Dave Johnston of Yonder Mountain String Band

by Greg Prato

With rock and pop music seemingly becoming less "human sounding" nowadays, it's good to see the emergence of bands such as Yonder Mountain String Band, which gets right back to the heart of the matter: all acoustic instruments, adept plucking and strumming, and fine vocal harmonization.

And the group has built a large cult following over the years - first debuting in 1999 and issuing albums via their own indie label, Frog Pad Records. 2015 saw the release of their 11th release overall, Black Sheep. The band's singer/banjo player, Dave Johnston, spoke with Songfacts about why acoustic music is appealing to fans of other styles of music, the band's following, and the stories behind several standout YMSB tunes.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What is the reason for the popularity of acoustic music over the past few years with rock and pop fans?

Dave Johnston: I think that anything that can be done in a rock n' roll setting and anything that can be done in a pop music setting can also be done in an acoustic setting. And I think there's this perception that acoustic-wise, the artist would appear more vulnerable, more dressed down, and more authentic. There's less spectacle, and more music.

Just in general, the way things are today media-wise and so forth, you'd have to be innately drawn to the idea that something is not holding to being a spectacle at all, anymore. It must strike a nerve somewhere in their subconscious: "Hey, this is better than I can get otherwise."

Songfacts: What are some of the pros and cons of being an all-acoustic band?

Dave: Pros, you're more vulnerable, you're more of a person, you're less of an image - you're more of a guy playing music. What's been really beneficial for Yonder Mountain is the crowds seeing a lot of themselves in what we look like and what we talk about and how we present our show. And I think that's part of the cons, too. One of the cons is how with an electronic show or a rock n' roll show, the sound is more easy to manipulate - it's easier to deliver the same kind of thing night by night without being held into the temperament of acoustic instruments. They can be kind of fussy when you get up to certain volumes, but electric instruments are not.

Songfacts: How would you describe the band's following? Is it hard to pin it down to a single kind of music fan?

Dave: I think we've been running the gamut for quite a while now. We're not so far into the acoustic world where it's boring for people who want to come rage. I think that we appeal to a lot of different people. We have good songwriting, good picking, good harmonies.

I feel like the more musical boxes you can check off or add to your repertoire, then the wider appeal you'll have. And we've been lucky to have been able to fulfill a lot of great things that we love about music - great harmony singing and great parts and also jamming.

Songfacts: Regarding songwriting, can you give some examples of things you've been inspired by?

Dave: There's a fantastic book I've been reading a lot these days and I've read it many times before, and I like to return to it. It's called Bird by Bird, by an author named Anne Lamott. For me, it's a book about writing prose, but it's also very inspiring.

I think a lot of what she talks about in that book you can apply to writing music and living in the creative kind of way, where a lot of stuff isn't really hammered down in stone, and you're asked to take every day as it comes. It's a fantastic book for me and it's one of many that I read on a regular basis to recalibrate my brain and be in that kind of creative space.

Songfacts: And can you give some examples of songs that took a while to complete, and songs that came quick?

Dave: One that took a really long time was a song called "Love Before You Can't," and that's on the new record, Black Sheep. The chords came right away and the melody came right away, but the words took a long time to get right. And we really like to work by committee when we're working on music - we like to have everyone's input, or at least get everyone the option to think about something or have a voice in the process of making a song. So while the chords came to that right away, the words and the music behind the parts took a long time to flesh out. And once we did it, it was really impressive. The amount of time it took and the questions of production and those decisions, they really exhausted a lot of different avenues about it. It ended up being really fruitful and a great experience for the whole band.

I think the main difference between something taking a long time and something taking a short time is how ready the writer is or the composer. If you want to get stuff done quickly, you decide on a form and you decide what you're talking about, and it should be done relatively fast. It might not be very good or something that you like, but it will be done quickly.

Songs that came quickly... "New Dusty Miller" came relatively quick. Me and Ben [Kaufmann, bassist] wrote the lyrics for that in a few sessions. I don't know how quick the music came for that, because he had that part already finished when he brought it to us. Some other ones, "Insult and an Elbow," it seemed like Ben finished it by the time he had brought it to us. So in terms of the band being part of it, it was relatively quick. The chords for "Black Sheep" came quick and most of the melody and words.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind "Insult and an Elbow"?

Dave: I have my own understanding what those lyrics are about. Ben wrote them, but I think it's about a guy who is trying to apply some real world escapism to his particular surroundings. For me, that feels like the theme - the guy wants to get as stoned as he imagines his rock n' roll idols get. He wants to be out of it, and not dealing with the real world.

Songfacts: Where was the video filmed?

Dave: I think it was in Charleston, South Carolina, or Isle of Palms, South Carolina.

Songfacts: What about the title track of Black Sheep?

Dave: A lot of those lyrics came from a lot of different sources. The idea behind it is there's a guy saying he's got the answer to everyone's problems, and if you just follow him, he can figure it out. And it turns out that the guy is really no more adept at handling his own problems than anything else.

Songfacts: And to go back a while, what about the song "Angel"?

Dave: That was one that came very quick. We were in the studio, working on the new record at the time, and I was sitting on a stool, playing this banjo lick I had learned. I think it was a Sonny Osborne banjo lick, and I was playing with it and I had changed a couple of notes on it and our producer was like, "Let's record that!" We did, so we had a working melody for it right away.

And then the lyrics for the verses came very quick and we just wrote them down. We had the chorus, "Are you gonna be my angel?", but we didn't know what to do with that. And then Tom added that one other line, "The devil's never going to let me save my poor soul," and we were like, "Good! It's done!" It's one of those things where as you went through it, it was almost like a crossword puzzle, where the solution pops up as you go along.

Songfacts: If you had to pick one Yonder Mountain tune as your favorite, which one would it be?

Dave: Right now, I really favor the song "Landfall" on the new record. It has a good feel to it. It starts out, you think it would be spacey and folky, but it ends up having a lot of really good bluegrass drive in it. It's just really fun to play live and it gets a good reaction.

I think the lyrics are cool without being super easy to understand. They ask they listener to be involved and pay a little bit more attention then maybe some other more popular types of music do. That's the kind of stuff I like.

December 14, 2015.
For more Yonder Mountain, visit yondermountain.com.

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