In a crowded national field of bluegrass-based acts, Boulder, Colo.'s Yonder Mountain String Band stands out as a particularly dextrous and adventurous group willing to venture beyond the guidelines and boundaries of traditional styles. Drawing from an eclectic mix of influences and ideas, it's silly to tag the quartet as a typical jamgrass band.
"When we formed, we had a few very, very direct influences ... mostly our peers and people we looked to for guidance," says bassist Ben Kaufmann. "I never enjoyed the 'jamgrass' epithet. I didn't think it was an accurate description of anything, and I think it put off a lot of people. We were not beholden to any tradition or idea of how we should go. There are a lot of bands now who can look to us and feel similarly inspired to do creative things. They can continue that natural progression, which is a great thing."
Yonder Mountain String Band officially formed in 1998 and quickly gained a following among bluegrass and jam-rock fans in the West. After they released their debut album, Elevation, on their own Frog Pad Records label, they hit the national scene.
The band demonstrates a diversity of ideas on their recent album The Show. Fans and critics alike consider the 13-song disc to be a bold step ahead. Musically, it's the most polished and well-rounded collection of their 12-year career. It fits with other recent Americana and roots-music releases.
"I think that the acoustic, bluegrass-related music and roots music thing is very fecund," says banjo player David Johnston. "I should sing the praises of the local college radio station in Boulder. You can here some of the coolest new music on there. I swear, the next big thing will be coming from these underground acoustic groups doing their own stuff. I'm inspired by them more than the prototypical chops bands.
"We're lucky because we all like to write and play and be creative in other interests, too," he adds. "Basically, we just like to make stuff, so we just try to take care of our creative impulse and try to make sure that we keep the things we love to do intact."
Kaufmann, Johnston, and their bandmates — Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals), Jeff Austin (mandolin, vocals) — certainly value their artistic freedom as much as their professional independence.
They're entirely self-funded. They write and produce their own music. They own their own record label. And, fortunately, they have a loyal audience who is engaged, open-minded, and interested in every new step.
"That's the artistic freedom that I've come to appreciate," says Kaufmann. "For me, it's essential for my creative process. I can't remember feeling pressured to do something in any specific way. On the other hand, I have people riding my ass to be productive and do things and quit spending too much time at leisure."
Kaufmann dropped film school to focus on working with Yonder Mountain, but he recently started compiling video and film footage from various road trips and studio sessions. Tying the moving pictures and the band's other activities together came as a natural step.
"I'm finally putting this stuff together, and our manager is encouraging me to get this documentary done," Kaufmann says. "I'm taking shorter things we've recorded with Flip cameras and old VHS tapes from our first tour that need color correction. Eventually, I want to share this stuff so people can see how crazy it is that we made it all the way to where we are now."
The last two years have been a whirlwind, but the attitude and vibe of the band has remained upbeat and eager.
On the strength of positive reviews and sales of The Show last year, the band hopes to aim for new artistic and commercial goals this year and beyond. They've recently hired additional management and worked with new musical mentors to help invigorate their approach to their career.
"To me, it's both side of the coin," says Kaufmann of the band's accomplishments and progress. "To keep a band together for this length of time, there are certain things you need. You need to feel inspired and have new goals and projects. You need to stay creative. I think the goal this year is to make conscious efforts to bring everything into a sharper focus and move forward with a core thing. That's why we've worked in some fresh blood. I think it's critical to always bring in new ideas."