"If you think of home as where your mom lives, then Charleston is home," says Yonder bassist Ben Kaufmann, on the phone from his adopted locale of Nederland, Colo. "I'm pretty psyched to get out on the water and do some fishing."
It's about time he came home, too. The last time Yonder played Charleston, they were opening for Pat Green at the Plex in 2005. In the last two years, they've watched their crowds swell from a few hundred to several thousand in many cities. Their brief summer tour more than makes up for that absence, hitting both Myrtle Beach and Charleston in a two-week swing that includes headlining gigs at the High Sierra and All Good festivals in California and West Virginia.
Comprised of four acoustic components — Kaufmann on stand-up bass, Adam Aijala on guitar, Jeff Austin on mandolin, and Dave Johnston on banjo — their instrumentation isn't what you'd expect from a band that provokes Phish-like devotion from their fans. They've attracted a contingent of devotees who travel between shows on tour, and during their recent 1,000th show in Iowa, attendees texted the setlist as songs were played to friends who posted in real time on their website's forum.
"It's a trip," says Kaufmann. "If I think about it too closely, it certainly can turn your brain around. I think it's a reaction to the state of pop music. There's a lot of heart in our playing, and maybe people can see that in the music we make."
Even as Yonder attract a growing legion of fans, they still remain too bluegrass for broadcast radio and too rock 'n' roll for XM and Sirius' bluegrass stations. "Technically, they're right. We're not bluegrass," says Kaufmann. Despite that tricky classification, they've attracted some of bluegrass music's most respected names to play with them, including Jerry Douglas, Darol Anger, and Tim O'Brien on their 2003 studio effort Old Hands.
"Those musicians are revolutionary-minded people," says Kaufmann. "Their music is not traditional bluegrass either, and when they began it was even more of a statement to be rebelling against the old way."
Staples of Yonder's set lists are covers by the late John Hartford, another eccentric musician who avoided being pigeonholed throughout his career. A recent poll on Yonder's forum had fans voting on their favorite Hartford cover from the 10 or so they play, with "Holding," "Cuckoo's Nest," and "Howard Hughes Blues" all receiving high marks.
For their most recent self-titled studio effort, Yonder expanded even further from the common perception of bluegrass by recruiting producer Tom Rothrock, known for his work with Beck, the Foo Fighters, and James Blunt. The songs were written together, in the studio, without any perimeters or limitations placed on their arrangements, including drums on a couple of tracks.
"We aren't afraid to expand the palette for the sake of a song," says Kaufmann. "I'm into experimenting with any kind of way to get the song to sing. If that means drums, electric guitar, piano, reverb effects, or distortion, that doesn't conflict with any sort of musical code I might have. There's got to be good songs first of all. But we might include an electric, distorted tuba if the producer's got one lying around his house."
Yonder's deviation from a strictly bluegrass path stems from their roots; two are from Illinois, two from Massachusetts. "There's not a ton of picking happening in Massachusetts," says Kaufmann, who grew up listening to his father's swing and big band music. "Most of our first exposure to bluegrass came from either Old and in the Way or, believe it or not, Phish, when they would do their attempt at 'Ginseng Sullivan' or 'Nellie Kane.'"
For their live performances, Yonder stick with their four acoustic instrument formula, still managing to take progressions into exploratory jams that warrant show tapers and online buzz over what they'll do next.
Kaufmann is particularly excited about coming "home" to play beach-front at the Windjammer. "I'm looking forward to it," he says. "We'll just have to make sure the air conditioning on the bus is working when we come down there."
Yonder Mountain String Band also perform at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach on Sun. July 15 at 8 p.m.