Black Sheep No More: The Yonder Mountain String Band
In a time when many bands arrive loudly and then exit quickly, or endlessly morph or fragment, the secret to the success of the Yonder Mountain String Band is that, perhaps, it’s actually no secret at all.
“I think that people still like us to explore in the jams,” said Adam Aijala, guitarist of the band. “I think that even our jamming is getting more cohesive. It’s not planned and it has no definition, and it’s always going its own places. We just don’t know what it’s going to do. Maybe it’s something we’ve never played before; if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll start something that none of us has ever heard.
“It might be a new lick, or chord structure, and then another (band member) will follow, and then another one of us will follow after that, and then make a switch. All of the time there is no clear definition as to where it’s going to go.”
The progressive, Colorado-based bluegrass group is still composed of its three original members – Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann, and Adam Aijala – in addition to fiddler Allie Kral and mandolinist Jacob Joliff, who were added to the ensemble in 2014. The band is still all about a future of collective effort and joy, said Aijala.
“Dave, Ben, and I are like brothers. We’ve been through everything. I was close to 25 when we met, and they were even younger. My whole life has been with those guys, and we care about each other and can still make each other laugh. Dave lives in Boulder, and we are about two miles apart from each other.
Dave is a great songwriter,” continues Aijala, “and I hold him in high regard. He’s got this regimen about writing, where he is writing daily, or when he hears someone say something, he puts it down in a book or notepad.”
Aijala says that the additional presence of Jacob and Allie adds an invigorating level of ingenuity to the band. “I think they both provide us with a youthful vibe, and both of them contribute to us still feeling fresh. We did a tour of five weeks when (guitarist) Allie was 5 months pregnant and she still killed it. At the end of another tour, she was 8 months pregnant.”
Aijala, now 45, explains that the Yonder Mountain String Band has stuck around long enough to now be blessed with a multi-generational audience presence. “The parents who were originally bringing their kids, well, those little kids are now in college, and in their 20s, and that’s bizarre. We play college towns, so we get a fresh crew of people, and it’s a pretty diverse crowd, maybe something equated (on a smaller scale) to The Grateful Dead. I’ve had several people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, this is my wife, whom I first met at a Yonder show.’ It’s a cool community – and we are into it.”
Yonder’s most recent release, Love, Ain’t Love (2017), is a collaborative blending culled from the bandmembers’ individual songs, bristling with familiar, free-flowing energy, a provocative-sounding companion piece to the band’s earlier works. Still, Aijala says that this record reflects the group’s most polished and “effective” piece of studio work.
“The songs are less, quote-unquote, ‘bluegrass,’ rhythmically speaking. When we write a song it’s not automatically a bluegrass rhythm. Sometimes it’s a good jammer; sometimes it’s about the harmony: sometime everyone solos, and sometimes it’s a three-and-a-half minute song. Sonically speaking, it’s our best, and the mixing sounds better to me than Black Sheep (2015); the tone of some of the instruments sounds better.
“We are still evolving and songs are still being written, and we are still drawing imagination and coming up with exciting stuff.”
The Yonder Mountain String Band gives a recognizable and relaxed energy boost to Missoulians; the band has made the city of Missoula a regular tour-stop almost since its inception.
“The renovations at The Wilma are awesome,” observes Aijala, “and to me it’s reminiscent a bit of the Boulder Theatre. I like the sound there, and Missoula is a place so similar to Boulder, a university town that is close to the Rockies, with similar minds and a crossover of like-minded people.”
Aijala says that a night with Yonder Mountain String Band is a night of imperfection, mystery, and presence. The band’s purpose is to restore listeners’ faith in music as a spur-of-the-moment, hypnotic art form.
“Our fans understand that we are not about perfection, but we are about being lighthearted and energetic and about how it all translates. We are not about playing the same set as good as we can, because that same set would be perfect.
“Fans are coming for the energy, and they enjoy not knowing what we are going to play. You can come see the show and turn everything off and enjoy and live in the moment and nothing else.”
“When I was growing up,” concludes Aijala, “I remember hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and getting goose bumps on my arms as a kid. And that’s why we do what we do.”