Jeff Austin is one of the few artists on all three of the 2019 WinterWonderGrass lineups…so it only made sense for us to sit down and chat with the guy, right?
How has your relationship with WinterWonderGrass grown over the years?
JA: When my time with Yonder Mountain was done, the first incarnation of my soul goal, I was fortunate enough to be invited to play WinterWonderGrass when it was still in Vail. I met Scotty in 1999 at a music festival with Leftover Salmon. He would get up on stage and freestyle with the band, and I thought, “this guy’s energy is just out of control, just perfectly through the roof and I love those kinds of people.” I remember last year I told my agent that I would love to do the WinterWonderGrass festivals. Scotty came and saw us play last year when we were in Denver, and he said, “I’m in! We’re an ally and we want to help.” He wanted me to play Vermont, Steamboat, and now Squaw. I was deeply moved by that. I have been playing music for 25 years now, and to have somebody step so directly forward and say, “I want to help you, I want to be there for you, and I believe in what you are doing,” in such a major way, to invite us to play all the festivals, that’s rare.
T: That sounds like Scotty.
JA: That sounds like Scotty because it is so Scotty! I am so fortunate to play with a group of guys who play their hardest every time, but to have a platform that’s even more megaphoned than that… We are all in the same boat when we are at the festival. You’re cold, and you’re this and that, and because of all that, we are all united. Nothing is given to you. You don’t just go from one thing to another and get handed a theater full of people. To have that faith in what my band is doing and what we are doing means a great deal.
I put everything I have into everything I do. To be able to have an opportunity like this, gave me a chance to give everything I have. It’s also not that hard to do with the environment that’s created. I was in Vermont right after we played the main stage, and we played this beer tent set. Those two shows were some of my favorite shows that I’ve played in the last 4 or 5 years. After that, I was sitting at a ramen cart eating spicy miso ramen, drinking a beer, listening to Keller Williams play a song of mine, and I thought, “What? How did this happen? Did I get hit by a bus on the way here?”
There’s just a lot of heaven going on. I look forward to many, many, more of these. For me to have experienced it, but my band hasn’t, means that I’m able to watch them experience it and see their reactions. “Oh my god. This is the best festival ever.”
We are entering an era of people who attended a lot of festivals and are now able to put on festivals of their own and do it right. I mean, of course, you can have a ramen cart at a festival, because that’s what’s right. That’s what makes it good. It’s an amazing era! Twenty years ago these people had been to only a few festivals. Now there are people who have been to hundreds of festivals, and so they can say, “Let’s do this! Let’s have a production like this because it makes it easier on the whole crew. Let’s make the artist area like this because it’s what they want. Makes the whole thing family.”
T: The magic of WinterWonderGrass…
JA: There’s nothing like it. I remember when I told my guys we were playing the festival, and they were like, “Which one?” I said, “We are doing all of them! Get ready.” I remember we showed up in Vermont, and Bridget [Law] walked up with gifts for us. The guys were like, “Do we pay someone for this?” And I was like, “No, it’s a gift, and it’s just reflective of do good, put out good and good is produced.”
T: Do you take a different approach for the different regions that you play, the different versions of the festival?
JA: No, I’d say every note, every song, is full blown is no holding back.
T: What about planning setlists?
JA: When I was with Yonder, we always did setlists. It was like first set, second set, setlists for everything. Nowadays, I’m more accustomed to doing a song list. At this point, we are still growing. We do not have thousands of people traveling to see us every day. So I am more trying to accommodate the crowd, feel where the crowd is at, you know? Is it a Friday in Columbus, Ohio, and they are absolutely off the walls, so maybe we open with this song. Is it kind of moodier audience? We try and read the room. I love comedians, I love people who orate, who do public speaking, and it’s about reading the room. We’d open with something different in Seattle on a Saturday with 500 people there going crazy than we would other shows.
In doing this for many years, there were genuinely times when I wasn’t as grateful as I should’ve been for every day. Now I am so grateful for every moment, every show, every person that comes to a show. I don’t ever give any less, but the one thing I do is I don’t have a setlist but I have a list of songs. With a setlist, you can get in trouble. If you are halfway through a set and you feel you are kind of losing the crowd, and you have a song up that’s not right for the moment, but you’re playing it, you might need to hit them over the head with a different song and unify them so they’re all together. Give yourself the ability. So I’ve become a big fan of keeping a list of songs. We can play something we haven’t played in a few days, or weeks, or months. It’s about the people. “The music plays the band,” to quote The Grateful Dead. It’s true. Maybe in Colorado, we will play stuff they want to hear that they haven’t heard in a while.
T: I imagine it helps to have a band you’re comfortable with, that can go along with you and sort of know what you are up to when you’re choosing from the song list.
JA: I am so grateful every single day. I am so grateful for these guys I get to play with. They just… it’s indescribable…the belief they have in what we are doing. My name might be on a poster, but it’s a “we”. To see them light up about things like WinterWonderGrass, especially WinterWonderGrass, it’s amazing. They never wanted to leave Vermont.
T: Two more to go!
JA: Our bass player lives in Denver, and Kyle’s wife is Jamie Lynn from Della Mae. The only thing I will say is having to play on competing nights with Della Mae and Lindsay Lou for the late night shows…that’s tough. I would actually be at that show.
T: All of the late nights are so good. There are no clear choices, at least for me, for any of them.
JA: I would gladly stand in the crowd for any of them.
T: Exactly. So I saw that you recently did an ‘Ask me anything,’ which everyone knows, takes a lot of courage and willingness to be vulnerable. Were there any surprises? Highlights? How did that go?
JA: I’ve always sort of laid it out on the line, and I was stuck in the airport. I hadn’t had a flight delay in years, and this year I had two delays coming home from shows. The first one was 7 hours, so I did an ‘Ask Me Anything’. I wasn’t surprised really. My wife told me I answered 200 or something questions. I think there were two questions where I just deleted them. You know, don’t be mean for mean sake. It’s like anything online where you pour your heart out and someone is like, that shirt looks stupid. But it was awesome. People were asking real genuine things, and it was cool to see people asking stuff based on music and food. I’m a real foodie like right now we have short ribs in the crock pot and saffron risotto for dinner. Tomorrow we are doing bone broth. I love doing those things, and I know in the next week here before my next show, which is WinterWonderGrass, we are gonna do a Facebook Q&A kind of thing. I love that because I like the rapid fire. I like to refresh and go back.
T: Fans are, of course, going to have tons of questions. Some people may take a more private approach and wouldn’t dream of doing a Q&A. I think it’s really cool to, like you said, lay it all out on the line. And I know fans really appreciate that.
JA: I would say…the one thing, some friends of mine who are at the level where they are rock stars that can’t go to the grocery store or show up at the PTA meeting without people being like, “Holy Crap, what are they doing here?” There is something about this scene, this level, that creates a spot where people feel free to ask things. It’s also a teaching moment. Recently where I live we had a Whole Foods open. Me, my wife, and my three kids went down and were walking around. And you know I chaperone my kids Valentine’s Day party, and stuff like that, but we are in the Whole Foods and my wife is like, “I think these people know you.” These two nice people come up to me, said they were huge fans, and they asked to take a picture. I was like “No, I’m with my kids, and when we are out, I am just Dad. I am so sorry I hope you understand.” They were so nice, and they were like, “We completely understand.” The woman looked at my daughter and whispered, “Your Dad is awesome.” She replied, “I know.”
There’s also a part of it where there’s stuff that people want to know, but it’s not super fun. People will talk about anything from…why did the band have to cancel this, or move this show, or do this. People complain about this and that. People don’t understand the basic facts that go into it. But they shouldn’t have to. That’s not the fun part of it. I was a musical theatre kid growing up. So I’d go to see shows, you know, you walk in, you buy the ticket. The lights go down. The show happens. That’s the illusion! In this, there is so much truth that goes into this, but there’s also that illusion part of it. If you think that every band you see is getting along all the time, best friends every day, you’re out of your mind! I was always taught that if you’re sick, don’t tell people you’re sick. If you have the worst cold in the world…don’t go out there and go “well…I’ve got a really serious cold and I hope I’ll make it through!” Nobody cares. The one thing I’ll say that I think is kind of detrimental is that people kind of want to feel like they know everything. I don’t spend a lot of time reading online stuff, but people in my office do, and my wife will do it and show me these things. And I’m like “wow!” Someone will say something like, “Jeff was out partying at this bar after the show!” So I’m like, “really? I was on the phone with my wife…in pajamas.” It might not be as exciting as you think it is.
TP: Well, speaking of excitement, what are you most excited for in Steamboat?
JA: Our late night show! I’m so freaking excited. I have always had a draw to being the band that plays the late night show. Whether it’s something weird, ear-catching, whatever it is. There’s something to be said about playing a late night show. Doesn’t matter if there are 50 people there or 2,000 people there. Doesn’t matter. Especially at a festival like WinterWonderGrass. People are in the elements, all day, doing everything they can whether it’s nice or crappy, snowing, whatever. But then, when it filters down to the late nights, that group of people are so invested in that moment, it’s amazing. Not to mention getting an email about the show selling out, that’s awesome! That group of people made it a point to get to the thing that you’re doing. And then it becomes…this isn’t what I’m doing, we’re doing it now. All of a sudden, those are the powder cake moments. We’re all here together. When that happens, it’s just crazy magical.
Aside from that, it’s going to be standing out in the elements in Steamboat. We played the one in Vermont, my guys were like that was awesome. I wish it had been snowing. I said oh you wait. I can tell you from the plane tickets alone. It’s ski season in Colorado. You can always tell by the airfare. I can tell the season has been good. I truly hope for a moment of staring at Julian or Kyle or anyone through blistering powdery snow, 60 mph winds, microphones cutting out. Aside from our late night, that’s really what I’m looking forward to.