Jeff Austin: Life After Yonder (INTERVIEW)

Leaving your band and going solo is never easy, and depending on the popularity and dedication of your band’s fanbase, a departure can be met with anger. Such was the case back in April when Jeff Austin abruptly announced he was leaving Yonder Mountain String Band, which he helped found along with Adam Aijala, Ben Kaufmann, and David Johnston 15 years ago. Naturally, the sudden news left some fans angry and confused, while the members of Yonder came across as baffled yet resilient and positively focused on maintaining the great thing they have, with or without Austin. In the end, everyone accepted that some things happen for a reason, and the world is probably better off having Jeff Austin making new music while the Yonder we know and love keeps pushing on.

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After a much-needed rest to spend time with his family and take a breather from the road, Jeff Austin is feeling relaxed and ready to dive back into music head on. But these days Austin is thinking bigger; he has a new band and has completed work on a soon to be released solo album, along with a solid touring schedule. Even over the phone, the mandolin player exudes his excitement at his “new life” as a solo artist. With talent like Austin’s, the possibilities are, after all, endless. Any fan will tell you that he is an artist with the ability to own a set or mesh with seemingly any group of players, even on a whim. His new work finds Jeff Austin teaming up with old friends like Keller Williams for a string of Grateful Grass shows, and banjo extraordinaire Danny Barnes, who plays in the Jeff Austin Band, and new friends in renowned singer-songwriters helping him hone in on his ambitious outlook towards making music.

I want to talk about the new band you have. You don’t have a ton of material out there but you’ve played live before. Can you give a little background on the Jeff Austin Band and how you’re putting together new material?

There’s a lot of material, but the thing is, when we went out on that last trip I had a rotation of about 25 to 30 songs that I wanted to kind of play every night. Danny Barnes and I have played music together for 11 plus years, me and Eric Thorin too, but for us to get familiar with each other in this lineup and with this material, it really was a benefit for us to play those songs every night. You discover the nuances and each other’s dynamics. I actually sent out a huge batch of stuff to the guys a few days ago, and I got another pile of stuff to send off today, so our catalogue is growing rapidly.

One of the other parts is that I’ve really been on a kick lately of wanting to play original music. Sometimes you can look at a band’s setlist and it kind of looks like a classic radio station list; you got a Grateful Dead song, maybe a Phish song, then this or that. Maybe it’s just the kick that I’m on, but I’m really excited about people making original music, like Ryan Adams’ new music and Jeff Tweedy’s new music. I’m paying attention to people that are putting out their own stuff, and also in this time of redirection and change and a whole new world I exist in, something I’m really craving is to play original stuff. As far as material goes, if we were going to do a cover it would probably be by LCD Soundsystem or the Beastie Boys. It probably wouldn’t be the Grateful Dead.

So something more out of left field?

Yeah, let’s try this and see that. That’s what excites me, and sheesh, Danny Barnes is in the band! The guy’s catalogue – talk about a catalogue of American music – it’s endless. Danny is such a giving person and he’s like, ‘I want to play your music.’ With this new lineup and our shows we’ve played, people would come up and say ‘I can’t believe you didn’t play this,’ and it was maybe something that I played with Yonder Mountain for 15 years. I don’t really even know how to say it, but that catalogue of material lived its life. For me to bring a song like “Snow on the Pines” – something I’ve played with Yonder for so long – and be like, alright new band, let’s play this. I don’t know if that’s a really good service to do to those guys. If the audience hears it they’re immediately going to be disappointed because it doesn’t sound like they remembered, and it shouldn’t, because it won’t sound like that ever again, and that’s ok. Those songs had such a long life that I’m proud of what they did, and now they can just kind of live in these 2,000 recordings or whatever that exist.

Also too, I think to ask that out of Eric Thorin, Danny Barnes and Ross Martin, these guys are all busting their ass and really believe in this new thing. For me to go, here’re these hundred songs I wrote for this other thing that existed for so long, let’s play all these! I don’t know if that’s the right way to go. The other thing is that the couple songs that we do play that existed from the Yonder catalogue were originally played with my solo lineup – “What the Night Brings” and “Ragdoll” and stuff like that. “What the Night Brings” I wrote for the 30db project with Brendan Bayliss; that song was never intended to be a bluegrass tune. For me it’s really exciting to present new stuff and to make it a new thing. On the record we recorded in March I did so much co-writing with Bob Schneider, Benny Galloway, and Sarah Siskind. My eyes are open. That’s where I’m at now; if there’s this whole new life, live it like it is. The past is beautiful, but the future is right there.

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I was reading about your new album and saw something about how you are going to be touching on more mainstream themes. Can you elaborate on this?

This is where you end up with problems with terminology. It’s like the word jamband – how lazy can we get? That’s the best you can come up with? I guess what mainstream would mean is maybe the song doesn’t last for twelve minutes and maybe it’s got a strong hook to it and a verse that actually means something. When we made the record, the beauty really showed itself in a lot of ways. First, this band can play anything; they can play the most traditional form of bluegrass, and then they can pick up electric guitars and play. I had someone I really admire tell me a long time ago to never limit yourself or lock yourself in because you’re in a band that looks like this and you have to write like this – just write! If you write a song and it comes out like a five minute pop song, at least you went through the process of writing and didn’t limit yourself with what your parameters were. The catalogue of stuff I have for the new record is that; one song has drums and horns and backup singers, and the next song has eight tracks of bass and a weird octave vocal thing. The studio can be its own beast and we definitely embraced it as such. We let the studio serve the song.

The other thing is, there’s no preconceived notion of what this new band is supposed to sound like and look like. I’m really lucky to be surrounded by these musicians who have the vocabulary to go from one style to the next. When I delivered it to the record label, they loved it. It’s like a coming out party; people may hate it, but I’m not hung up on it. It had to be made and I’m really glad I was surrounded by these people. Cody Dickinson plays drums on it and he’s just amazing. It was really fun for me because there’s not this huge history of this is what you look like and sound like so this is what people might be expecting. It comes out in February and I’m looking forward to presenting it. One of the big influences was The Band and how they would do one song and have this huge horn section, and do another song really stripped down. I also think about Jason Isbell and watching him perform where one song is him and keyboards and next is the rock lineup, and the next is him and his wife. You can let the music serve the songs that are written.

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Have you found that with the new project your perception and approach to building a song and writing has changed compared to how you used to do it?

Oh yeah, absolutely. What hasn’t changed is the advice I was given to not limit yourself; if you hear something in your head write it. The thing that has changed is the ability to execute that. The band is touring right now as me, Danny, Ross, and Eric. When the record comes out we’ll still tour as that, but what if two songs into the set Cody Dickinson comes out and this 3-piece horn section comes out? Then the next song Sarah Siskind and a killer pedal steel player come out. What a cool fun little playground to be hanging out at.

You’re doing some shows with Grateful Grass again. Can you give a brief overview of what Grateful Grass is all about for someone that has never heard of the project, and talk about how you pick the repertoire?

It’s pretty simple. I think it was 2006 and Keller Williams was playing at the Fillmore in Denver, and he’s just this great well of ideas. He kind of came up with this idea of, what if we did a set of bluegrass stylized music featuring Grateful Dead songs? He came to me and said it would be him and me and Keith Moseley (of String Cheese Incident). I love Keith’s playing and we get along well, and at that time we didn’t live that far from each other. The Fillmore ended up selling out that night – almost 4,000 people. Keller couldn’t get in until the day of the show, so Keith and I just got together to rehearse. Keller picks the repertoire, but he asks if anybody has anything they really want to play. But when I look at what he picks it’s kind of what I would want to pick, just a great cross-section of early and late Dead. We got together and did a little rehearsal and a soundcheck, and then we did the show and people loved it, they went ballistic.

For me it was getting together with people I really like and I respect their musicality, and low and behold, with this great catalogue and these cool arrangements, it was a hit! I didn’t even know, but Keller had recorded multi-tracks and it got released. I think it was like eight months later and someone at a show came up and said, ‘I love that record you did with Keller and Keith.’ It was a lot fuzzier back then for me, and I went, ‘cool, glad you like it.’ I went to my management and asked what the hell happened. Low and behold it was put together and released and it raised all this money.

Flash forward to last year and once again it came up. Keller brought it up and said that the Rex Foundation is interested in having Grateful Grass do a night at the Fillmore in San Francisco; Mickey Hart’s going to play, and why don’t we do a set. Then it expanded and Michael Kang played with us, which was an awesome addition. Once again, it was like fire and it just ran away.

The great thing about playing with guys like that is, rehearsal’s one thing, but when you get that kind of group together who have that familiarity and are not afraid to try something or take a risk, you won’t get scowled at. [After the San Francisco show last year] all of the sudden the calls started coming in from people who wanted it, and it was cool to see that interest was there. I think because we only did it once originally it became this little thing that nobody got to see and now people have this curiosity. Keller’s also such a good instigator; he’s in that same bloodline as someone like Vince Herman. He can bring people in and bring the best out of them by them being who they are.

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I noticed the table for one thing on your site. What attracts you to eating alone, and is this something you are going to turn into a series of some sort?

The whole fascination with eating alone came when I was out on tour with the old band. The days were really hectic with loading in, going to the hotel, soundchecking, and all that. There was a two-hour gap and it was a perfect time to go and sit down and gather my thoughts and be a total food geek if I wanted to. I like to walk into a coffee shop and just totally geek out on where their beans are from, you know, that kind of thing. Some people say they’d rather starve than eat alone; I love it because it was really a retreat to think about what was coming ahead. Also, to just eat some kick ass food. After traveling that long and seeking out these great little places, whether it was a coat and tie joint or a totally hole in the wall noodle place, it didn’t matter to me. I love it all. The concept of the table for one idea came up through that. Everybody I would talk to, from the waiter to the bus boy to the chef, would influence and inspire my whole day. I started thinking that would be a cool idea for a blog or a TV show. When I get off the phone with you I’m actually going to a planning meeting because last year we shot a lot of footage for a pilot reel to kind of bring this to production houses. We have found somebody who’s interested in hearing the pitch for it. We already have enough footage for a couple episodes.

I was really fortunate to have that amazing time for 15 years, and now it’s all happening again with this new band and maybe this TV show thing. I really am 40 [laughs].

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