Interview with Ben Kaufmann from Yonder Mountain String Band – Performing at Moonlite Gardens on 7/4 with Railroad Earth

Ben Kaufmann from Yonder Mountain String Band
Ben Kaufmann from Yonder Mountain String Band

Interview & Photos by Scott Preston

Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth
Friday July 4, 2014
Moonlite Gardens (@Coney Island), 6201 Kellogg Ave, Cincinnati, OH
8pm, 27.50 adv, $30 dos, Buy Tickets

Bluegrass is a music steeped in tradition, but over the past decade and a half — much of it spent on the road — Yonder Mountain String Band has spearheaded a renegade movement to rewrite the definition of the genre. Alongside other neo-bluegrass friends such as Leftover SalmonSam BushBela FleckThe Travelin’ McCourys, and Railroad Earth, YMSB has thoroughly revitalized and contemporized bluegrass and introduced it to many thousands of new fans. Rolling Stone said that YMSB “liberates bluegrass’ hot-shit riffing and blue-sky harmonies from its hidebound formalism,” while Paste Magazine wrote, “The Yonder Mountain boys have found a formula that works: take rootsy bluegrass influences, add in some rock ‘n’ roll, and seek out an adventurous audience.”

Touring is in this band’s DNA, and YMSB has evolved into something of a phenomenon on the concert and festival circuit — they are, in fact, one of the top touring bluegrass bands in the country today. Yonder Mountain has sold out Colorado’s famed Red Rocks several times, and played sold-out shows with ex-Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh at his Terrapin Crossroads in August 2012. They also host three singular music festivals every year – Northwest String Summit (now in its 13th year and hosted by YMSB every year), Harvest Music Festival (where they will host for the fifth time in October 2014), and Strings & Sol – and have consecutively sold out runs of shows at Telluride Bluegrass Festival year after year. In all, Yonder Mountain logs over 100 live dates per year, allowing them to polish their material — and after hunkering down in a recording studio for a couple of days at a time, to release studio tracks at their highest level of ability.

Cincy Groove: I know the band always has a busy Memorial Day Weekend.  Where did you start?

Ben Kaufmann: We started at Delfest in Cumberland, MD, then went to the Dark Star Jubilee in Thornville, OH and ended the weekend at Summercamp in Chillicothe, IL.  Jerry Douglas played with us at all 3 shows.  He is a hero of ours and quickly becoming a good friend.

Yonder Mountain String Band with Ronnie McCoury & Jason Carter
Yonder Mountain String Band with Ronnie McCoury & Jason Carter

Cincy Groove: Who have been some of the guests you have had perform with YMSB since Jeff’s departure?

Ben Kaufmann: There has been Ronnie McCoury and Jason Carter from The Travelin’ McCourys.  They helped us out in January with some shows.  When we were at Delfest they sat in with us again.  Ronnie leans over to me and says “Ben, its just like putting on an old comfortable shoe, isn’t it?”  We have had such a good time playing with those guys and think the world of them.  We also have had Sam Bush, who needs no introduction.  A mandolin player John Frazier, who actually started his band not too long after Yonder started.  We probably have been watching him play since he was 18.  We will have Allie Kral formerly of Cornmeal out with us.  Jake Jolliff who used to be in a band called Joy Kill Sorrow, who happen to be taking a break right now so we are bringing him in to work on the next record.  I’m not sure how many people know him in the Yonder world, but where ever he goes he leaves jaws on the floor.  I’m a jaded musician and this kid is for real.

Cincy Groove: Is the band actively looking for a replacement?

Ben Kaufmann: Yes we are.  We are not sure whether it will be one or two new people.  We know that we will be looking for a permanent mandolin player, we may add a fiddle or dobro player.  This year is kind of our extended  audition process.  We will be playing with a lot of people we know but there is a whole generation of pickers out there that started since Yonder did and we will be meeting a lot of musicians for the first time.  Its really about finding people that are exciting but at the same that want to be part of the group.  We are also on the road a lot, so we finding someone who is a good player but also can hang and contribute to a positive environment on and off the stage is very tricky.  Just because somebody is rippin’ instrumentalist doesn’t necessarily mean that can survive 30 day tours in close

Ben Kaufmann from Yonder Mountain String Band
Ben Kaufmann from Yonder Mountain String Band

quarters with 10 guys.  It requires a special set of skills.  These days we will be spending a vast majority of our time off stage playing.  When you bring in new people its a lot of work rehearsing and getting them up to speed on new material.  Yonder has hundreds of songs we perform.  We have a rule in the band that we don’t repeat songs from night to night.  Especially in  the first week of performing we will be playing music that isn’t repeated, so its a ton of material for a new member to learn.  Eventually there will be a lot of repetition of the songs so it will make it easier.  It’s definitely a big commitment.

Cincy Groove: Has the approach towards the new album changed since Jeff’s departure?

Ben Kaufmann: Somewhat, we knew we were going to go into the studio in May.  As things developed we knew we didn’t want to lose any of the momentum .  Plus its really hard to get us all in the same place when we aren’t on tour.  We had the studio time all scheduled and didn’t want to postpone anything.  We already have a bunch of songs going into the studio that are finished or are almost finished that in this case we can share with Jake.  So when we get into the studio we can go ahead and cut the song.  It was a very intuitive, smooth studio session where Jake fit right in.  He had all kinds of ideas and suggestions and wasn’t shy or hesitant at all. We had 5 days in the studio this past May and it flew by.  We were able to get 5 tracks down in various states of completion.  The band will go back into the studio in August when all of our schedules align again.  We will try and get 5 more tunes done, although I would like to see a few more so we will have 11-12 on the new record and if all goes well have a finished record by Christmas.

Cincy Groove: Have the fans generally reacted positively to whats going on right now?

Ben Kaufmann: Yeah I think so.  I tend to keep myself off the comment sections of social media.  I have poked my head around and I have seen people having the experience of “Wow, this is big news” and not sure how to feel about it.  The fans love all of us, the 3 remaining members and Jeff as well.  I think they will remain supportive of Yonder and Jeff.  There will be some people who think it will be better going forward and some who don’t think it will.  The only thing we can do is get on stage and do what we know we are capable of doing.  Some people might not be able to get over the change but I think almost everyone will give it a shot. That’s all we can really ask of our fans and the rest is up to us.  The reason I am continuing this is that I think it will be better but in a different way.

Cincy Groove: I think most of the fans will come back around, it will just take some time.

Ben Kaufmann: It’s a huge change for everybody, but especially the four of us that have been in the band for so many years.  It was something that wasn’t decided lightly and was done for everyone’s best interests.  It was done so we all could survive as performers.  I really understand how hard it is for some fans who have invested so much of their time in Yonder, some for over 10 years.  It isn’t lost on me how much people care about Yonder Mountain.  Ultimately I want to be respectful to the fans, Adam, Dave, Jeff and myself.  I have to believe that we will all have continued success in the music business.