Hi, this is Ben Kaufmann. I started playing music as a child in much the same way other children start playing music: by banging around on the piano. Was it good music? No, probably not. But it was a start. My father, John, was a musician. In fact, my mom and dad met at one of dad’s rock band’s shows in Pittsburgh, PA. The band was called Sanctuary and, if you believe anything I say, it totally rocked. I have the tapes to prove it.
Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my father’s Big Band rehearsing. Oh, the stories I’ve heard of those wonderful days when schools taught Music to Children! And not just any music, but Jazz! Boy, that must’ve been great. Anyway, my father conducted and played in the DEC Big Band for 20 years give or take. And they played all over New England. Big Band jazz was the music of my childhood. It was always playing. I got my first upright bass from Jim Barbour, the bass player in dad’s band. I am certain that he’s the first person I ever heard play the bass. He also sold me my first car. I still talk to him regularly and he’s a great friend.
So flashing back for a second, I was in 6th grade and still playing piano when I formed my first band called Sanctuary Revival. Yep, ripped off the name of my father’s band. So what? They still had cool stickers with the band name on them left over from the 70’s that we could use. That band featured Ryan Olohan on guitar, Jon Rose on keyboards, Adam Del Rossi on drums, (all 7th graders by the way) and myself also on keyboards. Notice something missing from the line-up? We did: a bass player. Truth be told, Jon was a better keyboardist than I was and so I got a 3/4 sized Hondo electric bass (small hands, you see) and an amp and began (cue scary music) learning to play the bass. We learned “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles and the Beatles’ version of “Rock n’ Roll Music.” We practiced for a while and then had our first gig at a school assembly. Now, for some reason, we thought we needed outfits. And for some other, more perplexing reason, we thought we should wear tuxedo pants, shirts, and suspenders. There may have been bow ties involved, but unless you produce photographic evidence, I’ll deny it. I have a video of this show. And when we played our first note, the girls (yes, even the 8th grade girls) went wild! It was at this moment that I realized that music was for me. I had a subsequent realization about suspenders and bow ties after I watched the video.
That band lasted through high school. We changed names a bunch of times. We were Zuzu’s Petals for a while. But I seem to recall ending our career as Sanctuary Revival. At least that was the only name I had spray painted on my bedroom wall. We played school dances (“Black Cat” by Janet Jackson, anyone?) and parties once we started partying (“Immigrant Song” by Zeppelin, anyone?).
It was pretty much music, music, music my whole life. So how did I end up in film school at New York University? The first great mentor in my life was named Kimball Stickney. He was a pianist, bassist, songwriter, and computer engineer working on some of the first music software that would be available. My dad met him somewhere and he agreed to give me lessons. The lessons were about bass, piano, writing, listening, theory, happiness, sadness. In short: about life. I remember my parents called me into the family room one day and told me that Kim had died. He had been asked to play bass at some private party in a hotel ballroom and a propane tank used for the buffet exploded. The thing that bothered me the most was that initially everyone got out successfully. But Kim’s wife and little daughter ended up on one side of the building and Kim was on the other. I can only imagine that they both started looking for each other and essentially ended up walking in the same direction around the building. Kim thought his family was still inside and went back in to find them. There was a second explosion which killed my friend.
After that, music became a painful thing for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t love music, but I was young and overwhelmed with all of these difficult emotions and thoughts. Here was this great man. He loved music. And he died playing some shitty gig for people who probably weren’t paying attention. I just couldn’t understand and so, probably very unconsciously, I shifted my attention to other things. At this time, home video technology was becoming more accessible and I used every opportunity (mostly school projects) to make funny videos and animations. Some of them I still think are great. Very rudimentary, but still worth watching. So basically I found a new creative outlet. One that didn’t have all of these attendant painful emotions and memories. Anyway, combine a rough talent for video production and editing with the fact that I achieved Super-Nerd status with my grades in school and I was accepted to what was arguably the best film school in the country.
I realized very quickly that I had no business being in film school for one and New York City for second. I grew up in Stow, Massachusetts. It’s a very small town. Everyone knows everyone else. I like that. New York was massive. And no one was smiling at each other that I could see. Admittedly, I am a sensitive person (too sensitive, some might say). And all of my senses were blown apart in that city. That, and I realized that I have a very hard time bull-shitting about why some student film by some pretentious asshole about a girl who takes her clothes off in a public fountain is Art. I made some great friends while at NYU and I said goodbye to them at the end of my sophomore year knowing that I wouldn’t return.
The summer of 1995 was a big deal for me. And mostly because my connection with music returned in a deep way. I started listening to and seeing a band called Phish. I totally geeked out for this band. I tracked down bootlegs, I bought all the CDs and concert t-shirts. I learned the bass parts to damn near every song on their first 4 records. My best friend, Jordan Moretti, learned all the guitar parts. I transcribed the piano parts for their song called “Foam” and made my sister, Allison, learn it on the piano (she’s a great musician and artist in her own right). And we Jammed! All summer long.
Jordan and I moved to Boulder, CO together and enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The idea was to go to school while we tried to put a band together. I met up with Chuck Martin a drummer and Olympic skier. (No kidding, I’ve seen pictures of him shaking the President’s hand) and joined his band, Fuzz. Shortly after that Jordan, Chuck and I formed Kertz Rhombus, a prog-rock jam band (a what?) heavily influenced by Phish and Frank Zappa. We rehearsed a ton and played a few gigs. I’ve got some audio and video of that time. The music was unbelievably complicated. In retrospect, probably a bit too much so. But we pulled it off sometimes. This was a great time for me when experimentation ruled and we did great and interesting things because we didn’t really know any better. We could’ve used more fans, though. That band ended and Mountain Removal System (ironic name, huh?) was formed with myself, Jordan, Hooper Stiles on keyboard, Cody Sundberg on drums, and Jefferson Hamer on guitar.
Around the time Kertz Rhombus was getting started, I answered an ad at H.B. Woodsong’s music store in Boulder that read something like this: “Working Bluegrass band seeks upright bass player.” I thought, “Working? That means for money, right?” And around this time I finally listened to a CD that my father bought for me years before by a band called Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. I don’t know why I never got into it before but one day I put it on and was changed in some way. So I answered that ad and joined Mountain Standard Time, a great bluegrass/newgrass group that had been working in Colorado for years. They showed me the ropes. They turned me on to all sorts of great bluegrass music. It was a real working education and we played gigs together for about a year.
During this time I started writing bluegrass songs and I wanted to find a place to play them. Tree Full of Pigs with Cary Messenger on mandolin, Armando Zuppa on banjo and Ross Martin on guitar was formed. What a great band. Granted, the live recordings don’t back up my claim, but what an amazing time playing music with some amazing people. “40 Miles from Denver” was first performed with these guys and possibly even “Traffic Jam.” It was at a gig with Tree Full of Pigs at the Acoustic Coffeehouse in Nederland, CO where I first met Jeff Austin.
I remember he had long hair and was really skinny. He came up after the show and introduced himself as a mandolin player who had just moved to Nederland and that his good friend who played the banjo would be moving to town any day and if I ever wanted to jam to give him a call. I remember feeling some hesitancy to be honest. One way to describe it is that I was already playing in 3 different bands and I didn’t feel like I had the time or energy to begin another project. But the way I like to think about it now is this: I sensed that there was something special in this meeting and that it was one of those moments that would dramatically change my life. It would lead me to new places. I would meet amazing people. I would say goodbye to old friends, to everything I had known and relied on for comfort and support. And I would get into an RV held together by duct tape and prayer and start a new life as “Ben Kaufmann from Yonder Mountain String Band.” And after a moment like that, you need to find someone to buy you a beer and do some serious weighing of options.
And now I’m sitting here writing this biography. If you’re curious about what’s happened in the meantime, the entirety of our career is documented and dissected online in some eGroup or another. And almost all of our live shows have been recorded and are freely available for your scrutiny. Let’s see: what else could you need to know?
My favorite color is Blue. I’ve gotten food poisoning in both Greece and in Scotland. I’m not in as good of shape as I’d like to be, but I look better now than I did in high school. My favorite TV show is Game of Thrones. I keep losing my hair, which really pisses me off and makes me angry, genetically speaking, at my ancestors. My favorite foods are gluten-free. My favorite video game is the Legend of Zelda for the original Nintendo. About 3 times a year I crave large quantities of skim milk. I have an impressive (disturbing?) collection of Monty Python paraphernalia including an original 3-sided record. I get my news online from the BBC. My dream car is a Porsche 911 Twin Turbo. Yes, I know you can’t fit a bass in it. The best way to make blood come out of my ears is to tell me to “chill out” when I’m freaking out. My favorite authors are Thich Nhat Hahn, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Terry Pratchett. I talk to myself and often will answer using a Scottish accent. And I don’t practice as much as I should.
See you all of a sudden,