Ben Kaufmann of Yonder Mountain String Band: "We Are the Bastard Children of Bluegrass."
Jay Blakesberg Yonder Mountain String Band
Bands like the Avett Brothers and Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band have somehow managed to make progressive bluegrass cool. YMSB have done this by straying as far as possible from the stereotypes and songwriting norms associated with traditional bluegrass. By incorporating some rock spirit into their well-played picking and grinning, YMSB have carved out a creating and convincing niche that bodes well for the band's continued popularity.
Speaking from a tour stop in Baton Rouge and in anticipation of Saturday's show at the Granada Theater, bassist Ben Kaufmann spoke with DC9 about Yonder Mountain String Band's melding of genres and how having four singer/songwriters is never a bad thing.
You guys do over 100 live dates a year and have done so for over a decade. Isn't that exhausting?
You know, it's funny. It's not really exhausting because we used to play much more. When you are first starting out, you are not making a lot of money and you just got to play any place that will have you. You have to work as much as you can. What we have found is that we play about three hours a night, two sets. We are playing in tempos that are really, really fast. We had, for the sake of our physical and mental health, to not be so fatigued and exhausted. We had to scale back. But that coincided with the band generating more of a following. It all balances out. I see some bands out there doing 200 gigs a year and we never did that. I don't know how they can do that. I guess it's because they are young and hungry. A hundred is a good number. It gets us home because we all have families now.
How long did the band exist before you could totally live off of that revenue?
We managed that from the very beginning. We had people who supported us. At home, people gave us rooms in their houses to stay in for next to no rent. The money we made at local gigs was enough to buy food for a couple of weeks. We started in the end of 1998 and we all quit our jobs. We threw caution to the wind and did it. And it worked. We got lucky in a lot of ways. We worked real hard, but we did get lucky.
How important is a venue's sound in terms of the quality of a performance?
Oh, it's crucial. We are very, very lucky to have a great sound guy. It's a story we hear a lot. You go to a place that has a terrible sound system. Our guy makes it sound so good and at the end of the night, the club says they've been debating on whether or not to get a new system. But they think that we sounded so good that they don't need it. We tell them that our guy is making chicken salad out of chicken shit. We are not at the level where we can afford to travel with our own box truck, bringing in the speakers and everything. You can be dependent on whatever gear the venue has. You would be surprised how many venues have not upgraded in a decade. Then again, it's really expensive to get the good stuff.
Your band plays a lot of outdoor venues. How does that affect the sound?
If you're playing outdoors, you are bringing in a PA. And we certainly request our preferred equipment. We will spend a little more on our production budget so we can have it as high quality as we possible.
You prefer playing inside to outside?
Not necessarily. It depends. Red Rocks is outside and that is as great as it gets. Sometime, you get these really beautiful theaters that are so spectacular. You can light up a room in a different way. It's all about vibe. A big empty field is not as special as a beautiful theater that has been around for a hundred years. Then, there's a place like Stubb's in Austin. That is basically a big back yard, but it's an extraordinary outside experience.
Rolling Stone magazine wrote that your band liberated bluegrass music. Do you feel like a liberator?
I see what they are saying. When we started, Nickel Creek were around. They were the poster children of bluegrass and we are the bastard children of bluegrass. We found that our audience was not disinterested in traditional bluegrass. I've heard a hundred times from people who say they do not like bluegrass but they like what we do. The more times they see us, the better possibility that they might get into the more traditional style of bluegrass. We have brought a new audience to the music. There was a liberation from a traditional bluegrass audience that was getting older. The music, for a while, ran the risk of just dying out.
Of course, it wouldn't, but it could have been relegated to the basements of churches or bluegrass festivals. But that's not the way it's worked out. There have been several examples of bluegrass bands reaching a mainstream audience. You can point to the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. More recently, bands like the Avett Brothers and, even though they are not bluegrass, Mumford and Sons. They have a banjo in the band and it is a common element in the band. Something about hearing a banjo on pop radio changed people's minds and took it out of just a backwoods, hillbilly thing.
The band features four singers and songwriters. Is it hard to accommodate everyone when making an album?
It's not hard to accommodate when you make it a point to accommodate. Where it becomes tricky is when you start to make an album and you want the album to have a flow and continuity. You want people to listen to the album all the way through and like it. It hasn't bothered us in any way to have four singer/songwriters. I couldn't see us doing it any other way. When the songs are good, that's really all that counts.
You have a new EP out, YMSB EP '13, and you've stated that you want to release several more EPs. How many?
We did the EP with the intention that we would do a series of them. I wish I hadn't had my mind changed, but we found that having an EP doesn't generate the kind of interest of an album. If you ever want to get on a late night TV show or reach an audience outside of our box, you are not going to do so by releasing EPs. People just aren't excited about it. I was really excited about it. Doing the EP really fit our lifestyle. We tour so much and we did some great short recording sessions. But the EP doesn't give you the same bang for the buck that an album does. We decided that the next project will be a full length album.