Still moving forward after 25 years with the help of new member Nick Piccininni.
Since first emerging out of the mountains of Nederland, Colorado in 1998 Yonder Mountain String Band has been at the forefront of the progressive string band world with their aggressive, high-octane take on bluegrass. Over the last nearly 25 years they have released seven studio albums, five live albums, and played 1000s of shows, and established themselves as one of the leaders of the jamgrass movement. Founder member mandolinist Jeff Austin departed in 2014. The band solidified around the core trio of guitarist Adam Aijala, banjo-picker Dave Johnston, and bassist Ben Kaufmann, and added fiddler Allie Kral, and mandolinist Jacob Joliff. Joliff left the band in late 2019 and was replaced by Nick Piccininni in January 2020. A few short months later the world shut down due to COVID. The band was undeterred and sent out to write a new album in this odd new world. The result is the stunning ‘Get Yourself Outside’. An album that exemplifies the best of Yonder with their forward-thinking approach to bluegrass, while at the same time finding new sonic ground upon which to explore, as well as highlighting the recent addition of Piccininni.
Following their standout set at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival in Baltimore, guitarist Aijala checked in with Americana UK’s Tim Newby to discuss ‘Get Yourself Outside’, songwriting during the pandemic, and how to keep everyone happy.
How was being off the road and home for so long, which was unusual for you guys with how much you usually tour?
Ben and I used to joke, “What is it going to take to get a year off?” I guess a pandemic [laughs]. I did enjoy being home during the pandemic. It was nice to see all four seasons and to be able to be home with Jules and the dogs. Honestly, the only negative was money. It wasn’t like I missed all the traveling.
How is it having Nick in the band, he seems to be a great fit?
I like his voice better than anyone in the band. He has a lot of ideas and he writes very cool melodies. He is a very good stage presence. He’s funny and does not take himself too seriously. So all of that is great. First and foremost you got to get along together offstage and we all do. That is number one for me, especially the older you get.
Given the pandemic state of the world over the past few years, how did work on ‘Get Yourself Outside’ begin?
We did a brief Fall tour in 2020 before everything shut down again around Halloween. I said we are not going to see each other for a while so let’s do some Zoom sessions and started them in December of 2020. I made folders in Google drive with everyone’s names and said if you have ideas dump them in the folder then let everyone know and then we can make Zoom meetings with whatever time we had, sometimes it was 45 minutes sometimes it was 2 hours. I was on every call, but everyone was not on every call. I think once everyone was on at the same time. It was usually two or three of us at any given time. It wasn’t super important for everyone to be there because as edits got made we would do a new demo to update the song and next time we Zoomed whoever wasn’t there would be able to add their input. The songs came together during our Zooms, as I think nine out of the eleven songs were only rough ideas at best before COVID. For example ‘Suburban Girl’, Dave wrote a version of that, but with the exception of some of the words, you would not even know it’s the same song because the music changed so much. For ‘Broken Records’ Ben just had some chords and scratch lyrics. The song ‘I Just Can’t’ Dave had some verse lyrics and I had that music.
How much was the collaboration of this album different than previously?
It was similar, we just had never done the pre-production recording part of it. For Nick, it was really different because he had never co-written with anybody before and we co-wrote with him on all his songs. He said he liked it, he had just never done it before. He has a similar mindset to the way I feel in that the idea is to have the best song you can have, not that it needs to be my song and only my song. That is how I always feel. I have said this before that too many cooks in the kitchen can ruin something, but not with this group of folks. I feel like they are all listening and giving their input. It is rare that we have any negative outcome from doing that.
You, Ben, and Dave have such a long relationship, and Allie even though she doesn’t write as much has been with you for nearly ten years, I’m sure you have figured it out.
Yeah, even if we don’t work on songs together, we show each other ideas. Dave is kind of the middle man. I write with Dave a lot and Ben writes with Dave a lot. Ben and I sometimes write together, but we are not as productive. I don’t know what that means about our personalities [laughs], but with Dave I always get a lot done. Dave is pretty prolific and has a lot of ideas so that is probably a big part of it.
A long time ago we lost that notion of possessiveness to a song or idea. We’ve known for a long time that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If I have a song and say Ben didn’t give one ounce of input to it he would still get a writer’s credit. We started that a long time ago to alleviate egos and people feeling that they need more songs on a record.
From someone on the outside looking in, that always seems to be the best way to avoid problems; approaching it as a group/ band effort that everyone contributes to in some way, instead of battling over every song.
I think it really depends on certain people. Some people need/ love the attention. Ben, Dave, and I are not those people at all. And that helps as well. We all have our roles. Everyone has things that they are good at. I guess the main thing is we are all in this together and we are all friends and family and there really is no ego anymore.
What was the working timeline for the album?
We did the preproduction, pass around of each song, between late December 2020 and early March 2021. We had studio time booked for mid-April 2021 and got the majority of it done. We then had two more two-day sessions to finish it up. It was done late May, early June of last year.
Had you played anything live before recording them?
No. After the first session in April, we did a trio, Ben, Nick, and I at Planet Bluegrass and we played some of them there for the first time. Before that, there is no way because we weren’t touring due to COVID. The first Yonder show last year was in May. We had played some before the record came, but there were five we didn’t play until the album came out.
What track stands out for you?
That’s a good question. My favourite track on the record is ‘Suburban Girl’, because of the vibe of it. It was the last song to get added to the record. Dave said I reworked this song, I’ll throw it up in the folder. I listened to it and it was just him playing guitar, and I was like, “Holy shit this is awesome!” I talked to Ben and said we have to put this on the record and he completely agreed.
I really like the album. I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I am really happy with it. I enjoyed the process of writing it, we were way more prepared because of the pre-production recordings we created so we were much more efficient and there was less guesswork on how things would go when we got into the studio. Nothing was set in stone, but we had a template of how songs would go. We did end up changing a few things here and there, but for the most part, the songs were done before we recorded them. In preparation before we went into the studio, everyone was able to play along with the demos we recorded to learn their parts and know what to play and where. So when we got in the studio we were able to just bang it out.
Do any other tracks stand out in particular for you?
I really liked working on stuff with Nick. ‘Out of the Pan’ actually pre-dated the pandemic by a month. At that time Nick said he had a new instrumental, which was ‘Out of the pan.’ We worked on it and ended up adding “Into the Fire” to it.
For ‘If Only’ I got that idea in 2020 after I tested positive for COVID. I had a fever for one night and lower back pain which prompted me to get the test. I was isolating in one of our bedrooms and I came up with the music and scratch lyrics while I was stuck in the room.
Do you think you will keep the more intensive pre-production going forward?
I would like to do it again, but it will depend on time. It’s not hard to send and share stuff, you just have to have time for everyone to work on it.
What are the plans going forward for the rest of the year?
We have talked about releasing all the demos recorded during pre-production, which we probably should now that the record is out. They don’t sound a whole lot different, but it’s interesting to check out.
It’s always fun to do if you have a little write-up to go with it explaining what was going on and getting a chance to see how the stew was made. You are busy the rest of the summer on the road?
Yeah, we have a festival pretty much every weekend between now and October 15 with only one or two weekends off. It’s good to be back at it.
Yonder Mountain String Band’s ‘Get Yourself Outside’ is out now on frog Pad/Thirty Tigers.