We caught up with Aijala just before he took the stage in Nashville … and prior to Yonder Mountain String Band’s two-night run at the Orange Peel. Photo from by Dorothy St. Claire from last year’s Orange Peel shows, from http://www.yondermountainstringband.com
Xpress: YMSB just played Strings & Sol in Mexico with Leftover Salman, Railroad Earth and The Infamous Stringdusters. How did that go?
Aijala: That was awesome. It was probably the best working vacation I’ve had. I went down a little early. We did three full shows, but we had one day off in the middle and I had a day off on the end. For me it definitely felt like a vacation. I get paid to do that, I mean, hell, you can’t beat that.
You toured with Larry Keel a few years back. Did any of that experience carry over into YMSB?
He’s super inspiring to play music with. He’s definitely one of my favorite musicians — definitely one of my favorite guitar players. He’s one of a kind. I feel like we bounce off each other really well. The guy has the ability to just kill it if he wants to, but he can also be a real pretty guitar player too. It’s cool that he can have that jackhammer approach — if he wants to just shred the hell out it, and also just lay back and play something really nice. That’s kind of what I aspire to learn from him, that mentality.
He definitely makes me dig in a little bit more. By comparison, I play pretty light. It’s just the way that I learned. My influence was punk rock and other stuff, which didn’t involve me having to play hard at all because I had an amplifier and bunch of distortion. He grew up playing acoustic and playing around a bunch of loud motherf—king banjo players. He had to play loud enough to be heard!
We talked about that, “Where were you at when you were 15, and what were you doing?” It’s funny because we had such different experiences with that kind of stuff — like, completely different. He was running around, I think he was 16 or 18 years old, he was running around following Tony Rice, watching him play. For me, I didn’t even know who Tony Rice was until I was like 24, you know? Which sucks because if I’d have known who he was, even though I was listening to punk rock and stuff like that, I know I would’ve liked it. Bluegrass just wasn’t that big in Massachusetts.
The latest studio release, The Show, came out in 2009. Are there plans for a new album?
We’re totally lame, we haven’t had a new record in a long time. We’re in the process of working on an EP. We don’t have a date but we want to get it done ASAP. That’s kind of the plan. Normally, our time to do records is during our time off. Now, we have a more busy spring and there are babies in the picture, and we just have to find the time to get it done. We started recording some tracks when we were on tour in October. I think that’s going to be our new MO, trying to get stuff done while we’re on the road.
Tom Rothrock produced Yonder Mountain String Band and The Show. How was it working with a producer who is known for his work with rock bands?
It was great. I think he was partly responsible for giving us the confidence to try anything musically. The first album we had drums was with him, and the first album using electric instruments was with him. Him not coming from a bluegrass background was actually a great medium for us because he had no preconceived notions of what to expect. He had our own music, but we sent him some CDs of stuff we like in the bluegrass world. Then, he took his knowledge of the realm he’s familiar with — he didn’t change our sound at all, he just enchanted it, I think. Not only is he a really good dude, but he really is a good producer. I would definitely work with him again in the future, if that was an option.
Since YMSB recorded with a drummer on the past two studio albums, have you guys ever thought of bringing a drummer out on tour?
We’ve done it here and there. Even at New Year’s we had Christian Teele play drums one night with us. We’ve never taken a drummer on a tour, but we’ve had drummers play with us. [Jon] Fishman played with us before, and we’ve had Billy Seawell, who’s from Asheville. He plays with that band with the Pond brothers — Snake Oil Medicine Show. He’s a ripping drummer. He actually sat in with us the last time we were at the Orange Peel, or the year before. We’ve had Jeff Sipe sit in with us. We’ve had a lot of drummers through the years. Pete Thomas even came to a show when we played in L.A., that was pretty cool. It’s fun to do. I’m not totally opposed to the idea of having a drummer or bringing one out on tour, but one of the things that I think separates us from other bands is the lack of a drummer.
Why a two-night run in Asheville?
We used to play the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. There’s a bunch of factors that come into play. Obviously, if you looking at it from an economic point of view, one show equals X amount of dollars. In theory, that should be a better bang for your buck and it gives you more time to play other markets, but we really like Asheville. We love The Orange Peel. As far as a room to play, I love playing there. There’s a lot of good food [in Asheville] and we’ve always been well received there. The Orange Peel is one of the cooler rooms that we play. As far as a club, it’s awesome.
What do you think the future holds for bluegrass and neo-bluegrass?
None of us grew up with bluegrass. We’re a band that got all into bluegrass later in life, after all these other influences have seeped into our souls. We’re just four dudes who said, “We want to play bluegrass.” We’re all a bunch of yankees when it comes down to it. Two of the guys are from Illinois and two of the guys are from Massachusetts. I’ve had this conversation with people who are in the IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association], like members of IBMA. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and there are some people who will never accept what we do as bluegrass — they just won’t. That’s okay, I mean shit, I’m not here to convert anybody. I just like doing what we do, you know? We’re lucky to play music for a living.
[Traditional] bluegrass is a style of music that can’t evolve, because they want to stay traditional. Then you’ve got contemporary bluegrass, like Alison Krauss, which I think is awesome. I like a lot of trad[itional] bluegrass. Yonder Mountain just isn’t capable of playing it. It’s not in our blood, I think that’s part of it, you know? We tried. When we first started playing together we were like, “We’re going to be this bluegrass band.” That’s just not how the songs came out when we were writing, and all the rock influence kind of knocked that out of the picture. I think it’s (neo-bluegrass) just a branch of the tree. Maybe there will be even more little offshoots.
I kind of see that happening anyway with bands like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. It’s not bluegrass, it’s definitely an offshoot of bluegrass. I think it’s less bluegrass then we are, but what does that even mean? I don’t know. We definitely have bluegrass songs, even though our influence lays all over the place. We play songs that would be considered traditional bluegrass songs. We’ll play some Jimmy Martin or Del McCoury Band. Some of the IBMA folks, my friends, want people to latch onto the different branches, including Yonder Mountain. It helps the whole scene, but a lot of those guys don’t agree with that at all. I think even having Mumford & Sons be popular is helpful for us. I mean, there is a banjo in the band. The stigma is still on TV, anytime you see someone some yuck, yuck moment there’s always the sound of a banjo and some dude with fucking overalls and buck teeth. Anyone with any knowledge about bluegrass knows that is a really old stereotype. Playing the banjo is about as far from a redneck as you can get. It’s still the case thought. People are like, “You play banjo? Do you know Dueling Banjos?” Which is fine, it’s just they’re ignorant of it. It’s not that they’re doing it to be mean, they just don’t know any different. It’s all you’re exposed to. I mean, there’s definitely a bluegrass scene [in Massachusetts] I learned later, when I was older. I didn’t know [that] when I was playing guitar at 12 years old.
For those who haven’t seen YMSB in a while, what can they expect from a live show?
A helluva lot of new material. I’d like to believe that we’ve become more adventurous. I know that with updating our sound gear, it’s probably going to sound a little bit better, I would think. I know it’s sonically better for me in my monitor. The comfort level for me at any given show has gone up a lot since ‘08. I’m having less monitor problems, as far as being able to hear certain things. The setlist for tonight isn’t even done, so you’re going to get a setlist made on the fly that day. You’re going to get a lot of high-energy, uptempo songs. Prepare for high-energy, is what I would say.