Golden years: Adam Aijala reflects on two decades of Yonder Mountain String Band ahead of Sunday concert
BRECKENRIDGE — A guitarist for the progressive bluegrass band from Nederland since its founding, Adam Aijala has an origin story about as far away from those twangy roots as possible. Aijala grew up in Massachusetts listening to various records that were constantly playing around the house. He begged his parents for an electric guitar and they finally relented when he was 13.
“I don’t know why specifically I was drawn to it,” Aijala said. “Wish I could tell you. All I knew is that I got goosebumps when I heard it.”
As a teenager he was skateboarding and listening to punk bands such as The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and others introduced to him by his older sister. He then moved on to metal and eventually the Grateful Dead after experimenting with drugs in high school. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia banjo picking was his first true introduction to bluegrass.
What: Yonder Mountain String Band with Trout Steak Revival
When: 8 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 29. Doors open at 7.
Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: $37 in advance and $40 the day of the show. Visit breckmusic.org to purchase.
Aijala graduated with a degree in forestry in 1995 and worked in the wilderness throughout Idaho and California. When a knee injury put his job on hold, an old college friend living in Nederland convinced Aijala to move to Colorado.
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Yonder Mountain String Band, which returns to Breckenridge on Sunday, Dec. 29, as part of a New Year’s Eve tour, formed in 1998 after banjo player Dave Johnston, mandolinist Jeff Austin, bassist Ben Kaufmann and Aijala met at one of Nederland’s various open picking nights where musicians would freely jam together in the small mountain town.
“It was very open and welcoming for all abilities,” Aijala said of the music scene in Nederland. “I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know any fiddle tunes or bluegrass songs. But people were really nice and it made it much easier. It gave me confidence.”
Though he never played punk professionally, his experience with the genre was part of what made the switch in genres — and from electric to acoustic — easier
“There’s a lot of similarities between the two,” Aijala. “Maybe not like sonically, but the literal lyrics, the shorter songs, high energy. It was something that made me go ‘Wow, there’s something to this.’”
Coming from a blue-collar family that frowned upon pursuing the arts, it was the first time that Aijala believed he could make a living as a musician rather than playing for fun. “It kind of fell on my lap, to be honest,” he said.
The band almost exclusively plays acoustic, but Aijala still loves playing his electric guitar and the band will play an electric show at the Fox Theatre in Boulder before coming to Breckenridge.
“It’s the uniqueness of it mostly, for us,” Aijala said. “When I’m playing electric with Yonder its just something I don’t get to do as often. We’ve log over 2,100 plus shows with Yonder and most of those, like 99.9%, have been acoustic.”
To new heights
In 1999 Yonder Mountain recorded their first album, “Elevation.” The band’s popularity exploded from there, with fans appreciating their unique sound that set them apart from both traditional bluegrass bands and regular jam bands.
“I exceeded all of my original expectations in the first three or four years of the band,” Aijala said. “We kind of just shot off like a rocket in the beginning because there was no competition and no one really doing what we are doing. We were very marketable for that reason. We were a band that played loud like an electric band but we didn’t have a drummer.”
Some highlights and lowlights over the years include performing for at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 and having the tour bus pulled over and searched in Ohio. But one thing that Aijala will always remember is playing at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
“The first time we played Bonaroo, playing for that many people, those are the things that stick in your brain because there’s literally tens of thousands of people and your can’t even see that far back.”
Aijala has taken none of it for granted and says he has just as much fun making music for guests at a small coffee shop as he does at a sold-out show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
“I couldn’t believe how fast things blew up in the beginning,” Aijala said. “There’s a lot more bands now and we’re the old guys now. It’s funny because we used to be the young guys hanging out with The String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon. Now they’re the grandfathers and we’re the dads.
“Elevation” was re-released this past fall for the record’s 20thanniversary. Except from a handful of self-made solo tracks, it was the first thing Aijala professionally recorded. The album, which features guests like Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Sally Van Meter and Celeste Krenz, is unchanged. Most of the songs, roughly two-thirds, according to Aijala, existed before Yonder Mountain String Band officially coalesced. Witnessing that creativity first hand gave him even more confidence in the band.
The only new additions are some minor labeling tweaks and a written tribute to Austin, who passed away in June. It isn’t the first album Yonder Mountain released since Austin parted ways in 2014, but it is the first since his death.
“We spent 16 years with that guy and we were a family for a long time,” Aijala said. “Even though we haven’t been in touch these last few years, it still was terrible news. … It wasn’t weird listening to ‘Elevation’ or anything, it just took me back and I look back on it fondly.”
Though the band hasn’t performed the album in its entirely since this past summer, a few of the tracks on still in rotation at live shows, such as Austin’s “Half Moon Rising.”
Only time will tell if the band can double their lifespan and give newer albums the same anniversary treatment.
“If we’re all still around and able, I can do another 20 years,” Aijala said. “As long as we’re still creating and not boring ourselves and the crowd, I don’t see any reason why we can’t keep doing it. Doesn’t seem like there’s a shortage of ideas.
For those trying to have a similarly long and entertaining career, Aijala’s advice is to simply “do it.”
“Anything you love to do, try to do it,” Aijala said. “If it works, cool. If it doesn’t, you can always do something else. Shoot for the stars, right?”
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