The quiet brick paths of Urbana worked as a petri dish for the festering talent of two college lads. Yonder Mountain String Band’s Dave Johnston and Jeff Austin may have seemed like your typical Nevada St. boys, but they proved otherwise with the formation of their creatively titled first band The Blue Grassholes with Johnston on banjo and Austin playing the mandolin.
“We played all weekend long and all that stuff. You know, being in college, you’re hanging out, drinking a few beers and playing music. The Blue Grassholes was just an informal band,” Johnston explained. “Me and Jeff played together, and it was just kind of a launching pad for deciding what we wanted to do.”
After the band separated, the boys parted ways with Johnston relocating to Seattle and Austin moving to Boulder, Colo. Bassist Ben Kauffmann and guitarist Adam Aijala entered the picture at a club named The Verve, and together in 1998, they formed the group Yonder Mountain String Band. Their music is unable to be labeled with its numerous underlying influences from bluegrass, jam bands, folk, blues and rock.
“I always try to stay away from hyphenated stuff,” Johnston said, pertaining to fans and critics who attempt to label their music as folk rock. “You can string any number of hyphens together and make up a new genre of music, I guess, but we’re just trying to make Yonder Mountain String Band music. Sure it has elements of folk rock and elements of bluegrass, and it’s got all kinds of stuff in it, and it’s a very fun and unique thing. We just think of ourselves as not necessarily an isolated entity but almost a singular entity that is kind of its own sound.”
The arrival of the band’s self-titled fourth album brought some new ideas to their already unique sound. The boys added some drums courtesy of drummer Pete Thomas, best known for his work with Elvis Costello, and a few special guest appearances from the Wood Brothers and Phish’s Jon Fishman. They’ve also added an unexpected twist of rock to the banjo and mandolin.
Yonder Mountain String Band is known for their off-the-wall shows, brimming with improvisations and experimental sound. None of their set lists are ever repeated, and unlike most bands today, they allow audience members to tape the shows.
“I really like [playing at] a place where the crowd is really into what’s happening, and the band and the crowd are kind of unified on a weird level that no one can really explain,” he said. “That’s my favorite venue.”
The two original members are proud of their Urbana roots and excited to return to the birthplace of their careers. The band has spent almost nine years earning recognition from the music world without becoming jaded and remain true to their original values – drinking a few beers and playing music with friends.
Catch Yonder Mountain String Band at Canopy Club tomorrow, Oct. 26, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance.