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Q&A: Yonder Mountain String Band banjoist talks longevity

“You can get your hair wet, just stay in the shallow end, please,” said Dave Johnston to his daughter earlier this week from his Boulder, Colo., home. The banjoist and singer of the bluegrass act Yonder Mountain String Band was on dad duty, “trying to squeeze in some pool days before summer is gone.”

Johnston, 40, knows tour season — which includes a headlining gig at Rams Head Live on Friday — is approaching. But this is nothing new for him or his bandmates, Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals) and Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals). The progressive bluegrass trio from Colorado has been recording and touring for 15 years, and even after founding member Jeff Austin left amicably earlier this year to pursue a solo career, the Yonder train keeps rolling along.

Johnston, via telephone, discussed moving on after Austin's departure, where bluegrass is headed and how Yonder has avoided burning out.

After losing a founding member, how has it been adjusting?
I'm not going to lie, it's been a big adjustment. It's been kind of like musical chiropracty [sic] or something. It's been challenging because he was a big part of what became identified as part of our sound. We're trying to find ways to create that energy in a different manner, using different vehicles to showcase our own energy that the five of us [fiddle player Allie Kral and mandolin player Jake Jolliff are joining the group on tour] have right now. It takes some digging. It takes some revising. It takes some examining, I guess you would call it.

Was there serious consideration given to stopping the band after Jeff left?
For me, it wasn't a consideration about totally bagging the whole thing. I always felt like the three of us — and the four of us at one time — had a really unique thing going on. The three of us — Adam, Ben and I — feel like we still have something that's part of Yonder Mountain and part of what people want to see, too.

A new permanent lineup will be announced next year. Can you give any details?
I don't know what to expect myself, but I do like four-pieces. It'll definitely be a four-piece.

Your last full-length album, “The Show,” was released in 2009. What are the plans for the next record?
We're really excited, because we were recently in the studio, the five of us — Allie Kral, Jake Jolliff, Ben, Adam and I — all finished the basic tracks for a new record, so we're all really excited about that. We're really pumped that we're well on our way towards completing it. So we're really excited.

When can we expect it?
Beginning of next year, maybe. Maybe next spring.

In your opinion, how healthy is bluegrass in 2014, and what direction do you hope the genre heads?
I want the genre to head in my direction. You know, Yonder Mountain String Band's direction. [laughs] All kidding aside, I like this kind of music. I think there's a lot of room here for uniquely American-sounding acts to stretch out and become more accepted and more visible.

Most acts don't get the career Yonder has had. What do you attribute the longevity to?
I think a big part of it is knowing when to back off and take breaks. I think that's really important. It's easy to get caught up in the idea of once you have something that is good, making money, is successful and something you can support yourself with, I think a lot of people think the next logical step is to work as hard and as much as you can. You will travel a lot. You may work very, very hard. But you may end up destroying what you like. ... The demands that touring life make on you are very real, and they have a cost if you aren't careful. So you need to take care of what's special about what you're doing. So if you're working all of the time, you might lose that perspective.

What's the plan for the rest of the year?
The plan for the rest of the year is not radically different from what we normally do. We're going to go on tour in October. We're going to see you guys out there on Friday. We're going to be going to the places we typically go to, and bringing something that's slightly different than what people are used to. For me, it's very easy to be enthusiastic about it. It's a great thing that's happening with Yonder right now, so we're all really pumped. Everything feels great.

INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED

If you go

Yonder Mountain String Band performs Friday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live, downtown. Nick Norman with Carl Wagoner will also perform. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 day of. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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