Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Zara and Yonder Mountain String Band

Posted by T. Ballard Lesemann on Tue, Jul 1, 2008 at 12:51 PM

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City Paper graphic designer and contributing writer John Zara steps away from his computer and out of his office this afternoon, leaving this paper and this city for the bright lights of his native Piedmont digs near Rock Hill, S.C. His parting shot is a healthy Q&A with Yonder Mountain String Band bassist Ben Kaufmann, who performed with his band at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach last weekend. Kaufmann tells the tale via Zara:

Yonder Mountain String Band hails from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Their unique style of progressive bluegrass has earned growing fan base. A mix of jam and bluegrass, Yonder lends itself to improvisation and a chance to make new music at every show. We recently caught up with bassist Ben Kaufmann while the band was on its way to last week’s show at in Myrtle Beach. We talked about everything from life on the road to song writing:

CITY PAPER: Yonder has recently started a summer tour. How’s that going?

BEN KAUFMANN: We’ve been on the bus the last three days driving from Colorado. It’s a long trip. You get that, sort of, frazzle in your brain. I now know what it’s like to sleep at 75 m.p.h.!

CITY PAPER: You just got back from playing a few festivals [Telluride and Bonnaroo]. How did those go?

BK: They were great. The band played really well. There’s massive amounts of people, and it’s always fun to see if you can move them in the number. Telluride was really good. It’s kind of become our home festival, sort of, having been there so long now. Everybody there is aware of who we are. Bonnaroo still feels like we’ve got to prove ourselves. At Bonnaroo, we’re really aware that there’s a lot of crossover fans. For people who aren’t familiar with who we are, we look like a bluegrass band, so if they’re going to check us out then we really need to impress them. Playing for that many people is just a trip!

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CITY PAPER: With large festivals like Bonnaroo, are you more apt to play certain songs or covers to draw in that crossover crowd?

BK: The rule these days is “all original music.” If we feel like it will make a good impact then we’ll do a cover, and make sure it’s a good one. At Bonnaroo we played “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne. We don’t want to become that bluegrass band that plays covers, you know? So, we want to be very careful of what we play and when we play it. Certainly for a gig like that, we figured it would be a good place to play something like that, and people were certainly having a great time with it. You can probably get away with one cover per set.

CITY PAPER: In terms of setlists, how do you determine what you will play night to night?

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BK: We travel with a list of what we’ve played at every show we’ve ever done. For one, we don’t put in the setlist anything we did the last time we played [at that town]. Then, we don’t play anything we played the night before. We’re really strict about it, too. Most bands will play the same set with one or two exceptions, but for us it would just drive us up the wall if we did that! I don’t know if it’s because we were raised with remote controls and short attention spans, but, honestly, if we didn’t mix it up to that degree, I’m not sure we’d still be together.

CITY PAPER: Yonder has four singers and songwriters. How does a normal studio session run?

BK: Most times we’re writing individually. Some people write on the bus, but more often than not, it’s ideas that are developed at home.

CITY PAPER: Would you say you draw from real-life when you write songs?

BK: I guess so, you know, sometimes the stuff we’re reading, or you could be listening to a piece of music and have an idea. On the other hand, we do get together with the specific purpose of writing as a group. When we were making our last studio record, we really got in to that. Everybody sitting around, improvising ideas, starting with a tempo, starting with a key, or some sort of theme, and trying to produce a song based on that. I think it yields, interesting results, and often times great results.

CITY PAPER: Is any one in the band is a perfectionist when it comes to song writing? Does a song go through multiple revisions before you consider it complete?

BK: Certainly, everything can benefit from another revision, and another revision. That’s how good stuff gets to be great. I don’t think any one of us is a perfectionist. We’re learning from people who could be called perfectionist, and seeing how their work methods yield really good results. Sometimes, it’s very easy to know when a song is done. Other times, you can second guess it forever. Songs are sort of like babies, there’s an incubation period, but once you play that song for people it’s not yours anymore, it is it’s own thing. You can make a new song baby, but you can’t have that one back!

CITY PAPER: Where do you get all the energy for the live shows?

BK: I would love to be able to say nine hours of solid sleep and a healthy diet, but really 50 percent of it comes from inside of us, because we love music and music itself is energizing. Fifty percent of it comes from the audience. If an audience shows up and they’re tired or they’re not into it, or any number of reasons, then we probably won’t perform that great. There has to be a, sort of, meeting of the minds. It can be difficult to maintain, but at the end of the day playing music every night, that’s the fun part. We hope that people are still psyched to see us, and that they will bring their own energy. We don’t have too many bad shows anymore.

CITY PAPER: What’s your favorite song to play live?

BK: Let’s see … I like this song of Dave’s off our last studio record called Wind’s On Fire.

CITY PAPER: As a bass player, who are some bassist that you enjoy listening to?

BK: My father was a musician, and he really influenced my a lot. As for better known bassists, I’d say Billy Sheehan. He has great technique and is just a fiery player. Reed Mathis is great. He’s just one of the most original bassists I’ve heard. Victor Wooten is just amazing. Some others include Stanley Clarke and Edgar Meyer. One of the most under rated bassist, I would say, is Mike Gordon.

CITY PAPER: Yonder has collaborated with many different musicians. This summer you will be sharing the stage with Keller Williams. How did you come to know him?

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BK: Well, we would often find ourselves playing the same festivals as him, and that’s kind of how it started. He’s just so creative and unique. One of the most genuine, heartfelt people that I’ve met. That alone make us want to keep in touch with him. His style of music really gives us the opportunity to experiment when we’re on stage together.

 (Live photographs by John "Upstate" Zara)

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