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Fourteen years ago four friends joined together to fill the niche for a successful rowdy bluegrass band. After beginning in Colorado, Yonder Mountain String Band experienced a lot of local success and decided to hit the road. Ever since, the four piece string band has been traveling across the country to music festivals and shows. Regardless of the criticism they get from some people for not being "real" bluegrass, YMSB has revolutionized and popularized the genre of bluegrass. With All Good Music Festival coming up in a few days, YMSB vocalist and acoustic guitar player Adam Aijlala talked to NUVO about the festival scene and his experience as musician.
NUVO: You've been playing All Good since 2000 -- what changes have you seen in the festival scene?
Adam Aijala: The main change is growth for sure, as far as bigger sized bands going in. But the music has stayed pretty eclectic, which is cool and one of the things I like about it. It really covers the musical spectrum. When I look at the lineup I'm like damn there's like pretty much every kind of music you could want. It's obviously geared more towards the jamming type bands, the bands who like to stretch things out but you know they've got jazzy type stuff, they got electronic, they have a bit of electronic and they've got Primus. I think that is their own genre - just Primus. It's cool.
NUVO: Do you like Legend Valley as compared to the past locations?
Aijala: I think aesthetically the one in West Virginia was probably the prettiest. But it's one of those things where Tim, the one who runs the festival, he is great at what he does and no matter where he does it is, it's going to be good. But we were just there for Dark Star Jubilee at Legend Valley over Memorial Day and that was really fun so we are psyched to get back there. It's funny though; we did Hookaville the year before there and before All Good as well, but to see the size difference and how they lay out the place. The scale is so much bigger but you know what it's not one of those gigantic festivals like Bonnaroo either. It still has that vibe that it's not too big.
NUVO: Do you have a favorite venue to play at?
Aijala: Whenever someone asks me that I immediately think of outdoor places even though there are a lot of indoor places that I like a lot. I really like playing Town Park at Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I like Red Rocks and Northwest String Summit at Horning's Hideout in northwest Portland. Then for indoors I like the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, it's almost too nice for us. People are probably puking in the aisle and stuff. The Fox in Boulder is a great place for an intimate show. But if I had to pick one I would say Town Park at Telluride because the view is just an amazing place.
NUVO: Can you tell me what life on the road is like?
Aijala: This is our 15th year. We are coming up on 15 years as a band. We left Colorado over 14 years ago for the first time. We stated playing music in September '98 together. We formed as a band in July of '98 and played our first show in September. And then March of '99 we did our first tour. So we have been pretty much on the road since March of '99. And it's kind of like all I know now. My resume is pretty bleak, it's just been music for so long that if you had asked me when I first started I would probably have a lot more to say. The one thing that sticks out in my mind is I do a lot of what I call hurry-up-and-wait. We all do it. You got to get to this place then we get there and we just sit around because we don't load in the gear, we kind of just wait. There is a lot of waiting around. Given cities here and there we will disperse and go do stuff but other times we will just hangout, read, play games on my iPad, play music, make phone calls, whatever. It's definitely not like the stories of Motley Crue or stuff like that. It's a lot more mellow. I think part of it is I was 25 when the band started and I won't say I was out of my partying stage but I definitely did a lot more when I was 16, 17, 18 or 19. I'm not going to speak for the rest of the band but speaking for myself, I've been pretty boring I guess. I have had some people hangout with me back stage and they've actually said you guys are boring you're not even doing anything. Well what do you expect us to be doing? Piles of blow? What do you want? I'm like what's wrong with conversation.
NUVO: You met your fellow band members Dave, Jeff and Ben in Colorado. What sparked the idea of Yonder Mountain String Band?
Aijala: I moved to Colorado to play music. I didn't know it was going to be anything more than something to do for fun for a while. The idea of forming a band was strong for Dave and Jeff so they grabbed Ben and me and basically asked if we wanted to start a band and we said yeah. I was already in another band but it was one of those things where none of us had specific career paths, none of us ha children or wives at that point. We were al in the same boat: single, not married and no major commitments to be home. And we are all within two years of each other. So it was kind of a serendipitous thing and I remember my father came out, blue-collar mentality and he came out and I told him I met these guys and was going to do this band. He was sort of being a dad and doing the right thing asking are you sure it's the right thing? And I just said I just have a good feeling about this. He remembers having this conversation and it's kind of funny to talk about now. He's like man you've come a long way.
All three of those guys had something unique that made me say why not. And at that point I couldn't think of any bands that I knew of that were plugged in bluegrass bands to play in rowdy bars. No one did it. So I'm like why can't we fill this niche? Especially we got so much positive feedback from the town of Netherland, which is the place we formed, a bunch of hippie kids but still. It was because of that and because of the town of Boulder that gave us the confidence to leave the area and eventually to get out of the state. It happened fast. We were nothing and then all of the sudden we like shot up to this level to compared to where we were at now, it's a lot lower but we all of the sudden we gained local notoriety fairly quickly. It's not shooting up like that by any stretch, it hasn't been for the last 10 years but we're still steadily growing slowly. And it's really kind of fun the way the whole thing worked out and that we're still the same lineup and haven't killed each other and stuff.
NUVO: You grew up listening to rock and roll, so how did you start making bluegrass?
Aijala: Yeah, I mean all four of us did. None of us grew up with bluegrass but that was the funny thing. We all got into bluegrass later in life but it was one of those things we really were into. I was probably the least knowledgeable of bluegrass when the band formed. I got into it via Grateful Dead with Jerry playing the banjo. So I bought a banjo and started playing but as far as flat-picking I had no clue. Jeff gave me two mix tapes of random bluegrass, some of it was tradition and some of it was second generation JD Crowe and New South stuff like that. But it was basically all fresh to us and we really wanted to play it. Jeff played mandolin. Dave played banjo. I played acoustic guitar and Ben played upright bass. We never thought let's get a drummer, that wasn't even an issue. That was what it was always going to be.
Early on, we wanted to be "a bluegrass band." But once we started sharing songs and songs we'd written prior to the band, we kind of realized fairly early on that we couldn't be that because that's just not what's coming out of us, it's not what we were writing. So even though I still think ultimately we still are a bluegrass band, I think that we're an offshoot of what people would call traditional bluegrass. We are like progressive or alt or whatever the hell genre you want to give it but even a hardcore bluegrass fan would have to admit we're like a branch on the bluegrass tree. Although some hardcore bluegrassers don't think we're bluegrass but people who don't listen to bluegrass at all think we are bluegrass. So you get that weird dynamic.
NUVO: So I know bluegrass fans are supposed to be whiskey drinkers ... so ... are you one?
Aijala: I am. I am a whiskey drinker.
NUVO: Can you tell me about Yonder Mountain Harvest Fest?
Aijala: Yeah, it's three or four years this year. It kind of all blends together after a while. It is similar to Northwest String Summit. We play three nights. Bret, the same guy who does Wakarusa, also does Harvest Fest and he is great and such a cool dude. And we get along really well so we have been trying to develop this festival. And last year we got rained out the third night, like super scary storms.
But Harvest is great. It is a cool location. It's a cool vibe because it's generally more Americana-bassy music, although it's getting more eclectic, but for some reason it seems like it is a mellower crowd. A good example would be when we did String and Sol last year in Mexico, that was all string bands- Americana and/or bluegrass. And the crowd was awesome. It's one of those things where it is way more intimate because it's smaller place, everyone is sort of hanging out intermingling rather than raging. People were super cool. Sometimes people are like over the top hammered and they get in your face a little too much but everyone was super nice. And I think that Harvest breathes a similar crowd as well. And it makes a family kind of vibe.
NUVO: Was it as bad as Wakarusa's storms this year?
Aijala: Yeah that's why we were like we cannot get rained out at this one! We have to play. It was pouring but there was no lightening so we played. Everything got pretty wet though, my guitar got soaked but it was so fun.
NUVO: What other events this summer are you looking forward to?
Aijala: I am psyched for Red Rocks; that is always fun. Obviously String Summit and All Good. Then we're playing Floyd Fest, which should be really cool. We play this place in Pennsylvania called Penn's Peak, which is a really cool place. It is on this "mountain" and I put it in quotes because I live in Colorado now and it's more of a hill. But it's super pretty, it is north of Philadelphia. It is an indoor venue, really pretty with tall ceilings and a rowdy crowd.
NUVO: How do you guys choose what songs you're going to play each night?
Aijala: We definitely do set lists. But our main gauge of how we make the set is we print out before the tour. We have print outs of the order of the shows we played the last time we played in that town. So for example, for String Summit we look at what we did last year and try not to do any repeats if we can. There might be some here and there but just to make sure they aren't on the same day or in the same section or if we have three songs we did in a jam last year we won't put those same three songs in a jam this year. That way we aren't doing repeats night to night. We can realistically go a week, like if we do five shows in a row we will go five shows without repeating a song or just maybe repeat one or two here and there.
NUVO: What future plans do you guys have for your music?
Aijala: We have an EP that we just finished, it is only four songs and I know it has been a long time since our last CD. We have a ton of material it is just a matter of getting the time to record. But this last studio session was really fun. It wasn't difficult and it was a lot of fun and it made me really want to make more time to record. That should be coming out in the next month. I think we are just going to call it EP 13.