Yonder Mountain String Band is no stranger to the Inland Northwest. With a new year ahead, the well-loved and innovative bluegrass outfit, hailing from Colorado, returns to Sandpoint next week. Band member Dave Johnston is excited to team up with Montana bluegrass extraordinaires The Lil Smokies at The Hive for a night of high-energy music. We caught up with Johnston to learn about the band’s latest projects and the recent life on the road.
SR: I understand you’re no stranger to Sandpoint, so it must be exciting to be coming back.
DJ: I’ve only been there one time, but I thought it was a really charming place. I’m excited to be back again. It’s a charming place, and I really enjoyed it.
SR: Is this a regularly scheduled tour, or do you have some new music you’re supporting?
DJ: We typically go on tour this time of year, typically in the Northwest, so in that regard, it’s not too different from what you would expect. But we did just finish mixing and mastering a new record. So there’s plenty of new music, and there’s plenty of new musical energy that’s happened because of that. We’re looking forward to [bringing that to Sandpoint.]
SR: And you’re returning to The Hive for your second show in Sandpoint.
DJ: We had a really good time [at The Hive]. It’s a great-sounding room. It’s the second time we’ve played there, and you know, we didn’t really know what to expect the first time. But [owner Jeff Grady] is really hospitable, and there’s a really nice green room. It’s a great place to hang out and play and practice and rehearse. The room itself is really cool, and it just sounds really good for a room that size. I remember the crowd being pretty rowdy as well.
SR: Rowdy in a good way or a bad way?
DJ: Oh, in a good way! It’s like the perfect storm, you know? It’s a really great place.
SR: For those who haven’t been to a Yonder Mountain String Band show, what kind of experience can they expect?
DJ: Well, you’re going to hear something that sounds kind of like bluegrass, and as the night progresses you’ll hear us delve into different grooves and harmonic things, none of which we have really planned. It’ll kind of move in and out of all these different beautiful motifs and ideas. As far as what to expect, I’d tell you to expect the unexpected.
SR: Your music certainly is a unique take on bluegrass. Can you tell me how you carved out that space for yourself within the genre?
DJ: None of us really came from playing bluegrass in a really strict manner. Even though bluegrass isn’t super harmonically complicated, it’s a very strict musical form. And that’s one of the beauties underlying it for me: how good a band can sound playing bluegrass-type music, because it is ensemble music after all. It takes a high level of musicianship to make it sound right, so when you get that level of musicianship surrounding a band idea, you have a lot of different sorts of input. We’re always trying to find ways to include things that we feel either comment on bluegrass or musical ideas that aren’t necessarily in the folk tradition … When we started working on it, it was just people putting together their own interpretations … of all these different kinds of musical ideas. The main idea was to include things that could create some kind of spark or musical momentum. There was definitely no strategic plan for doing anything. It was just paying attention to what felt right and what felt like it had a lot of energy behind it.
SR: The band has been together for a number of years now. Can you tell me how the creative process has settled out in that time?
DJ: The great thing about any real creative process is … it’s hard to nail down. It doesn’t really settle anywhere. At times you may be working on developing something, and at other times you might just have things simmering or letting them sink in and waiting to work on things. As far as efficiency goes, though, it feels like you’re getting more work done when you break off into smaller groups or smaller collaborative—well, committees if you want to sound smarty pants [laughs]. … Then we just try to coordinate and bring all those pieces together to see how well they fit.
SR: Tell me about the tour you’re on now. What has that experience been like?
DJ: We just finished a big chunk of our winter tour. That was about five weekends, and this is about four weekends. And it feels good out there, you know? It feels like the energy is really palpable and the fans still really enjoy it. There’s a good communion between fan and band. That’s how you make powerful experiences. They almost feel otherworldly when there’s that really tight connection between the fans and the band. So it feels like that, and it hasn’t been as taxing as you think it would be if you looked at it [laughs].
SR: Yeah, it’s easy to see you have a very dedicated fan base in this area of the country.
DJ: Absolutely. I love the Pacific Northwest. We all do, and we feel lucky to be able to come and spend a lot of time up there.
SR: Going back to the record you’re working on, is there a title or a release date that people can look forward to?
DJ: The title of the album is “Love. Ain’t Love,” and it’s coming out around June, I think. You know, the songs from the record have made their way into a lot of shows, so fans can expect to hear a lot of those songs that were fleshed out in a studio setting. It was really a fantastic album to make, and I think everyone is going to be pretty excited, because there’s more of a psychedelic impulse on this record. So it feels really cool.
SR: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Dave! We’re looking forward to seeing you at The Hive.
Catch Yonder Mountain String Band and The Lil Smokies at The Hive on Wednesday, March 22. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door. The show is restricted to ages 21 and up.