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Yonder Mountain String Band bassist talks favorite KC food & prog bluegrass

Yonder Mountain String Band is Dave Johnston (from left), Ben Kaufmann, Adam Aijala, Jacob Joliff and Allie Kral.
Yonder Mountain String Band is Dave Johnston (from left), Ben Kaufmann, Adam Aijala, Jacob Joliff and Allie Kral. Yonder Mountain String Band

The Yonder Mountain String Band emerged from Colorado in the late 1990s, and it wasn’t long before it became part of the jam-band nation, embraced for its groove-infested mix of rock and progressive bluegrass.

Yonder had to navigate a seismic lineup change in 2014, when founding member Jeff Austin left the band. Since Austin’s departure, Yonder released “Black Sheep” in 2015, its 11th album but first since 2009 — a long gap.

“The reason was the incarnation of the band at the time, it was all we could do to stay on the road together,” said Ben Kaufmann, bassist and co-founding member of the band, which performs this weekend in Kansas City as part of the Bluegrass in the Bottoms festival.

“By the time we were done touring — you know, you’re gone for a month at a time, and it’s intense. By the time we were done with the tour, we wanted time away.”

In June, Yonder will release “Love, Ain’t Love,” only two years after “Black Sheep.” Kaufmann recently talked to The Star about the new album, his evolution into a bass player for a progressive bluegrass band and the influence Yonder has had on other bands.

Q: You come here a lot. What do you remember about Kansas City?

A: We always know where we are going to eat. We get ribs from Arthur Bryant’s. Also the place we usually play (Crossroads KC) is a wonderful outside venue. There aren’t a lot of places like that. We always have good shows there: lots of energy, sounds good.

Q: When did you first pick up the bass?

A: In sixth grade, me and a bunch of seventh- and eighth-graders put together a band. I was playing piano, but there was another piano player who was better than me. So I ended up playing the bass lines on the piano. At one point the music teacher at our school said, “This is silly. Why don’t you pick up the bass?”

Q: Who inspired you as a musician?

A: First guy was Jim Barber, the bass player in my father’s band. He had a big band. Jim Barber sold me my first upright bass. He was the first guy I ever saw play the bass, when I was 4 or 3 years old, old enough to get lugged along to my dad’s band’s rehearsals.

In terms of touring and recording musicians, I first gravitated to Paul McCartney. The first bass lines I remember going out of my way to learn was the simpler stuff, like the Beatles’ version of “Rock and Roll Music,” back when I was playing a three-quarters-sized electric bass.

Once I developed some greater dexterity, I really got turned on by this guy Billy Sheehan. He was an L.A. bass player. He was David Lee Roth’s bass player after David split from Van Halen. Billy was a shredder. He played this four-string electric bass, and it was wild, tons of technique. It was incredible to watch, it was very rock ’n’ roll. I was in seventh or eighth grade, and it was nothing I’d ever seen before.

As my taste evolved, Victor Wooten became an inspiration. Not so much an influence. What he does is extremely complex and unique, and I never spent too much time trying to learn how to play the bass like he did. But he’s a real inspiration as a musician and a man.

I really liked Phish’s bass player, Mike Gordon. I always thought he was an underrated bass player. I say that because several times I endeavored to learn the things he was doing, I found them to be really counterintuitive, which helps you learn, if you can figure out what’s going on. I’m also always inspired to see Edgar Meyer perform, another musician who does things that are so advanced and amazing but makes them seem so easy.

And Geddy Lee. I was a huge Rush fan. Before I started in a touring band, I’d seen more Rush shows live than any other band, by a long shot.

Q: What music did you listen to growing up?

A: The first music in the house was big band music. When I got older, I bought my own records and cassette tapes. I had Men at Work, the “Business As Usual” album.

About seventh and eighth grade, some classic rock stuff started showing up: the Beatles, Crosby Stills and Nash. Then the pop and rock music of my era, which would have been everything from Guns N’ Roses and their first record to all of the hair bands. And then Rush.

In high school, I tried to re-invent myself as a hippie for a while, so I got into Phish and Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors and all these H.O.R.D.E. tour bands. And then I got into bluegrass.

Q: When did you start playing in bluegrass bands?

A: I moved to Colorado when I was 19 or 20 and immediately started putting bands together out there. None of them really worked until I got hooked up with a bunch of older guys — in their late 30s and early 40s, even 50s. They were a bluegrass band, mostly covers. They needed a bass player. The only real requirement was you needed to own an upright bass, which I did. And they taught me how to play bluegrass music and when I was speeding up and slowing down. I got to sing some harmonies with them.

Then I put together my own bluegrass band. It was a great band, but we never threatened to tour because a couple guys in the band had families and day jobs. But it was while in that band that we played a gig and I met the guys who would go on to form Yonder. From there, we recognized something was working and we took it on the road.

Q: What’s the role of the bass player in your kind of music?

A: I’m a bass player in a band that looks like a bluegrass band but we’re not a traditional bluegrass band. We get really loud.

To me it feels more like the experience I had playing in rock bands. But, in my case, I’ve been in a band for 19 years now with no drummer. So a lot of responsibility that would otherwise fall to the drummer falls in my lap.

Some of the tempos we achieve are really fast. So the rhythm is going what seems like a mile a minute, and everyone is playing and thousands of notes are going on and my job is to sort of be centered but also project my musical imagination into the future to predict what the other musicians will likely do in their solos and improvisations. I try to make sure I place the rhythm where they will anticipate it or need it to be. I want them to feel like they’re standing on something completely solid. It’s tricky.

Q: You have a record coming out next month, “Love, Ain’t Love.” What can you tell us about it?

A: We’ll release it at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June. All songs are original, except for one cover of a classic rock tune (“Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest). It’s another opportunity to get our voices out.

Yonder has five different lead singers in the band. Everybody sings at every show. In terms of songwriter, it’s still the three original members: Adam, Dave and me.

Yonder is our opportunity to write music and have a voice about whatever it is we’re compelled to write about. I have two songs that I wrote 99 percent of and another that was more of a collaboration between several of us. So I have three songs on the record I’m really proud of. I talk about stuff that’s important to me and string together clever rhymes and put together compelling melodies.

It’s original, acoustic progressive bluegrass. Although a lot of material on this gets farther and farther away from what I’d consider to be bluegrass. I think that’s a byproduct of none of us growing up playing bluegrass.

Q: Have you noticed any influences Yonder might have had on younger bands?

A: I think that over the next five years there’s going to be even more of an impact made from bands playing bluegrass instruments; maybe they’ll even work some bluegrass songs into their repertoire, but they can never really be called bluegrass bands. And I mean that in the best possible way. They could become bridges for people who may think they’ll never love bluegrass.

That’s something Yonder did, though we didn’t do it intentionally. We were just traveling around in a van, winging it. I noticed at the last show we played, in Baltimore. These two bands were playing on the same bill, and they were awesome. They played bluegrass instruments but they weren’t bluegrass. They were playing really adventurous music.

On two separate occasions, I was backstage and someone (from the other bands) came over and said, “You were the reason I picked up a banjo,” or “You were the reason I started writing this kind of music.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

This weekend

Yonder Mountain String Band performs Saturday, May 20, at Bluegrass in the Bottoms, a two-day festival in the East Bottoms outside Knuckleheads Saloon. The Saturday lineup also includes the Hardship Letters, Shook Twins, Fruition, Railroad Earth and Whiskey for the Lady.

The Friday, May 19, lineup includes Naughty Pines, Joshua Davis, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass and Betse & Clarke.

A weekend pass is available for $71 plus fees; daily passes are also available for $41. Show times are 5:30 p.m. each day. For details, visit bluegrassinthebottoms.com.

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