Veteran mandolinist Jeff Austin recently finished his debut solo album.
Former YMSB mandolinist begins anew
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Jeff Austin says there came a point where the songs he was hearing in his head were completely different than the ones he played on stage with his Yonder Mountain String Band mates, and now he’s going to have the opportunity to actually play them that way. Last month, after more than 15 years fronting a band that challenged every bluegrass convention there is, Austin split from Yonder Mountain to pursue that music that he was hearing in his head. Emblematic of his mandolin playing, he works rather quickly. Austin formed a sort of acoustic all-star quartet featuring bassist Eric Thorin, flatpicker extraordinaire Ross Martin and banjo iconoclast Danny Barnes, and the four just finished Austin’s debut solo album after an eight-day stretch of recording. It’s set to be released later this year, and in the meantime, Austin and his new bandmates are taking those songs on the road with a configuration that he says will explode even those progressive notions that Yonder Mountain formed about acoustic music.
Y!W: What does playing songs the way you hear them in your head, as you’ve said, mean for you on a personal level rather than a musical level?
Jeff Austin: I really wanted to just get back to being a singer. That’s what I always did, I was a vocalist. Then I got in this world of music and for a long period of time I wasn’t doing myself any good “” from staying up too late, too much of this, too much of that. Now that I’ve moved away from that, I find my health coming back. I find my voice coming back, I find my range coming back. Also, I just turned 40. I don’t have the same voice at 40 as I did 22, but now I get to play around with it.
When we were in the studio, I got to mess with different sounds and ideas. The story of the record seems to be different characters in each song, and I get to give each of them a different voice. We made the record in eight days, then I actually went in, because I have two children “” a newborn and a seven year old “” we have germs and I just wasn’t in shape for a couple of the tunes. Only on a few tracks did I have to overdub vocals, but otherwise, it was a really remarkable process.
Y!W: Yonder Mountain is as anti-dogmatic as an acoustic, bluegrass-leaning band could be, but this band has the potential to be far edgier.
JA: Well, there’s no reigning in Danny Barnes. When we do our shows together, there’s definitely use of effects, which adds a unique aspect to what we want to present. I will say that whether you’re looking at Barnyard Electronics or Ambient Works, those records embody the peculiar ideas that he has and they do have an impact in what he does on the stage. To know somebody like that who possesses that sense of freedom is empowering for everyone around him. A lot of people just don’t have the guts to take the perspectives on bluegrass or ambient music or electronic that he does.
Y!W: What kind of impact does that have on the format of your live performance?
JA: I’ve been interested in looking at different ways to twist the format of the show itself. Instead of doing one set and taking a break and doing another set and then an encore, I’ve been kind of into the idea lately where you go out and play a bunch of music and have it connect in a way, then you go back and play one more and you’re done. Like having one big set of music and coming out and doing a duet, or doing a solo piece, or doing encore music. I can tell you though, the spirit me to play for long stretches still lives in me.
Y!W: There are a couple of other naturalborn frontmen with their own great songs backing you, even though its your name on the band. Is the lead spot something that will be passed off?
JA: I will rule with an iron fist. No, kidding.
That’s the beautiful part. These guys are really interested in wanting to go out and play these tunes, but in absolutely no way would I ever deny them that. It inspired me to play the music that they have as well. I think it serves us all really well and it serves the show. Here’s the other thing: We’re brand new at this. People who are going to see these first couple of shows are getting to see it from the very beginning. Danny and me and Eric have done things in the past on a side basis, but now, we want to be in a band. We are a band. We just finished a record. It might be my music leading the charge, but it’s the contribution of everybody to serve the greater purpose, and you know, Danny really is just one of the great American songwriters.
Y!W: You had another band with Danny called the Here and Now, which also included the Keels. Is this band keeping that name or is it as of yet untitled?
JA: The Here and Now was tacked on to make people aware that it just wasn’t me solo, and it allowed the unit that was me and Danny with Larry and Jenny Keel to stand out. We don’t have any shows as that, but if we list anything as the Here and Now, people will know. And that’s fun too, because that group inspired me to want to go out and start a band in the first place.
Y!W: You’ve played with all of these guys at various times, but will the start of this tour be the first shows you’ve ever done with this exact lineup?
JA: This is the first time. One of my favorite parts about it is that the three of us have been playing together in various forms for over 10 years. Eric played in the 30DB project with myself and Brenden Bayliss of Umphrey’s McGee. Danny and I have done everything from duos to quintets, and then you have Eric and Ross who have played together for 20 years, and now we’re all going to come together. There’s a real natural language. When we were in the studio, we never hit a point where everyone is going, “Oh, I don’t know how to explain myself.” When Cody Dickinson, who plays drums for Robert Plant and North Mississippi Allstars, came in to play, we really formed a strong friendship over the last eight days. Communication just came so easily and now to bring that out on stage, it’s going to be like a playground for all of us.
Jeff Austin, Danny Barnes, Eric Thorin and Ross Martin will perform at the Blind Tiger on Friday night. !
Note: This story previously referenced Eric Thorin as bassist for Split Lip Rayfield, which he is not. YES! Weekly regrets the error.