The Barn Interview: Jeff Austin, Solo Artist

I first saw Jeff Austin walk on stage at the Abbey Pub in 1999.  There must have been

Jeff Austin
about 20 people in the audience and, oddly, it seemed like about half of them were related to the guy.  He huddled around a single microphone with his cohorts in Yonder Mountain String Band and delivered a set of bluegrass that had an immediate impression on me.

Flash forward to 2012, when I saw Jeff again at the Abbey, this time teamed up with Umphrey's McGee's Brendan Bayliss as 30db -- a show which felt a bit like a jamband summit meeting  By this time, Yonder had firmly establish itself as a unique fixture among fans of improvisational music, living willfully and enthusiastically at the precipice where bluegrass meets rock.  But it was clear that while Yonder had accomplished much, Jeff still had more to say, and his partnership with Brendan was a way to get that out, and also a great excuse to keep the flame burning for his ongoing love affair with this city.

The fire still burns -- both Jeff's continued musical expression and his connection to a city he once called home.

He'll return to the area twice in the next several months.  With Yonder, for a two night stand at Chicago's House of Blues in October (25th & 26th) and, interestingly, kicking off his first ever tour as a solo artist, fronting a band dubbed Jeff Austin & The Here and Now (featuring Danny Barnes, Larry & Jenny Keel) at Palatine's Durty Nellie's on August 28th (CLICK HERE for a chance to win tickets to that gig).

I was thrilled to get a chance to chat to him about this latest endeavor and thoughts about kicking off the tour in a place so close to his heart.

I know you've done some "Jeff & Friends" gigs in the past, but this is the first real tour as a solo artist. What motivated you? Why get on the road with these guys now?

You're right.  This is the first kind of committed tour as a solo thing. Bottom line: I'm bringing out a band of musicians who I just can't wait to play with. I'm so stoked!

Danny Barnes and The Keels… I've known them for such a long time. We did three shows together as the four of us this spring. We had so much fun being in each other's headspace and just being around each other. We wanted to do more so we had to make the opportunity happen.  We found a chunk of time when it could work.

We were fortunate that places were interested in having us play. A promoter I know said "hey… would you like to do these Mumford & Sons shows?"  and the fact that I get to do that as a solo artist allows me make a different kind of statement than being "the guy who plays with Yonder".

I'll get to play different types of music and take different approaches, which is exhilarating to me and something I've wanted to do for a long time. I do solo shows every year, but this seemed the perfect opportunity to expand it, take it on road and really make it happen.

I have a lot of music that I want to play that I don't play with Yonder. They are songs that I didn't really write it for the band that I play with all the time. It's a highly motivating thing to get out there and play with these musicians and try this new stuff.

Danny and the Keels are accomplished musicians, but it's your name that is at the top of the bill. Is this your band? Do you right the rules or do you view it as collaborative effort?

It's a collaborative effort… to an extent. My rules? I don't know. I'll make the setlist and decide what goes where. It definitely comes from my interest in putting on a show that's in my head and that I really want.

But these folks are so intensely talented! And have reach a level of success in their own right, of course. To ignore their voice and their mind would be idiotic.

Of course…

There will be a collaborative part and I think that comes mostly when we hit those open spaces and see where we end up.

You're calling the band the The Here and Now. Any significance you attached to that name?

It's exactly what it says. That music will be happening with that group of musicians at that moment. It will be the here and now for that group. Who knows... that name may be attached to me, a drummer and a bass player a year from now.

So is this a rotating or revolving lineup? Since you're an unapologetic Deadhead / Phish fan, I wonder if the fact that both Jerry and trey took solo bands out with different lineups from tour to tour served as a model for what your doing?

It's most definitely part of the inspiration behind it. I'd be lying if I didn't say that influence wasn't in there somewhere.

When I sit to write music, I just write a song. I don't sit down and write a song for my solo project. I just kinda write it. Listen to it. Sit with it. Live with it. Let it kind of hang out.

Maybe later I'll say something like… "this song sounds perfect to play with Brendan [Bayliss]". Some of my songs have ended up in different places, either out of necessity or a desire just to try them in different settings. They find a home if they fit in any given situation long enough.

I never get hung up on "I have to write a song for Yonder today". I think you can get yourself in a bad spot if you do that. I just try to write songs that sound like my voice and then find the application. That will be the beautiful thing about this band being able to rotate.

I'm looking at another possible run with Danny, Allie Kral and my friend Eric Tureen. I'm looking to add some of these dates with Cody Dickinson [North Mississippi Allstars] playing drums. It's nice for me because a lot of these musicians who I've become friends with are also interested and willing to help me see this through. I've got ideas and I've got friends who will help me facilitate them.

Jeff & Friends started to get a bit "loosey goosey." There's going to be a lot of work and a lot of rehearsal going into this tour. I want to bash the notion of Jeff & Friends as a loose, bluegrass only thing.

It seems like you're bringing a lot of new material that you're writing to this band. A lot of times with new bands, they choose covers to round out sets. Is that the plan?

There probably won't be a great deal of covers because the quantity of original material between the four of us is so great. I think our efforts are better spent working on the original stuff.

Now... there will be original stuff that people will know from each of our projects. Enough to keep people engaged and have them be familiar with what's going on. It won't be 30 brand new songs that people won't connect to! That would be a rough thing.

I noticed the tour's itinerary. There's lots of travel without a lot of days off. Is that by design? Is this a trial by fire so you play every night?

Consider that we have four dates with Mumford & Sons and those days we're just playing for an hour. We may play a late night after they're done or a warm up before they start. Those will be pretty light lifting.

The nights at Durty Nellies or other clubs…. you're looking at two 60 or 75 minutes sets. There's a wealth of material to keep that moving. We figure…. we're together, we're out there -- we might as well make the best of our time and play!

Let's talk about Durty Nellie's for a sec. If I'm not mistaken, I'd guess the club is pretty close to where you grew up.

I grew up in Arlington Heights, went to Rolling Meadows High School . That's were I spent the majority of my growing up in Illinois.

Have you been to this club as a fan and are returning as a performer?

You know… I've never been. I'm excited. My mom will come. I'll have friends and family there. It'll be great!

It seems like you really do keep a connection to Chicago even though you live out in Colorado.

I feel like I have two homes. The home where I'm standing right now and my home in Chicago. When I get there… I know where things are. I know how to get to stuff. There's a rhythm I can fall back into pretty easily when I get there. It definitely has something to do with growing up in the area and living downtown for a few years.  My mom still lives there, so wherever she is that will always feel like home to me.

Anything else you looking forward to?

Danny and I are flying in the night before and we're meeting the Keels. I'll have dinner with family, hang out. I'm just happy to be back in the area. I'm just ready to get to it. I just got off of Yonder tour and stepped into this home remodel project... I'm an expectant parent in January 2014.


I'm very excited about that but also about getting to work. I can't wait to play music with these folks and see what happens after two weeks on the road in each other's minds.

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