a different era for their music. And I like it, I’m having a good time when I go see them. So, that tends to be that. Really, it sounds so odd, but it has just passed me by. It’s pretty nuts. I like John Prine a lot. I listen to a bunch of him.
Adam: I got Syrius/XM about three months ago and I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead station a lot. I got it on my phone so if I get a signal I can listen to it. I’ve been listening in my bunk here and there. But when I’m home I listen a lot more. Same with him though, on the road I haven’t been listening to as much music-on this tour specifically. Other tours I do, but this one for some reason.
Jeff: I don’t know what it is man. I don’t know.
Adam: The axis for music is so easy now that I’m all over the place. I listen to stuff that I listened to 20,30 years ago or I’ll listen to something that I just heard about like a band I heard of a few years ago. All genres really.
GW: Is there anyone in particular who you would most like to play with, dead or alive?
Adam: Jerry, no question.
Jeff: That kills me because I think of the relationships we’ve made and the paths that we crossed and the people around. I so have the feeling we probably would have either have met him or played with him. He’s just such a great touch guitar player it’s just ridiculous. I’m doing a set of Grateful Dead music with a bunch of friends, focused on Garcia music, and we’re going to the old… going deep. I’ve been listening to a lot of it lately and my God it’s just so good, you know?
Adam: And we’re playing with Phil too. That’s pretty awesome.
Jeff: We’re playing with Phil Lesh coming up in the first week of August. He’s going to be a guest- he’s going to play our music. We’ll do a few covers. We’re sending him Mp3s of our music.
GW: When is it? Where?
Jeff: That’s at Terrapin Crossroads. It’s 2 days, August third and fourth something like that?
GW: Have you been to Terrapin Crossroads?
Adam: Not yet. I mean, that’s a really cool connection. Talk about wanting to play with someone…
Jeff: And he approached us! We invited him to our Fillmore shows, he was out of town and he said, “Hey! Maybe you could do something at the Crossroads sometime!” It’s just a trip.
Adam: We’ve been lucky as hell. You think about the people we’ve gotten to play are some of the if you had asked 10 years ago that I would have mentioned. You know, Darol Anger, Danny Barnes, Jon Fishman. We’ve just been lucky as hell. Way back when we had Stanley Jordan sit in with us. Even just sitting in with Salmon back in the day was huge for us.
GW: How are things different since you got started in ’98? Within the band? The scene?
Jeff: In the band there’s been marriages, I got divorced, there’s kids and babies, and people working on more babies. That’s just what happens.
Adam: We were in our 20s partying at first and you know, now it’s more like… well we still have fun for sure.
Jeff: It’s just a different kind of fun (laughing)
Adam: I think at festivals the music scene has changed a lot. Acoustic music is so much more accepted. We said this before but the first time we played High Sierra we were the only band without drums.
Jeff: We were the only bluegrass band.
Adam: We were the only band who didn’t have a drummer. Now you go to festivals and there are a lot of bands who don’t have drums. I don’t think All Good is one of them, but a lot of time we are playing jam band type festivals. So we were like the outcast at those kinds of festivals because we were the only band without drums, and at bluegrass festivals we were the outcasts.
Jeff: We’d be playing 20 minute segues of this and this and this.
Adam: Now there are just a lot of bands coming out like Joy Kill Sorrow out of Boston. They are cool. Really good vocals and the banjo player is ripping. There’s Deadly Gentlemen, Sam Grisman is in the band. They got a cool thing going. It’s just cool that type of thing is developing. I think it’s just more accepting now. That’s changed a lot. We thought there’d be more of a resurgence when Oh Brother came out, but it kind of fizzled out a little bit. But now it’s kind of coming back.
GW: Do you guys still get nervous on stage?
Adam: I get nervous if I feel stiff. Some nights you just don’t have it. And then when you look at the set list and see how fast all the shit is, you are like “oh man.” But in general I don’t. We’ve done it. We just did approximately our 1,500th show.
Jeff: I’ve always done stage stuff since I was like 5 years old so I just don’t. It’s something I look forward to. There’s a few… Telluride I don’t get nervous but there are moments before the show where I kind of go, “This is a huge set. Sam Bush is coming up to play the last 20 minutes or whatever. But that’s more of an excitement than a nervous thing.
Adam: It’s never debilitating. It’s more of an anxious thing, like let’s do this. I’m ready to go. Today will be fun.
GW: Do you guys have a favorite show that you look back on where you were like, man we freaking killed it?
Jeff: You know, actually, we were talking about it last night. For me a show that I thought we did our job well was a couple years ago with the late night slot at All Good in West Virginia. We did the late night, and it was funny because it came from a conversation a year before with Tim who is the head of the festival. We were sitting there and I said, “Man, we always used to be the late night.” We were the late night band at High Sierra, this and that. We always did late nights. But they got kind of taken over by like Pretty Lights or different electronic acts, or live electronic. That sort of thing. And he said what about you guys doing a late night? And I was like, well you guys want to prepare? Put us out there? And then next thing our agent was like I talked to Walter and he said basically you kind of challenged him to put you there and he’s up for it. So I was like, let’s fucking do it. And it worked. At the end of it when I was looking out and seeing all these kids that were still raging really hard to what we were doing. I felt really good about that one.
Adam: Yea it’s hard to think back very far. I can only think about tours almost. Like this tour, I thought Slow Down went really well. That was in Omaha. I think Baltimore went really well. Even Portland, that was sick. I couldn’t sing but that was still a really energy filled one. Red Rocks is always fun. I’ve never had a bad show there.
Jeff: Our last time out there I felt the most comfortable.
Adam: And Telluride this year was probably our best Telluride.
GW: Does venue play into how you guys play?
Adam: It can like at Telluride there’s the aesthetics, and the crowd for sure.
Jeff: This was our 13th year doing Telluride and when we walked off stage we all collectively went that might have been the best main stage we have every played. Which means next year is going to suck. We’ll be out there going clank! Clink! (laughing)
GW: What’s your favorite part of being on the road? And a least favorite?
Adam: Least is being away from loved ones.
Jeff: Yea, loved ones and family. My favorite really all revolves around food. I love being on the road because there’s so many cool spots to go and eat. I also hate the fact that even though I have a little kitchen on the road I don’t have a lot of time to cook for myself. So when I go home, I never go out. My poor girlfriend, she’s like I think we should go out tonight. I’m like sweetie I’m going to make pork chops! Doesn’t that sound good? She’s like can we go out and get some noodles or something? (laughing)
Adam: I think being out in Colorado and being able to see the Atlantic and Pacific is nice. Food, definitely. I like going to certain cities, too. I really like the west coast cities like San Fran or Portland and Seattle. I love going up there. Chicago is great. New York is great. Also being able to get out and do stuff. We get opportunities sometimes, like in Tahoe we can go snowboard. I play golf a lot on the road. I can fish sometimes. Shit like that is always fun. Just getting out to do different things.
Jeff: I like to nap in different cities. This one in Tahoe was so great, but it didn’t top Portland. That was a great nap. No but, like I said, it is all around food.
GW: How do you go about choosing set lists? Are they pre-planned?
Jeff: We pre-plan them. We used to not do it. It’s just learning how to be a band and tighten up the ship a little bit. We would listen to tapes and see that we played a 2 hour first set, yea well half of it is us figuring out what we want to play. And we’re tuning and we can’t figure out what to play. So someone’s like, “let’s play this!” And you’re like oh man, my voice is killing me. Those are conversations you can have before the show and still make it a spontaneous thing. But it’s been years since we winged a show.
GW: Do you choose them together?
Jeff: We do them together, but it kind of varies. Adam and I seem to be doing most of the set lists these days.
Adam: Lately it’s been like either he’ll do the majority of it and the rest of us will touch it up, or I’ll do the majority and they’ll touch it up. Everybody in the past has done them. Basically we have the sheets of what we played last time. Like we have last year’s All Good set and we’re not doing any repeats.
Jeff: We do that for every city. It can put you in a tight spot because you might be like, “Oh you know what would be a great opener tonight?” and you put it down as an opener but you opened the second set with it last year. It can shuffle everything up. It can be a lot of math at times, especially when we first go on the road. It can take awhile to get in the swing of things.
Adam: Sometimes it’s almost easier in the beginning though.
Jeff: Oh at the end you just stare. I did that like two days ago in Brooklyn where I just stared at this piece of paper. All I needed was 10 more minutes of music and I just couldn’t. I sat there for 45 minutes and couldn’t do it. I handed it to Adam and he nailed it.
Adam: When making the set lists, obviously we aren’t doing any repeats from the last time in the town, and we look at where we are going to be the next night and pull from that. So the next day it’s not as hard because we don’t do songs night to night. We have. If we have a new song sometimes we do it night to night because we are trying to get it worked out.
Jeff: You get into a groove and see what people think about it from city to city.
Adam: Festivals we’ve done that before too. We were thinking that in theory no one from Vibes is going to be here. So we could do repeats but we are not going to.
GW: Do you have any secret talents aside from music?
Jeff: I can double snap! (says while snapping fingers)
Adam: I don’t really have any other talents, but a lot of interests. I mean, I love fishing. I fly fish a lot in Colorado and going up to Montana next week. I like any kind of fishing. If I go somewhere and some dude’s like bobber and a worm is going to get you the best fish, I’ll do it. I’m not like a snob for fishing. Whatever’s going to catch fish. I like being outside. I like hiking, snowboarding, snowmobiling, back country stuff.
Jeff: I like cooking. I do a lot of cooking at home. I actually do recipe development and we’re working on a cookbook with a friend of mine and working on a tv show with another friend of mine. I’m really big into the food and just that kind of stuff. I travel for the food, yea it’s a big to do.
GW: Is there one place that you guys would like to play that you haven’t played yet?
Jeff: Australia would be a blast. We are actually, in December, palying in Mexico. We teamed up with the Cloud Nine people doing this strings and soul event. Us, Leftover Salmon, Stringdusters and Railroad Earth on the beach starting on 12/12/12 and playing the next four days. That’s going to be fun because we’ve never done anything like that. We did jam cruise a few times and that’s a different thing. But still on the beach, looking out at the sea, bikinis…
Adam: I’d like to go back to Japan too. It’s the best. We had a blast there.
GW: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us at Grateful Web. It’s been a pleasure.
Jeff: From Jeff Austin from Yonder Mountain String Band, I want to give a big shout out to Grateful Web. Thanks for all the support, all the input and all the good things.
Adam: And from Adam Aijala of Yonder Mountain String Band, I also want to give a shout out to Grateful Web. Thank you, love you guys.