Yonder Mountain String Band is one of the most enduring musical acts to call the jam band genre home. Hailing from Colorado, the progressive-bluegrass group has been a constant presence on the road since forming in 1998, with little to no time to craft new material.
That can become a grind for anyone. In 2014, founding member and mandolin player Jeff Austin left the group, citing creative differences and conflicting career goals. This also coincided with the birth of his daughter.
So, down a member after 17 years together, it would be natural for the band to ponder if Yonder may have run its course. But on the heels of a celebrated new album (2015's Black Sheep) and an expansion to a quintet, guitarist Adam Aijala says that the new members have freshened up a sound that may have been growing stale.
"I love the vibe that we have now both on the bus and onstage. I guess it's just a healthy environment, is a good way to put it," he says. "When you add another instrument, that gives you more depth and dynamic to songs. Jake [Jolliff, the band's new mandolin player], being the proficient musician that he is, there aren't a whole lot of limitations when it comes to what he can do. It's pretty remarkable to see, even after playing with him for the past year and a half, some of the shit that he manages to pull off and come up with."
Not only did Yonder gain a new mandolin player, but for the first time in its history, the band also added a female member to the mix. "Having people like Jake and Allie [Kral, new fiddle player] around pushes you to want to play better," Aijala says. "Having new blood in a band, it acts as almost a catalyst when it comes to new ideas and new directions to take the music. Even just with the covers that we perform in concert, now that we have a female singer we can tackle songs that were always too high a register for us to sing, and now we can tackle music that we were never able to before."
Adjusting to new music comes naturally to Aijala. Growing up a huge fan of heavy metal and punk rock, the guitarist soon discovered weed and a more downtempo sound. "When I got into high school and started experimenting with different herbs and beyond, I kind of got into more mellow music, if you will," he explains. "I started listening to a lot of Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. A buddy of mine popped up one day and said, 'Hey, did you know that Jerry [Garcia] used to play in a bluegrass band?' That was all I needed to hear, and I was on my way."
He continues, "That was my first exposure to bluegrass music. I obviously knew what it was before that, but I had never listened to it, nor did I have any friends that ever listened to it. I had no direction, or a big bank account, to go out and buy just any old CD, so I had a buddy that made me a mixtape. That mixtape actually made me a friend of flatpickers, and it wasn't until 1996 that I actually saw someone play flatpick and say, 'Oh, I want to learn how to do that.'"
After joining Yonder, Aijala was introduced to even more of his favorite sounds. "Dave [Johnston, Yonder's banjo player] really turned me onto a lot of the old stuff, like Bill Monroe," he says. "That was really my first history lesson, joining Yonder Mountain, pretty much. And I always saw a correlation between bluegrass and punk rock, because they have short, fast songs with a very literal point-of-view to the lyrics. Those lyrics tell you exactly how the singer feels. I was always amazed by the power that bluegrass could be performed with despite not having amplifiers or distortion or drums. That's what really drew me to it, I think."
Now Aijala is happy with where the band is headed, and hopeful about what the future may hold. "I really feel like we are moving musically in a direction that I am very happy with," he says. "There's definitely no shortage of imagination or ideas, and the more you play with people, the more comfortable you get. I've really started to notice that in the past two or three months. It really feels like we've hit a stride, and I think the more we play together the better we'll be."