Grateful Web Interview with Dave Johnston

Article Contributed by June Reedy | Published on Sunday, August 7, 2016

Grateful Web caught up with Dave Johnston of Yonder Mountain String Band just in time to talk about 2016 so far and the upcoming Red Rocks show on August 20th, 2016.  They will headline with Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Drive-By Truckers in support.  

GW: So you are in the studio today, that is very cool.  Can you tell me more about that?

DJ: Super Fun. We are working on a new record and we hope it will come out early next year.  We have our set of tasks ahead of us. We’re just trying to knock em out, get em done

GW: This will be lucky # 13 for produced recordings, yes?

DJ: Including live albums, that is correct.

GW: Will you be playing material from the new album at your huge upcoming Red Rocks show?

DJ: It’s likely.  You’ll hear some new stuff from the album we are currently working on, gonna hear lots of old stuff and lots of stuff that’s in between

GW: Yes, I was listening to the Red Rocks show from last year this morning and noticed the set list is heavy with stuff from Black Sheep so I was wondering, ‘What’s next?!’

DJ: Well there will probably be less Black Sheep songs.

GW: Good Answer!

DJ: Thank You

GW: In 2006 I saw Yonder at Telluride Bluegrass Festival with Drive By Truckers headlining - I don’t know if that is the last time you played together but have you played together on purpose since then?  Can you speak to that relationship?  

DJ: We have not really played together before.  They have a Southern Heritage. I’m a fan of Patterson Hood’s lyrics.  I think they are a really great band.  They are doing cool stuff.  They appeal to a more rock n roll side of things.

GW: This showcase of musicianship at Red Rocks you have going (Preservation Hall Band, Drive-By Truckers, and YMSB) should be very interesting.  Drive By Truckers have deviated from what they traditionally played and Yonder has a whole new line-up.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that you are making different music than what Yonder has always done but do you have anything to add to that thought?

DJ: It’s weird because it’s all relative to what you think a new thing is sometimes. For me, playing with Jake & Allie is new.  We do play older material quite a bit but it’s sort of reinterpreted and reimagined through the rubric of a 5-piece band.  It has a lot of different elements and dimensions to it that weren't there before.  Even the older stuff to me feels new and there’s a lot of potential for anything; Anything we’ve done in the distant past to the immediate past becomes refreshed or expanded or improvised upon.  It’s not new in the sense of playing on trampolines or playing with a drop or a break or anything like that. *chuckle* It’s new in a lot of different ways that are maybe less obvious sometimes but they are definitely new to me

GW: Right, no gimmicks just grabbing music. I got to see you at Summer Camp this year.  

DJ: Nice!

GW: Yes. You guys have always been known for your surprise hits. Jake is pretty young, isn’t he?  How old is he?

DJ: Jake is 27.

GW: awww, that’s cute. *chuckle* You guys did ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ and said it was his pick… It seems ironic that the youngest member would pick a song like that.

DJ: You know what’s really weird about that particular song is that it doesn’t seem like it’d be that much of a grabber, when you think about it, but then every time we play it, people go nuts!

GW: They recognize it from the elevator ride they just took.

DJ: Right?! Everyone wants to be on the elevator ride!

*It was at this point in the interview that I realized how much of a Yonder Mountain String Band super fan I actually am.  My mind began to reel with how many times and how long I have been seeing this band.  I have memories of dancing in the moonlight with my baby niece who is now finishing high school.  She and I would dance and sing to Yonder when she was just a wee babe.  It became almost as if I reincarnated Chris Farley from ‘The Chris Farley Show’ skit on old Saturday Night Live.  

    “Member that time you played at Summer Camp and you said that Jake picked ‘Dancin in the Moonlight’ and everyone went nuts?  


    That was really awesome”

GW: Black Sheep had that awesome Buzzcocks cover tune on the album, Do you have any crazy things like that planned for Red Rocks?

DJ: There are crazy things in the works for Red Rocks but I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything about that

GW: I figured, I wouldn’t want you to break the rules or anything… How did it come about that you played Pink Floyd’s Animals in entirety for Northwest String Summit?

DJ:  It was the 15th anniversary of the festival, run by the same people for 15 years.  We wanted to come out and do something special, something that spoke to our earlier musical influences and something that we thought was heady enough, psychedelic enough that it would appeal to younger people who tend towards the more psychedelic electronic sort of a thing.  We thought, Pink Floyd is a really good narrative of those two ideas. They are very idiosyncratic the way they make music.  We are an idiosyncratic sort of band.  It just occurred to us without any sort huge amounts of foresight or planning, it occurred to us to play the whole album because it’s a great album.  There’s lots of long jams on it and spooky - It’s got great lyrics and great music on it.  It ended up being a natural impulse for us.  The promoter was into the idea of doing that so we developed the idea, it came off really great.  It was really fun.

GW: It was great.  You say it’s pretty obvious but normally I look to you guys for Americana classics (Dolly Parton, Jim Croche, and Bruce Springsteen make the rounds in a Yonder Set frequently) so it really was pretty shocking actually

DJ: Right, Right!  Pink Floyd is not something you’d think about a string band doing so much.  You could see us doing The Last Waltz or something like that. *chuckle* We’re not very normal like that.

GW: Yes, I don’t know what to call it.  Is it ‘newgrass’ or ‘jamgrass’? It’s not traditional.

DJ: No it’s not. I think the label that we got is ‘jamgrass’. Ya know, I’ll go with that.  I think it’s fine, appropriate.  It encapsulates a lot of our ethos.  

GW: How many times have you played Red Rocks now?

DJ: This will be our 9th or 10th one. I think it’s our 9th time playing there

GW: Dang! What makes it special every time? What makes it different?

DJ: This is our hometown crowd and a hometown vibe, a hometown feel which is awesome.  It’s a pretty spectacular place to be a part of and to be a part of the experience that goes on there.  It definitely has a lot of power, a lot of good energy, and a lot of good vibes going around that place.  You couldn’t ask for a more majestic place to play.  It’s a great sounding room.  It’s just… I don’t know how to put it except for that it’s really - there are a lot of parts of it that are really mysterious. I kinda of want to leave it that way.  It’s a charged place and it’s really an honor and we are very grateful that we get to play there.

GW: We just took a family vacay and drove thru Telluride.  How can you differentiate the sound between Red Rocks and Town Park in Telluride?

DJ:  There is a lot of differences just because of the geography.  Red Rocks you have these huge big Red Rocks on either side of you, there’s a different sense of what’s going to resonate and what’s gonna last a little bit longer whereas in Town Park in Telluride is going straight out, it’s not really bouncing off of or reflecting anything.  There’s sort of… maybe that’s what characterizes the energy of the place.  It’s more of a whirlpool.

GW: I am curious what it’s like to be on stage in either of those places

DJ: It’s more of an energetic whirlpool whereas Telluride is more like a wave.  They are both unbelievable places to play. Each is unique and beautiful in their own right

GW: Moving forward in that direction, what is the next big goal YMSB has their eyes set on?  Is there a place you haven’t played that you want to? Is there something on the horizon that you are looking to capture?

DJ: There are a lot of… that’s a good question.  There’s a lot of things that we are looking forward to.  I can only answer for myself, I look forward to finishing this next record with our new line-up.  I think it’s going to help solidify a lot of things.  It’s gonna help get us into places we want to play - places that are pretty fun.  For instance, the Ryman (Auditorium) in Nashville. There is a lot of great places and a lot of great festivals out there.  What I look forward to the most is the feeling that you are working with your people to make really good music that is honest, that you hope other people will appreciate

*Dave Johnston is such a great sport.  It was at this point that I really felt the Chris Farley coming out.  Member that part of the skit where his physical humor kicks up a notch?  Member that?

“Is there any place you want to play in the future?  

-Well yes.

GAWD! That was SO STUPID!! Of course you want to play in places in the future. Argh.”

So I digress and dig right into the heart of the matter.  When you feel a kinship with the music, your love of the music maker becomes manic and fervent.  I surrendered to the flow.

GW: I understand you are from Aurora IL.  I used to live there too and currently work there.

DJ: I used to live over by Rosary High School. Good Catholic girls, look out!

GW:  Oh geeze I was also a catholic school girl.  We are a special breed.  How did you go from Aurora, IL to University of Illinois to Nederland CO?

DJ: Well, Aurora to U of I is not that hard of a jump.

GW: I live in Morris now, so no.  I dig that.

DJ: Oh yeah? Morris?  Highway 47, nice. I wrote about that highway on one of my first songs on the first album.  


Eight Cylinders? Is this about the street I travel down every day?!?! How have I never known this before?!?

Because your Ford broke down on 47

Because eight cylinders is your idea of heaven

You'll get it running--someday--and you'll ride right down the line

When you do, I hope it's true,

And I'll ride beside you

When you do, I hope it's true,

And I'll ride beside you

        -Elevation 1999 YMSB

DJ: Growing up in Aurora, I went to West High. I really liked history, English, and creative writing… All that kind of thing...  Living in Aurora, I realized that maybe Aurora wasn’t the best place to try and develop those sort of things.  So I went to U of I, which back then was affordable and easy to get into, not super expensive. From there it was at U of I where I was roommates with a friend whose dad played banjo and it came back one autumn. I ended up playing it alot.  Not too many people were playing it and he was very gracious to let me play on it as much as I could.  I really enjoyed it and I had a great time and I started spending a lot of time playing banjo.  It was from there that I developed the idea or had this inkling, I should say, that I could write and play music.  I ended up, because I was playing music and was kind of goofing around, I ran into Jeff (Austin) who was living down there at the time.  I ended up going to the Pacific Northwest for a while, playing on the streets alot. Jeff suggested that I should see what Nederland CO was all about.  He was living down there at the time. So I…

GW: Yeah, Seattle was all the rage at that time so Nederland just didn’t equate…

DJ: Well we had gone out to RockyGrass a bunch when we were in college. I had gone a couple times and it was like, ‘woah this is a really great thing out here’.  There was lots of people playing.  There is a lot of acoustic music.  It felt really cool.  I, however, was like I’m going to go to Seattle.  It was a bigger city with lots of opportunities.  I ended up moving to Nederland eventually.  That’s where things started almost 20 years ago.  

GW: Yes, we were just out there - We always take a family picture near the 40 miles to Denver sign. On our way out of Coal Creek Canyon

DJ: Nice!

GW: Yes, so when did you actually move there then? Ish?

DJ: 1998

GW: Wow. Almost 20 years

DJ: Yes, it’s staggering to think about

*What is staggering to think about is the fact that Dave Johnston picked up the banjo because no one was really playing it, stepped into a genre that wasn’t really popular, pushed the limits of that industry to create a whole new scene and sound that currently sits re-imagined and reinvented after nearly 20 years of doing it.  He is an anti-hero that still ends up a hero.  You gotta love the underdog.

GW: Will we get more vocals out of you in this next album?

DJ: I think you’ll get more vocals out of me this next album

GW: Yaaay!

*Dave Johnston’s punk screaming vocals have rioted in my soul.  He has a low tenor that scruffs up the pretty stuff and that, kinfolkn’ A, really pleases me!)

DJ: Yaaay!

GW: Well, I have to plug my day job.  I don’t know how often you make it back to Aurora but have you heard of River Edge Aurora the new music venue we have here off the Fox River?

DJ: I have heard of the River Edge Aurora. I go back at least a couple times a year and my mom keeps telling me that we should play the River Edge Aurora.

GW: You should!!  

DJ: I don’t think I could do 3500 tickets.  I mean, that is a huge venue there. I don’t think I could sell that many tickets in Aurora.

*Is he really that humble?  Is this actually difficult for the Yonder Mountain String Band?

GW: Well, yes, it is big. We just sold out Willie Nelson to a crowd of 8500 but I think you could do it.

DJ: If you could sell me 6000 tickets then we will be in business

*Perhaps I could insert a public plea here to the awesome brewery across the street from River Edge Aurora.  Two Brothers Brewing regularly sponsors awesome music and surely Yonder Mountain String Band is awesome music.  The awesome music coordinator Chris Bauler should talk to Dave Johnson.  Have your people talk to their people.  Let’s do it for Aurora!

GW: Don’t threaten me with a good time Dave.  I’ll do it!

DJ: I am not threatening you.  I think it would tickle my mom pink if we played down there. It would definitely make me laugh, it’d be hilarious to play Aurora.

GW: All your past teachers and classmates would come out to see you now

DJ: Yeah right?! I would laugh myself silly to play Aurora. It’d be awesome to have a big ole party.  I would definitely entertain them all if they wanted to come.

GW:  Well thank you so much for your time

DJ: Yes, it was great talking to you.  Say hi to Aurora for me.

GW: I definitely will if you say hello to those beautiful mountains for me!

DJ: Will do!

Dave Johnston is not just a banjo player.  He is a stoic synthesizer of acoustic sound.  He slays show after show while rising to the everyday occasion as Yonder Mountain String Band. The band grows more polished and passionate about all that they can and will achieve.  It is refreshing to see the mixtures of capable musicians bring their finest jams to the land and continue to provide the soundtrack for happy hippies everywhere.

Be sure to catch a lineup of mythical proportions at Red Rocks Ampitheatre on Saturday, August 20, 2016.  Preservation Hall Jazz band will start the night off right as Drive-By Truckers and Yonder Mountain String Band will take it from there. Keep on going Y’all…!