A Chat With YMSB’s Adam Aijala Just Before Telluride Bluegrass
You really can’t do Telluride Bluegrass without Yonder Mountain String Band. When YMSB takes the Town Park stage on Saturday of this year’s festival, it will be their 13th consecutive appearance. They’ll do two more sets during the week, one on Wednesday night in Mountain Village to kick off the festivation (their 11th time to tackle that pleasant chore) and another on Friday, a Nightgrass set at Sheridan Opera House.
YMSB enjoys an enviable position in the Telluride Bluegrass hierarchy. Along with Chris Thile and Drew Emmitt, they represent the “next generation” of Telluride regulars. Once you get past those guys, you’re talking Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Brian Sutton, Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan and John Cowan. Nice list. Being a regular is a big deal at Telluride – there are a lot of great musicians and great bands who are in the rotation, meaning that you’ll see them ever few years, but they’re not regulars. A lot of other greats grace the Town Park stage once or twice in their careers. Many never make it. So an annual gig (not to mention three) at Telluride during solstice week is quite impressive. But wait, there’s more. This year, Planet Bluegrass (which produces Telluride Bluegrass and its sister festivals RockyGrass and Folks Festival) launches a two-day Kinfolk Celebration to be hosted by YMSB in Lyons in August.
I was able to catch up with YMSB’s guitarist Adam Aijala (he’s standing up in the photo) for a pre-Telluride chat just a few weeks ago. I was impressed with Aijala’s candor, confidence and humility. You don’t see the last two together very often, but for those of us who have watched him on stage, it’s not surprising. What follows are mainly his words – he’s a great interview, you just toss out a subject and stay out of the way. So, other than headings and a few bracketed clarifications, I’ll get out of the way and let Adam Aijala handle it from here.
Two Early Trips to RockyGrass and the Roots of Aijala’s Bluegrass Journey
“I was living in Idaho at the time , starting to get into bluegrass. I didn’t have a lot of direction, though. Number one, I didn’t have enough money to go buy CD’s. Two, I didn’t have anyone to tell me where to go. What should I buy? If I did have the money, I didn’t want to go in blind. Old And In The Way got me started. A friend gave me a mixtape with some Norman Blake and Doc Watson. My college buddy was living in Nederland [Colorado]. He was like, ‘Man, you should come. You could stay at my place, we could camp at the festival [RockyGrass].’ I took the time off and came down with a couple of guys I’d met working up there. In ’97 we came again, I was living in California. And then in the end of ’97 I moved to Colorado.
Yonder Mountain String Band Begins
“About 14 years ago [in Colorado], I met Dave [Johnston] and Jeff [Austin]. I met Ben [Kaufmann] in July of the same year. We decided to be a band, I think, the same day I met Ben. We played a few songs together, then Dave and Jeff met me at the bar to have a drink. They asked me if I wanted to be in a band. I guess they had asked Ben the same thing. That was it. [laughs] I remember that I got a Guinness, turned around and Dave is standing right behind me, right in my face, and Jeff’s over his shoulder. And Dave’s like ‘You want to be in a band?’ And Jeff’s like,’Yeah! You want to be in a band?’ It’s so funny, I look back on it now, I’m glad I said yes.”
YMSB From Then to Now
“I say this a lot in interviews because I mean it: I will never take it for granted. We are so fortunate to do what we do. We’re not the top musicians on the instruments we play or anything like that. But there’s a chemistry there that people like. We have a really good energy. I do take pride in the songs that we’ve written, the stuff that we’ve written together or on our own. I think all three of those guys are more than competent songwriters. I don’t know if the rest of our fans think that but I think that’s what separates us from other people.
I’m just super-psyched to be able to do this. Especially when you think that we did take off quickly in the beginning. We owe a lot to the internet. The internet was starting to get big, it was more common that people had an email account and were going on the internet when we started touring in ’99. I got an email account in ’98. Because of people recording our shows, the who B&P thing, a blank cd and postage, you send that to somebody and they put the show on it and send it back. We’d go to a random town, say Fayetteville, Arkansas, we’d never been there before and there’d be 150 people there. ‘Where’d they come from?’ And then we’d go to another town. It kind of went up exponentially in the very beginning.
Early on it was Jeff and I, we were the booking agents. I settled the shows. I paid everybody. I kept the books. Which were pretty minimal at that point. I’d give the advances if people paid us money ahead of time. It went from that to what you see now. As you say, in-ear monitors, tour bus.
I think sonically, we’ve come a long way as well. As a person who really likes the tone of an acoustic guitar, I had to resign myself that I have to use a pickup, that I have to use it to get to the volumes we’re at. Because we’re playing at bars, we’re not playing at sit down places. People are rocking and they’re talking and they’re loud. That was a big step for me. I was the last one to really hold on to the mike tone. And I still think it sounds better than the pickup but you have to substitute the tone for the volume. A lot of bands that I know that started out that way had to come to that realization. I’ve had conversations with a lot of guitar players who are basically on the same page.”
RV to Van, Van to Vans, Vans to Bus
“We started in an RV, which is an awful idea. An RV is made to live in on weekends or like every once in a while. Not to have a bunch of dudes hauling gear in and out of it daily. And living in it. They’re not road worthy at all for that kind of living. So we went from that to a van, and then to two vans. And then from two vans to the bus, which is where we are now. We still lease the bus, we don’t own it.”
The Bus Life
“It’s the kind of thing where when we bring people on it, like friends and family, they’re like ‘Holy crap, this is awesome!’ And comparatively, if I think back to the vans, yeah, it is awesome. But it’s still 9 guys in there, you know. Luckily, for the most part, we get along really well. And I mean band and crew, everybody. And there’s a lot of humor. Pretty lewd, sometimes. The toilet humor just flies when you’ve got 9 dudes living on a bus. Not having to drive is a huge thing. Being able to sleep is a huge thing. When the bus is moving, I’m in my bunk. Granted, it’s like a coffin, I can sleep really well. It’s dark. Again, I don’t take that for granted either. I remember end of the show having to pack up all our gear then drive three hours to a hotel and then get 4-5-6 hours of sleep, then the dudes that didn’t drive that night get up and drive the next morning.”
Yonder Mountain ______ ____
“[We wanted] to be a traditional bluegrass band at first, that was our idea, hence the name Yonder Mountain String Band. I think in hindsight we would’ve probably not used the words ‘String Band’ but that’s our name and I’m proud of it. We’re not . . . just the name alone people could get the impression that we’re something that we’re not. A lot people say, ‘When I hear you, when I see you guys live, I can’t believe there’s not a drummer. The sound is so full.’ That’s cool to hear that. We owe a lot of that to our sound man, Mr. Ben Hines.
We all grew up listening to rock or, at least, music other than bluegrass. Because of that, we just let our rock influences affect how we write songs through bluegrass instruments. So, yeah, I have written full-on bluegrass songs, or least an attempt at them. And I’ve also written stuff, and we have a lot of songs that don’t sound like bluegrass. Now we’re in a position where I think we could pull of almost any genre that we’d like to. Because we’ve freed ourselves up in that regard. I don’t think people are expecting anything specific at our shows except for high energy and fun times. At least that’s how the crowd looks to me as the guy up on stage watching.”
Learning As We Go
“One of the funny things for all of us really, I can specifically talk about myself because I know it – I live it – is that when we started playing shows I’d been picking bluegrass for a really short amount of time. I have been learning how to play in front of people the whole time. It’s not, ‘Okay, let’s be a band, I’m a competent bluegrass player. Let’s go.’ It’s more like, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing but you guys want me to play in the band? Sure, I’ll do it.’ That’s really our mentality. Dave didn’t start playing until he was 19. Jeff was around the same age. We were all kind of winging it. Ben was a bass player but not really a bluegrass player. He’d been playing in another band, that’s how Jeff met him in town. We’ve been learning on stage. I’m sure everybody is getting better, is evolving. We do so many shows, a lot of my practice time is pre-show stuff, and even on stage, if I can hear well enough I’ll experiment more, if I’m feeling limber I’ll experiment more. If neither of those things are working I’ll just stick to what I know. A show’s a show. You can’t get down on one particular show, especially when you had your 1000th show in 2007.”
Telluride, the Town
“I love that town. It’s really a neat place. We get to go down early because my wife works for Planet Bluegrass. So we get about a week before people start rolling in for the festival. That’s my chance to either golf, fish, hike, hang out or whatever. Aside from the music, it’s an awesome town when the festival isn’t going on. I’ve been in the ski season and I’ve gone in different times, been there in March, been there in dead of winter. My wife worked the Phish thing they did there, I went before that. Really kind of a quaint kind of town. It doesn’t seem that way when the festival is going on, and that’s a fun time as well.”
Telluride Bluegrass, the Festival
“To be able to play it year after year, I owe it to the friendship that we’ve created with these guys, with Craig [Ferguson] and everyone at Planet Bluegrass. They’re awesome people. The fact that we get to come back as regulars is really an honor. We always say, ‘We’re going to plan on coming every year unless you tell us otherwise.’ It’s three shows, so it’s definitely not a vacation. But getting to go early I kinda get that luxury.
The cool thing about the festival . . . it’s called country and bluegrass but really everything goes. David Byrne played there, about as far from country and bluegrass as you can get. Which is one of my favorite sets I’ve ever seen. As well as John Prine. And he’s there again this year.”
Kinfolk Celebration at Lyons, Colorado August 24-25
“We did a similar event back in ‘03, but it was only one day. We decided to bring it back to Lyons – it’s really one of our favorite places to play music. It’s a beautiful site. In the off season when no one’s there I go there and fish. There’s good trout in that river. It seemed obvious that we would come up with a way to work together again outside of Telluride Bluegrass or Rockygrass. As a fan, seeing a band on those grounds is pretty amazing. As an outdoor venue I would put it on the more intimate side, you know, it’s 3500 people, approximately.”
Next YMSB Album?
“Definitely a discussion, nothing set in stone. We realize how lame it is to go as long as we have without a record. It’s been weird because the time that we’ve wanted to schedule something there’s a new child in the world or another new child in the world. And Ben lives in California now, so the ease of getting together to make a record has gotten more complicated. We do realize it’s important.
Granted we do sell all of our live shows, but we have a ton of new material, a lot of it we’ve been playing on stage already. There’s stuff that’s about a year old, 8 or so new songs. And since then there are probably another 6 or 7, offhand, and there are some that aren’t finished, that we need to finish. When we’re in the studio we like to write on the fly as well. I think it’s nice to at least have one song like that on a record, something that all four of us can contribute to. On the last record that would be Dreams. That was like a last minute thing. It was like, ‘Okay, let’s try this. Why don’t you guys all leave and go write a verse and then come back.’ And that’s how we got that song. It’s kind of a neat song. It’s different sonically, it’s different that we all sing a verse, there’s harmonica on it, which we don’t normally use.
I think we need to get one done. I’m looking at the schedule and I’m not seeing a time in the near future when we can do it. I do feel bad because I know people like to have stuff to listen to, fresh stuff. It is lame. Some people put out a record every year. Jeff’s got a funny joke about it. ‘We’re going to be the reverse Beatles. We’ll only tour, no records.’”
SiriusXM and the Grateful Dead
“[What am I listening to now?] It’s funny, you’re going to laugh, but my truck’s been equipped with SiriusXM but I’ve never had it. They’ve been sending me stuff since I got it. They sent me a deal, I was like ‘Fine.’ And I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead channel a lot. As a result, I’ve been listening to old bootlegs as well. I’m listening to other things, too, but I’d say the majority of the listening over the last month has been Grateful Dead. I haven’t done that in years. It’s awesome.”
And Now, a Demonstration:
To bring this home, here’s Aijala and bandmate Kaufmann doing a little Grateful Dead. Enjoy.
Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg.
You can follow Mando Lines on Twitter @mando_lines. He’ll be at Telluride 2012, where he’s planning to see YMSB for two of their three sets.