After forming in 1999, the Ever since Yonder Mountain String Band became known as a fun and funky force on the scene in 1999, it's been clear that this wasn't ain bluegrass/acoustic roots music group in any strict, traditional sense of the word, but they've never quite felt like themselves -- until now.
As much as the group was always seen as having a progressive take on acoustic music, mandolin player Jeff Austin (yeah, you read that right) says it's only with the group's newy released, self-titled CD that listeners are hearing the band's forward-thinking musical attitude translating into the music.
"On the first couple of records, we stuck our necks out a little bit, and cracked the window, and maybe it's a little too hot out there," Austin says, trying to illustrate how the band's willingness to take risks has grown. "On this (new)one we threw the window open with both hands and leaned out."
The result of that attitude is a CD that is sure to sets YMSB apart from any group playing traditional bluegrass, folk or any other variation of acoustic music once and for all.
Formed in Boulder, Colo., all four bandmates played in rock bands before settling into the bluegrass vibe bluegrass influence is still hugely evident, as half of the CD's complete with frisky melodies and a blazing banjo and mandolin playing that are hallmarks of the style.But other songs push musical boundaries in both somewhat subtle ways (the blend of pop vocal lines with bluegrass on "Sidewalk Stars" and the aggressive undercurrent to "East Nashville Easter") and obvious ways (the use of drums courtesy ofPete Thomas of Elvis Costello's Imposters on the punchy folk rock of "How 'Bout You?" and the way the band brings a bluesy, spooky edge to "Angel").
But YMSB hasn't abandoned its rock roots. This is reflected in the Then there was theband's choice to use a producer whose background was rock -- not roots -- music. Known for his work with Beck, Elliott Smith and the Foo Fighters, producer Tom Rothrock brought a rock outlook and an encouraging attitude toward experimentation and risk-taking to the project.
"We had worked with producers that kind of more, I guess, fit, -- quote-unquote -- fit into what we kind of sounded like," Austin says. "But we hadn't yet done a record that we felt really kind of sounded like us in a whole .You know, it was us, butthere were some things that were maybe a little too clean or a little too this or that. .. we were just anxious for new ideas, brand new ideas. We had been talking about it a lot. We had a lot of suggestions and a lot of different people (in mind)."
Rothrock, though, became more than a producer. He also joined band members Austin, Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals), Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals) and Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals) in contributing as a songwriter on five tracks.
"We got together and we really hit it off," Austin says. "Personality wise, we just really got along and it really worked out well. That was the key thing. And also, if you look at the records he's made, a lot of risks have been taken on them, like (Beck's) Mellow Gold and all the Smiths records and stuff,... a lot of risks were taken on those records. So for us, that was what we were looking for."
But not all of the band's supporters dig the rock star risks.
"[People have asked] 'Aren't you abandoning your roots?'" Austin related. "Roots? My roots are the J Geils Band and REO Speedwagon. My roots were Motorhead and Judas Priest.Those were my roots."
The band's earlier non-rock music, obviously had already struck a chord with a wide range of music fans, as the group built an enviable career without the backing of an outside record label.
Over an eight-year period, the group self-releasedon its own Frog Pad Records label two studio CDs"Elevation" (1999) and "Town By Town" (2001), four separate volumes in its series of "Mountain Tracks" concert CDs, plus a studio album with veteran singer-songwriter Benny "Burle" Galloway called Old Hands in 2004. And along the way, the group's touring base mushroomed.
Now, the band typically headlines theaters and large clubs (including such prestigious venues as the Fillmore in Denver or Irving Plaza in New York City) and plays some of the most prestigious music festivalsThe group has also shared stages with some of the top names in roots music and rock, -- and performed this summer with the Dave Matthews Band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the Allman Brothers Band.
Plus, Austin says the band has gradually started adding new songs to its live repertoire for this summer's tour. He'sand is pleased with how the material from the new CD is translating to the stage -- despite the use of some fairly adventurous sonic touches(not to mention drums).
"We're really happy with how it's kind of coming together in the live sound," Austin says. "[There are] a couple of sneaky tricks we've got up our sleeves that I can't share with you, but the rest of the stuff's been coming off really good, especially some of the distortion and kind of like textured spaces on the record, those feedback scapes and that sort of stuff. It's coming along incredibly well in the live setting."
In addition to trying to build its live following, the band is also seeking out a wider audience on another front. Yonder Mountain String Band marks the band's first CD that is not self-released. Instead, the group has signed with Vanguard Records.
"Vanguard Records had also been courting us for a few years," Austin says. "We kind of just hit a point and said you know, we love playing music and touring, and we love doing this and that ..."
"But wouldn't it be awesome if we could sell some records?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun