Yonder Mountain String Band on stage at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
For 18 years, Yonder Mountain String Band has redefined bluegrass music by pushing the envelop into the realms of rock n’ roll and improvisation. This afternoon marks the beginning of the 2016 summer tour, and their first show tonight is sold out. I ask Adam Aijala (guitar and vocals), over the phone, what the vibe is like on the tour bus right now, and he replies, reasonably: “It’s actually… pretty empty. Everyone is out doing things.” But when I mention the sold-out show tonight, he says, instantly full of life: “It feels great—it should be a good show!”
Your shows notoriously include a great deal of improvisation, and the songs often turn into something else, an extended jam session of sorts, which, I think, creates a compelling atmosphere. How does YMSB prepare for this kind of performance and “winging it on stage?”
After we do the set list, we rehearse about an hour before the show on the bus or in the green room, depending where we are, to warm up. You got to warm up the voice, the hands, and try to have fun—that’s the whole point!
As for the improvisation part of our show, it usually just happens. When we come to a section of the song, where it opens up, we just go with it until the next verse. The whole point of improvising is just winging it. You got to go with what you’re feeling in the moment.
You’ve been playing guitar with YMSB since the band’s inception in 1998. Since then, YMSB lost a member and gained Allie Kral [violin, vocals] and Jacob Jolliff [mandolin, vocals] in 2014. In addition, the music industry has completely transformed since the 90s. How has YMSB, a self- financed, independent band, managed to survive all these years?
Ha! The hell if I know! [Laughs] No . . . I think . . . When we first started playing, we stood out at festivals because we don’t play traditional bluegrass. We are more influenced by rock n’ roll. For some people it stood out in a negative away, but many were drawn to it and thought it was unique.
I want to believe it’s because people come to our shows. When you come to see us, we strive to be the band that makes you smile and forget . . . Have a good time . . . Live in the moment.
I think we keep growing musically, too. We continue to have new ideas and songs. We are still evolving and putting a lot of effort into our songs. I like to run everything by the band to see what they think. Some songs don’t need much editing, but other songs take years to write.
Also Jake and Ally [the band’s newest members] have revitalized us three old dudes! It feels like a solid team right now, which is nice.
18 years is a long time to play guitar and follow the aggressive tour schedule that YMSB has. What do you do to rejuvenate your creativity? Is there something outside music, a hobby maybe, which fuels your performance?
Listening to music builds my imagination more than any hobby. I love fishing, golfing, snowboarding—being outside—that’s why I moved out west . . . To be in the wide-open space. But hearing new music or going back and learning old stuff takes me to a different level.
When I learn something new, I go awhile utilizing what I learned and everything before it— it’s kind of like taking the stairs. I’m still on the up. When I start going down, I’ll let you know. [Laughs]
But I do like putting it down for a while. When I’m at home, I don’t play [acoustic guitar] as much. I’ll pick up the electric guitar, the banjo, or the mandolin and mess around.
You can get into a rut. If you play the same instrument all of the time. When you pick up something else, with a different layout, something you are not proficient in . . . It will give you a different angle and new melody ideas.
Adam Aijala has been playing with the band since inception in 1998, 18 years ago this July.
What’s the story behind “behind the manbun” episodes on YMSB’s instagram account? I haven’t seen one in awhile. Are they going to make a comeback?
[Laughs] It just happened one day. Ben [Ben Kaufmann bass, vocals] tries to get video of Jake with his hair down because he never has it down. Then Jake pretends to be really pissed—and it just turned into a joke. It is pretty funny.
What’s next for YMSB… beyond the summer tour?
We are two-thirds through a new record right now. I think it will be out early 2017. At least that’s what I’m hoping for . . . We just got a couple of new ideas . . .
Penn’s Peak, a beautiful mountaintop entertainment venue, offers a 50-mile panoramic view of northeastern Appalachian Mountains.
Article by: Katie Filicky
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