When Jeff Austin, singer/mandolin player for Yonder Mountain String Band hits Charleston this week, there will be two things on his mind: making music and eating.
"We have two off-days and I'm going to McCrady's Sunday and I have a Husk reservation for Monday," Austin says. "Sean Brock is like a hero to me. That guy just rocks in every way."
The singer adds, "If I could set up camp and live in the front yard of Sean's restaurants, I would."
That could become a problem, because wherever Austin and his three Yonder Mountain mates go, they attract a crowd. And it's already hard enough getting a table at Husk.
Yonder Mountain String Band's improvisational, harmony-laden brand of Americana has won them many followers in both the jam and roots crowds. They've built their career from the ground up, releasing 10 discs — half are live — on their Frog Pad Records label since forming 14 years ago. But as indebted to bluegrass as Yonder is, they're also loose-limbed fusionists with a lively, indomitable spirit for adventure.
"If we're in a rut or if we find say, specifically, we're steering the jam, we'll steer away from it," Austin says. "Maybe we can twist it round and really break it down and make it different, open the pace and speed it up or slow it down, that sort of stuff."
He adds, "We've never been the band that wants to play the same thing every night and have it sound the same way. That's just not who we are. I don't know if we could if we wanted to."
That freewheeling attitude is more than apparent in their original material and the eclectic covers they sprinkle through their set, which includes songs by Ornette Coleman, Jeff Lynne, Waylon Jennings, Talking Heads, and the Minutemen. There's simply no limiting these guys.
"For a long time we would go into the studio trying so desperately to sound like we do live," Austin says. "We finally just let it be what it's going to be, be it drums on the track or crazy effects on the mandolin or doubling an electric guitar over an acoustic guitar. If it sounds good, then let's do it because we're here, we might as well use the studio for what it is rather than sell it short."
Nowhere is the new aesthetic more apparent than on bassist Ben Kaufman's track "Complicated" on 2009's The Show, which was produced by Tom Rothrock (Elliott Smith, Beck. Rothrock also handled Yonder Mountain's eponymous 2006 release. The song recalls the Avett Brothers and their ability to balance a roots undercurrent with pop production values. All in all, it's a pretty, affecting radio-worthy ode to the complexity of life and our evolving emotions.
"Rather than saying I don't know if it sounds like us, I realized it doesn't have to," Austin says. "We're here and when we all embraced that, it was really kind of liberating, and it opened us to all sorts of possibilities. In turn, things we learned in the studio that we took on stage. It's just like anything in life when you drop the terror and embrace what's possible, it's amazing what can happen."
For their next album, Austin and company intend to make full use of the studio, but getting to "next time out" is another matter. It's not that they're not writing — everyone writes and they're always integrating new songs into the set — but between their hard-touring regimen and the need to cover their own record label costs, they've struggled with how to move forward in the digital age.
"You have to justify throwing a significant amount of money at a project you feel deeply and sincerely about but then maybe have it turn around and not sell," he says. "It's kind of figuring out how to reinvent the way that people buy that tactile thing. What's the experience now? Buying that record in a record store? Or is it buying singles that are released once a month or once every other month? Or is it releasing a couple four to five-track EPs throughout the course of the year that people can just download, and then at concerts we put them on cool red 7-inch vinyl?"
Yonder Mountain has taken some steps toward releasing at least an EP in the not so distant future. Last fall they spent a couple days in a Chicago studio, where they recorded all the basic tracks for a variety of tunes, but they want to take time to explore how they might augment the tracks.
"Those two records with [Rothrock] were a master class in experimentation and what's possible with the buttons, knobs, and cool effects. We haven't lost that," says Austin. "Now it's about building on it, experimenting and trying different things. The one thing that we have learned is to allow that process to just happen and grow. We don't rely to make our living on putting out a record. We also don't have a record company breathing down our neck saying, 'Alright guys, where's the next record?'"
In the meantime, Austin's focused on more important matters — namely, eating. We know where to find him.