Photo by Larry Hulst

“Oh shit,” I thought. “I’ve killed Jeff Austin.”

Not the sort of thing you want to be thinking halfway through a phone interview, is it? I mean, being responsible for having caused your subject to gag to death is bad form, right? If nothing else, it’ll really put a crimp in your chances of a follow-up with any of the other members in the band – in this case, Yonder Mountain String Band, whose mandolin madman was currently gagging over a remark I’d made.

“Great – just great,” I thought. I didn’t even know where Jeff was; did he tell me … Philadelphia? I couldn’t remember. And this was a phoner set up by his management folks, so I didn’t even have a number for him – just them. Perfect. I could hear myself now: “Hi – Ann? Yeah, this is Brian Robbins calling back from I had to, uh, hang up on Jeff because I think he was choking to death … maybe you ought to call somebody?”

My life didn’t pass before my eyes, but the last couple minutes of our conversation did as I desperately tried to figure out where I’d gone wrong and what I should’ve done differently. We’d been discussing the inclusion of drums on Yonder Mountain’s new album The Show and, amongst other things, the band’s fans’ reaction to it. (Drummer Pete Thomas, on loan from Elvis Costello’s band, did the deed in the studio, sitting in with Yonder: Austin, guitarist Adam Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjo player Dave Johnston.)

Austin makes it clear throughout our conversation that the group’s relationship with producer Tom Rothrock was the key to the sessions for The Show: “It was really Tom’s ear and his guidance that we were depending on, him saying, ‘This works here’ or ‘Let’s try this here.’ Part of the decision was based on wanting to get songs played on the radio – Tom’s had great success with that sort of thing. It was a matter of us having trust in his talents as a producer and his ability to tap into people’s emotions and get the best performance out of us in a studio setting, you know?

“And when you have a situation like that, where no one is fighting it and they have absolutely full faith in the producer, then it’s simply awesome. That’s when it works best; everyone’s on the same page and it all comes together.

“So as far as the drums go, Tom was the one who said we needed to find the right songs that are going to work with and without drums. But it was also Tom who said, ‘In the end, the songs need to be able to stand on their own in a live setting – just the four of you and no drums.’”

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