The original members of Yonder Mountain String Band had no intention of picking such a traditional bluegrass name for the band back in 1998. Though the moniker has stuck for 18 years, the group feels no pressure to live up to the old-fashioned imagery derived from the words, as they draw inspiration from a plethora of sounds.
“The name is traditional, but the sound has evolved into something else,” guitarist Adam Aijala says. “We had played together for about two-and-a-half months before we became a real band, and we thought we would be traditional. But all of our different influences have come out in the songs.”
Aijala and his bandmates all contribute to vocals in addition to playing their respective string instruments on songs that often feature slow, methodical melodies with the expected strums of mandolin and banjo. These songs are balanced by faster “jamgrass” tunes where you can hear the band’s rock ‘n’ roll influences, and tap into the subgenres they’re discovering within bluegrass.
The group is currently traveling around the country on the back of their 2015 releaseBlack Sheep, performing at venues big and small. Despite the variance in crowd size on a nightly basis, the number is less important than the vibe from the show.
“If the crowd [is] into it, the size doesn’t matter to me,” Aijala says. “If I can see their faces, and they’re all psyched, that’s good enough for me. We play seriously, but we want to have fun. If someone makes a mistake in front of 10,000 people, we laugh it off. A gig’s a gig. I don’t like when artists say, ‘We have a big gig coming up, and it’s important.’ They’re all important.”
One perk of living in a moving vehicle with your bandmates for long stretches is the opportunity to work on new tracks in a fixed setting. Because of the various influences – ranging from Grateful Dead to 80s hair metal – that have shaped and molded the members of the band, Aijala, Ben Kaufmann, Dave Johnston, Allie Kral and Jake Jolliff, the songs can evolve as more opinions contribute to the process.
“Going into creating a new song with a free mind, you get a lot more accomplished if you’re open-minded than if you’re strict and more rigid,” Aijala says. “There is the argument with ‘too many cooks in the kitchen,’ but if everybody has some input, it can be helpful.”
The group has already begun playing new songs on their tour, and Aijala is hoping for an early 2017 release. Until then, fans will have to enjoy the sounds of Yonder Mountain’s ever-evolving set list, which has famously never been repeated.
“I know a lot of people who don’t listen to bluegrass, but listen to us,” Aijala says. “We play music and perform music, so people can come and live in the moment. We don’t have an agenda other than for people to have a good time.”
The touring, loosely bluegrass band is part of the multifaceted Merryland Music Fest at Merriweather Post Pavilion this month, with acts like Shakey Graves and Stephen “Ragga” Marley joining the fray. Catch Yonder Mountain String Band on July 9 during the first day of the festival. Tickets start at $75.