Rounding the corner on some 17 years of music, Yonder Mountain String Band is sounding more vibrant than ever. A series of changes defined the past 12 months for the band, leading to new sounds and old sounds alike.
Guitarist Adam Aijala phones in from Raleigh, N.C., on the first night of the band's winter tour. The stretches of life on the road give the band members a chance to reveal everything they've been writing and recording over the past few months and the past year, which, in hindsight, was a big one for the band.
"It was very musically fulfilling. I want to say it was probably the best year of music I've ever had — performing," Aijala says. They're excited for the tour ahead, which will bring the band through Cleveland on Feb. 4.
The band brought two new members on board last year: Jake Jolliff (mandolin) and Allie Kral (fiddle). "It's nice having that young energy," Aijala says. "They've got a great work ethic and a great sense of humor."
Founding mandolin player Jeff Austin left the band in April last year, leading to a new Yonder Mountain. As Aijala describes it, the band's core members — himself, banjoist Dave Johnston and bassist Ben Kaufmann — revitalized themselves and took to the future.
The band's new album, Black Sheep, now working its way through the mastering process, is expected out sometime in June. It's a 10-track album, and three of those songs have already been showing up on set lists. The remaining six include one cover. Aijala says he can't wait to roll those new tunes into their shows later this year.
A great entry point for the band throughout their career has always been their live stuff, including a humorous take on Dillard Hartford Dillard's bluegrass-reggae-gospel classic, "Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown." It's one of the great stoner songs out there, and Yonder Mountain's iconic recording of it is terrific. In fact, the whole Mountain Tracks series, which now sort of serves as a library of early-era Yonder, is a wellspring of good tunes.
While the band steeps itself in bluegrass traditions, they also tend to flourish in the jam band scene: improvising nightly and letting their compositions out for a walk.
Still, perhaps "tradition" isn't even an appropriate word here. Yonder has dabbled in all manner of genres, letting their music bubble and froth like a fine brew of music influences.
"Sonically, we've evolved quite a bit," Aijala says. "Some of our songs still sound totally bluegrass. Some of our songs have more of a punk edge to them; there are some songs on the album that have chord structures that are reminiscent of punk rock or, like, hardcore. But it's still bluegrass instruments, and there are no effects. There's one song that's more mellow that reminds me of something the Band wrote."
Both the band's self-titled album and The Show were heavily influenced by rock-oriented producer Tom Rothrock. For the upcoming album, Aijala foretells a shift into deeper acoustic territory. Aijala himself co-engineered the album.
"But the first track will come on, and you'll be like, 'This totally still sounds like Yonder,'" Aijala says. "If you remove any one of the four of us from the band, it's gonna have a different sound — not to mention the guy who was the frontman. So it's gonna sound different. But having [Jake and Allie] on the record, it gives it a different sound, obviously, but it still sounds like Yonder."
The mandolin throughout the album, of course, will take on a different character than in past works. Jake Jolliff's playing is a different beast. Aijala describes it as "tasteful" on the record, though Jolliff's stage presence can be as wild as anything else. "If you're into mandolin, your jaw will be dropping," Aijala says.
It's an amazing thing to see a band go through something of a major event — a founding member's departure — more than a decade into its success and then come out the other side as energized as ever.
"It's old hat and new hat combined," Aijala says. "You've got these two guys I've been playing with for almost 17 years, and some of the crew has been with us the same amount of time, but then you've got these two new people who bring a whole different sound and backstage vibe to the table. It's new and old, all the same. I think that's what the new sound is.
"And I think because we're so jazzed about the new line-up, it's translating to the stage. Everyone experiences a show differently — the musicians and the crowd. For me, I'm having a lot more fun onstage. And I believe that if we all are, that's gonna translate to the crowd."